Prosperity reached many during the height of the North Dakota oil boom on the Bakken formation oil field in far western North Dakota. This modern-day gold rush brought a surge of labor to work the oil fields during the Great Recession, to a largely rural and secluded part of North Dakota. The boom peaked in 2012 and has since slowed with falling global oil prices.
But, the real secret of what lies below the ground’s surface has been discovered; ice anglers in the local area are just discovering the secret of what lies below the surface in local reservoirs. The next boom on the local landscape may very well be an oil field fishing boom.
Josh Johnson is the fishing guide owner and operator of Fishcast Angling. Johnson has lived in Williston in the heart of the Bakken oil fields since 2012. He chases big bites on three main waterbodies that produce exceptional angling: Fort Peck Reservoir, Sakakawea Reservoir and the Greater Missouri River System. All are part of the Missouri River system with the reservoirs having some distinct start and end points with dams and water residence times. Johnson’s favorite targets are big walleyes and northern pike, and trips to Fort Peck for lake trout.
“Growing up in Minnesota, there were fantastic fisheries, but you ran into a lot of fisherman, and it was hard to find something that truly hadn’t been fished much,” Johnson explained. “While there is a small amount of fishing pressure out here in Williston, it really is like a frontier. Sakakawea is getting popular and sees more anglers, but there still are plenty of places you can go and be by yourself. You can blaze your own trail and you’re not walking in somebody else’s tracks all the time. You can get on some world-class fish for a variety of species — walleyes, pike, and in the case of Fort Peck, trophy lake trout.”
Johnson spends time on Sakakawea, a 180-mile long impoundment of the Missouri River, the west end of which touches Williston. Cool-water bait fish migrate between ends of the system depending on the time of year. A large fall run of massive schools of emerald shiners drives one of the important bites and lake cycles of the year. Johnson appreciates that he can be fishing just 10 minutes from home and have outstanding opportunities for walleyes and northern pike, and have a chance to catch a number of other species to highlight the reservoirs’ diversity, such as shovelnose and pallid sturgeon, burbot and channel catfish.
Johnson fishes the western, riverine end of Sakakawea the most, since it’s closest to home. But he’s known to make big moves out of necessity. “You could go out and fish close to town and have great fishing, lots of bait, and water clarity of 3 or 4 feet. You could come back the next week and it could turn to mud. Water levels are fluctuating, the water clarity fluctuates, and it really matters what side of the lake you’re on. If it’s starting to get dirty, I move downstream and try to find some clearer water.”
Johnson is a believer in paying attention to what the fish are eating. “Sakakawea is primarily smelt forage,” he said. “There are also a lot of cisco and emerald shiners. The shiners move into and out of the river, so when they are running, I will be moving to find them and stay with them. At that time of the year, a lot of my fishing is actually river fishing on the far western end of Sakakawea.”
A couple of hours west of Williston in Montana is the famous Fort Peck Reservoir. Fort Peck Reservoir is 134 miles long with an average depth of more than 75 feet. Its huge size and scale make it a trophy fish producer in one of the least densely populated areas of the Lower 48 states. Its sheer size and remoteness can make it intimidating.
“If you’re looking for fishing reports on Fort Peck, you’re pretty much going to be making your own report. There are a few marinas and hotels putting out reports on ice conditions, but mainly you have to figure the ice fishing out on your own,” Johnson said. He has a simple approach to fishing these Missouri River impoundments. Keep moving. “Water levels fluctuate, bait moves, water clarity changes. A spot is only good for so long and then you need to find a new one when the fish move. You don’t want to fish empty water; you want to keep moving until you find fish.”
Once you’ve augered new holes, it doesn’t take long to know if you are in business. “Once you are on a spot with fish,” Johnson said, “you find them pretty quick. They show up if they are around. If you see bait on your graph, stay put. If you don’t, you can jig but it’d be better to move. Out here, big moves are best. Sometimes you can make a few moves on a spot, but most of the time it’s best to pick up and move 10 to 20 miles. Start with a few micro moves, but eventually you’ll need to make the big moves.”
Johnson has some good advice for rookies on Fort Peck. Pick out some spots and be ready to make big moves. “If you’re on the dam end of Fort Peck, it’s more stable in terms of clarity,” he said. Johnson also noted that the water clarity during early ice works on a more west-to-east gradient until winter settles in long enough for everything to reach some equilibrium. Rains or snow thaws change clarity in a hurry.
The best advice that Johnson had was to seek out prominent, obvious structure. In many premiere Ice Belt fisheries, obvious structure gets fished repeatedly. But not out in western North Dakota and eastern Montana.
“It’s really about finding massive, giant, main lake structures, picking the best looking spots on the map, and going there. There’s a little bit of a learning curve when you are on these waters, but it’s worth it. That’s the challenge out here — the vastness of the waters and the lack of reports. The reward in the back of your mind has to be that you can come across world-class fish on any hookset,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I’ve never fished anywhere else like here where I feel any hookset could be a giant. This area is the last, best ice fishing frontier. There are more remote places for sure, but to have a place like this where you don’t have to fly or hike into or snowmobile 60 miles, it really is an ice fishing frontier.”
Josh has thrown a lot of baits at these big fish over the years and has settled into a few patterns that are key to his success. For walleyes, Johnson uses a Rapala Flat Rap or Jigging Rap. “If it’s bright and sunny, I use blue chrome, if it’s overcast, I use blue and white glow. With these systems being river impoundments, there’s still a fair amount of current. They fish heavier and can stay in that current and stay in the flasher cone.” Johnson said. “You can catch everything on a Jigging Rap. That’s my go-to on walleyes. It doesn’t hurt to have deadsticks out either, but I prefer to find the fish and catch a few before I commit to sticking around and putting out the deadsticks.”
Johnson acknowledges that deadsticks with smelt are the most popular technique for pike fishing out in the oil patch. While he has used tip-ups and deadstick offerings, he’s found an active approach works best with the area’s plump pike. “I get more fish on jigs than tip-ups, in about a 4-1 ratio. My best bait is the half-ounce Northland Airplane Jig. It’s a bucktail jig that glides exceptionally well and can be bobbed through the water, too,” Johnson offered. “Besides working better, I just prefer to jig them. It’s very, very effective, especially on early ice in December.”
Targeting lake trout at Fort Peck, Johnson turns to familiar lures for their functionality. “I pull out my walleye and pike gear. We’ve tried white tube jigs and other traditional lake trout gear, but jigging raps and airplane jigs have been our best producers. The nice thing about using jigging raps on Fort Peck is that you can catch everything the lake has to offer. You can catch walleyes, pike and lakers, all from the same spots. It’s not uncommon to catch some of each.”
For more on ice fishing in and around the Bakken oil patch, check out Josh Johnson and Fishcast Angling on social media channels, or call him at 701-570-0774.
— Scott Mackenthun has been writing about the outdoors since 2005. You can follow him on Instagram @scottmackenthun and on Twitter @ScottyMack31.