Great Plains Bass Fishing: The states of Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota offer some fantastic fishing for lunker bass.
The Great Plains states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas offer a wide variety of quality fisheries for both largemouth and smallmouth bass.
Opportunities are plentiful for anglers looking to specifically target top end bass. Many anglers also agree that early season can be prime time to target big fish on many fisheries. This month, we break down some of the region’s top water for targeting some of the biggest bass through the input of respective state fisheries biologists, tournament anglers and guides.
North Dakota is not always highly regarded as a bass fishing region. This is in part because of geographical location and the overwhelming popularity of walleye fishing, but this overlooked state quietly boasts several fisheries that provide anglers with quality bass angling.
Lake Sakakawea, created by the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, is an enormous 382,000-acre reservoir at full pool. And while this reservoir is on many top walleye lists, this destination also has an under fished smallmouth bass population. The sheer size of this reservoir offers many locations and patterns, but good numbers of smallmouth bass can be found throughout the reservoir. Some of the highest population densities are found on the east and mid-section of the lake. Top locations include Beulah Bay, Hazen Bay, Garrison Bay, Steinke Bay and Wolf Creek, but smallmouths can be found relating to points and bars and other underwater structure where there is rock, boulders and gravel.
Avid bass tournament angler Eric Vossler also adds Spiritwood Lake near Jamestown, N.D., as a perennial producer of quality smallmouth bass. This small lake had at one point boasted the North Dakota state-record smallmouth and boasts numbers of quality fish. Rocky shorelines and weed flats often hold smallmouths and crawfish imitating soft plastics and jigs often shine.
The current North Dakota state-record smallmouth, weighing 6 pounds, 13 ounces, was caught on Lake Darling, located north of the community of Minot. This long, shallow reservoir is famous for producing big smallmouths. Gravel and rock shorelines often hold bass, particularly in the earlier part of the year.
Part of what can make North Dakota’s bass fishing opportunities extremely good across the board is the lack of fishing attention devoted specifically toward bass. Walleyes are king in this region of the world, but more anglers are discovering the joy of bass each season.
South Dakota has several fisheries that routinely produce quality bass. The South Dakota smallmouth bass state record was again broken in 2016 out of Horseshoe Lake in the northeastern Glacial Lakes Region with a 7-pound, 3-ounce fish. In fact, the last two state-record smallmouths have been caught on Horseshoe Lake. According to guide Cory Ewing of Waubay Lake Guide Service, Horseshoe Lake remains one of the region’s best bets for encountering really big smallmouths.
“On Horseshoe Lake, the fishing can sometimes be a grind where you don’t necessarily catch numbers of fish but when you find fish … they are often big,” explained Ewing. Ewing added that this lake is somewhat different from some of the other noted smallmouth bass lakes in the area in that there is not as much classic rock structure and that the structure where you find bass is much less obvious. Subtle points and bars often hold fish, and the key is to use side imaging to find a few scattered rocks or some other type of cover.
Roy Lake has long been known as one of the region’s better bass fisheries, but the numbers of big smallmouth have been down in recent years.
Roy Lake’s smallmouth bass fishery isn’t what it was a decade ago, but what surprises many anglers is the quality of the largemouth bass in the lake. Guide Ewing suggests targeting largemouths by fishing the banks, focusing on boulders, logs and laydowns. Weed flats can also hold big largemouths, and anglers targeting these locations will also encounter smallmouths.
Reetz Lake is managed as a trophy fishery and holds good numbers of smallmouth bass, with fish over 19 inches available. While catch and release practices preserve this fishery, this lake has gotten a lot more attention in recent years. Ewing explained that fishing aggressively and covering water is the key on Reetz Lake. “Fish through water fast and try to find fish that other anglers miss,” explained Ewing.
South Dakota’s bass fishing had long flown under the radar in large part because of the popularity of walleyes in this part of the country. But more anglers seem to be targeting bass on purpose with each season.
“We have seen the popularity of smallmouth bass, in particular, explode in this part of South Dakota over the past few years,” noted Ewing, who cites that he is taking more guide clients out each season who specifically want to target bass.
Nebraska has a wide variety of fishing opportunities, with several large to midsize reservoirs present. But because of habitat, many of the state’s best fishing opportunities for largemouth bass take place on small lakes, ponds and pits. Some of the state’s very best largemouth bass fishing takes place on private land, where gaining permission is necessary.
In fact, some of Nebraska’s very best largemouth bass fishing can be accessed by shore fishing or from a kayak on small water. Because so many of these small ponds can get congested with heavy weed growth later in the year, early season can be one of the best time periods to find bass in this small water, particularly from shore.
Because many of Nebraska’s larger reservoirs are managed to provide irrigation water supply, largemouth bass populations can be cyclic because of the lack of weed growth and flooded terrestrial vegetation during low water cycles. These environments are often better suited for walleyes, white bass and catfish, but where the right habitat exists, the smallmouth bass fishing is often noteworthy because of the rock and gravel substrate found in many of these Nebraska reservoirs.
Look for Nebraska’s best largemouth bass fishing on small water, while Nebraska’s big lakes typically produce the state’s best opportunities for smallmouth bass.
Nebraska’s Sandhill Refuge Lakes near Valentine might be one of the Cornhusker State’s best bets for top end largemouth bass. Several Refuge lakes can be publicly accessed in the Sandhills, with notable lakes including Pelican Lake, Duck Lake and West Long Lake. These shallow dish bowl lakes offer little structure and are traditionally difficult to fish later in the summer when weed growth becomes heavy. But these small lakes can produce some great largemouth bass early in the summer.
Lord Lakes, located in the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest, has an excellent population of largemouth bass, with fish over 20 inches possible. Smith Lake WMA, located in Sheridan County, and Island Lake, located in the Crescent Lake NWR, both are top picks for largemouth bass topping 4 pounds.
Daryl Bauer, fisheries outreach program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, cites the Interstate 80 Lakes through central Nebraska as another angling opportunity that has big fish potential. During the construction of the interstate, several pits and small lakes were created, and these numerous small lakes provide public fishing.
“Some of these small lakes are numbers lakes that produce a lot of largemouth bass, but there are some really big fish in some of these small lakes in part because they can be hard to catch,” explained Bauer.
By Nebraska standards, these small lakes often have really clear water, which makes some of these large fish spooky and more difficult to catch. Bauer often catches these bigger fish by fishing after dark by throwing shallow running original Rapalas and Husky Jerks or sometimes using topwaters.
Lake McConaughy is one of Nebraska’s crown jewel fisheries. And while this state’s largest reservoir, located near Ogallala, is renowned for producing big walleyes, this lake has a smallmouth bass population that is getting more attention. Fueled by a rich forage base of alewives and shad, this reservoir routinely kicks out smallmouth bass over 18 inches.
According to local guide and accomplished tournament angler Rob Rowland, the south end of this reservoir offers ideal smallmouth bass habitat.
“We have high water right now, so flooded trees makes some of these locations more difficult to fish,” he noted. “But look for bass on the rock points and gravel bars,” advised Rowland. After the bass leave their beds in the spring, Rowland often finds bass on these locations in 8 to 12 feet of water but will sometimes slide out as deep as 25 feet during the middle of the day. Drop-shot rigs and tube jigs shine on McConaughy.
Fisheries biologist Daryl Bauer also added that some big largemouth bass are also starting to show up on McConaughy because of the recent high water cycle, which has created the right habitat for largemouth bass recruitment.
Bauer believes that the Missouri River System that borders Nebraska and South Dakota is currently the state’s best smallmouth bass fishery for finding nice fish. Anglers can often find smallmouths relating to shale bluffs and rock points upstream from Gavins Point Dam. Downstream from Gavins Point all the way to Sioux City, look for smallmouth bass along sand bars and river holes.
Areas of the river where there is no channelization create a lot of good smallmouth bass habitat, and anglers can explore sandbars and riffles that hold bass.
Besides smallmouth bass, the backwaters of the Missouri River also hold good populations of largemouth bass. Target wood cover like laydowns and boulders to find largemouths.
Like the state of Nebraska, most of the best largemouth bass fishing opportunities for big fish happen on small lakes and pits both public and private, while the larger smallmouths can often be found on reservoirs because of similar habitat limitations.
Milford Reservoir continues to be one of the Sunflower State’s best bets for smallmouth bass over 3 pounds. Classic rock points and gravel structure are top bets for Milford smallmouths. Top presentations include casting shallow running jerk baits over shallow boulders or drop- shotting off the break line during the mid-day.
Other top Kansas Reservoirs that are capable of producing big smallmouth bass include Melvern, Wolf Creek, Glen Elder Reservoir and Perry Lake. Wolf Creek currently has a high population of smallmouths, with many small fish. But fish over 17 inches are present.
Glen Elder Reservoir currently has a stable bass population, while Perry and Melvern Reservoirs have smaller smallmouth bass populations but decent chances for encountering fish over 16 inches.
Several small to midsize reservoirs and cooling lakes in Kansas offer the right type of habitat for largemouth bass, and La Cygne Reservoir leads the pack for producing big fish. La Cygne is consistently one of the state’s best waters for public access big largemouth fishing. This 2,600-acre reservoir is a cooling lake that really shines for big bass through the spring, fall and winter. Focus on weed beds and riprap with crankbaits, soft plastic worms and white skirted spinnerbaits that imitate shad.
Top small lakes for producing 5-pound-plus largemouth bass include Cross Creek Lake and Garnett- Crystal Lake. These small lakes all have good samplings of fish over 5 pounds, according to the latest data from the Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Department.
Across the Great Plains states, big fish opportunities for both smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are present, covering a wide variety of locations that suit an array of fishing styles and equipment. From shore fishing and kayak opportunities to big boat/big water fisheries, there are destinations that produce good-sized bass for multitudes of anglers each season. Now it’s time to get out and explore one of the excellent bass fishing destinations near you.