This summer, June 23-24, 250 teams of walleye anglers will be probing the waters of Lake Sharpe, looking for the first-place basket in Cabela's National Team Championship.
This year's NTC will launch a field of very competitive teams sifted from nearly 65,000 anglers who participated in 46 qualifier associations. At least 30 states will be represented. What they find on their arrival should be very encouraging, according to local walleye angler Kevin Forsch.
Forsch is a man who has been around enough top-flight fisheries to know what he's talking about. Forsch, in his capacity as senior adviser to South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, also knows how to measure his words. According to Forsch, Sharpe is excellent walleye water and is getting better each year. This spring he has limited out on most trips and recently boated a 31" monster.
"I've been to Erie and caught one about this length, but this is the biggest post-spawn female I've ever caught. Right now Sharpe is getting close to Oahe and Erie, but the numbers of really healthy fish in Sharpe is incredible," he said.
Forsch has been fishing the upper portion of the "lake" from the dam to about six to seven miles downstream. Lake Sharpe is really an impounded river that is called a lake. Its boundaries run from the turbulence of the tailrace below the Oahe dam 80 miles south to the Fort Thompson dam, 22 miles north of Chamberlain. Lake Sharpe has 200 miles of shoreline, any part of which can hold a school of fat walleye.
Typically the northern end of the lake is hottest in the spring and the bite moves south as the season progresses. In June the bite will be most active in the deeper holes about 20 miles south, in the Joe Creek and West Bend ramp area.
"We've been working shallow flats, pitching in water 2 to 3 feet deep, using really light jigs tipped with minnows and working them very slowly back to a 3- to 4-foot dropoff. We're using Cabela's 1/8-oz. jigs and 4-lb-test line. We've been using a plain firetiger or pink and white and sometimes a 1/2-body fuzzy grub, all of them tipped with a minnow. Also, I'm using my brand new Cabela's XML Ti 663 with the Cabela's 2500 tournament ZX reel. The XML in 6-1/2 to 7 feet is so sensitive, and that's what you need for this delicate presentation. You pitch the jigs shallow and work it back so slowly! I just got it in April from the store in Mitchell, and man have I caught a bunch of fish!" he said.
"Look for areas below the dam that have some current, but not heavy current, not the really rough rapids that you find near the spillway, just good spawning areas. Downriver for about 10 miles you'll find a number of spots where islands and sandbars make staging areas. The males stage up on the top of sand bars and the big females move up from the deeper areas. Also, look for remote areas out of the boat traffic. There is a lot of traffic up and down the lake and boat traffic will push the fish out," he said.
"This year the Game and Fish Department made some changes, and they always take some heat when they make a change, but I've talked with the biologists and they make an excellent point. There is somewhere around 50 to 60 miles of shoreline downriver. The majority of the pressure is on an area that is about 1/5-1/6 of the lake's entire spawning area. That means that 70 to 80% of the fishery's spawning areas aren't being affected. The fish on the northern end are just being targeted because it's closest to all of the facilities like boat ramps and motels. We've made some amazing catches of 17- to 19-inch fish during the month of April," he said.
What the Game and Fish Department changed was the size and limits, bringing them in line with statewide regulations. Limits in 2006, for Lake Sharpe walleye/sauger or hybrids, are four per day, with a possession limit of eight. Minimum length limit is 15" year-round, except July and August when there is no restriction. And a day's limit may include only one walleye/sauger 20" or longer.
According to Missouri River Program Administrator Jim Reece, last year's spawn was very successful, and Sharpe's forage base is very strong as well. The information from their most recent lake report is encouraging, following several off years. The study points out that in August 2005, the walleye abundance index was at 18 fish per net, which was lower than the 20-year average, but a marked improvement over 2004. Several factors played a role, but perhaps the most important was the growth of fish and the high production of young walleye in the spring of 2005.
Lake Sharpe experienced a banner year for production of young walleye in 2005, due to weather conditions. Strong local rains from the Bad River and warm water temperatures during the summer created ideal conditions for the spawn and walleye fry. The long-term average of young walleye in the fall electrofishing survey has been around 32 walleye per hour, but in 2005 it was 83 walleye per hour. While anglers will enjoy the increased bite of the '05 bonanza, these fish won't begin to reach harvestable size (larger than 15 inches) until 2008 and later, depending on the forage base.
According to Reece, the forage base in Lake Sharpe is largely gizzard shad. "Oahe's forage base is both gizzard shad and smelt, but Sharpe doesn't have the cold water habitat that smelt require. Sharpe's forage base is in pretty good shape right now," he said.
Shad die off each year in the cold winter months, but a few always survive to start the cycle over again. The shad spawn is a double-edged sword for fishermen. Plenty of shad means the fish will have no trouble finding food and growing big, but it also means the fish will have full bellies and will not be interested in biting as often. With fewer shad, the bite will be hot and heavy, but the fish that you catch won't be as big and healthy.
So, what about fishing after the spawn, when the easy money is gone?
"After the walleye spawn there are a lot of post-spawn females that go on the feed very aggressively. There will be a lot of fat fish this summer, just not as concentrated, and you may find them in weird places. They'll be concentrating on baitfish, looking for an easy meal near shallow rushes and along the shoreline until June. During April and May, you'll find them in 5 to 15 feet of water. From June until late summer you'll find them in 15 to 30 feet. To get that kind of depth, you've got to go farther down river," Forsch added.
And that's most likely where the field of competitors in this year's Cabela's National Team Championship will find themselves, making the run south and going deep.
Depth of water is always an issue with a western reservoir, especially with the lengthy drought that has plagued the high plains in recent years. Reece said the spring runoff from melting snow was looking encouraging, noting that Oahe is 27 feet below normal, but 2.7 feet higher than last year. He cited numbers from the Corps of Engineers that illustrate the sporadic snowfall this past winter where some areas got heavy snows and others were below normal. Reece said the reservoirs from Fort Peck north are at 118% and from Fort Peck to Garrison they are only 88% of normal. A collective runoff of 83% normal is projected.
With big numbers of walleye, the action should be steady, if not heavy, so if you're planning on fishing the NTC or you're a weekend angler looking for a little rod bending, bring plenty of bait to the ramp. You're going to have to be pretty sharp on Lake Sharpe to avoid being cleaned out early.