I never understood where this walleye craze on the Missouri River originated, but it sure seems to sell a lot of boats and fishing gear.
That was obvious again last Saturday morning. I’d just settled in with a cup of coffee to watch a news show when the river near my house filled with sleek fishing boats with snarling high-powered outboard motors. A small armada of them skimmed over the rippled surface, headed downriver. I don’t know where they were going, but they were in a big hurry to claim a favorite fishing hole.
After a dozen or more of those boats sped past, I figured it had to be the start of a fishing tournament. The Missouri River in South Dakota hosts a bunch of fishing tournaments from spring to fall, and the stretch near Chamberlain is one of the sweet spots, I’m told by those who fish regularly. Of course, when I lived in Pierre, I was told by other fishing regulars that the waters of Lake Oahe offered some of the best walleye fishing in the world, so I guess we spread the wealth around.
The whole business of fishing with huge boats and store-bought gear has long fascinated me. You could also say it kind of puzzles me, the passion that seems to go into catching a fish. I’ve said before that when I was a kid on the farm, we caught mostly bullheads in the stock dams. I had a cane pole, maybe 7 feet long. It had a length of fishing line, probably 10 or 12 feet. I used reel hooks, the kind they sold at stores in those days, but I made a bobber from a piece of cork and used discarded washers for a weight. It wasn’t a fancy rig, but I caught a truckload of bullheads in my day.
When we moved to town, I learned that kids tried to catch catfish. That seems pretty exotic to me, but I tried my luck down along the shore a block from the family home. I used my bullhead rig from the farm. Some kids had rods and reels their dads bought in a sporting goods department. I figured those kids were rich.
In the 1970s, with a family of my own and a home in Pierre, I bought a boat and moved from the shore onto the river itself. We had too many water skis in that boat to fit in fishing gear, so I pretty much gave up that sport. In the 1980s, I started to notice crowds of boats at the ramps that had for quite a while practically been my private launch areas. Those additional boats belonged to people from all over South Dakota. They were trying to catch walleye.
Pretty soon the pickups pulling those boats had not only South Dakota license plates but also Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska places. From time to time, I heard about heated arguments, even a fist fight or two, among the people trying to launch and land boats.
Next thing I knew, salmon were the rage. I’d long associated salmon with Alaska and the rivers of Washington and Oregon. Now they were in Oahe, too, and I started noticing boats with what looked like antenna mounted to both sides. A friend explained that was salmon rig. Many of those boats gathered around a structure near the east shore of the dam. They’d circle and circle for hours. I didn’t see the attraction but different strokes, right?
Somewhere during that time, I interviewed a guy said he invented fish finders. I think his name was Lowrance. (As I age, I sometimes fear my memory is telling me things that aren’t so.) He flew into Pierre in a vintage fighter plane, a restored P-51 Mustang, I think. During the interview I said it seemed unfair to use electronics to find fish. He said you still have to catch them. I guess so.
I laughed to think of a big boat with a fish locator on that bullhead dam in our north pasture. I laughed again, thinking I should have organized a bullhead fishing tournament. Somebody would have entered, wouldn’t they?