The transition from summer to fall brings with it many changes and with those seasonal shifts comes a unique opportunity for anglers of all preferences – downriggers, trollers, spoon casters and even fly anglers – to partake in a unique experience on Lake Sakakawea by boat and from shore, and that is angling for the lake’s stocked Chinook salmon. Jack Long has been fishing salmon on Sakakawea for more than three decades and has served in one executive role or another for the Great Planers Trout and Salmon Club for more than 20 of those years, including multiple terms as the organization’s president. Through the Great Planers, his network of salmon fishing buddies and his considerable time on the water, he has learned a thing or two about the transition from deep-water fishing with downriggers in summer to the shift anglers must make to find salmon up shallow in pre-spawn mode along the face of Garrison Dam and in the nearby bays during the fall. While no two autumns are the same, similar tactics pay off season after season when salmon make their move.
“There’s no given predictable calendar, sometimes you just have to go out and do a little experimenting as there’s so many variables such as the weather and the elevation of the water in the lake,” Long stated, adding that high water conditions on Sakakawea have greatly influenced the thermocline set-up and the location of fish throughout the downrigging season, which usually runs through August and into September.
Regardless of the water conditions, he expects salmon to come up and provide trolling anglers – those with downriggers and those without – an opportunity to connect with fish. Typically around the middle of September, anglers start making the move to long-lining crankbaits and others simply adjust their downriggers up in the water column to target those salmon that are running shallower. Productive areas include trolling shallow along the face of the dam and into the spillway bay on the southeastern side of the lake. Government and Pochant Bay, being stocking points for salmon in the spring of the year are also good spots to check, as the fish home in on their release point by instinct, as if it was their natural birthplace.
“They’ve starting stocking out of the marina bay in Lake Sakakawea State Park, because they were losing less small salmon that were heading right down to the intake structure and shooting down into the river; I wouldn’t be afraid to try long lining in that area,” Long advises, suggesting that anglers should be cautious of old anchor ropes and other structures which might claim a crankbait or two if they snag up.
For salmon trolling in fall, Long recommends a variety of crankbaits across all brands and models, including those by Rebel and Rapala; anything that gets down to where the fish are. In the process, the attitude of the shallow fish should be considered, as the salmon are entering the spawning process, despite not having a place to carry out the ritual. As such, they typically get hooked when they issue a reaction strike to the bait buzzing by. While standard baitfish colors like blue, black and silver pay off, Long has found good success with bright patterns in chartreuse and orange when trying to trigger those sudden strikes from salmon in his late-season efforts.
While many salmon make the move to spawning mode, some feeding fish remain in the system, and will follow bait balls consisting of smelt. As the season cools, Long has noted shallow movements of the lake’s premier baitfish, and the last feeding salmon getting ready for the spawn will chase smelt into bays and pin them against the shore in the evenings, creating a fast bite. These situations can produce good shore fishing, and Long has tips for those targeting shallow-running Chinooks from the edges of Lake Sakakawea.
“Typically if you’re casting, you’re going to want a heavier spoon, like a Pro King or Northern King or something like that, you’re not going to want the lighter flutter spoons, because you’ll get more distance with the heavier spoon,” Long advises, “it’s still a little early on the shore fishing, I haven’t seen a lot of fish porpoising in the bay, so if you pushed me for a guess, we’re probably a week or a week-and-a-half away from that starting to get hot and heavy,” he concluded, adding that this weekend’s full moon may help kick off a night bite for those that want to go out to the shoreline and cast in the evenings.
As part of the Chinook salmon’s normal life cycle, after reaching sexual maturity, the fish typically spawn and then die. Despite not having a place to run, Sakakawea’s salmon go through the same process, whereby their bodies begin to break down, even while they are still alive, and pieces of fins, skin and even muscle can sometimes fall off of their frame prior to the completion of their life cycle. This process affects the quality of the meat from caught fish, but it depends on the time of fall that they’re caught.
“I wouldn’t have any problem with fish that you’re catching right now long lining or casting from shore; it’s going to be good quality meat,” Long stated, “as we move into October, you do see a breakdown in the quality of the meat, and by the time you get to the end of October, that’s when you start to see flesh fall of the salmon that are dying,” he offered, stating that based on this season’s cooler and higher waters, a majority of fish caught through mid-October should be good eaters, and many anglers use the later fish they catch for smoking, with the earlier meat used for canning or fillets for baking and grilling.
Long is optimistic about the future of Sakakawea’s salmon, citing three strong year classes in the lake and an abundance of forage in smelt, albeit apparently smaller than in previous years. While higher waters are a blessing for expanded habitat and a better overall fishery, it can make the salmon fishing more challenging as cooler waters reach further west and scatter the fish until this time of year, when they make their move toward the dam. When it happens, Long advises that anglers should be ready:
“If the weather is decent, people should come out and give it a try, there’s fish to be caught and it could get crazy at any time!”