PIERRE, S.D. -- Cutting a swath through the high plains of North America, the Missouri River provides welcome eye relief to westbound travelers from Minnesota. We're so accustomed to seeing water that it can be disconcerting when it gets sparse. About the time you start wondering how life can survive in such dry places a slope is crested and the Missouri River glistens below. The world looks right again.
The Missouri River was impounded in South Dakota in several places beginning in the 1950s. A dam at Big Bend created Lake Sharpe in 1963. It stretches for 67 miles from Big Bend to Pierre, encompassing 60,000 surface acres of water with a maximum depth of 120 feet. As reservoirs go Sharpe is fairly stable. It's a flow-through reservoir and whatever water is released through the Oahe dam at Pierre is also released through Big Bend dam. Water levels fluctuate less than a couple feet over the entire year.
Best of all the lake is loaded with walleyes.
"If you were to design a lake for walleye production it would be Lake Sharpe," said Dennis Unkenholz, fisheries program administrator with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. "We've never stocked a single walleye. It has all the attributes for natural reproduction, like gravel areas and rocky shorelines. Spawning occurs throughout. Because the upper end is influenced by Oahe releases it stays fairly cold. That sets spawning back a couple weeks but it gets us past those spring storms that can cause problems for spawning fish. That might be the reason we see good reproduction ever year."
The newly-spawned walleyes have no problem finding food. The forage base consists of gizzard shad, smelt, spottail shiners, Johnny darters and perch. South Dakota's state record walleye weighing 15 pounds, 3 ounces was caught here in 1979, and 5- to 8-pound fish are not uncommon. The lake has artesian wells and the warm water from these wells draws baitfish and walleyes during the winter months.
For information about Lake Sharpe call the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks at (605) 773-4508. For lodging information call the Pierre, S.D. Chamber of Commerce at (800) 962-2034.
High catch rates bring fishermen to Sharpe from all over the Midwest. Last year the Department of Game, Fish and Parks estimates 468,000 walleyes were caught and 261,000 of those -- over half -- were released. Average weight was 1.5 pounds. The daily limit is four with a 15-inch minimum and one fish over 18 inches.
"Fishing pressure per acre is fairly high use when compared to the other Missouri River reservoirs," Unkenholz said.
Sharpe's appeal doesn't end with walleyes. The lake is loaded with smallmouth bass and white bass. About 42,000 smallmouth and 45,000 white bass were caught last year, though trophy fish are rare among both species. Sauger also are prevalent, especially in the more river-like upper end.
Lake Sharpe isn't perfect, however. A flaw is found where the Bad River flows into the lake at Fort Pierre. The U.S. Corps of Engineers estimates 3.25 million tons of sediment enter Sharpe every year, and three-quarters of that comes from the Bad River. The sediment deposited from the mouth to Farm Island has raised the river bed and caused flooding in southeast Pierre. The sediment often reduces water clarity to where all fishing ceases for several weeks.
"The Bad drains a highly-erodible area," Unkenholz explained. "The ag folks say that if the entire watershed was treated and the best land-use practices put in place it would reduce sediment by two thirds at best."
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