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'Cross The Wide Missouri

White Earth-Beaver Bay

by
Jeff Hendrickson*

JPG-White Earth-Beaver Bay Map

White Earth Bay is a pronounced finger on the north shore of upper Lake Sakakawea, 12 river miles upstream of the Four Bears Bridge and New Town. Running 2-3 miles in length, it is located at the terminus of the White Earth River, the only major tributary flowing into upper Sakakawea.

White Earth Bay offers excellent spawning conditions for walleye, northern pike and rainbow smelt, and it is more important than many other bays in the lake, especially in lower Sakakawea, because of its size, location, and running water.

Shallow waters in upper Lake Sakakawea warm quickly in the spring, attracting fish as they begin spawning movements. Slightly warmer water in White Earth Bay, accompanied by running water from the White Earth River — caused by spring snowmelt — naturally draws fish to the sheltered bay.

Since walleye and pike are plentiful in spring, they are easily captured in nets and fishery crews can easily take their eggs. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department began spawning walleye at White Earth Bay in 1981, and in 1986 completed a spawning station. This spawning station is used annually in the Department's collection of walleye eggs. Since 1981, Game and Fish has collected more than 330 million walleye eggs at White Earth Bay. It is an important source of eggs benefitting walleye management statewide.

Even when fish populations are low throughout the reservoir, such as during the recent drought from 1987 to 1993, walleye and pike continue to return to White Earth Bay to spawn. It is not uncommon to see several walleye around 10 pounds and northern pike of more than 20 pounds in spring spawning nets.

Tagging studies in the mid-1980s and 1990s indicate that walleye at White Earth Bay are more migratory than walleye spawning in other areas of Lake Sakakawea. Most walleye that spawn in White Earth Bay move downstream after spawning, and many travel more than 40 miles before being caught by anglers. Many walleyes also "home" to White Earth to spawn year after year, despite adequate spawning sites in areas where they spend the summer months.

Rainbow smelt also spawn in White Earth Bay, making it a fairly popular destination for "smelters" who live in northwestern North Dakota. Other common fish species observed include sauger, perch, spottail shiner, white sucker, carp, and burbot (ling). In recent years burbot have become abundant in spring as they feed heavily on smelt.

The hilly terrain and upstream river valley surrounding White Earth Bay is picturesque and composed primarily of pastureland. It is not uncommon to see mule deer feeding or a beaver gracefully swimming off shore, or hear coyotes call as the sun sets. An occasional nesting Canada goose and flocks of pelicans, cormorants and seagulls can also be viewed, especially in the spring during the smelt run.

  JPG-White Earth Bay
White Earth Bay on Lake Sakakawea and Beaver Bay on Lake Oahe, below, are both important areas for walleye reproduction.
JPG-Lake Oahe

BEAVER BAY

Though separated by 238 river miles, Beaver Bay on the east shore of upper Lake Oahe is similar to White Earth Bay. Located at river mile 1,255, Beaver Bay is the largest embayment on North Dakota's portion of Lake Oahe. Similarities between these two bays include relative location within the respective reservoirs, large size, and a significant feeder tributary.

JPG-Lake Oahe Walleye
Jeff Hendrickson releases a Lake Oahe walleye.
  The importance of Beaver Bay to Lake Oahe's fishery is also substantial. It is a major spawning area for walleye, northern pike, rainbow smelt and panfish. As ice melts and water warms in spring, northern pike begin spawning and are often caught by anglers as far as Beaver Lake, more than 75 miles up Beaver Creek. The bay's shoreline also provides good spawning habitat for walleye, and catch rates of young-of-the-year walleye are better here than at any other location on Lake Oahe in North Dakota. Beaver Bay is also an important area for crappie, as many large crappie of more than a pound are caught during spring and many young are caught in fall.

Reservoir water levels are important for Beaver Bay. During the recent drought, White Earth Bay still had enough water so fish could use the bay for reproduction. Beaver Bay was virtually dry, and although good for pheasants, was worthless for fish.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has spawned walleye and northern pike at Beaver Bay for years, especially during the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. In recent years, walleye from Lake Sakakawea became more abundant, and the timing of egg collection on Lake Sakakawea has been more desirable for the hatcheries.

Walleye movements are also similar at Beaver and White Earth bays. Tagging studies in 1994 and 1999 indicate that walleye spawning at Beaver Bay are more migratory than walleye that spawn in other areas of Lake Oahe, and most of the movement is downstream. In fact, by mid-summer, most walleye tag returns come from South Dakota's portion of Lake Oahe. Other fish commonly observed in Beaver Bay include channel catfish, perch, crappie, white sucker and carp.

An occasional beaver, whitetail deer and coyote can be viewed near the shore, and ducks, geese and pelicans are abundant at times. The terrain around Beaver Bay is know for quality pheasant habitat. Flooded cottonwood trees are abundant in the Beaver Bay area, providing good habitat for fish, along with some dangerous obstacles for boaters.


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


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