By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

One thing is for sure when it comes to the Elite Series: Competitors can never complain that tournament officials don’t take them to new, lesser known venues.

Within the past 5 years, Elite Series pros and BassFans alike have been introduced to places like the Sabine River, Winyah Bay, Mille Lacs Lake and Cherokee Lake, among others. This week, a new name can be added to the “Huh, what, where?” list as Lake Oahe in the barren plains of central South Dakota plays host to a Bassmaster event for the first time.

Other than those who found time to make a scouting trip to Oahe, the lake is a virtual unknown to the 107 competitors. With sunrise around 6 a.m. and sunset around 9:30 or 10 p.m., practice days were long, which could prove beneficial with so much water to cover.

“It’s fun, especially with the no-info rule because no one knows anything other than what we can find on the Internet and with this place there’s nothing out there anyway,” said Justin Lucas, who comes into the seventh tournament sitting 3rd in Angler of the Year points. “Everybody is coming in blind and it’s awesome. That’s the way it should be.”

Oahe (pronounced “oh-WAH-hee”) is a massive, 230-mile long reservoir on the Missouri River that snakes from southern North Dakota, where the river flows out of Lake Sakakawea, to the Oahe Dam in Mobridge, S.D. Indian reservations occupy much of the land along the western bank of Oahe.

While Oahe is well-known amongst walleye anglers, it supports a burgeoning population of smallmouth that receives little to no consistent fishing pressure. There are a few local tournaments – it’s common for winners to have 20-plus pound stringers – but it’s expected the Elite Series event will pull the cloak back on what could be one of the best-kept bass fishing destination secrets in the upper Midwest.

“The last few years, the bass have come on strong and they’re growing so fast,” said Bob Propst, Jr., who guides for walleye and smallmouth at Oahe and other lakes throughout Nebraska and the Dakotas. “It’s an amazing bass fishery and will rate up there with Mille Lacs and Sturgeon Bay.”

Snow melt from upstream on the Missouri, which has its headwaters in central Montana, has caused the water levels at Lake Sakakawea to rise more than 4 feet in May and it continued to rise during the first part of June. As a result, the water levels at Oahe, the pool below Sakakawea, have also come up and anglers can expect to see considerably more current than usual.

Mason Propst
Photo: Mason Propst

Mason Propst caught this nearly 6-pounder at Oahe on Tuesday.

Because Oahe is such a big body of water (by volume, it’s the fourth-largest reservoir in the U.S.) and susceptible to big winds – days 1 and 2 could feature winds up to 20 mph – this will be a tournament where competitors are likely to pick a section of the lake and try to make a go of it. Finding fish in a given section shouldn’t be an issue, Propst says.

“These guys are going to catch bass where they wouldn’t realistically look for them,” he added. “It’s mostly an unknown, but we’ll find out it’s a massive factory for smallmouth.”

“It’s a place where you can go catch numbers – a lot of 3-pounders and into the 4s, but lately, we’re seeing a few in the 6s,” said Shane Cowan, who operates, perhaps, the only guide service at Oahe that specializes in bass.

“We’re expecting a state record at any time,” he added.

The current state record smallmouth in South Dakota is 7-03, caught in 2016. There was a 6-10 caught at Oahe this spring in a tournament held out of the same resort where the Elite Series is launching from.

Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.

BassFan Lake Profile

> Lake name: Lake Oahe
> Type of water: Pool on the Missouri River
> Surface acres (full pool): 374,000
> Primary structure/cover: Drops, humps, flats, points, rock
> Primary forage: Shad, rainbow smelt, lake herring, crappie
> Average depth: 62 feet
> Species: Smallmouth
> Minimum length: 12 inches
> Reputation: Mostly known as a top-shelf walleye fishery, it harbors an impressive smallmouth population that hasn’t seen much pressure until recent years
> Weather: Wind will be the variable most have their eye on. There’s a chance for thunderstorms on a couple of days
> Water temp: Low 70s
> Water visibility/color: Wind from certain directions can murk up areas, especially along shell banks, but it’s a relatively clear body of water
> Water level: About 6 feet above normal. Water has steadily risen since May and inflow and outflow are currently high.
> Fish in: Various depths
> Fish phase: Mostly post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Dropshots, tubes, Ned rigs, jigs, jerkbaits, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, topwaters, swimbaits
> Winning weight: 72 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 29 1/2 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3.5
> Biggest factors: Finding the key depth range where the bigger fish are congregating
> Biggest decision: How far to go – with so much water in play, those who stay close to the ramp may have as good a chance as those making a mighty run north
> Wildcard: Wind. If it blows, it can make getting around a chore or force a day to be canceled altogether

Here’s a closer look at Oahe’s contours, thanks to the Navionics Web App:

On The Rebound

Oahe experienced a disastrous flood in 2011 that proved devastating for the walleye fishery as much of the smelt population, a key food source for walleye, got washed downstream. Once the lake stabilized, lake herring were introduced as a forage fish and while the walleye have started to rebound, the smallmouth didn’t miss a beat, Cowan said.

“They seemed to flourish,” he said.

Among other things, this tournament will put a spotlight on the practice of catch and release and how having another popular gamefish in their midst could be an economic boon for those in the outdoor tourism business around Oahe.

“It’ll have a big effect on everything, including my business and the resorts,” Cowan said. “Some places have said their business is down 60 percent.”

‘They’re Just Everywhere’

Oahe’s main channel is deep (it’s more than 200 feet at its deepest point) and features countless bays, pockets, points and cuts up and down both sides. Some creek arms, notably the Moreau River and Cheyenne River, would be good-sized lakes by themselves.

With so much area to cover, it can overwhelming, even to those used to fishing big water.

Cowan thinks the Cheyenne arm could get some attention this week. He says the shad population is strong in the Cheyenne and with most of the smallmouth in their post-spawn transition, that area could be a real factor in the outcome.

Propst said he’d favor some of the big flats and bays with 20 to 30 feet of water in them.

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Can reigning AOY Brandon Palaniuk put his smallmouth know-how to work this week?

“We have some massive flats and they are loaded with them,” he said. “They typically roam in the trees, around the rock or in the middle of nowhere. We catch them suspended pulling (bottom bouncers) in the middle of summer over 50 feet. They’re just everywhere.”

Late Spring

Cowan said ice-out at Oahe this year was as late as he can remember it being (May 1) and it was followed by an unseasonably warm spring, which triggered many of the smallmouth to spawn. He believes most of the bass are in the midst of their post-spawn transition.

“In my opinion, guys will think they’ll find spawning fish, but that deal is done,” he said. “Consequently, those fish will head out to the main lake and they will find some in transition.”

He said main-lake points and points off of flats should hold a good number of fish, but they won’t be near their peak weight.

“They’ll find them on the routes out to those places,” he added. “The only thing about them is they’re probably a little skinnier than they would be in August when they’re fat.

“I really want to see them fish the transition places. It seems like we catch them on the bank one week and then we’re not ready to bail out to the deep water, but once they’re there, we forget about everything else.”

Notes from the Field

Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.

Justin Lucas
“It’s not as good as I thought it was going to be. I thought it’d be lights out. It’s been hard to catch fish. There’s so much dead water that you can spend hours and never get a bite because the fish don’t live there.

“I want to be able to focus on one stretch. Any time you’re at a place as big as this, you can’t just run around. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the Great Lakes or here, you need a section you’re going to fish.

“I think there’s definitely a mix of deep and shallow fish and that’s spreading people out, which is nice. I’m not sure which is better, though, so I’m mixing it up. I wish I had something dialed in. I don’t feel great about it yet.”

Brandon Lester
“It’s really, really big. I’ve burned so much gas trying to see as much as I can. The vibe I’m getting is when you get around water that has smallmouth in it, it’s not hard to get a bite. I also feel like there’s a whole lot of dead water where there aren’t any fish.

“It’ll be important not to get too spread out. It’s easy to spend more time running and not enough fishing. I’m trying to hone in on an area, maybe 5 to 10 miles long. Depth wise, they’re all across the board. I’ve fished from 2 to 40 feet. I haven’t caught them as deep as 40, but I’ve seen some down there that I think are bass.

“I feel like these fish just got finished spawning not too long ago and I feel like there are some to be caught out deep in 20 to 30 feet and there will be some good bags caught just going down the bank. I’ve caught some decent ones, but they have 5s and 6s here and I haven’t seen anything like that. If 15 to 16 is a good bag, I might be able to get there. If 20 or 22 is what you need, I have some work to do.”

David Mullins
“After day 1 of practice, I felt like the lake had lot of fish in it. After day 2, I’m not sure how many live here. They’re in all stages. It looks like some are spawning and some spawned a long time ago. It’s going to be an interesting tournament. It’s definitely different and this place has a unique layout with the land and bottom composition.

“I just don’t think there are a lot of big fish here. It’s not like the Great Lakes. I think it’s more like Cherokee with a lot of 2s and 3s. Apparently, they need some gobies and zebra mussels in here.

“The water is pretty clear, but on Tuesday, I was fishing by a mud cliff and it just collapsed. This place gets a lot of runoff and the biggest thing for me is I’m not sure how long it’ll take for places to clear up. There is some current in the lake, but I’m not sure how long it’ll take for that stuff to settle down.”

Top 10 To Watch

With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:

1. Aaron Martens – Has missed just one top-50 cut in the last nine full-field Elite Series events and is fresh off a top-10 at La Crosse. He spent a week at Oahe last fall and when smallmouth and finesse tactics are on the menu, he’s among the best.

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Brandon Lester says there's plenty of water at Oahe that doesn't seem to be holding any fish.

2. Brandon Palaniuk – His native Idaho was rumored to be on the 2018 Elite Series schedule, but he’ll settle for South Dakota and a chance to chase river-dwelling smallmouth. He’s already missed more cuts this season (three) than the last two seasons combined.

3. Jacob Powroznik – No stranger to moving (or rising) water, the Virginian will be looking to build on his runner-up showing at the Mississippi a week ago. He’s quietly putting together another solid season as he’s up to 11th in AOY points.

4. Seth Feider – Among the best on the roster at targeting smallmouth and while Oahe will be new to him, it shouldn’t take him long to find a comfort zone on the big river.

5. Jonathan VanDam – Needs to pick up the pace in order to qualify for the year-end AOY championship. He posted a 43rd at La Crosse and hopes his smallmouth acumen serves him well this week.

6. Chris Zaldain – On a nice run with five straight top-50 cuts. He can be dangerous on new smallmouth venues – he won the AOY event at Sturgeon Bay – as his California roots tend to shine through when on the hunt for big ones.

7. Greg Hackney – His reputation as a grass fisherman is beyond reproach, but he’s proven to be more than serviceable when it’s all smallmouth all the time. He likes to get off on his own and Oahe will offer him plenty of opportunities to ply his own water.

8. Mike Iaconelli – Remember when his Classic streak was in jeopardy because he was going to miss the rescheduled Sabine River event? He got things squared away, finished 18th at theSabine, then took 38th at La Crosse to move into the top 30 in points. He’s got a bit of momentum going and he’s usually a threat on smallmouth fisheries.

9. Randy Howell – More of a hunch here than anything. He’s had a so-so season so far (three cuts made) with a 21st Lake Martin being the high point. He’s typically good for one or two top-12s each season and Oahe could be where he breaks out.

10. Shinichi Fukae – Has had a decent first season on the Elite Series, but will be looking to put a 73rd at the Mississippi behind him. If finesse tactics are working, Fukae knows every trick in the book and then some.

Launch/Weigh-In Info

> Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. ET all four days from Spring Creek Resort & Marina (28229 E. Spring Creek Pl., Pierre, S.D., 57501). Weigh-ins will be held at Steamboat Park (N. Poplar Ave.) in Pierre beginning at 4 p.m. EST each day.

Weather Forecast

> Fri., June 29 – Partly Sunny - 88°/63°
- Wind: From the NNW at 10 to 20 mph

> Sat., June 30 – Morning Thunderstorms, Then Cloudy - 80°/58°
- Wind: From the NW at 10 to 15 mph

> Sun., July 1 – AM Sun, PM Rain - 83°/61°
- Wind: From the SW at 10 to 15 mph

> Mon., July 2 – Partly Cloudy - 87°/66°
- Wind: From the ESE at 10 to 15 mph