Francis Case lies above the Fort Randall Dam on the Missouri River and winds upstream for 107 miles through South Dakota’s rolling grass prairie and agricultural lands to the Big Bend Dam in Fort Thompson.
Open water fishing is available from the day the ice leaves until it reappears again 9 or 10 months later, which makes the lake a magnet for resident and visiting walleye anglers alike. It’s so popular because the fishing is straightforward and walleyes can be caught nearly anywhere on the lake, at almost any time of the year.
Francis Case is expansive, covering more than 100,000 acres, so wise anglers always ensure there’s plenty of fuel in the tank before launching the boat. Likewise, they pay attention to water levels. A river reservoir, Francis Case is subject to fluctuating levels, and trees, boulders and sandbars that are well under water one year could be dangerously close to the surface in the future.
Team Northland member Brian Bashore makes up one-half of the duo who operate The Walleye Guys Guide Service. He’s fished Francis Case, professionally and recreationally, for years and understands the walleyes’ behaviors and tendencies. While anglers can catch fish just about anywhere, anytime on the lake, he says, they’ll optimize their fishing by targeting certain locations as the season progresses.
1. Water often remains open below the Big Bend Dam all winter and some anglers fish the tailrace straight through, he says. But when the ice goes out (usually in March; sometimes earlier) is when the action starts to heat up. “Crow Creek has a big mud flat at its mouth, is one of the first feeder creeks to enter the Missouri below Fort Thompson,” says Bashore. “Kiowa Flats is just below Crow Creek. Both spots are good places to fish from ice-out through April and into May.”
Try slip-drifting along the channel edge in 20 to 25 feet of water while vertically jigging a Current Cutter Jig, Rock-It Jig or Stand-Up Fire-Ball®-and-minnow. Head weight depends on current speed and wind strength. Bashore recommends using the lightest possible lead head that can maintain bottom contact and keep the line straight up-and-down below the boat.
“Later in the day the shallows begin to warm up and fish move onto the flats,” he says. “There you can pitch a jig-and-minnow or soft plastic bait. An original Fire-Ball® Jig or a Metallic Eye-Ball Jig are both good choices. Most anglers still prefer to use live bait, but I prefer a soft plastic trailer; they’re just more efficient. You can use an Impulse® Smelt Minnow, Paddle Minnow, Ringworm or anything with a similar profile. Just hop it across the bottom. Another option is to swim a Paddle Minnow on a Slurp! Jig Head back to the boat.
2. Two bridges, plus the remnant pilings of an old bridge, cross the lake at Chamberlain, South Dakota. “Fishing around all the pilings can be excellent from ice-out through May,” the angler says. “In fact, it can sometimes get crowded with boats this time of year.” Use the lures and techniques already outlined, but be aware that some specific holes are off limits to fishing. “Big females congregate in the holes, and they’d be very vulnerable if they weren’t protected,” he explains. Signs mark the off-limit areas, so keep an eye out for them.
Shore fishermen have an excellent opportunity to catch walleyes here in March and April, Bashore explains. “The whole bank on the Chamberlain side is rock and rip-rap,” he says. “Walleyes move toward the rocks after dark, well within reach of bank anglers, and it’s fairly common to see someone fill a limit in 20 minutes.”
Try a jig-and-minnow combo, or a live bait rig with a High-Ball Floater-and-minnow, or even a plain hook-and-minnow.
Trolling crankbaits on lead-core line is yet one more option anglers can try. Bashore recommends pulling minnow-body lures along the channel edges anywhere from Crow Creek to Chamberlain this time of year.
3. Farther downstream the White River enters Lake Francis Case on its western shoreline. “It’s probably the biggest tributary in the system,” Bashore says, “and it can offer decent fishing in that March-April-May time period, if the water isn’t too muddy.”
Incoming water is warmer and spills out over a huge mudflat at the mouth, he explains. On days when it’s not super muddy, try trolling crankbaits in 4 feet of water. “Sometimes it can get incredibly muddy, though,” he says, and you’ll want to troll the mudline out in 15 feet.” Jig-and-minnow presentations work, too, but tie on a Whistler® or Thumper® Jig—something that creates some commotion as it moves through the water.
The nearby Carpenter Bluffs and Boyer Creek offer more options, the angler adds. “At Carpenter Bluffs, just upstream of the White River, the water drops quickly into 18 to 20 feet of water,” he says. “Here, you should pitch jigs right up to the shoreline, or pull crankbaits on lead-core line along the deep breakline.
“Boyer Creek, just around the river bend, also has a big mudflat at its mouth, but the water is always clearer here than at the White,” he says. Through June, troll a Walleye Crawler Hauler behind a Rock-Runner® Bottom Bouncer in 8- to 12-foot depths.
4. Keiners Bottoms, on the east shoreline just across from Five Mile Creek, and Landing Creek are two more stops anglers should make in April and May. “Keiners Bottoms has a nice gravel bottom and a bunch of big boulders stick out of the water there,” Bashore says. “Pitch jigs around the boulders as walleyes tend to hang there to rest.”
Landing Creek offers another mudflat that holds walleyes. “Here again, pull bottom bouncers and spinner rigs,” he says. “You’ll catch fish there in April and May, but it’s a mudflat, so it’ll hold walleyes all summer long.”
5. Bashore seldom ventures south of the Highway 44 bridge until June. And when the time comes, he recommends pulling spinner rigs across creek arm points, and into the creek arms themselves, along the Burning Bluffs. “Drag a bottom bouncer and spinner rig, or even a plain No. 4 or 6 Roach Hook behind a bead and baited with a ’crawler along that stretch all the way to Platt Creek,” he says. “Start at about 18 feet and as the day progresses, slide out into deeper water, maybe 30 or 40 feet.
“Focus on the points on the windward side of the river. If you want to stay out of the wind, you can fish the calm side; you just won’t catch as many walleyes.”
6. From mid-summer into September many anglers focus on targeting big walleyes in the flooded timber from Whetstone Bay to Pease Creek. Depths here are typically 80 to 90 feet, with trees topping out anywhere from 60 to 40 feet below the surface.
“Large walleyes hang out in those trees,” says Bashore. “Troll erratic, deep-diving cranks behind a downrigger or on lead-core line just above the treetops. Fish will come up out of the trees to attack them. Don’t expect as many bites, but the fish you catch will be big.
“You can also pull bottom bouncers and spinner rigs along the shallower edge of the trees—15 to 25 feet—but again, the fish won’t be trophy-class.”
By mid-fall the walleyes tend to move back into the larger bays—Pease, South Scalp Creek, John Day Bay and others. “Here, too, troll spinner rigs,” he says, “and fish any bay that’s big enough to get a boat into.”
In late-fall, from October all the way to ice-up, Bashore recommends heading back to Chamberlain where walleyes once again hang out in the deep holes and around bridge pilings. “Use sonar to find fish in the holes, then park overtop and jig a No. 5 Puppet Minnow. And be sure to fish it around the pilings, too. While you’re jigging, you can also drop a live chub lip-hooked on Roach Hook over the side. Use a sinker heavy enough to pin it to the bottom and a 3- or 4-foot leader to let it swim.”
Lake maps courtesy of Navionics. For more information, visit: Navionics.com
Lake Francis Case
Length: 107 miles
Surface Area: 102,000 acres
Maximum Depth: 140 feet
Shoreline: 540 miles
Species Present: Walleyes, Sauger, Northern Pike, Smallmouth Bass, White Bass, Catfish, Gizzard Shad