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'Cross The Wide Missouri

Garrison Dam Tailrace

Jason Lee*

JPG-Garrison Dam Tailrace Map

The Garrison Dam Tailrace is the least natural biologically significant site within North Dakota's Missouri River System. The Tailrace has year-round cold water which, in turn, supports a strong fishery. The mention of Tailrace to many anglers brings to mind big fish, casting crankbaits at night, and boat fishing any time of year, but particularly in January through April when the rest of the state's lakes are frozen.

The Tailrace, or powerhouse water outlet, is located on the lower end of Lake Sakakawea, about one mile southeast of Pick City. Immediately below Garrison Dam, the Tailrace is approximately 750 feet wide, 30 feet deep, and both shorelines are armored with rock rip-rap to prevent erosion. The water seldom exceeds 60° F and is clear for much of the year due to the deep (approximately 160 feet below the surface) location of the intake in Lake Sakakawea. Because of constantly flowing water, the Tailrace is one of the few locations in North Dakota that remains ice free throughout the year. Open water and the popularity of the sport fishery makes the Tailrace the most used fishing access site in North Dakota.

Garrison Dam
The Garrison Dam tailrace is popular among anglers and has given up several state record fish.
  Cold water and a continuous supply of rainbow smelt that flow through the dam make the Tailrace ideal habitat for coldwater fish such as chinook salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout and cutthroat trout that have been stocked in the river. Stocking success varies, but the Tailrace consistently produces large coldwater fish. Included are five current state records: chinook salmon - 31 pounds, 2 ounces; brown trout - 25 pounds, 4 ounces; rainbow trout - 21 pounds, 4 ounces; lake trout - 14 pounds, 4 ounces; and lake whitefish - 8 pounds, 11 ounces.

What makes the Tailrace a remarkable fishery is the possibility of catching a variety of fish at any time of the year. In addition to trout and salmon, the Tailrace "combination plate" includes walleye, sauger, northern pike, burbot, and channel catfish. Fishing for some of these species is predictable, while others cooperate on their own schedule.

For example, burbot (ling) typically bite in late winter to early spring, creating what is termed the "ling fling." Channel catfish provide good fishing in mid-summer, especially from the wing-walls. Walleye fishing, on the other hand, can be good or bad any month of the year. Night shorefishing for walleye with floating crankbaits is especially popular during summer.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has stocked either brown and rainbow trout in the river most years since 1974. Cutthroat trout were planted in the river for the first time in 1999. Chinook salmon were stocked for a number of years between 1981 through 1991. Also, salmon planted in Lake Sakakawea, periodically move through the dam into the Tailrace. Many other species that frequent the Tailrace are migrants from lakes Oahe and Sakakawea.

Game and Fish will continue to stock the Tailrace with trout. As long as the rainbow smelt population remains strong, good fishing for big trout and salmon should continue.

Open water in winter provides an additional benefit. During most winters, bald eagles scan the river for their next meal of duck, goose, or fish. Other wildlife species common in the area include whitetail deer that use surrounding lands as a refuge.

  JPG-Rainbow Trout
Rainbow trout grow large and fat in the tailrace. The current state record rainbow, 21 pounds 4 ounces, was caught here in 1998.

The Garrison Dam Tailrace is a great spot to catch a variety of fish, or one big one, enjoy wildlife, or take in the scenic beauty of the constantly rolling Missouri River against a forest of large cottonwood trees.

*Jason Lee is a fisheries biologist at the Game and Fish Department's Riverdale office.

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