Catching the Big One-Salmon Fishing on Lake Oahe Takes Off

Last Updated by Heather Benson on
Rachel Steichen holds the 25+ pound Chinook Salmon caught on Lake Oahe
South Dakota GFP Facebook

When you think of South Dakota fishing, reeling in a giant Chinook salmon isn't necessarily the first fish that comes to mind.  But the summer of 2016 has seen dozens of anglers landing the "big one" as their lines were nabbed by massive Chinook Salmon, all the product of a unique breeding program on Lake Oahe.

New Ecosystems Equal New Opportunities

Robert Hanten is a Fishery Biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.  He explains that the fish was introduced to Lake Oahe after the construction of the series of dams on the Missouri River created new ecosystems.  Suddenly South and North Dakota had large, deep, cold water habitats and that created new opportunities for sport fisherman.

5456984378_c153635737_z.jpgChinook Salmon spawning in their native Pacific Northwest.USFWS

"Back in the late 1970s, both North and South Dakota Game and Fish departments determined that we had all this cold water habitat that would be perfect for us to create a sport fishery," said Robert in a recent interview with SDPB Radio. "That deep, cold water in these main stem Missouri reservoirs has a lot of good habitat if you have food available for these fish; it created the perfect opportunity for us to make a cold water fishery.”

North Dakota was the first to introduce Chinook salmon into the system when they made a release into Lake Sakakawea above Garrison Dam.  Soon those fish had made their way through the dam and were the delight of fishermen who found them in Lake Oahe.  By the early 1980s, South Dakota made the decision to start a breeding program of their own and built Whitlock Bay Spawning Station.

South Dakota's Own Salmon "Water Park"

Whitlock Bay Spawning Station is located 18 miles west of Mobridge on the shores of Lake Oahe.  The station is comprised of a concrete fish ladder, concrete raceways and a building where the process of artificial spawning is carried out.  Chinook Salmon cannot reproduce naturally in Lake Oahe and the spawning station is the method by which the South Dakota Game, Fish and Park biologists keep the lake stocked.

wb.jpgThe artificial salmon run ladder at Whitlock Bay Salmon Spawning StationSouth Dakota GFP Website

“Salmon have no natural reproduction on the lake,” explains Robert. “Our biologists collect the fish, incubate the eggs and raise the fish to restock.  If we did not do this, there would be no Chinook salmon in Lake Oahe within three to four years.”

Like their ocean-going counterparts, Lake Oahe salmon naturally return to the “stream” where they were spawned, in this case the concrete raceways at Whitlock Bay.  The station uses a pump to bring lake water to the top of the fish ladder and then pumps it back down again, creating a sort of manmade fast-moving stream.  The movement of the water attracts the already circling fish to move up the ladder and into the raceways.  There, biologists sort the males from the females and collect milt and eggs from each.  One collection will yield  250,000 to over one million eggs.

wb4.jpgWhitlock Bay fisheries biologists capturing eggs and milt from Chinook salmonSD GFP website

After the eggs are fertilized, the salmon are incubated at McNenny State Fish Hatchery in Spearfish.  When they are approximately six months old, they are transferred back to the Whitlock Bay Spawning Station for “imprinting” to their home stream.  This imprinting process ensures they will return to the station to spawn when the fish mature. They are then released into the Lake Oahe system where they seek out the colder, deeper waters created by the dam.  There they will live out their natural lifespan of three to seven years before returning to spawn and then die.

Video: Spawning Salmon on the Prairie

Population and Size Recovery Since 2011 Flood

The flood of 2011 significantly depleted the salmon stock on Lake Oahe when prey fish populations were destroyed and many young salmon were forced through the dam but it appears that 2016 will be the year they made it back. In the month of August alone, nearly half a dozen salmon have been caught that were over 20% larger than the previous state record fish. 

“We aren’t necessarily seeing large numbers of fish caught but what we are seeing are consistently large fish, both the record size catches and numerous fish in the 20-25 pound range,” said Robert. “Most folks think if a fish is really big, it has to be really old but with the right food, these salmon can grow very quickly.”

Some of the 2016 Lake Oahe Catches To Date:

Dakota Karl.jpgLarge Chinook salmon caught the summer of 2016 on Lake OaheFacebook/Dakota Karl

Oahe Downstream.jpgLarge Chinook salmon caught the summer of 2016 on Lake OaheFacebook/Oahe Downstream

Oahe Marina2.jpgLarge Chinook salmon caught the summer of 2016 on Lake OaheFacebook/Oahe Marina

Spring Creek.jpgLarge Chinook salmon caught the summer of 2016 on Lake OaheFacebook/Spring Creek Rec

Those prey fish are lake herring, a cold-water, high-energy, high fat fish that helps the salmon develop quickly. The salmon follow the prey fish through the thermoclines (where warm surface and cold deep water meet) and feed heavily in the pre-spawning season of July and August. Large populations of prey fish have allowed Lake Oahe salmon to gain quickly as evidenced by the newly fallen state record.

First Salmon, First State Record

Darrick Koch of Watertown holds the new state record of 31.55 pounds.  The fish is the first salmon he has ever caught.

GFP-Darrick Koch.jpgDarrick Koch with the current state record Chinook salmon.Facebook/SD GFP

“My arms didn’t really hurt afterward but I was just shaking,” Koch said in an interview with the Pierre Capital Journal, describing his more than 75 minute struggle to land the fish.  Caught on July 29, his record fish was too large to be weighed on the scale at the local bait shop. Koch instead had to take his catch to the local grocery store to find a scale capable of weighing the behemoth.  His fish beat the old state record by more than seven pounds.

"Outstanding Fighters"

Finding and landing the “big one” isn’t easy explains Doug Haas, Power Sports Manager for Cabela’s in Mitchell and an avid salmon angler.

“Salmon are amazing,” he shared. “But you have to have the right equipment.  They can’t resist your bait and are very active if you find a school but you need heavy line and a lot of it.”

He explained that Chinook Salmon are typically found in the deeper, colder waters of the lake in late summer, requiring anglers to use specialized sonar equipment to locate the schools and then downriggers to effectively catch them.  As spawning approaches, they can be found in shallower waters and even fished from shore, especially near Whitlock Bay. But Doug also explains that an angler needs to be prepared to go to task with what he describes as “outstanding fighters”.

“You need plenty of heavy line because they will run on you,” says Doug. “In a boat, you can keep up with them but if you fish on shore, it will be a battle.”

More to Come?

Robert Hanten says we can expect more fishing excitement from Lake Oahe salmon yet this year.

“I think people can expect to potentially even see another state record. We’ve had a lot of big fish that were real close to the state record in size.  We could see that state record fall again.”

And Tasty Too

And when asked if South Dakota’s Chinook salmon are as good to eat as found elsewhere?

“My family loves to eat them. They are very tasty, especially the salmon being caught right now.  They are truly a treat to eat.”

And if you do catch the “big one”, better make sure you have a big serving platter to go with it.

Don't forget to use this great salmon recipe from our Savor Dakota Season 1 show.

SDPB Radio News Story on the catch:




















































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