Akaska making a name for itself in the fishing world

Andrew Johnson ajohnson@aberdeennews.com
Farm Forum

The green sign marking the city limits of Akaska boldly claims a population of 52. That number of permanent residents sounds about right to Bill Waeckerle, who moved to Akaska from Rapid City in 2007.

“There’s a lot more people here during the summers, though,” Waeckerle said. “I’d say it goes from 60 to 70 people during the week up to 400 to 500 people on weekends and holidays.”

The reason? Fishing.

Nestled in the rolling hills and valleys of western Walworth County, Akaska is located roughly 15 miles south of Mobridge and sits along Swan Creek as it winds its way down a breathtaking, recently repaved route toward the Missouri River. Ten miles west of town on the river is the Swan Creek Recreation Area, which has two boat landings along with east and west campgrounds for people to enjoy.

“It’s probably still one of the best-kept secrets in the upper Midwest as far as fishing towns go,” Waeckerle said. “I only knew about Akaska because a friend of mine had a place up here back in ’92 and ’93, and I started fishing here on Lake Oahe part-time with him back then before I ended up retiring here.”

A festival is born

Akaska was established in the early 1900s as a railroad town. It was the second-to-last stop of the Minnesota and St. Paul Railroad that came to a halt along the Missouri River in the famed cattle town of LeBeau, which now lies beneath the waters of Lake Oahe near the mouth of Swan Creek. After the railway was abandoned in 1940 and highway bridges were built across the big reservoir near Gettysburg 30 miles to the south and Mobridge 15 miles to the north, Akaska sat largely forgotten for decades.

However, years later some forward-thinking anglers decided to put Akaska back on the map. They recognized the area’s untapped potential as a fishing destination and planned an annual community event each summer that featured a fishing tournament.

“Back in 2007 Gov. Rounds had a million-dollar challenge to boost tourism where the state had some matching funds available — that’s what started this whole thing,” Waeckerle said. “George Kessler, who is from Aberdeen, he had a place out here, and at the time he was also on the state tourism board. He was instrumental in getting the program started along with folks from the community like Brad Schilling and Dick Sorensen.”

Eleven years later, the South Dakota Walleye Classic and Festival is the last program standing from the state’s million-dollar tourism challenge, and it has shown no signs of slowing down.

For the first five years, the fishing tournament followed a pro-am format. Since then it’s been open entry for any two- or three-person teams willing to test their skills against some of the local anglers who call Akaska home, said Waeckerle, who served as president of the event from 2009 through 2017.

This year’s festival is July 19-22. The annual Arts in the Park event, in which local and regional vendors gather to strut their stuff, will be July 21 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the walleye tournament will be July 20-21.

Waeckerle said there is still plenty of time for anglers to register for the tournament and have a chance at taking home a large chunk of change, as upwards of $18,000 will be doled out to the top finishers in cash and prizes.

“Now that the tournament is part of the Northern Oahe Walleye Series we’ve bumped it from a 50-boat limit up to a 75-boat limit,” Waeckerle said. “We normally have between 50 and 60 teams, but we’d sure like to see it fill up this year, especially when the fishing has been so good.”

Waeckerle said the tournament is competitive, but that shouldn’t scare away anglers who are unfamiliar with tournament fishing. He said the bite has been consistent on Lake Oahe in the Akaska area all spring and summer, and that there are plenty of 18- to 20-inch walleyes there for the taking.

“People that are just weekend fishermen place high in this tourney every year, and anybody that wants to get in has a good chance of finishing high,” he said.

More than a fishing tourney

While the walleye tournament and festival are still a week away, the annual activities have already kicked off in Akaska. On July 11, Waeckerle said senior citizens from Akaska and the surrounding area were treated to a fishing tournament of their own.

“We had 62 people sign up for the senior fishing event,” he said. “We had 13 people volunteer their boats or pontoons to take them fishing, where we provide everything except their license.”

Waeckerle said four, maybe five of the people were over 90 years old this year. He said the senior fishing event is traditionally held the Wednesday a week before the walleye classic every year.

“It’s just something we like to do in addition to the classic, where we invest back into the community,” he said. “We fish from 8 a.m. to about 1 p.m., and then we take them back to the community center, feed them and let them tell stories. It’s for people who used to fish, or for widows whose husbands used to fish. It’s also for people who’ve never fished before. One gentleman had lived here his whole life and had never been fishing. A few years ago we took him out and he caught nine fish, more than anyone else caught that day.”

For more information or to register for the Walleye Classic and Festival, go to sdwalleyeclassic.com.

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Swan Creek Recreation Area details

During the South Dakota Walleye Classic July 21-22 boats will launch at 8 a.m. from the Swan Creek Recreation Area, which is 10 miles west of Akaska on Lake Oahe. The road to the recreation area was recently redone, paving the way for people to enjoy not only the tournament, but also camping or using the recreation area as a home base year-round for other hunting or fishing adventures.

The recreation area has two campground locations, with a total of 26 campsites. Standard state park entrance fees are required, and electrical sites are available for $17 per night, while nonelectrical sites are only $13.

There are also two boat landings, a fish cleaning station, vault toilets and drinking water available.

To make a reservation, go online to campsd.com or call 800-710-2267.

Source: South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks

Teams of anglers traditionally launch from the Swan Creek Recreation Area, which is 10 miles west of Akaska, for the South Dakota Walleye Classic and Festival. The annual town festival is July 19-22 this year, while the fishing tournament, which is now part of the Northern Oahe Walleye Series, is July 21-22. File photo by Andrew Johnson