Lake Sakakawea: Fishing, Size, Depth, and More

Written by Kaleigh Moore
Updated: May 28, 2023
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Lake Sakakawea’s name pays homage to a Shoshone woman called Sacajawea (Sakakawea), who was married to a Canadian trapper, Toussaint Charboneau. In 1804, Charboneau and his wife helped an expedition led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark and commissioned by president Thomas Jefferson. Besides the rich naming history, Lake Sakakawea provides a charming camping and sports fishing backdrop. 

When the US Army Corps of Engineers built the Garrison Dam in 1953, Lake Sakakawea became its reservoir. The lake covers nearly 368382,000 acres of surface area. Lake Sakakawea is in western North Dakota and is the country’s second-largest artificial reservoir. Visitors to the lake are welcomed by the clear waters, which are excellent for swimming, fishing, and boating. 

Anglers can choose among the more popular game fish species, such as walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, or other species. Besides, outdoor enthusiasts can camp for a night or two while hikers traverse the surrounding scenic terrain. In this article, we will explore Lake Sakakawea’s history, recreational activities, significance, and the opportunities this landmark offers. 

Lake Sakakawea Location

If a writer waxed lyrical about the breathtaking scenery of Lake Sakakawea, they would describe it with a deserving poetic zeal. The sprawling lake in the North Dakota badlands occupies 368382,000 acres of water. In total, Lake Sakakawea extends to over 178 miles. It’s the most prominent artificial lake in North Dakota and the 13th largest in the United States. 

Because of its befitting location, its waters and shores are excellent for recreational activities such as camping, boating, and fishing. Lake Sakakawea is expansive, with a 1500 miles shore that supports bays, coves, and beaches. You can never mention the lake’s location without highlighting the native Indian heritage in the region. Just a few miles from Lake Sakakawea lies the site of the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. The site is famous for preserving the rich heritage and culture of the Northern Plains Indians.

Before European exploration, the area hosted three tribes, including the Hidatsa Shoshone (Sarajawea’s tribe), Arikara, and Mandan, who had inhabited the area for thousands of years. But, of course, the lake wouldn’t be such an attraction without its natural beauty and wildlife. The lake is home to over 50 fish species, including the walleye, northern pike, and salmon. 

Nature lovers will be inspired by the scenic Lake Sakakawea location while exploring the rugged badlands. Or visit the lake for one of the most popular attractions; sports fishing.  

An aerial view of Lake Sakakawea. The lake is narrow and meanders through the frame from lower right frame through the left part of the photograph and then it meanders across back to the right about 3/4 of the way up and then out the top toward the right there are a few clouds between the camera and the photograph and the train is too far away to look anything other than brown and green.

An aerial view of Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota.

©Kit Leong/

Lake Sakakawea History

The Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara occupied the area where Lake Sakakawea stood for thousands of years. The reservoir was formed after the construction of Garrison Dam in 1953. Before European occupation, the three native tribes thrived along the banks of the Missouri river. They would use the water for basic survival, farming, and traveling long distances. Historically, the Garrison Dam has had several flooding experiences, adversely affecting the surrounding native communities. In severe cases, the native communities had to relocate from their ancestral homes. That said, the communities have benefited immensely from visitors from all over the country touring the area for recreational activities.    

Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark went on an expedition exploring West North Dakota and Louisiana (which was a recent purchase at the time). While exploring, they were hosted by the native tribes and enlisted the services of Charboneau and his wife, Sarajawea (which means bird woman), as interpreters and guides. Her help would prove invaluable for Lewis and Clark. Her name Sarajawea means bird woman. 

Lake Sakakwea was named after her for her courage and support during that critical expedition. The Lewis and Clark expedition helped open the west and expand fur trading. Later, the federal government set up a few ports along the river to offer security for steamboat traffic and settlers.

Lake Sakakawea’s surrounding area hosts several museums and heritage sites in honor of the tribes that have occupied the area for years. The history of Lake Sakakawea region is multifaceted and complex, and its existence is a testament to the challenges, resilience, and appreciation of its natural beauty. 

Lake Sakakawea Size

Lake Sakakawea has a minimum width of two to three miles and a maximum width of 14 miles at Van Hook Arm. Also, the lake has a maximum length of 178 miles. But the lake size varies, typically affected by several factors such as water management practices, rain, and the flow of the Missouri River.

Garrison Dam construction started in the 1940s, and at the same time, Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir, started forming. The lake can hold 23 million acre-feet of water—several factors, such as rainfall, snowmelt, and upstream reservoir releases.

The US Army Corps of Engineers manages the Garrison Dam and, thus, the water flowing into Lake Sakakawea. Being an artificial lake attached to a hydroelectric dam means the US Army Corps of Engineers regulate water releases in response to floods, hydroelectric generation, and navigation. Historically, the lake had had different sizes, a record high of 382 000 acres in the first year Garrison Dam was completed and a low of 128,000 acres in 1987. 

Lake Sakakawea Depth

Lake Sakakawea has a varying depth, with a maximum depth of 180 feet and an average depth of 42 feet. Lake Sakakawea is excellent if you’re a boater or planning a fishing trip. Understanding the depth of this reservoir will help you plan your boating or sports fishing trip well. For instance, if you understand the depth of the lake, you can find the best spot for fishing walleye (a popular game fish species). 

Typically, this fish species likes depths of 20 to 30 feet. Of course, the deeper areas of the lake are located near the center of the reservoir and along the old river channel.

The Northern pike or smallmouth bass are deep water species going as deep as over 40 feet. Again, you can locate some of these deep-water game fish near islands, rock formations, or submerged structures. The rule of thumb for boaters is always to consult a GPS or work with a guide. 

Nevertheless, the deeper regions of the lake are hard to navigate, particularly if they have submerged channels or rocks. But you can still enjoy boating if you are inexperienced. There are expert guides to guide you through the boating experience, and it even shows the best fishing spots emphasizing safety.

Being privy to the depth of Lake Sakakawea before your adventures will only make your recreational activities more exciting. And Sports fishing means you catch the best fish right in their habitat.

Government Bay at Lake Sakakawea

The water levels of Lake Sakakawea can impact all recreational activities, including boat launches, fishing, and camping areas.

©Life Atlas Photography/

Lake Sakakawea Water Levels

Since we mentioned the possibility of flooding at Lake Sakakawea, visitors are concerned about water levels. When does the water level at the lake rise? Does the reservoir still flood? In this section, you’ll find the answer you’re looking for. The water levels can impact all recreational activities, including boat launches, fishing, and camping areas. The managers of the Garrison Dam regulate the water levels to ensure a balanced release in consideration of the possible demands for the water, including power generation and navigation.

Lake Sakakawea water levels are highest in spring and early summer and tend to decrease during fall and winter. Normally, when the water levels are high, they harbor the accessibility of marinas and boat ramps. Consequently, the management closes or limits access to boat ramps when the water level rises.

On the same note, anglers should consider the water levels because it affects the fish feeding patterns and general behavior. For example, fish move to shallow areas of the lake during high waters to feed. Conversely, during low waters, fish will move to deeper reservoir areas. Therefore, for the best experience and safety, getting up-to-date information about the lake’s water levels is critical.

Lake Sakakawea Fishing

Fishing remains one of the most popular recreational activities at Lake Sakakawea. Thousands of anglers visit the reservoir from across the country. The lake has over 50 fish species prime for the game. However, the walleye, northern pike, and smallmouth bass are the most popular. 

No doubt walleye is the most popular species among anglers, and they trick the fish using various methods such as live bait, trolling with crankbaits, etc. However, if you want to get the best walleye, plan your fishing trip during spring and early summer because they tend to move to shallow lake areas.

Unlike the walleye, northern pikes and smallmouth bass are deep-water fishes. You’ll find them hanging around near submerged structures such as rock formations and islands. Catching these fish species requires techniques such as casting with spinnerbaits or using live bait. 

If you’re planning a trip anytime soon, remember to familiarize yourself with local regulations on fishing. The North Dakota game and fish departments are quite resourceful regarding fishing at national parks and reserves. Fishing is open for amateurs and professional anglers, don’t shy off, even if you are new to game fishing.

smallmouth vs largemouth bass

Fishing remains one of Lake Sakakawea’s most popular recreational activities, and smallmouth bass are one of the anglers’ favorite catches!


Lake Sakakawea Geology

Lake Sakakawea is a reservoir formed after the construction of the Garrison Dam, which then flooded the surrounding valleys as a result. The reservoir is on the Missouri River. The lake has a unique geology, steep-sided valleys, and rugged rocky terrain. The hills overlooking the lake are formed from sedimentary rocks such as shale and sandstone. 

These formations are scenic and breathtaking and are a recipe for extraordinary recreational opportunities for tourists. The picturesque rocky shoreline and underwater structures also offer thriving habitats for numerous fish species and a paradise for anglers. If you’re an outdoor freak, the geology gets you covered as you can explore the overlooking hills and gaping valleys. 

They offer stunning views, particularly in awe of the gigantic reservoir-encompassing landscape. Prepare for Lake Sakakawea’s best boating, swimming, camping, or fishing activities.

You can’t ignore the lake’s geology because it contributes so much to its breathtaking attraction. This is true for any activities you wish to engage in, including hiking, boating, fishing, etc.

Lake Sakakawea Boating

Boating is an obvious choice when you get 178 miles of navigable water. It is one of the most favored recreational activities on Lake Sakakawea. Join other boaters as you explore the expansive lake, surrounded by picturesque, breathtaking landscapes and wildlife.

Still, the surrounding landscape offers fantastic coves for fishing, while the lake hosts water skiing and other water sports. You get a terrific holiday when you combine boating with a fishing extravaganza. 

What are some of the water sports you can enjoy with friends and family? Wakeboarding, tubing, and water skiing. You can also play around the calmer waters or dive deeply into the reservoir for more challenging experiences. 

Nonetheless, boaters should be aware of the potential hazards of navigating the murky waters of Lake Sakakawea riddled with trees, submerged rocks, unpredictable water levels, and changing weather. So it doesn’t hurt to come prepared for a boating experience on the lake: carry safety equipment.

An orange boat is seen in the center frame but a little far off in a lake that has an enormous rock Cliff on the right the sky blue with white clouds as seen in the background as well as an embankment with some Prairie grass growing on it. The water takes up the foreground and is a deep green with a slightly choppy surface as if a light wind or distant boat is at play.

Canoeing at Lake Sakakawea is an unforgettable experience!

©Life Atlas Photography/

Lake Sakakawea Camping

Campers have an expansive shoreline covering over 1500 miles and numerous campgrounds supporting RV Camping, tent camping, or cabin rentals. The campgrounds offer amenities such as picnic areas, a playground, and flush toilets, which makes the experience more enjoyable. Select camping grounds that offer hiking trails, controlled swimming activities, and other water sports. 

Campers enjoy a high level of peaceful and serene camping environment. Furthermore, you can watch wildlife or stargaze. Other camp-related activities include paddle boarding and kayaking. 

While planning a camping trip at Lake Sakakawea, check out the weather conditions and potential hazards, including wildlife encounters and sudden storms. In addition, campers must adhere to the camp’s rules and regulations for a safer and more exciting camping experience.

The Best of Lake Sakakawea

Lake Sakakawea is a remarkable landmark in the North Dakota economy and for the creation of recreational opportunities. Lake Sakakawea found a name from a Native American woman who was critical in the Lewis and Clark expedition into the west and Louisiana. 

As a reservoir, Lake Sakakawea was formed after the construction of the Garrison Dam over the Missouri River. Several activities attract visitors to this artificial lake, including fishing, boating, and camping, among others activities. The lake is home to numerous fish species, among them these popular game fish, including northern pikes, walleye, and smallmouth bass. 

Moreover, Lake Sakakawea’s landscape is home to a wide range of wildlife, including elks, bighorn sheep, and bald eagles, making it a nature enthusiast’s paradise. Well, wildlife photographers would also find fascinating subjects at Lake Sakakawea.

Nevertheless, the lake is prone to several challenges and fluctuating water levels. Invasive species and sedimentation affect the lake’s ecological and fun activities. Despite these challenges, Lake Sakakawea remains a significant contributor to North Dakota’s economy and culture. Its value as a recreational and ecological resource cannot be overstated. All stakeholders are keen on preserving and protecting this landmark to ensure future generations enjoy the best of Lake Sakakawea.

Whatever the reason for visiting Lake Sakakawea, you’re spoiled for choice as far as recreational services are concerned. For an excellent time at Lake Sakakawea, plan ahead and remember to follow the available guides and resources. They’ll help you get the most opportune times to visit the lake or its surrounding terrains.

Where is Lake Sakakawea Located on a Map?

Lake Sakakawea is located on the Missouri River, the longest river in the United States. It is about 50 miles from Bismarck, North Dakota, the state capital and North Dakota’s second-largest city after Fargo.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © North Dakota / Flickr – License / Original

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