Endless Sakakawea awaits National Walleye Tour anglers

The Deadline to do this for Garrison is Monday, Aug 24th.

GARRISON, N.D. – After holding events in Wisconsin and Michigan to start the 2020 season, the National Walleye Tour, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, swings west Sept. 10-11 to the prairie playground of Lake Sakakawea, the third largest man-made reservoir in the United States at over 350,000 acres. While the first two tournaments saw plenty of open-water fishing, Sakakawea offers a more diverse reservoir experience. Green Bay and the “Soo” produced walleyes, but Sakakawea is expected to deliver both numbers and big fish.

Ranger pro Jacob Ell use to reside in Garrison, but now lives downstream in Bismarck. He still makes the short trip up the Missouri River as often as possible.

“It’s such a healthy fishery right now,” Ell said of Sakakawea. “The bite has been really good all summer, but in the dog days the fish have started scattering. Right now, in a lot of the places the fish are there one day, then gone the next. Still, it’s going to be good, and it should only improve as we transition to the fall.”

Mandan, N.D., native JR Carter agreed with Ell and said the timing for the two-day tournament is excellent.

“The fish will be in a summer-to-fall transition,” echoed the American Ethanol pro. “That doesn’t mean it will be tough. It won’t; everybody is going to catch fish. It’s set up at the right time. People are really going to be excited with the amount of fish they catch. The challenge is going to be dialing in the bigger ones with consistency.”

For 22-year-old Dylan Nussbaum, the biggest challenge is breaking down a massive body of water. Nussbaum, who currently sits second in the Angler of the Year race behind Tommy Kemos, has never visited Sakakawea.

“Going to Sakakawea is a dream destination for me,” said the Rapala pro. “It’s a reservoir, and that’s how I grew up fishing in Pennsylvania. When I go to a new place, it’s actually more exciting for me. I’m feeling really good about this one; I think it might be in my wheelhouse. I’m thinking more about learning this new lake than I am winning Angler of the Year. Yes, Angler of the Year is the ultimate goal, but it’s still early in the season, and there are some huge sticks out there. I’m just going to keep my head down and fish as hard as possible.”

“With a place that big, you don’t want to be aimlessly running around. You want to cover an area efficiently. I might spend three or four days in the more popular arms, then only a half day in the next arm.”

Nussbaum believes trolling breaklines with leadcore will be his primary search strategy. Ultimately, he hopes to find a more precise jigging bite.

“If I catch a few fish trolling in an area, then it’s probably time to stop and cast, especially on the smaller humps and smaller pieces of structure. I really think I can get something dialed with the Jigging Rap or Flat Jig.”

Nussbaum explained that while the Jigging Rap has the stronger reputation, he’s had more success recently with the Flat Jig.

“The Flat Jig is the first thing I’ll throw after trolling. The body glides two to three times farther than the Jigging Rap, so it’s a great search bait. It makes the walleyes freak out. I let it fall, then rip it up, catch it for one second, then let it fall without slowing it. You can just feel them smack it on the way down. It’s such a fun bite. But at an ounce and 3/16ths, it’s an arm burner to use all day.”

Ell reported that Sakakawea’s most popular bait recently has been the Berkley Flicker Minnow.

“They have become a staple in Sakakawea for mimicking smelt,” said Ell. “That bait has exploded in popularity out here. That’s no secret. People fish them just above the thermocline. But colors, those are still kept secret.”

Carter believes trolling will be the most prominent pattern, but other methods can certainly catch fish.

“Leeches and minnows are getting tight this time of year, but there are plenty of worms. Crawlers on Slow Death Rigs can work great. I honestly think the top finishers will be trolling. If you’re casting, you’re going to catch fish, but it’s two lines in the water compared to four.”

When the NWT last visited Sakakawea in 2017, roughly half the field made long runs. That event was held in early May. This time, both Ell and Carter believe more anglers will fish close.

“Some people are still going to be running up to Van Hook, which is about a 70-mile run,” added Ell. “I don’t plan on doing that, but I could, I have AirWave seats that give me control and comfort. Sakakawea is just so vast; there’s so much good water you’re running right past. The east end is very good. I feel that you can still find the bigger fish on the east side and get away from the crowd.”

“The last time we were here, the wind didn’t blow at all,” Carter recalled. “That’s not typical for North Dakota. When it does blow, it will shut you down; it doesn’t matter what direction it’s blowing. This year, I think you’ll see the boats spread out more. It can honestly be won burning a gallon of gas a day or as far as Lund’s Landing, where you burn 100 gallons.”

Ell and Carter both believe a wild card could be the weed bite. Ell also alluded to the possibility of a deep tree bite, similar to what Jason Przekurat accomplished at the 2016 NWT championship out of Mobridge. 

“There’s weed fish going right now, some even close to the ramp,” said Carter.

“Someone could definitely tap into a shallow bite in the weeds,” agreed Ell. “The water is lower than the last time we were here. It’s been dropping, and now those green, leafy weeds are accessible. I’m curious about the tree bite too. Those deep trees, the old cottonwoods, do exist in Sakakawea. Jason won it on Oahe trolling the tops of the trees. I’ve never seen it work here, but it certainly could.” 

Ell and Carter both believe it could take 60 pounds or more (over two days) to win the tournament.

“Fifty-two pounds could definitely win,” Ell said. “But at the same time, it could take over 60 pounds to win. My goal is 25 pounds per day. Understanding the bite window and the quality of your fish is so important in a no-cull tournament. This place is full of smelt, so the walleyes don’t have to eat. Sometimes there are only certain bite windows, and the window will only be an hour and a half. It’s all about playing the game on what you’re going to keep and what you’re willing to wait for.”

“I think 40 pounds will cash a check and 44 to 50 pounds will be needed to make the top 10. To win, I think it will take five over 25 inches with a kicker (each day). That could be as much as 64 pounds. The 5- and 6-pounders here are plentiful. The key is going to be getting them in the right order. It’s going to be a great event, and like always out here, it’s going to be a game of ounces.” 

Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Central time from Garrison Bay Marina at Fort Stevenson State Park, located at 1252A 41st Ave. NW in Garrison. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at Garrison Bay Marina, beginning at 3 p.m. The full field fishes each day with the winner in each division being determined by the heaviest cumulative weight.

The National Walleye Tour consists of three regular-season events and a year-end championship. Each regular season event is a two-day, pro-am tournament and delivers over a 100 percent payback. Pros compete against other pros, and co-anglers compete against other co-anglers.

Registration is ongoing for the Lake Sakakawea event. The deadline for guaranteed entry (by signing up with a pro or co-angler) is Aug. 24. Registration can be taken over the phone at 501-794-2064 or online by visiting www.nationalwalleyetour.com/tournaments/register/. For more information on rules and tournament payouts, visit www.nationalwalleyetour.com.