Bassmaster Magazine’s third annual ranking of America’s 100 best bass fisheries puts Lake Oahe on the list at No. 67 for 2014, and those who know the lake say that’s no surprise – if anything, it could rank higher.
“I’m surprised they’ve got it that low,” Oahe fishing guide Terry Nelson of West Prairie Resort said. “People don’t know how good it is out here.”
The 370,000-acre Lake Oahe actually ranked higher in Bassmaster’s 2013 list at No. 55; it ranked lower in 2012 at No. 79.
Bassmaster’s 2014 list, announced April 28, has Lake Michigan’s Sturgeon Bay beating out the hottest fisheries in the U.S. to take the No. 1 spot, while Texas and California tied for the states with the most entries on the list, each with eight lakes in the Top 100.
Bassmaster said it used months of research, catch-rate data and countrywide polling by the publication’s staff to come up with “the ultimate bucket list” of locations for anglers going after bass.
“The Bassmaster 100 Best Bass Lakes project spawned from our desire to not only identify traditionally good bass fisheries, but also to spotlight lakes that are red hot right now,” says Bassmaster Editor James Hall. “Our goal is to make the annual rankings as objective as possible by using the most current data available from state wildlife agencies, current tournament data and expansive polling of the B.A.S.S. membership.”
Mark Fincel, senior biologist for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks, said the ranking is deserved, and the placement is probably about right. And, he adds, so is Bassmaster’s observation about Lake Oahe: “This is a mostly unexplored smallmouth oasis.”
“The number of people who target smallmouth on Lake Oahe is miniscule – very small. But those who do target them do very well,” Fincel said. “The people who target them know how to fish them.”
Fincel said the smallmouth fishery on Lake Oahe, like the catfish fishery, is a well-kept secret on a lake that is celebrated as one of the country’s great walleye fisheries. In Oahe’s favor, Fincel said, is that while smallmouth aren’t as abundant here as in some better-known smallmouth lakes, the smallmouths that are in Oahe are often very large.
Nelson agrees, saying the fish are in the trophy class.
“A 17-inch smallmouth is considered a trophy fish,” Nelson said. “We’ve got a lot of them in that 18- and 19-inch range.”
Fincel added that some smallmouths in the 20-inch range are being caught in Oahe – in fact the Game, Fish & Parks office where he works has a 20.5-inch smallmouth from the lake mounted on one of its walls.
Jeremy Cummings, who grew up in Pierre but lives now in Rapid City, said he thinks Lake Oahe might jump a bit higher on the Bassmaster list as people begin to realize what the lake holds. When he was growing up, Cummings said, Lake Sharpe, especially down in the Fort Thompson area, is where he tended to go after smallmouth bass.
“Traditionally, that Fort Thompson area was more the smallmouth area,” Cummings said. “The quality of smallmouth on Lake Oahe has just taken off and grown.”
Fincel said the flood of 2011 changed the dynamics of smallmouth fishing on the Missouri reservoirs. Lake Oahe was large enough so that its smallmouth population wasn’t affected as much, but the surge of cold water pushing through smaller Lake Sharpe delayed the gizzard shad spawn, which in turn affected smallmouth that feed on shad. And the high flow of water through the lake made Lake Sharpe behave more like a river that season, pushing both baitfish and sport fish lower through the reservoir through a process biologists call “entrainment.”
“We saw our abundance of smallmouth go down after the flood of 2011,” Fincel said.
Historically, Lake Sharpe has had higher numbers of smallmouth bass, but typically they weren’t as large. But after 2011, Lake Oahe is getting more attention from the savvy anglers who deliberately go after smallmouth.
Cummings, who fishes Lake Oahe with Nelson as his guide, said he believes Oahe not only has big smallmouths, but plenty of them. He’s fished them as recently as last year and in 2012.
“We were fishing for walleyes, but they were hitting our bottom-bouncers,” Cummings said. “We got a limit of walleyes and then went and targeted smallmouths. We were getting two at a time, some of the bigger class of fish, and a lot of them. They’re so much fun to catch. Pound for pound, they fight just about harder than any fish you catch. And they’re good table fare.”