A pair of rods sit ready for a strike, with tips pointing down to the lead balls which get baits deep into the water where salmon search for smelt in late summer on Lake Sakakawea. Simonson Photo.

By Nick Simonson

August brings with it high anticipation for the hunting seasons that follow.

Oftentimes, the month is hallmarked by dog training, target shooting and physical preparation for what’s to come in the autumn. But in the heat of summer’s sweet spot, many sportsmen of a different stripe know that action is picking up for a unique fishing opportunity in North Dakota along the face of Garrison Dam and the southern stretches of Lake Sakakawea. The search for chinook salmon fills the gap between the end of July and whatever opening day – deer, upland or ducks – is circled on the calendar in the month ahead.

There, in a leisurely L shape running from Government Bay, one can find hundreds of boats on a given day, rods bent in tight arcs with tips bowed to the lead downrigger balls in the water beneath the stern. While it may take a bit of up-front investment to join them, avid angler Jason Renner, administrator of the North Dakota Salmon Reports Facebook page, suggests it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to chase after the silver fish in the depths below.

“Whatever you can afford is what you need to do, just get into the sport,” Renner recommends on getting a boat set up, “get some downriggers, some downrigger rods and run with at least 20 pound line,” he continues, adding that line counter reels help keep track of how far out a lure is, and are helpful to know when a fish is making a run and how close it is to the boat at the end of the fight.

Options for downriggers include hand-crank and electric models, with the latter able to quickly pull the downrigger balls, which range from eight to 12 pounds in weight, up to the surface and out of the way when a fish is hooked. Renner suggests watching both retail and online stores for end-of-season discounts and keeping tabs on community marketplaces for reduced-price salmon gear, which tends to come up for sale in a large lot including the hardware and the tackle to jump start entry into the exciting niche.

On the business end, trolled behind the ball are large flashers, colored plastic boards adorned with shimmering stickers and paint jobs designed to imitate feeding action in the deep water below and draw the attention of salmon. Behind those attractors, anglers will deploy plastic squid over tinsel flash as artificial lures, or herring hoods for the trolling of the six-to-eight-inch oily bait that mimic the smelt found deep in the lake. Super-sharp octopus hooks from 1/0 to 3/0 are the norm, and anglers should run each over a sharpener to make sure they connect with the bony mouth of a chinook on a strike. Knowing where salmon are feeding through the use of electronics, helps anglers determine the depth that is working, and where they should be focusing during a trip to maximize those connections.

“There’s two things I look for mainly, the presence of baitfish and the presence of a thermocline…salmon seem to relate quite a bit to that,” Renner states of the dividing line between the lake’s warmer upper reaches and the colder water below that often serves as the holding point for salmon and their preferred forage, “they’re a coldwater species, the smelt are [too]…if you do see bait down there, and they’re towered up with some arcs in there, stick around there, because if you’re not getting bit, you will be shortly,” Renner adds.

Anglers come from far and wide, like Adam Sersha of Eveleth, MN, with a nice chinook caught last summer along the face of Garrison Dam. Simonson Photo.

With high water in recent years, surveys and egg collection processes by the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) have found many larger salmon flushed into the tailrace below Garrison Dam, but with things settling down, Renner expects more quality salmon to be found up in the lake in the late summer and early fall of 2020 than in the last two years. Through the collegial community which he helps connect through his online work, he is hearing good things and is optimistic for the next six weeks of trolling on the big water.

“So far the fish coming though have been really good sized…I’ve heard of a lot of 8, 9, 10 and up to 13 pound fish being caught this year,” Renner reports, “numbers are still a question, the past couple years have been a little iffy with the gates being open, a lot of those slipped through the dam and down into the tailrace,” he continues.

To sustain the fishery, each year the NDG&F collects more than a million eggs from salmon that attempt a spawning run, with 1.6 million collected in 2019 from their efforts. This allows the agency to stock the water with approximately 400,000 smolts (juvenile salmon) annually, which was the plan for 2020. These efforts provide a unique opportunity for anglers, and fill up a deep fishing option that keeps anglers like Renner coming back and sharing his passion online and on the water, and helping others get started in the process of utilizing the unique fishery.

To connect with Renner and the North Dakota salmon fishing community, visit the ND Salmon Reports Facebook Page.