New lakes are always exciting, but they can be equally intimidating. I knew virtually nothing about Lake Oahe in South Dakota, other than it was huge and full of smallmouth bass … or so was the claim.
When I first arrived to the town of Pierre — our official site for the event — I couldn’t wait to see the lake. The topography was so different from anything I had experienced before. It looked like a postcard of Ireland or Scotland with rolling green hills and very few trees. The air was fresh and clean. It was beautiful.
When I crested the last rise to the lake, the view was almost overwhelming. I couldn’t wait to get my boat off the trailer.
After launching at the mouth of Spring Creek, I headed straight for the first main lake point I could find. As I made my first casts to the point’s rocky spine, I immediately hooked up with a small brown bass … then another, and another. They were small, but encouraging.
As the day wore on, I looked for other rocky points but found very few. Nearly every shoreline I visited was comprised of dark soil and a shale-like composite. Banks featuring boulders and chunk rock were difficult to find … at least to myself, anyway. When I was able to access those places, the bites weren’t hard to come by — keepers were the problem.
Most of my strikes came on a Hildebrandt Drum Roller swimbait, Rapala Skitter V, 4-inch Senko and a tube jig. It was fun but, as the day wore on, I noticed an increasing amount of pressure on the more attractive banks.
On day 2, I decided to travel north and try a new area. That’s when the massiveness of the reservoir began to sink in. At more than 200 miles in length, Lake Oahe is easily the largest, most desolate manmade lake I’ve been on. You can run for miles without seeing another soul. There were countless points, pockets and coves to explore … too many, in fact. It was overwhelming.
At the end of the day, I found fish in one particular cove that was different from the rest. It was flatter with a sandy bottom and scattered boulders, and that’s where I got my bites — including one about 5 pounds.
Finding that fish shallow in the back of the pocket, I knew she had to be spawning. So, I marked the coordinates on my Raymarine Axiom and moved on to explore the rest of the pocket.
On day 3, I decided to remain on the south end of the lake and concentrate my efforts by looking deep near the dam. The weather was so dicey, I didn’t want to stray too far. Oahe’s reputation for high winds and big waves is well known, and it was our short day anyway.
By registration time, I had found nothing by fishing offshore. At that point, I was fully committed to the shoreline bite.
Drawing out in the second-flight, I wondered who might beat me to my starting spot. When my number was called, I raced directly there and found no one around.
In minutes, I caught my first smallmouth — a 3-pounder. Soon after, another 12-incher. I was off to a fast start with most of the day still ahead of me.
My next stop yielded a non-keeper. Then a 4-pounder struck and, after a lengthy battle, I added it to the livewell. An hour later, a 2-pounder came aboard. Then everything came to a screeching halt. I never got another keeper bite.
Back at the scales, my four bass weighed slightly less than 10 pounds. I was right on the cutline, knowing a repeat performance would guarantee a check. With that thought, I went to refuel the boat and work on some tackle.
The next morning came quickly. When my boat number was called, I ran directly to the same starting spot — working it from deep to shallow. In minutes, I had my first two keepers. Then came a flurry of skipjacks and catfish … one after another. Each time, I thought I had hooked into a big smallmouth. But no … just more trash fish.
Realizing my area had gone cold, I pulled the MotorGuide and ran 30 miles to the protected pocket where I had caught the 5-pounder in practice. I thought if I could catch it or perhaps one like it, I’d be back on track.
Working slowly into the area, I picked up a couple of small keepers. Once in range of where I believed the big female was bedding, I made repeated casts with a 4-inch weightless Senko, tube and Ned-rig.
Finally, I got bit on the Senko and set the hook. As the fish pulled back, I yelled to my Marshal, “There she is!” Unfortunately, it wasn’t the 5-pounder. It was a male about two pounds, pissing — a sure sign of spawning. And that confirmed my suspicions.
Thirty minutes passed as I made cast after cast, trying to fool a fish I couldn’t see. Finally, I decided to move around the pocket to finish my limit … thinking I would come back later for another try.
In that time, I put a half dozen more keepers in the boat, but none of any size. With only minutes to spare, I returned hoping the 5-pound female would be there defending the nest. Once in position, I made a few precision casts to the key spot, but nothing happened and it was time to return to check-in.
Back at the scales, my best five weighed a whopping 6 pounds, 10 ounces. And though it left me short of the money, I actually fared better than most of the field. Very few limits were recorded. Even some of the first-day leaders had stumbled, some weighing only a fish or two.
It was a sad statement for what had been touted as one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in the country.