Kurt Schirado | Co-Host of Ultimate Outdoor Adventures TV
As the month of May came to an end, flood preparations were just getting started in the Dakotas, southern Canada and down the Missouri and Mississippi River systems. Small dykes were strategically being placed by family, friends, neighbors and even strangers. We all took part in joining together in hopes of preventing what Mother Nature was about to unleash upon us. Stores were quickly emptied while people desperately searched for any supplies that would assist with saving their property, streets were backed up for miles, old roads were closed and others opened allowing many to travel from home to work. Boats, waders, water pumps, sewer drain plugs, poly, extension cords and shovels were items in high demand but yet hard to find at the local hardware stores due to the growing urgency of what “might” happen. Everyone was flocking to the supply stores in a panic, not really knowing how deep the water was really going to get and/or the outcome of this first-time historical event that was about to unfold.
After weeks of sandbagging drew to an end, and the initial shock was over, many people were able to move on and enjoy a normal summer, but for many the fight was just beginning. For more than sixty days, families were forced to vacate their homes or travel by boat – daily – just to keep things dry… Summer was not treating us very well. For those of you that lost or nearly lost your home, and/or maybe you are among the fortunate people who won the battle and saved your home/property – you know what I’m talking about. The fear of the unknown along with the anxiety and stress many of us experienced is something not many can understand unless you were there from start to finish.
For myself, I was somewhere in the middle. Three days after moving into our new home, my wife and I built a protective dyke – with appreciated help from family and friends. After learning the City of Bismarck was going to build a massive wall to protect south Bismarck, feelings of relief calmed my stress.
Helping people makes you feel good and is much appreciated by others, but it’s a very small part of what some families had to experience day after day, week after week, month after month with little relief in sight. Eight hours a day on the job and then spending evenings to protect your property became the norm for many who were not willing to allow uncontrollable circumstances take what they called home.
As we all know the flood gates to the Garrison Dam were opened on June 1, 2011 – something never done before. Nobody knew what was going to happen from this massive rush of water, the pathway it would follow and how much destruction it would leave in its path. And, something most of us never considered during this historic event was what would/could happen to the fishery, but more specifically how the “Spillway Pond” would become an incredible fishery.
By August, my summer began to wind down as my stress/anxiety from the flooding up and down he Missouri River was diverted with the upcoming archery season – which was a much needed distraction. The Mighty Missouri River had slowly begun to recede and boats were now able to get back on the water which was a telltale sign that normalcy would soon prevail. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t really thinking about fishing, knowing what families were still going through and the road that lie ahead for many. However, I did manage to venture back out on the water for a few days to experience what I hope will never happen again – fishing the Garrison Dam Spillway!
This was the first year I can remember that I hadn’t been in a boat the entire summer, and even though my heart wasn’t really into it, my wife kept telling me I needed to get out. Some friends had launched their walleye rigs from the Stanton Boat Ramp south of the Garrison Dam – the day before – and had a remarkable day jigging for walleyes while fishing the Garrison Dam Spillway wing walls… so they encouraged me to tag along on a return trip. The Spillway Pond! In my mind, I was thinking the Tailrace.
Not really knowing what to expect, we loaded the boat with walleye gear on a Sunday afternoon and headed for Stanton, North Dakota, which was also my first walleye excursion of the summer. The first thing I remember as we arrived at the Stanton Boat Ramp was the number of dead cisco covering the shorelines and floating down the river. Hundreds, maybe thousands of dead fish…the smell is one that I will not soon forget. As we left the boat dock and throttled up river, I remember the warm sunshine and breeze blowing in my face… this is one part of fishing the Missouri River that I truly had missed and a sensation that I look forward to each year. After a short but enjoyable 20 minute boat ride, we turned the corner and headed straight for the base of the spillway… this is something anglers have never been able to do before. As we traveled up this newly developed river channel, toward what looked like a huge waterfall, I remember it looking like something out of movie. It just didn’t look right!
As we closed the distance on this massive waterfall, I could see it was the bottom end of the spillway apron which resembled a concrete highway of water rushing into the river channel – what used to be the spillway pond. The rushing water created waves which were two to three feet high and constantly pounding on the boat making fishing a challenge, but it was this constant discharge of water that was attracting various species of fish from the original river channel into the spillway.
Overcoming this incredible sight, we began fishing near the wing wall located on the west side, and then moved to the wing wall on the east side, just like the guys had done the day before, but the fish had vacated those areas. Similar to any other walleye trip on the Missouri River, we started to move around, looking for more active fish. It didn’t take long as we made a drift down the middle of the channel, just below the waterfall or directly south of the spillway apron…bingo, the fish were there. It seemed that with every cast our jigs tipped with Gulp Alive Minnows were smashed by walleyes, catfish, white bass and drum – you never knew what would be on the end of your line. The action was “HOT,” to say the least. I don’t think a minute or two hardly went by on this particular outing – after determining where the fish were – without hearing a drag scream as our 6# and 8# test monofilament was put to the test as fish after fish was boated.
The action continued for hours as we shared this newly discovered “hot spot” with only two ther boats, but eventually, word of this new fishery spread, and within a few days it wasn’t unusual to see 50 – 100 boats fishing the Garrison Dam Spillway. The fishing eventually peaked and steadily declined with each passing day, but still great by most anglers’ standards. Within a period of a week, I had fished the “Spillway” three different days, and went from catching more than two hundred fish on my first Spillway adventure to fifty fish on my third trip. Plenty of walleye, catfish, salmon, trout and northern pike kept adventurous anglers busy for weeks last summer and whether the presentation was jigging, rigging or trolling crankbaits, the fishing was excellent.
Fishing the Garrison Dam “Spillway” was both rewarding and memorable, but if I had my choice, I would rather not have had the memory due to the destruction caused which allowed for the fishing opportunity. The fishing may have been some of the best I have and/or will ever experience, but if I find myself fishing in the “Spillway” again one day, I know one thing, thousands of people down river are in for more heartache, and I don’t think I want to experience that again.