2018 Great Plains Family Fishing Destinations

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Fishing and family mix well in the outdoors of the Great Plains states. Here are some of the top picks for family fishing and activities right now in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.




Family vacations in South Dakota are summed up in one area: the Black Hills National Forest. This easternmost reach of the Rocky Mountains holds more than 1 million acres of very scenic public land where good trout fishing is supported heavily by the stocking of hatchery trout.

Fly-fishermen often hit the streams here, but the lakes are the go-to sites for fishing with families, especially the kids. Lakes are easier to fish, well-stocked, and many of them are rather small. There are more good trout lakes here than can be listed.

Sheridan Lake

Sheridan Lake, about 25 miles southwest of Rapid City, is an old impoundment nestled in the Black Hills. Most of the time, anglers catch trout, but they never know for certain just what will be on the end of the line. Would-be fisheries experts have explored their own fish-introduction programs, so the lake holds crappie, northern pike and, perhaps, a few other species as well. Fishermen might even pick up yellow perch off the deep side of shoreline weed beds.

Good trout fishing can be found most any time, but as the weather warms with the spring season, action is best in the mornings and evenings. Many anglers rig salmon eggs on terminal tackle attached to spinning and spin-casting outfits. The area right along the highway is easy access with pull-offs, but slightly adventurous anglers can easily walk many parts of the shoreline.

Young anglers get some really fast action by dipping flies or pieces of worm among the shoreline rocks for the pumpkinseed sunfish that somehow got into this lake. They're only a few inches long but fun to catch, and you can sometimes even see them and fish by sight.

Custer State Park

An entrance fee is charged to enter Custer State Park, 40 minutes south of Sheridan Lake on US Highway 16A, but it's worth it. The park is one of the two largest state parks in the US and features a number of lakes that are heavily stocked with rainbow trout. You'll be catching fish in the 8- to 10-inch range for the most part. Center Lake is big. Sylvan Lake is scenic.

Some anglers use baits, but to step up the game a bit try small flies that can be cast with a water-filled spinning bubble. The heavy bubble provides the weight for casting the fly, which trails behind on about 6 feet of monofilament line. Hare's Ear or Pheasant Tail nymphs work, as will most other nymphs, wet flies and streamers when the fish are hungry, which they usually are after their previous steady diet of hatchery pellets.

Along the Way: Mount Rushmore National Memorial, just 30 minutes drive from Sheridan Lake, is the crown jewel of tourism in this part of the country. Everyone who travels to the Black Hills visits Mount Rushmore at some point. There are some good hiking trails in and near it, including the Black Elk Wilderness. Drive the Wildlife Loop Road. You'll see buffalo, wild turkeys, bighorn sheep, antelope, prairie dogs and more. Wind Cave National Park lies just south.


Spring is in no hurry in North Dakota. If the water is still too cold in early May, drop a line later in the month — perhaps, waiting until June. That's when a lot of game fish are spawning and gorging on food. Most of the best fishing tends to lie in the eastern part of the state or in the Missouri River system, but many other interesting fishing sites lie in western North Dakota.

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Jamestown Reservoir

Jamestown Reservoir, on US Highway 52 just north of Jamestown is peaking as a tremendous crappie fishery. That means fast action and a lot of hand-size crappies! This is kid-fishing supreme, and the best of it takes place along the shoreline. Stalk the banks or wade the shallows. Spinning outfits work magnificently. Small jigs catch fish and are cheap. Spinners catch fish, too, but are more expensive when one is hung up and lost. This is one of the very best places for kids this time of year because the bite can be so fast and furious. It's the surest way to plant the love of fishing in a kid for a lifetime.

Fisheries biologists predict another banner year for Jamestown fishermen. The lake holds both white and black crappies. Anglers can often see the fish they are trying to catch, as crappies nose around the shallows. These fish are extremely eager to cooperate, making the perfect kid-fishing outing. 

Little Missouri River

The Little Missouri River flows through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, near Medora in western North Dakota. Inside and outside the park it is seldom fished, but channel cats are abundant for an adventurous family fishing trip. Parts of this river in the most uninhabited stretches are remote and wild. Much of its canoeing and exploring options have not been publicized.

So many fish were in the river of old, there are reports of Indians herding big schools into the shallows for what was probably frenzied gathering. Worms work on channel cats here, there and everywhere. Goldeyes and sauger swim here, too. And if the fish aren't biting, the park itself is totally worth a visit.

Along the Way: A drive into the western part of North Dakota is worth more than the local fishing. Set in the outdoor splendor of the rugged Badlands, the Medora Musical is a professionally produced, high energy, western-style musical show that is proudly dedicated to the legacy of America's 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, and the time he spent here in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory (the same Badlands that in 2016 were named The New York Times No. 5 place to visit in the world). The show takes place in Burning Hills Amphitheater, 1 mile west of Medora.


When you fish the small- to medium-sized Nebraska waters, you'll enjoy some of the best fishing in the state. Many of these lakes and streams stand apart from irrigation needs; therefore, the water levels fluctuate very little, helping to stimulate and stabilize fish populations.

Lake Wanahoo

Lake Wanahoo, located about 35 miles west of Omaha near the town of Wahoo, might be the most family-friendly lake in the Cornhusker State. It's small enough to not be intimidating, and it's loaded with fish.

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State fisheries officials already have forecast some very good fishing here this year. Wanahoo holds largemouth bass, bluegill, blue catfish, crappie, northern pike and walleye. Habitat structures placed in it make shoreline fishing easy, but regulations require all northern pike to be released unharmed. Largemouth bass shorter than 21 inches also must be released. And live baitfish are not allowed.

The lake spreads across 662 acres of the Sand Creek watershed and is located within the Lake Wanahoo State Recreation Area, which encompasses 1,777-acres. The park features 74 RV/camper pads and 60 tent-camping sites. It's well-rounded for a good summer outing. Hiking and biking trails course through the recreation area.

Niobrara River

Niobrara River is one of the great spring-summer fishing adventures in Nebraska. Where much of the canoeing and tubing takes place, the river flows through a small canyon where the float is always beautiful and relaxing, while the fishing '¦ well, the fishing is sometimes good, sometimes not. It's a nationally designated scenic river for 76 miles west of Valentine. You can rent canoes or tubes here.

Fishing on the Niobrara is mostly centered on panfish. All the standard flies, lures and baits work. You can fish it from the shoreline, wade it or use a tube to "float-fish." As the water warms through springtime, you'll soon need only shorts and tennis shoes for your outing. Generally, the fish aren't spooky, but it is easier to fish the Niobrara when fewer people float it. About 80 percent of the Niobrara River visitors come here on Saturdays. Another 10 percent can be accounted for on Sundays, and just 10 percent of the river's visitors do so across the remaining five days of the week.

Everything here is laid-back. Nice trees shade easy banks. This is one of those fishing/camping/family excursions people remember for years. Private campgrounds are easily available all along the river. Tubing is big fun, and any number of them can be tied together to leisurely float the Niobrara.

Along the Way: In Nebraska's northern reaches, the new Cowboy Trail heads up and stretches 321 miles to span much of the state from Norfolk to Chadron. You can walk/bike/horse ride it for seven minutes or seven days.  It's the largest "rails to trail" project in the US and a real accomplishment for Nebraska.

Smith falls, easily reached when in the area of the Niobrara River, is the highest waterfall — 70 feet — in Nebraska. Smith Falls State Park, 18 miles east of Valentine, features a visitor center, parking, and tent and RV camp sites.          


Kansas has a surprising number of big federal reservoirs, and a lot of fishing takes place on them. Perry, Clinton, Pomona and Melvern reservoirs in the northeast part of the state offer particularly good fishing. Take your pick. They all hold good populations of warm-water species that are spawning right now, and fishing is good!

This time of year the most popular species in these lakes are crappie and white bass. It's spawning time. They are more easily caught in May than at any time of the year, because both species approach the shorelines to lay eggs. For crappie, most anglers these days fish small jigs; often 1/16-ounce. Yellow, white and chartreuse patterns are popular. Simply lift and drop the jig. Add a small minnow to the jig when fishing is slow.

Abundant campgrounds operated by the federal government make it easy to spend a weekend or a week at any of these reservoirs.

Farm Ponds

Thousands of farm ponds on private land are scattered across eastern and central Kansas. Local anglers enjoy the best of these fisheries, tackling largemouth bass, bluegills and channel cats. You'll need permission to access what is usually private property where the pond lies. But it's worth it!

You can fish from the shorelines, but the ideal method is "belly boat" fishing. Indeed, float tubes allow fishermen to stalk the fish in quiet fashion, and that really increases the catch. Use spinners, such as Mepps or Beetle Spin brands, for largemouths. Fly-fishermen do well casting deer-hair bugs for topwater fish, many of which will be bluegills. Because it's spawning time, this is the very best time of year to catch these feisty fish. Go on top or retrieve a size 16 nymph of just about any type. If you're limited to using a spinning outfit, rig up a clear plastic bubble, add a 5- to 6-foot leader behind it and attach your fly. Bobber-and-minnow rigs work well, too.

In some ponds, bullhead catfish are the primary species, many of them only a foot long. Often looked at with disdain by some anglers, these ponds are the dream-come-true for a 10-year-old fisherman. Armed with worms, shrimp, stink baits or basically any kind of organic matter for bait, kids can catch far more bullheads than you will want to clean.

Along the Way: Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, located on the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan, presents changing exhibits ... and it's all free! For more information, see the calendar of event online at Beach.k-state.edu.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is a last-ditch attempt to save some of the native prairie that once covered the Great Plains. It's located near Strong City. Ranger-oriented activities abound for kids. Hiking paths lead through native grass higher than your head. 

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