Fall winds cascade down the upper Missouri River chute with reckless abandon, shivering golden leaves in ash and aspen trees that line the bank. Soon temperatures will drop and this North Dakota flatland will become a launching pad for artic cold masses eventually reaching the Midwest.
General Custer and his 7th Cavalry spent their final days at Fort Abraham Lincoln, close to the Upper Missouri before their meeting with destiny a few hundred miles away at Montana’s Little Bighorn in 1876. They hunted and fished this range when not patrolling on well-trained horses, somehow surviving chilling cold winters in long barracks heated with a fireplace on each end and a pot-bellied stove in the middle.
Plains Native Americans survived these winters in tepees of dried bison hides adorned with markings commemorating their challenging lives. An opening at the top allowed smoke from life-sustaining fires to escape while they slept in warm bison hides and other types of furs. They too depended on the upper Missouri River and the surrounding plains for trapping, fishing and hunting.
History Lessons: The Bismarck-Mandan, North Dakota, region is rich in history and a glimpse back in history of what soldiers endured through unmercifully long, bone-chilling winters. Fort Abraham Lincoln is a tribute to the toughness of American soldiers in the late 1870s. They patrolled in miserable conditions and likely froze at night in long drafty barracks. General Custer’s two-storied home was no doubt considered luxury in those days with fine furniture and plenty of stoves. They even had an indoor toilet.
The North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum is one of the finest Native American exhibits ever built and free to the public. The site is loaded with prehistoric man’s tools or homes and steps through time into the their possessions. A huge collection of firearms and other items are on the sight.
More important history may be found at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, The Knife River Indian Villages Natural History Sites, Buckstop Junction Historic Town, Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site, Camp Hancock State Historic Site and the former Governor’s Mansion are other interesting places to complete your historic tour in the Bismarck area.
Bismarck and Mandan: Bismarck, is North Dakota’s state’s capital and was once a busy mining town. Today you can find a variety of businesses and, yes, a few bars. Driving around Bismarck and Mandan, which is just across the Missouri River, is a step back in history. The older buildings, mixed with new architecture, are loaded with interesting shops.
The area has many fine restaurants. According to locals, Frieds Family Restaurant in Mandan never disappoints, so we tested this widespread opinion.
We enjoyed stuffed cabbage with mashed potatoes and green beans after a bowl of borscht, a delightful vegetable soup loaded with beets, potatoes and other vegetables in a moderate broth. The food was reasonably priced and delicious.
The River Today: Sportsmen in North Dakota use the Upper Missouri for hunting and fishing. North Dakota has 57 boat launches for Missouri River access and anglers catch a mixed bag of heavily sought-after walleye, northern pike, freshwater drum, catfish, bluegill or an occasional crappie, while fish are gorging on a variety of baitfish for a long, chilling winter.
Roger Niesen, Qwest Midwestern sales director, and Brad Dupuie, Qwest executive director and fishing guide extraordinaire, launched their Pro-Troll Angler Qwest 24-foot long, 8-foot wide pontoon at the Hazelton, North Dakota, boat ramp. The pontoon provided a shallow draft in the strong current and ever-changing river bottom.
Amy Hamilton, marketing director at Qwest, dropped her baited jighead to the bottom, then took two reel turns before a jolt set the hook. The 18-inch walleye made several good runs in the current before giving up to the net. Minutes later she hooked another walleye and then a northern pike.
“They really fought well and I caught two more a couple days later,” she said. “This is a fun way to fish and you never know what’s going to bite next.”
Added Niesen: “We caught most of our fish by vertical jigging minnow-tipped jigs drifted in the current. We found an 8-inch strike zone on the bottom where active fish were feeding. We caught 12 fish, including walleye, northern pike, catfish and a white bass. This was my first time to fish this area, so we started by finding out what the fish were feeding on, then the best structure where that type of baitfish was found. That combination helped us find these quality fish.”
Both the soldiers and Native Americans of the 1800s would be shocked at the technology used today for fishing their beloved river. The pontoon was fitted with some of the best graphing units, including Lowrance Carbon 12 with total scan on fish finder and Motorguide bow mount trolling motor with a Lowrance high definition screen, showing where the fish might be found, especially around drop-offs, shelves and submerged bank cuts where baitfish and walleye might hangout.
“The bite was not great on this trip,” Niesen said. “But we did find enough fish to make it interesting. I’d like to be here when they really are biting.”
Finally: The Lewis and Clark Riverboat Tour is a relaxing boat ride up and down the Upper Missouri.
Floating down the river makes one pause to think about the Native Americans who once paddled a canoe down this stretch. They likely saw the same erosion on the side of hills making caves or even wildlife running in the aspens and ash timbers.
The river runs as it always has and good fishing brings people back. Someday we will be history, just as General Custer and his troops became history more than 142 years ago. People come and go while the Missouri River continues to flow.
For more information about visiting this area, contact the Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau at 701-222-4308 or check their website at noboundaries.com.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com.