September 30, 2010
Planning some early bass fishing in the Cornhusker State? Then you'll surely want to include these hotspots on your hit list.(March 2008).
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Nebraska's bass fishing outlook this season is a good news/bad news story. The good news is that lakes of all sizes across much of the state have finally gotten some relief from the drought conditions that saw them shrink to dangerously low levels. The bad news is that anglers may find more challenges in catching bass because of all the new aquatic vegetation and cover available to the fish.
"The drought was statewide, and water levels were down everywhere as a result," said Daryl Bauer, manager of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Lakes and Reservoirs Program. As this issue of Great Plains Game & Fish was being prepared to go to press, the northwestern panhandle region was still extremely dry, but, Bauer said, things are looking up elsewhere -- especially in the eastern half of the state.
"Things have improved a lot in eastern Nebraska," Bauer said, "but the fishing is going to be tougher, because there has been so much good cover flooded as the lakes have returned to levels closer to normal."
Nebraska bass fishing is for the most part a small-water game. Some large impoundments are found in the Cornhusker State, but they don't make for the best largemouth action within Nebraska's borders.
"Our big reservoirs serve the primary purpose of providing water for the irrigation of agricultural land, and they are going to endure dramatic drawdowns throughout the hotter, drier parts of any year," Bauer said. "Those dynamics don't provide the kind of stability that leads to good bass fishing. Our best bass action consistently occurs around the state on any number of smaller pits and ponds. And there are some good public waters that bass fishermen can enjoy throughout Nebraska."
Before getting into them, Bauer also noted the need for Nebraska bass fans to scout out and obtain permission to fish private waters. "Many of the Master Angler Awards we issue annually are for bass that come from private waters," Bauer said. "There are small ponds and pits in literally every corner of the state that, collectively, provide some of the best bass fishing in the entire region."
To support that claim, Bauer noted that Nebraska issued 435 Master Angler Awards for bass in 2006, the most recent year for which data was available. That compares favorably with totals from the preceding years. There were 465 awards issued in 2005, 444 in 2004, and 530 in 2003.
Anglers can apply for Master Anger Awards regardless of whether they keep the bass they catch. If they do, the fish must weigh a minimum of 5 pounds. If they release the bass, it must have a minimum length of 20 inches. "We seem to have at least one bass heavier than 8 pounds come to light through the Master Angler Awards each year," Bauer said. There is little question, then, that the state does offer some quality bass action.
When it comes to quantity, the state offers opportunity at just about every turn. "We have plenty of lakes around the state where anglers can expect to catch good numbers of bass on a given outing," Bauer said. He noted that state biologists annually sample more than 50 public waters around Nebraska to learn about the overall quality and health of those fisheries. Those samplings also help Bauer single out some of the better lakes around the state.
He mentioned the sandpits, for example, that anglers have access to at places like Windmill State Recreation Area near Kearney and Lewisville SRA, and the more than 20 pits known collectively as the Fremont State Lakes. He also mentioned a series of fisheries that are among the most special in all of the Great Plains, if not the entire United States.
"Out Interstate Lakes are a series of borrow pits adjacent to Interstate 80 across the state," he explained. "They feature good water quality and good aquatic vegetation. As a result, they are good bets for not only quantities of bass, but also some good quality largemouths."
Bauer also discussed another interesting element of the state's approach to managing Cornhusker largemouths and other game fish species -- the Aquatic Habitat Program. "I guess you could call it a silver lining of sorts when it comes to the drought," he said. Think of it as rehab for lakes that were in serious trouble.
"Ravenna Lake in Central Nebraska is a perfect example," he noted. "It is an old oxbow lake off the Loup River. It had silted in quite a bit, and rough fish were about all you could expect to find in it. As part of the Aquatic Habitat Program, we drained the lake. We excavated out a lot of the silt, did some boat ramp work, and completed some projects to protect and sculpture the shoreline. We also planted some brushpiles and other fish attractors."
Rotenone was used to kill off all the rough fish. When the lake was refilled, it was stocked with bluegills, channel cats and bass. "This was a complete rehabilitation of Ravenna Lake," Bauer said, "and the fishing there is now fantastic. We use the same model . . . the same approach . . . on all the lakes that we include in the project."
Size, of course, dictates exactly what gets done. Ravenna Lake is only 16 acres. But on 300-acre Wagon Train Lake, the project included the addition of artificial structures that are generally more durable than brushpiles tend to be -- features like islands and reefs. And the rehab of Olive Creek Lake included the construction of jetties with deep water nearby.
The NGPC's Daryl Bauer reiterated that when it comes to top-quality bass -- the kind that'll have you thinking about a Master Angler Award application -- anglers need to do some homework on private waters.
"When we look at adding structures and features during habitat projects, we give priority to those things that will provide long-term value to the fisheries and to the anglers enjoying them," Bauer noted. "That's why we focus on things like islands, reefs, jetties and so forth.
Bauer reiterated that when it comes to top-quality bass -- the kind that'll have you thinking about a Master Angler Award application -- anglers need to do some homework on private waters. "You certainly will expect to find less fishing pressure on private waters," he stated, "and that is going to improve your chances at catching a big bass this season. There are big bass in many, many small private lakes around the state. Those anglers who do the legwork and gain permission to fish then are going to enjoy some great action."
shouldn't, however, leave you feeling as though private waters will be the only ones with nice bass available. "The lakes in the Sand Hills, for example, have fairly low bass densities," Bauer said, "so fishermen won't catch quite the numbers of bass there that they will elsewhere. But these lakes are home to some of the prettiest, fattest bass in the state. Some good examples are the lakes on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge."
There's also the diminutive Carter P. Johnson Lake, near Fort Robinson State Park in the Nebraska Panhandle. "It's only 15 acres," Bauer noted, "but it is a really good fishery, and it has excellent big-fish potential."
He also included Ravenna, the little oxbow with a new life, thanks to full rehab. And there's also Burchard Reservoir in southeastern Nebraska. "It's about 150 acres, and it's a flood-control impoundment," Bauer related. "It's a native-grassland watershed with really good water quality, and it produces some big bass every year."
Bauer also noted again the potential of the Interstate Lakes when it comes to big bass. It certainly is different to contemplate a series of smallish pits full of nice largemouths that boast of four-lane-highway access along a 450-mile-plus stretch of America's interstate system. Without question, this is one of the most special bass fisheries in the whole country.
When you think about it, though, Nebraska's bass fishery generally falls into that category. It is mostly made up of lakes that are small. Few of them are going to provide an opportunity to put the 20-foot bass rig on the water and open up the 250-horse outboard! Lakes like that exist in Nebraska, but as noted earlier, they are not home to the best bass action. Instead, the biggest bass in the Cornhusker State generally are going to be found on the smaller lakes, pits and ponds. Most of these locales boast outstanding water quality, which also means plenty of vegetation and other cover for the bass.
With water levels back where they should be, year-classes of young bass should be really good again, too. So as good as the bass fishing will be this season, it ought to keep getting better. The low water doesn't make for good recruitment, so there aren't going to be a lot smallish "yearling" bass this season. But they're on the way. And they'll keep getting bigger, making the fishing even better.