By Gene Hornbeck
The wiper — well on its way to making its mark as one of the top game fish in the central United States — is a product of man’s manipulation of fish species among the temperate bass that scientists refer to as the family Percichthyida.
What that bit of ichthyological lore means is that fisheries scientists took a small member of that family — the white bass — and crossed it with a giant member — the saltwater striped bass. The experiment worked so well that today we are finding wipers, some weighing over 20 pounds, being taken from scores of reservoirs across “middle” America.
Nebraska is one of the states in which the hybrid has proved not only popular with anglers, but also a good tool in controlling the population of large shad in its reservoirs. That info comes from Daryl Bauer, reservoir and lakes program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in Lincoln.
“The wiper was introduced in Nebraska in 1979 in Bluestem Lake, not far from Lincoln,” said Bauer, “and since then the program has been expanded to 23 reservoirs. The larger wipers serve as a great management tool for getting some use out of adult gizzard shad — fish too large for most other game fish to prey on.
“To further explain: We do not want a shad population dominated by large, adult fish. The ideal shad population is one wherein only a few adults survive the winter and then produce lots of young in the spring. These young shad are ideal prey for walleyes, white bass, crappie, channel cats and other game fish.”
According to Bauer, the wiper doesn’t pose a threat of overpopulation, since, as a hybrid, it’s a “mule” in the fish world. “We stocked over 300,000 fingerlings in the state last year,” he said. “We get them from other states by trading other species such as walleyes for them.”
In addition to Bluestem, other reservoirs holding a wiper population include Branched Oak, Conestoga and Stagecoach in the Salt Valley Lakes near Lincoln. In south-central and southwestern Nebraska, the wiper waters include McConaughy, Elwood, Johnson, Medicine Creek, Red Willow, Swanson, Maloney, Jeffrey, Sutherland, Harlan County, Gallagher, Midway, Plum Creek, Phillips Canyon, Enders and Lake Helen.
Helen is the smallest of these — a 20-acre lake at the north edge of Gothenburg. Enders Reservoir received an initial stocking in 1999 — one of the last to be stocked with the hybrid. Wipers were first stocked in Enders in 1993. Those are the fish that are now 24 to 26 inches. They reach about 18 inches by age 4 and 20 inches by age 5 — average growth for Nebraska reservoirs.
The Tri-County Canal also offers wiper fishing. It runs from Sutherland Reservoir to Johnson Lake. In the Panhandle, Lake Minatare is the only reservoir holding a wiper population. In north-central Nebraska, Calamus Reservoir is a good one for wipers, and Willow Creek Reservoir is the only wiper lake in the northeast.
The Nebraska state record for wipers is held by fishing guide Steve Lytle of McCook. The big hybrid, taken in 1999 from Red Willow Reservoir, weighed 20 pounds, 1 ounce. Lytle has caught scores of trophy wipers in the past few years from Red Willow and Swanson reservoirs. He has set the state record five times.
“The wiper is a great game fish,” said the guide. “One of the neat things about them is that they can be taken on a lot of different lures and bait. They are really something when they come up on top chasing shad and you are there to throw a surface lure at them.
“Red Willow Reservoir is my favorite because it’s close and it has a well-balanced fish population,” Lytle said. “In the spring I work on them with jigging spoons and live bait or plastic power baits on a drop-shot rig. Once the water temperature gets up to about 50, the wipers will begin showing up in shallower water and jerkbaits will work at times.
“During the summer I have the best luck on live bait such as shiners and shad and I fish the bait on drop-shot rigs or on a jig,” said Lytle. “The most exciting fishing is during the low-light hours in early morning or evening, when the wipers often move up and can be caught on topwater lures. If you haven’t caught a 10- or 15-pound wiper on top, you have a bit of excitement in store for you.
“In the fall I go back to the spring routine,” said the guide. “I think one of the most important things one can do is locate the schools of baitfish and then fish around, over or under them, You can almost bet there will be some wipers and often white bass in the area.”
The white bass is the target of many anglers who end up hooking, and sometimes catching a wiper on many of the larger reservoirs. If you are fishing McConaughy, it’s possible to take wipers, white bass and stripers on a given day, but the latter is a long shot, to say the least.
Larry Porter, outdoor scribe for the Omaha World-Herald, has been a fan of wipers for over a decade. He has fished a number of reservoirs for them, including Red Willow.
“I can’t say enough good things about the wiper,” Porter said. “It’s just a flat-out great fighter. The biggest one I have caught was about 30 inches long, which puts it in the 12- to 15-pound class, and that’s a load on either a spinning outfit or bait-casting rig. When they hit and go, you better have the drag set light, or you are going to find out you have a weak spot in your tackle!
“My favorite way to fish for them is early in the morning casting a crankbait along the shoreline,” Porter said. “I usually use the bait-casting rig for crankbaits and spool up with 10- to 12-pound-test line. If I’m working deeper water with a jig or the likes, I use a spinning outfit loaded with 8-pound-test.
“I really think the wiper story in Nebraska is one of huge success,” said Porter. “Fisheries managers are pleased with the fish and in talking to a lot of fishermen I have found they can’t wait to get on some good wiper water and hook into one or more of them.”
Until they reach the 3- and 4-pound class, the young wipers are often confused with white bass in the reservoirs of the state.
“We catch a lot of wipers at Johnson Lake s
outh of Lexington,” said Dr. Bruce Hanson, a local dentist. “It’s kind of hard to tell what you have when you catch a 1- or 2-pound fish, but with a little effort you can usually identify them. I don’t specifically fish for them, but take a few every year while fishing for walleyes or white bass. My largest to date weighed about 6 pounds.”
To identify the fish, just look at, or feel, the tongue. The white bass usually has one tooth patch on the base of the tongue, while the wiper and its larger kin, the striper, have two. The white bass often appears to be a bit deeper in belly than the wiper, and its stripes are usually less broken.
Over the last two or three years, Harlan County Reservoir has been “hot” for big wipers. Fifteen of the top 20 entered in the NGPC’s Master Angler program in 2002 came from the reservoir. Shane Valentine of Hastings boated the largest one on a shiner; weighing 19 pounds, 5 ounces, it was caught on June 29. The No. 2 fish was 16 pounds, 6 ounces; it was caught on a minnow in June by Reggie Kenny of Hastings. No. 3 was taken by Robert Petr of Hastings on a jig; it weighed 14 pounds, 8 ounces.
Some of the other reservoirs producing trophy wipers: Johnson Lake, from which Mike Bliven of Lexington took one weighing 14 pounds, 5 ounces; the Tri-County Canal, in which swam the 12-pound, 10-ounce contender landed by Jim Gutherless of Maxwell; Swanson Reservoir, which surrendered an 11-pound, 5-ounce fish to Dan Lefevre of Thornton, Colo.; and Lake Maloney, home of the 10-pound, 3-ounce prize that Wesley Kohl of North Platte fooled with the help of a minnow.
The Master Angler entries for wipers totaled 552 in 2001, and that entry was third behind walleyes — 635 — and largemouth bass — 670.
Bauer explained that despite Harlan’s having had 15 of the top 20 big wipers in the Master Angler program in 2002, others produce more action. “We have stopped stocking wipers in Harlan to do a food habit study on the fish,” he said. “Last year was the first for the study being done by Montana State University and the samplings showed the main forage of the wipers is gizzard shad. The study is continuing this year, and if it proves that wipers are no threat to other game fish such as walleyes, we plan to resume stocking Harlan.”
Bauer points to Harlan, Red Willow, Johnson, McConaughy, Calamus, and Elwood as picks to be good for Master Angler fish (8 pounds or better) this year, adding that Minatare, Medicine Creek, Enders, Sutherland and Maloney should be the best for numbers.
Red Willow has led all reservoirs for fish 24 inches in length or weighing 8 pounds or more for the past few years. That honor has a lot to do with fishing guide Steve Lytle, who enters most of the big wipers he and his clients catch in the Master Angler program (though one has to wonder how many this guide would catch if he concentrated his efforts on Harlan, Sutherland or Johnson).
The daily statewide creel limits on wipers, striped bass and white bass in combination is 15 with only one allowed in the bag over 18 inches. There are some waters where the limits are shorter. Elwood, Willow Creek and Conestoga fishermen are limited to a total of three fish. Branched Oak is catch-and-release only.
Nebraska also has some fishing for stripers. The state record for this salt-water native is 64 pounds, 15 ounces. It was taken at Sutherland Reservoir in August 1993 by Gene Baker of Sutherland on a live shad.
The striper program was initiated in 1961 at Lake McConaughy, but thanks to some distraught anglers and political entities who believed the stripers were eating everything in the lake, stocking was discontinued in 1979. Today, McConaughy is the last frontier for the striper. There were 10 entered for Master Angler Awards (at least 32 inches long or 10 pounds) last year, and all came from McConaughy. The largest weighed 38 pounds, 1 ounce and was 41 inches long. It was caught by Ron Clark of North Platte. No. 2 was a 35-pounder taken by Matt Garvin of Loveland, Colo.; the third-place fish, at 34 pounds, 12 ounces, was taken on a crawdad by Nguyet Le of Aurora, Colo.
Bauer reports that there has been some natural reproduction of stripers in McConaughy, but numbers are few. “We have documented natural reproduction of the striper in Lake McConaughy,” he said. “We believe this occurs in the North Plate River above the reservoir and believe it is likely limited to years when the river flows are up and suitable for the fish to reproduce. I think it’s possible that we will continue to see a few stripers in the reservoir for years to come.”
A good many fishermen have had little experience with the wiper. Jim Gutherless of Maxwell caught his first one last April while fishing the Toby Check on the Tri-County Canal south of town.
“The whole thing was kind of weird,” he said. “It was my first fishing trip last spring, and I clipped on a Bayou Boogie for white bass, cast it downstream and had cranked it back a few yards when a fish slammed it and took off.
“I hung on for a couple of minutes and saw the fish surface. It was then I thought ‘Man, I’m in trouble! No landing net — and that fish is big!’ The banks are pretty steep along the check, and neither my partner, Dan Effenbeck, or I had any idea how we were going to land the fish. He said ‘Hey, I’ll run home and get a net — it shouldn’t take me more than about 15 minutes.’
“After Jim took off I gained some line and lost some, but I slowly wore the fish down and got him in along the bank,” said the 47-year-old angler. “I got down so I could get my hands under it and scooped it out and up the bank and then pounced on it. I had things under control when Jim got back with the net.
“I don’t know what others think about the wiper, but catching that one was one of the greatest fishing thrills I’ve ever had,” Gutherless said. “I’ve caught catfish bigger than the wiper, but never hooked one that could put up a fight like it did. It measured 28 inches long and weighed 12-10.”
Kevin Trosper of Grand Island says he and his dad, Larry, have gotten “hooked” on fishing for wipers.
“We fish Harlan County Reservoir and focus our efforts on wipers,” he said. “We have been fishing them now for about 10 years and can’t get very excited about other species when there is a chance to hook one of them. They are incredible fighters and we have had quite a few straighten out our hooks.”
Trosper and his dad fish from late spring to early fall. “June is a good month,” he said. “I caught my largest one last year on June 16 on a big spinner. It measured 30 inches in length, so it was in the 15-pound class. We release all of the wipers — usually take a quick picture, and then let them go.
“We also like July and August, particularly early morning and evening fishing,” Trosper said. “The wipers tend to come up on top chasing shad then and they are something else when they slam into a topwater lure. Wipers often school near white bass and there are times when they come up chasing shad at the same time and that gets pretty exciting.
“Dad and I think the wipers are great and I have two daughters — Sydney, 9, and Taryn, 10, — who are coming on as pretty good wiper anglers,” Trosper said. “They both have a Master Angler Award for the fish.”
In conclusion, Bauer had these words of praise for the hybrid: “It is important to have a large predator like this to control our shad populations and to give anglers a chance to catch a trophy fish. Many Nebraska anglers have stories to tell about their first encounter with a wiper. A lot of the stories end in broken lines, straightened hooks and jammed reels, but they know they have hooked one heck of fish and are darned happy when, and if, they ever land one.”
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