The Great Plains States of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota have tremendous bass fishing opportunities that often fly under the radar. Part of the obscurity lies in the simple fact that this vast geographical region lacks the namesake lake or reservoir that is a household word in bass fishing lore.
While there might not be a Sam Rayburn or Bull Shoals Reservoir, and there might not be that many bass anglers compared to other parts of the country where bass fishing popularity is much more extreme, don’t let the lack of attention fool you. There are several lesser-known bodies of water that showcase some quality bass fishing opportunities, and many anglers are surprised by just how unassuming some of these fisheries can be.
Many anglers across the Great Plains, particularly the Dakotas, are obsessed with walleye fishing. You can almost draw an imaginary line near Omaha, Neb. The southern half of the Great Plains states see an upswing in popularity for bass, catfish and crappie. To the north, walleyes are the hot species. Across all four states however, there is some tremendous bass fishing for this season ahead.
Kansas anglers have a good assortment of lakes, reservoirs and small ponds that offer tremendous bass fishing.
According to state biologist Craig Johnson, Butler Lake is a top pick for this upcoming season because of the number of largemouth bass pushing 6 pounds. This 126-acre lake has had the highest catch rate in the state of Kansas for small lakes. Early in the season, anglers often target the emerging weed growth along the bank or in the inlet. While there is some offshore structure in the lake that will hold bass, many fish can be found all summer in the lily pads.
While as not well known as Butler Lake, McPherson State Fishing Lake is another 46-acre small lake opportunity that fishes big. And this lake is getting more popular. Like Butler, McPherson also has a very high density of largemouth bass with high catch rates. In fact, fall of 2014 lake surveys showed that McPherson had one of the highest concentrations of largemouth bass over 20 inches in the state. There is little structure in the lake, so most bass are caught off the bank.
To experience high catch rates with numbers of fish, Sebelius Reservoir would be a top pick in this state for this season. This 2,300 acre reservoir boasts the highest bass densities in Kansas for largemouth bass over 12 inches and spotted bass over 11 inches. Most of the largemouth bass range between 12 and 15 inches, with fish slightly over 4 pounds sampled. The lake has a size limit of 15 inches.
To exchange quantity for quality, both La Cygne and Big Hill offer larger fish. La Cygne Lake is a 2,600-acre cooling lake with a warm water discharge and is one of the best bets in Kansas for big bass. Fish over 9 pounds are possible. Bass can be found throughout the lake. Early in the season, target the feeder creeks that will hold staging bass.
Late in the season, focus on the warm water discharge area. As the season progresses, anglers often shift attention to the riprap, bluff walls and weedbeds. Crankbaits and spinnerbaits often catch numbers of fish. For targeting the larger fish, Carolina or Texas rig big lizards.
Big Hill Lake is a 1,200-acre body of water that is pristine and productive. Surrounded by dense stands of hickory and oak trees, this rock-rimmed Kansas lake is often referred to as the gateway to the Ozarks because of its similarity to many Ozark fisheries to the east.
Known for excellent water visibility and good populations of largemouth bass, this lake is also becoming more known for a growing smallmouth bass population. Bass up to 6 pounds are present, along with smallmouth bass surpassing 4 pounds. Focus on the flooded timber for largemouth bass and rocky points and bluff walls for smallmouth bass.
The smallmouth bass story in Kansas is a great success story. This upcoming season, Wolf Creek (Coffey County Lake) looks to have one of the higher population densities of smallmouth bass, with high numbers of fish between 12 and 15 inches. This nuclear power plant cooling lake also has good populations of largemouth bass and is historically one of Kansas’s best bass lakes. For slightly larger smallmouths, Milford Reservoir should be a good bass option this season, based on recent electrofishing sampling.
The Cornhusker State has a great variety of bass water, and some fisheries should offer great opportunities this season.
Lake McConaughy is often well known for walleye fishing, but don’t overlook the smallmouth bass fishing. The bass really benefitted from high water a few years back, and their population is strong. Big Mac, as this reservoir is affectionately referred to, is 30,000 acres at full pool, the largest lake in Nebraska. Both smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are present. Focus on the eastern and southern end of the reservoir near the dam where there are many rocky shorelines and points for smallmouths. The shallower and warmer west end of the reservoir typically produces more largemouth bass.
Few anglers specifically target the bass. But the smallmouth bass population in particular is impressive with, good numbers of 2- to 4-pound fish. According to Robby Rowland, who spends a lot of time guiding on this popular Nebraska fishery, anglers often find smallmouths along rocky shorelines and riprap. Anglers casting white spinnerbaits and twitch baits often catch not just smallmouth bass but walleye, catfish, wipers and white bass as these predators key on the roaming schools of alewives.
The numerous lakes in the Sandhills near Valentine, Neb., also have a lot of promise. Many of these lakes are located within the National Grasslands and are managed for public fishing. Some of the larger and more popular lakes include Pelican Lake, West Long Lake, Watts, Hackberry, Dewey, Duck and Clear lakes. These shallow dish bowl lakes are typically less than 5 feet deep and offer tremendous largemouth bass fishing with fish up to 6 pounds possible.
No combustion motors are allowed on these public bodies of water, so check all regulations before fishing. Anglers using boats powered with gas motors can use an electric trolling motor, and many anglers kayak fish. Because of the shallow depth, many anglers often work the bank or weed beds with topwaters or shallow running twitch baits.
The heart of Nebraska’s bass fishing however lies in its numerous small ponds, pits and lakes that often boast less than 100 surface acres of water. According to Nebraska Game, Fish and Parks Fisheries biologist Dave Tunink, there are many small lakes across the state that are now managed for public fishing opportunities and some of these small ponds produce some of the biggest bass in the state. In fact, the Nebraska state-record bass that weighed over 10 pounds was caught in a gravel pit. Tunink points out Burchard Lake and Summit Reservoir as small fishing opportunities to keep an eye on this season.
Most people may associate South Dakota with pheasant hunting or Mount Rushmore, but the state’s bass fishing may be one of this region’s best-kept secrets. Bass anglers from outside this region are often surprised at the quality of bass fishing available. The Glacial Lakes Region of northeastern South Dakota is a top pick for this upcoming season.
This region is actually composed of several hundred lakes, but a handful of lakes offer exceptional smallmouth bass fishing with some largemouths also present. Waubay Lake, Roy Lake, Clear Lake, Enemy Swim Lake, Reetz Lake and Pickerel Lake all boast strong smallmouth populations. What surprises anglers is the quality of fish. A high water cycle and protective size limit has enhanced and maintained the fish in this region. The South Dakota state-record smallmouth bass of 7 pounds was caught on Horseshoe Lake, located south of the community of Webster.
Smallmouth bass can often be found near rock piles or any type of prominent structure that features some rock. Embankments that feature riprap along with flooded roadbeds can also hold fish. Weedbeds that are near rock or are close to deep water can often hold smallmouth bass through out the summer.
Most of these good smallmouth bass lakes also have some very respectable largemouth bass present. While both smallmouth and largemouth bass can sometimes be found together on the same location, anglers often specifically target the largemouth bass in shallower weeds. Top locations include shallow weed choked coves, docks and bull rush patches.
The Missouri River system as a whole offers South Dakota anglers another tremendous bass fishing opportunity to the west. Lake Oahe, Lake Sharpe, Lake Francis Case and Lewis and Clark are all large reservoirs on the Missouri River that all boast an underutilized smallmouth bass population.
As a rule of thumb, larger fish can be found on Lake Oahe, while Francis Case and Sharpe have historically had higher numbers of quality fish. Both Francis Case and Sharpe lost some of their bass population during the high water discharge of 2011, but populations have slowly improved since.
Classic rock points, bluffs and ripraps areas all hold smallmouths. Look for large rock and boulders and typically there will be bass present. The south end of Lake Oahe from the Cheyenne Arm to the Dam typically produces some of the largest smallmouths in the entire system.
On Oahe, anglers can’t go wrong with a jig worm or tube jig. On both Sharpe and Francis Case, smallmouth bass can often be found following roaming schools of gizzard shad. Anglers often find smallmouth over sand flats or along riprap and rocky bluff ledges. Rattle baits, twitch baits and soft plastics all work well, depending on the location and time of year.
North Dakota also offers some quality bass fishing opportunities for this upcoming season, and these opportunities are often under utilized by anglers. Historically, Nelson Lake, near the community of Center, is this state’s top largemouth bass lake. This cooling reservoir is kept ice free year round because of a warm water discharge.
While the productivity and average size of fish has declined in recent years, this body of water still produces great fishing days with high numbers of bass between 14 and 18 inches. Early in the season, focus on the warmer water near the discharge. Some of the best fishing can often occur in April and May. Most anglers simply pound the bank with a variety of presentations but Carolina Rigs and jig worms work exceptionally well.
This state also has some quality smallmouth bass water. Lake Audubon, which is an impoundment separated from Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River by Highway 83, has excellent smallmouth bass numbers, with many fish between 14 and 16 inches and larger fish possible.
This lake has many sunken islands and reefs that have large boulders and rock where bass can often be found. Besides rock, focus on emerging curly leaf pondweed or riprap. Topwaters are popular over the shallow rocks, while spinnerbaits work well through the weeds that often grow around the deeper edges of the shallow rock reefs.
Other good bass picks for this upcoming season include Spiritwood Lake near Jamestown, N.D., for smallmouth bass. The south shore of this lake has a lot of rock and produces some very nice fish. For kayak and shore angling, the Sheyenne River near Valley City is one of the state’s best small river bass fishing experiences.