VAN HOOK - They seem to come from everywhere. A count of 100 or so tow vehicles and trailers parked near the Van Hook boat ramps is common these days. During the busiest of times, such as weekends, the total exceeds 200.
Good fishing will do that.
"As the economy around this area is booming, we are seeing lots more people fishing. Our business is pretty doggone good," said Evan Barker, Van Hook Guide Service. "On the weekends we used to see 50 boats and trailers in the parking lot. Now it's 200 to 250 boats and trailers."
Barker has been guiding fishermen for 17 years. He knows the Van Hook region well. He can recall years both of low water and high water, good fishing and not so good fishing. This year the level of Lake Sakakawea allows access to the main boat ramps at Van Hook, and the fishing has been nothing short of spectacular.
"The fish are biting. It's relatively easy for anybody to come out here and catch a limit of walleyes on any given day," said Barker during a recent day on the water at Van Hook. "On this day we've caught everything. There's walleyes, northerns, smallmouth bass, white bass, drum, catfish and perch. There's lot of good eating fish. Walleyes and northerns make for excellent table fare. The rest of them are just a lot of fun to catch."
This past Thursday, several clusters of boats could be seen scattered across several locations on Van Hook. Some were near flooded timber; others over submerged islands, shores of visible islands or main lake points.
All were catching fish.
"This has to be one of the greatest fisheries in the United States. That's all there is to it," claimed Barker. "There are big fish. There are small fish. There are all kinds of fish. You name it, you can catch it here."
One place to see the results of an angler's day on the water is a fish cleaning station, and the fish cleaning stations at Van Hook have been remarkably busy. The fish, mostly walleyes, are hefty and healthy and highly prized as a special dinner treat. It is the reason people take the time to fish the waters of Van Hook.
"It's good, clean fun. It's exciting. When you feel that thump, thump on the end of the line the tug of war has begun," said Barker. "It's a challenge to get the fish up to the top and in the net. I've been fishing my whole life. Everytime I hook a fish, I don't care if it's a big one or a small one, I get excited about it."
Other people do too. They fish from shore, rental boats, their own boats or hire a guide to take them out on the water. For many, guided fishing trips are the best and most convenient way to get into the action. Barker, a transplanted North Dakotan who resides in Missouri during the winter months, says he often hires a guide when choosing to fish a new body of water. That way, he says, he can learn a lot about a lake and specific tactics in a short period of time.
Walleye fishermen perhaps employ a wider variety of presentations than anglers fishing any other species. Walleye attack plans may include bare hooks, long or short snells, in-line spinners in a choice of hundreds of colors, sizes and shapes; slip bobbers or infinite choices of size, color and action of crankbaits. All are enticements that will catch walleyes on any given day.
While boat movement of 1 mph or more is preferred by many fishermen, especially if utilizing crankbaits or spinners, the basic premise of walleye fishing is "go slow." Of course, there are always exceptions and live wells full of fish to prove it.
The most effective presentation recently for Barker has been a simple Lindy rig with a "slow death" hook and a night crawler pulled behind a bottom bouncer. Bottom bouncers are a weighted wire designed to reach the bottom of the lake. At the top of the bottom bouncer is an angled wire to which a snell can be attached.
"That's been our primary setup for years, a basic Lindy rig pulled behind a bottom bouncer," explained Barker. "The bottom bouncer keeps the bait up off the bottom so the walleye can see that it is there. Today slow death hooks outperformed everything else that we had."
Slow death hooks resemble a twisted version of a regular hook. More of an off-set "S" shape than a standard snell or circle hook, the slow death hook is designed to produce a tantalizing roll to either a half or a whole nightcrawler.
"It rotates slowly in the water. On any given day it can be deadly," said Barker.
There is a time for every presentation though and some times are better than others, even for presentations like slow death. Walleyes are known to be finicky. What works great for catching them one day may be shunned the next. Soon, says Barker, spinners tipped with live bait may be what the walleyes will covet.
"Oh yes, especially when you get to maybe another two weeks. We're going to see all kinds of insect hatches on the flats," said Barker. "At that point in time covering a lot of territory with a spinner and a nightcrawler or minnows is really going to cause the fish to get excited. You'd better grab the fishing rod and hang on. It's fun."
Still, fishing can be intimidating on Lake Sakakawea for those not familiar with the huge body of water. It is a monstrous reservoir. Even the famed Van Hook arm stretches for miles. Obviously, there are areas where fishing is not very productive. Finding where the fish are is the key. Fortunately, at Van Hook, there are countless areas that hold populations of catchable fish. Nevertheless, due to the sheer size of the fishery, a little advice and assistance can go a long way toward putting fish in the net.
"Generally speaking, we've got a pretty good handle on it," says Barker. "We've got five very experienced guides. Walleyes are our target species. We talk to each other and let each other know where we've found fish. We fish every day and supply rods, bait, tackle - everything but your lunch."
A store and gasoline station at Van Hook Park provides fishermen a final place to pick up necessities for a day on the water. There's usually some fishing advice to be found there too, all within a half mile of excellent boat ramps, wonderful scenery and a fishery that has few rivals.