John Haskins is a custom cabinetmaker, so he has lots of patience.

That comes in handy when he goes salmon fishing on Fort Peck Reservoir, a body of water that's notoriously stingy about giving up its chinook.

"I really feel for the people who spend hours and hours out there and don't catch anything," he said, partly because he used to be in that position.

When he first started angling for salmon in North Dakota's Lake Sakakawea 30-some years ago, it took him about 10 hours of fishing for every fish he caught. When he first started fishing at Fort Peck, there also was a learning curve.

"I'd go a couple of weekends in a row and never catch a fish," he said.

But now, the 57-year-old Williston, N.D., angler - also known by the nickname of "The Woodpecker" - has the drill down to a science, although it's a science that's in a constant state of flux.

"I caught a lot of salmon this year," he said, the first one weighing more than 20 pounds. "There's nothing secret about it, but it does take a special lure. Once you find the one that works, you're good to go. But it's never the same lure the next year."

Haskins uses the time-honored salmon-catching combination of a flasher and squid, but he'll sometimes go through 150 different squid styles before he finds the right one. This year, he said, the hot squid was a chartreuse one with a glow stripe. They have to have a glow stripe. And the longer 11-inch flashers are the only ones he's had luck with, never the 8-inchers.

He also found success on a rainbow-colored blue squid with a stripe, which is one of the few that seems to pick up a couple of salmon every year. Gene Moore's locally crafted squids, with glowing bucktail stuck in the middle, also were good for a few fish.

But what works on Fort Peck doesn't necessarily translate to fishing for salmon on other bodies of water, Haskins has found. While fishing on Sakakawea and Lake Michigan, Haskins will often catch salmon on herring or spoons, but he's never caught one on a herring or a spoon while fishing Fort Peck.

Too deep

Proper lure choice isn't the only variable anglers have to deal with. There's also the challenge of finding the right water depth where the fish are feeding.

"Almost notoriously, everyone on Fort Peck is fishing too deep," Haskins said. "But this year, the salmon were a lot deeper. The shallowest was 90 feet.

"Sixty-eight feet used to be my perfect depth in August."

Like most salmon anglers, he uses a downrigger to get his lure down to the right depth.

In the fall, the salmon are almost exclusively along the face of the dam, he said. But they're also found near the county line, where the main channel is located.

Later in the fall, when the fish return to spawn in the marina bay where they were stocked, anglers can catch them in shallow water close to shore at depths of 8 to 10 feet.

"The secret on that is to fish them early in the morning," Haskins said. "By the time the sun comes up, I'm limited out."

He likes to launch his Lund 19-foot inboard/outboard while it's still dark, using a headlamp to rig his rods. Later in the day, there are too many boats bumping into each other in the bays, Haskins said.

But this late in the fall, he'd rather fish for lake trout than crowd the bay for hook-jawed salmon.

"About now until ice up, it's tremendous trout fishing, and nobody is out there," he said.

Giving them away

Although he's fished for salmon in Alaska, as well as other places, Fort Peck remains Haskins' favorite place, mainly because it's so uncrowded, but also because it's close to home. When he goes to Sakakawea or Lake Michigan, there are 150 other boats on the same water. At Fort Peck, there may be 15.

Although he's successful at catching salmon, Haskins rarely eats them. Instead, he gives them as a thank-you to landowners who provide him with hunting access.

So why put in all that effort, time and work into catching salmon that he often just gives away?

"It's just that they're there and hard to get, that's the attraction - to outsmart them," he said.

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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This spring, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released 180,000 5-inch chinook salmon into the waters of Fort Peck Reservoir. In what has become an annual cycle, the department’s personnel are now collecting mature adult salmon that are returning to the marina bays where their eggs will be collected, fertilized and hatched before being released into the lake. The egg take runs through most of October, with the salmon gathering in the bay as the water temperature approaches 60 degrees. Salmon were introduced into the reservoir in 1983, but not very many. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the department started getting bigger returns. Anglers next summer will see fewer 4-year-old fish. A power outage in the hatchery significantly reduced the number of fish available for planting back then. — Information provided by Heath Headley of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.