Great Family Fishing Vacations

Great Family Fishing Vacations

There's plenty of family fishing fun to be had in the Great Plains states -- so why not plan your next vacation trip for one of these locations?

By Dave Melrose


One phrase sums up Americans' collective mindset when the warm, long days of summer arrive each year: "Let's go!"

This is vacation season, and the Great Plains region offers some of the finest destinations on the continent - especially if you enjoy fishing. What follows is a selection of destinations in these four states that you should consider when the talk turns to a getaway for some fishing and relaxation. It's certainly not all-inclusive. For every location mentioned here, you can find dozens more in each state, or each region, that are just as attractive.


KANSAS

Hillsdale State Park is one of the Sunflower State's newest, but the reservoir at its heart is just over 20 years old. It began filling in the early 1980s, and quickly became known for quality populations of largemouth bass, catfish, panfish and walleyes.


Anglers will find more than 50 miles of fishable shoreline and about 4,500 surface-acres of water when the lake is at normal level. Seven boat-ramp areas, a mix of primitive and developed sites, are located around the lake.

If you don't have a boat, or didn't bring it, be sure to check out the fishing in the stilling basin below the dam. By this time of year, the action there will usually have slowed somewhat, but you still can catch fish, especially early and late in the day.

Hillsdale also offers two developed beach areas that are open daily from sunrise to sunset. At the Russell Crites Area, you'll find 200 designated campsites, just under half of which feature electric and water hookups.

On the east side of the reservoir, the Marysville area offers about 30 miles of trails for horseback riding, hiking and bicycling. Stables and riding facilities are not available at the park, but corral pens may be rented on a daily basis.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Just south of the dam, you'll also find an area set aside for model airplane flying, so if you have radio-controlled planes, be sure to bring them with you. Or just stop by to see who's at the controls of the scale-model flyers.

Located in Miami County in eastern Kansas, Hillsdale is only a short drive from greater Kansas City and a myriad of day-trip possibilities; options range from the Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun theme parks to the Nelson Gallery and baseball action with the Kansas City Royals. And if you decide to pass on a campfire meal one night, Kansas City has some of the finest dining in the country.

Wilson State Park is just north of Interstate 70 near central Kansas' Sylvan Grove. Its angling attraction is the state's finest population of pure striped bass, which are known to grow to truly large sizes in the reservoir. Black bass, white bass, walleyes, panfish and catfish also are available in big numbers, making Wilson one of the most dynamic fisheries in the Sunflower State. You sure won't run out of angling options during a visit to this state park, which is divided into two areas, Hell Creek and Otoe.

Of the two boat ramps are available at Wilson, the Hell Creek ramp is designed to accommodate many boats too large to launch at other areas; a handicap-accessible courtesy dock is also available there. A full-service marina nearby features boat and slip rentals, fuel and a convenience store.

Wilson also sports two designated swimming beaches, and facilities and equipment for basketball, horseshoe pitching and sand volleyball. The Dakota Trail offers a great chance to see native tallgrass prairie, and you can pick up a brochure that offers a self-guided tour of the area's natural wonders.

If you have bikes, bring them to Wilson for the four miles of pedaling fun that is the Switchgrass Bike Trail. (The trailhead is at the Switchgrass Restroom parking lot.) Even if you don't have a bike, the trails are still great for hikes. And if you don't even own camping gear, Wilson is still a good bet, thanks to its Rent-A-Camp Program; just bring your bedroll, and then stop by the park office on your way in to rent just about everything else you need for a family camping vacation, including tents, stoves, lanterns and other camping supplies.

Wilson is only a short drive from Kanopolis and Glen Elder reservoirs, which also offer some nice fishing. While you're in the area, you should make a point of heading over toward Kanopolis to visit Mushroom State Park, near the lake, which is among the most unusual state parks in all of the Great Plains. It's only 5 acres, but it's home to rock formations that are the basis of the area's name. These unique geological features, which resemble giant mushrooms sprouting from the prairie, served as landmarks and meeting places for both the area's earliest Native American residents and pioneers like Kit Carson.

NEBRASKA

Rock Creek Lake State Recreation Area (in southwest Nebraska just northwest of Parks) is undoubtedly the smallest destination among those in this story. Kansas' Mushroom State Park is tinier, but it doesn't offer camping, while Rock Creek does - but you'll find it's all frills-free. Its 50-acre lake is open to boats, which are restricted to electric trolling motors only.

If you like your camping simple and your fishing good, this might be one of the best little areas in all of the Great Plains. You'll have to bring everything you need with you, because the primitive campsites, a handful of restrooms and a boat ramp are the only facilities you'll find at Rock Creek, which, including the lake, totals 104 acres.

But that lake is the calling card, because its fishery is a truly dynamic one. You can catch bluegills, channel and flathead catfish, largemouth bass, redear sunfish, white crappie and, most notably, rainbow trout. That's right: Rock Creek has a trout fishery! Granted, you're not likely to land a stringer of fish dominated by rainbows in the summer, but they're there. The wide mix of species makes this an especially attractive spot for live-bait fishing, as it's hard to tell what you might catch on a given cast.

Some might argue that including Rock Creek in this story is a mistake; it's small, offers few facilities and is just a fishing hole with some campsites. But for my money, those are just the things that make it so attractive! If you're like me and want to get away and just enjoy some quiet time on the water, Rock Creek might be the best of this bunch.

Fishing and boating are also the calling cards at Sherman Reservoir State Recreation Area, in south-central Nebraska near Loup City. Prim

itive camping is the norm here, too, and numerous sites for it can be found around the lake's 65 miles of shoreline. Most sites include drinking water, restrooms and shelters adjacent to the campsites.

Upon arrival, head for the northeast end of the dam and visit the Trade Winds Marina and boat ramp for the latest fishing information and concessions. It's on Trail 2, which is one of two paved access roads at the lake. The other, Trail 1, is on the southwest side of the dam; it leads to the Thunder Bay Boat Ramp and the East Ridge, Middle Ridge, Redwood and West Ridge areas. You'll find the area headquarters building, a coin-operated shower facility and a dump station on Trail 1.

Four other gravel trails - nos. 3, 8, 10 and 11 - provide access to the Ash Canyon, Dead Horse Creek, Moon Creek and Oak Creek areas. Facilities at these spots are limited to drinking water and restrooms; there's a boat ramp off Trail 10.

Fisherman's Bridge is popular with boatless anglers. It provides shorebound anglers with access to the lake's supply canal, which is just below the inlet structure. Drinking water and restrooms will be found there.

Fish available in the lake include channel and flathead catfish, white crappie, white bass, walleyes and those mean, toothy northern pike. Like Rock Creek's trout, Sherman's pike offer a unique fishing opportunity for families on vacation.

June vacationers may encounter lower lake levels owing to drawdowns for irrigation purposes. However, low water is more likely later into the summer, and so fishing should be pretty good this month.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Near Yankton, the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area is a destination more than usually oriented towards modern conveniences, and one of the more popular on this list. It features more than 380 campsites, more than 340 of which include electricity. If you just don't feel like roughing it, there's also a modern resort with 24 rooms and 10 cabins. More than a dozen rustic log cabins are included among the campsites, and there's also a 24-foot camping trailer to rent.

If it has to do with fun in the water, you can find it here. There are separate beaches for swimmers and water-skiers and four boat ramps - and there's plenty of great fishing. When you're done on the water, you also can take advantage of a National Field Archery Association certified archery course; four miles of hiking and bridle trails and six miles of paved bicycle trail. And if you don't feel like cooking, there's even a restaurant.

Most of the other facilities detailed in this story are more spartan, and those out for close contact with nature will likely prefer those. Vacationers who just want a quick, relaxing fishing getaway and don't want to bring a lot of camping gear, however, should put Lewis and Clark at the top of their lists.

Roy Lake State Park in northeastern South Dakota is home to some fine fishing for bass, panfish, pike and walleyes. And while you're in the area, you should make a point of finding Lake Traverse, along the South Dakota-Minnesota border. It's on South Dakota Highway 10, southeast of Interstate 29.

What's so special about it? You can see water flowing in two directions - north and south - at the spot known as the North/South Continental Divide!

Back at Roy Lake, you'll find two campgrounds with a total of 75 campsites available. There's also a resort with a restaurant and rental cabins, three boat ramps, two swimming beaches, a water-skiing beach, playgrounds and hiking trails.

Not far from this park are two other public areas worth a visit: Sica Hollow State Park and Fort Sisseton State Park. The former is rich in Sioux Indian heritage, while the latter provides a great look at the western frontier of the 1860s. It plays host to a historical festival in early June.

ONE THING MORE


If you don't pack a pair of binoculars with your fishing gear, you'll wish you had -- for a couple of reasons.



First, consider the various species of birds and wildlife you'll be able to see while hiking or fishing. You can spend hours viewing all kinds of birds and game. Second, because most of these sites are remote and far from city lights, you just might be awed by the fantastic stargazing opportunities.



For example, you'll be amazed at the detail you can see in the moon with hand-held 7x35 binoculars.



Of course, you can use higher-powered optics. Some hunters might even have a spotting scope to bring along. But if you'll be hand-holding binoculars, anything larger than 10x50s will likely be difficult for getting a steady view. -- Dave Melrose

 

NORTH DAKOTA

Cross Ranch Centennial State Park sits on the west bank of the Missouri River along the last free-flowing, undeveloped stretches of the river in North Dakota. Anglers looking to fish the river as it appeared to the earliest of pioneers should make Cross Ranch a destination this month. The park entrance is about 12 miles southeast of Hensler via paved roads, but you can cut that distance in half if you don't mind gravel.

The great natural river structure here is home to walleyes, pike and bass - the game fish species you should focus on when visiting Cross Ranch and this section of the Missouri.

The River Peoples Visitor Center provides information and displays about the Missouri and what it was like before a series of major dams and reservoirs changed the river's face. A boat ramp is available in the park, or you can rent a canoe if you want to leave your boat at home.

While much of the park and its campsites remain primitive, to preserve the historic look and feel of the whole area, limited options are available for those inclined to more comfort in accommodations and facilities. In addition to 70 campsites, seven of which have electricity, are two log cabins available for rent. The 589-acre park offers shower facilities, a dump station, picnic shelters and a playground.

An extensive system of hiking trails meanders through a 5,000-acre nature preserve adjacent to the park; it features mixed-grass prairie, river bottom timber and woody draws. You'll also find a backcountry area available if you want to hike in to a primitive campsite.

History buffs will enjoy a visit to Cross Ranch and the surrounding area. The Lewis and Clark Expe

dition camped just across the river from the park in 1804, and a number of nearby historical sites - Fort Mandan, the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, and the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center - offer a look at the area's rich heritage.

Tucked away in the southeastern corner of the state, Fort Ransom State Park is located on one of North Dakota's officially designated Scenic Byways and Backways. It's 34 miles south of Valley City and 20 miles northwest of Lisbon.

Fishing the Sheyenne River is most satisfying when done by canoe; rentals are available at the park. Thirty campsites are available, as are showers, a dump station, a playground, group kitchen facilities and corrals for those bringing horses. If you do bring horses to ride on the trails in the park, note that certified weed-free hay (available for purchase at the park) must be used.

If you're able to make your visit to Fort Ransom early in the month, you can enjoy the annual Sodbuster Days that bring the farm life of the early 20th century back to life. It's one of two such events held at the park annually, the other taking place in the fall. Demonstrations include teams of draft horses and mules recreating traditional field preparation, haying and threshing. There are also demonstrations of small-engine technology, blacksmithing and various homemaking skills. You can sample a variety of traditional and ethnic foods. How about a fresh piece of pie or a roll baked in a Dutch oven over a fire pit?

TACKLE AND TECHNIQUES

A medium-action spinning outfit with 10-pound line will be good for just about any of the angling opportunities presented here. You might want to include something lighter - say, in the 4- to 6-pound-line range - for the panfish or Rock Creek's trout. Something a little heavier will be in order if you're going after stripers at Wilson or pike at one of the Dakota destinations.

Bass anglers should bring some medium-diving crankbaits, spinnerbaits, plastic worms for Texas-rigging and maybe a few topwater baits for fishing early and late in the day. If you want to focus on panfish or trout, small crankbaits, inline spinners of 1/8 or 1/16 ounce and jigs of the same size would be good bets.

And as noted, live bait is a great way to go at any of these fishing holes. Worms or minnows will take any of the species you'll encounter on any of these family vacation trips.

WEB SITES

For more information on these and other summer fishing/vacation destinations in the Great Plains region, visit the following state Web sites:

Kansas: www.kdwp.state.ks.us.

Nebraska: www.ngpc.state.ne.us.

South Dakota: www.state.sd.us/ gfp.

North Dakota: www.ndparks.com.

If you plan to enjoy some naked-eye or binocular-aided stargazing, you can get information on the stars, planets and constellations visible during your trip at www. astronomy.com, or check out www. skyandtelescope.com



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