Be sure to include these waters when planning your bass-fishing excursions in the Cornhusker State this year. (March 2009)
Some of Nebraska's best bass fishing will be found at small lakes that can be fished comfortably from a small boat or a tube. And the payoff is often a nice largemouth like this! Photo by Russell Tinsley
Some major Nebraska impoundments continue to endure the effects of a multiyear drought -- but when it comes to bass fishing in the Cornhusker State, a lot remains to talk about.
Some of the following will be familiar to readers, because, frankly, some elements of the state's bass fishery don't change much. Other parts of this story, however, may provide newsy information that anglers can use this season to enjoy some good bassin' action that they might not otherwise have known about. Believe it or not, a few surprises do await you in the following.
The overview provided here by Daryl Bauer of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission won't be a surprise -- or, at least, it shouldn't be to anglers familiar with the state and its bass fishing.
"Our best bass fishing is pretty much always going to be found in the smaller bodies of water around the state," Bauer said. "Private farm ponds and small pits -- some private, others public -- really are the bread and butter of Nebraska fishing."
So do anglers have to downsize to go bass fishing in Nebraska? Not necessarily. Bass fishing this season should be pretty good at some larger lakes around the state, too. You simply have to put everything into perspective when it comes to water and water levels, especially out west.
"Our big impoundments in the western part of the state are irrigation reservoirs," Bauer noted, "and they are going to fluctuate annually by at least as much as 10 feet. Given the drought conditions we've experienced for the past few years, levels down as much as 20 feet aren't unheard of."
That said, he added that bass fishing at Merritt Reservoir continues to be good. He also mentioned Red Willow as a large impoundment that's about to experience a real bass-fishing boom. Shown on some maps as "Hugh Butler Lake," Red Willow is just northwest of McCook, on the border of Red Willow and Frontier counties.
"Red Willow has about filled back up, and it's flooded a significant amount of wonderful bass habitat," Bauer said. "This is part of life on the Great Plains."
He was referring to the cycle of decline, fall and revival that typifies the existence of many a lake in this part of the world stretching from the Canada/North Dakota border to the Kansas/Oklahoma border. More often than some folks realize, any number of the region's waters endure the recurring alternation of drought and rain.
Here's what happens throughout the region at lakes just like Red Willow: Precipitation dwindles to next to nothing over a period of years; lake levels drop dramatically, and new vegetation takes hold in areas that had previously been underwater as part of the lake itself. Then, rains return, sufficing in frequency and intensity to refill lakes like Red Willow to or near normal pool level. When that happens, hundreds of acres of "dry land" are again submerged, taking with them all the vegetation that had sprouted and often flourished on the dry, rich ground.
Not only does that provide great bass habitat, but it also provides the nutrients that bass forage thrives on. When the forage base increases and is coupled with improved habitat, bass don't just do well -- they actually thrive.
If you're looking mostly for big bass, one of the best Cornhusker destinations is Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles U.S. Highway 83 south of Valentine in sprawling Cherry County.
Such is the ecosystem beginning to set itself up at Red Willow as this is being written. This season ought to be pretty good, and things likely will continue to improve over the next couple of years, given relatively stable lake levels. It's a pretty neat deal, because anglers get a chance to enjoy what really is a brand new bass lake.
Another larger lake that Nebraska bass anglers ought to plan on fishing this season is Iron Horse Trail, near DuBois in Pawnee County. According to Bauer, it generally provides consistent bass fishing, but plans call for the lake to be put out of action for a while in the not-too-distant future.
"It's a Natural Resources district lake," he said, "and I know there is an improvement project in the planning process that will take it out of service for a while in the fairly near future. Fishermen should get there now, because it provides pretty good bass fishing, and it's not going to be available during that project work."
Burchard Lake, also in Pawnee County, is another southeastern reservoir that Bauer mentioned as a promising bass destination for this season. "It's one of the best bass reservoirs in the southeastern part of the state," he said. "It's got stable water levels and very clean water. There's quite a bit of aquatic vegetation, which enhances the bass habitat." (Continued)
In general, the large public lakes on Nebraska's east side serve the primary purpose of flood control. As a result they tend to offer much more consistent lake levels than do the irrigation lakes in western Nebraska. Out there, as noted earlier, lake levels fluctuate dramatically on an annual basis regardless of drought status. Of course, it'll be worse during very dry years, as has been the case recently.
If you're looking mostly for big bass, one of the best Cornhusker destinations is Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles U.S. Highway 83 south of Valentine in sprawling Cherry County. "I like to tell people that our Sandhills lakes, like those on the Valentine Refuge, don't have the numbers of bass they'll find in other waters around the state," Bauer explained. "But they're all shaped like footballs!"
He mentioned Dewey and Pelican lakes as waters in Valentine NWR with some big bass in them, and added that Duck Lake there offers solid numbers of bass. He also mentioned a stealth candidate for the angler's consideration.
"Watts Lake is one that we really thought suffered badly as a result of the drought," Bauer said. "But it has plenty of bass and panfish in spite of the long dry period. It's really a sleeper out there for bass fishermen."
In general, water levels in western Nebraska continue reduced. "Box Butte and Lake McConaughy a
re still low," Bauer said, "but they're in a lot better shape than they have been, and there is bass fishing available in both lakes. They've endured five or six years of below-normal or well below-normal rainfall, and so that definitely has an impact."
Longtime Nebraska bass fans probably are wondering about some waters that haven't been mentioned yet: the Interstate Lakes. Think of it as our saving the best for last.
Known to some as the "'I' Lakes," this series of reclaimed borrow pits originally dug out by crews building the interstate highway stretches along Interstate 80 from Grand Island to Sutherland. The lakes are now home to Nebraska's biggest largemouths -- and one of the most unusual public fisheries you'll find anywhere.
In how many other states will you find a four-lane ribbon of limited-access blacktop serving as a guide of sorts to the best bass fishing for miles around? "Every one of the public-access Interstate Lakes has the potential of giving up bass over 5 pounds," Bauer said. "They are wonderful fisheries, and really home to the best bass action in Nebraska year-in and year-out."
He added that the lakes' calling cards are very clear, very clean water and lots of aquatic vegetation. "The biggest challenge is not finding the bass in the 'I' Lakes," Bauer said. "It's figuring out how to catch them."
Finesse fishing and stealth definitely are in order. So, too, is a change in attitude about the kinds of baits that will prove most effective. You're not going to find shad in the Interstate Lakes.
"Shad in these lakes is a bad thing," Bauer said. "Oh, some of them flood from time to time and we'll see baitfish get in them. But predominantly, bass in these pits are feeding on bluegills and crawfish. That is going to dictate the kinds of critters fishermen want to imitate when they're after bass in these lakes."
Many crankbaits imitate forage-fish species; spinnerbaits do the same thing. It's not that they absolutely won't catch bass in any of the Interstate Lakes; it's just that other options will probably be more effective.
Choose, for example, crankbaits with crawdad finishes or bluegill-imitating hues. You also should try standup jigs with "critter" style soft plastics that imitate crawdads. Plastic worms should be fairly small and colored to resemble more little panfish than shad.
"The predator-prey dynamic drives the whole ecosystem in the Interstate Lakes," Bauer said, "and people have to rethink what they're trying to imitate when they fish there. The clear water also dictates the need for stealth. I recommend that people fish them during the low-light periods early and late in the day."
Arguably, topwater baits fished early and late ought to work really well on any of these waters. Small poppers in panfish hues, for example, should be a killer choice.
Another fact about the Interstate Lakes that you might not know: The state originally stocked many of them with smallmouth bass, so they developed into pretty good bronzeback fisheries before the largemouths showed up. "The bottom line," Bauer asserted, "is we know that when you introduce largemouths into lakes with smallmouth bass, the largemouths out-compete them. The smallmouths eventually fade away -- and that's what happened on pretty much all of the 'I' Lakes over time."
As you might expect, the impact is relative, being felt much more by smallmouths in smaller waters such as the Interstate Lakes. In large impoundments all over the place, largemouths and smallmouths do coexist without the smallmouth fishery totally disappearing. In pits like the Interstate Lakes, however, that's never going to be the case.
If you want a taste of what the smallmouth "I" Lakes could be like, plan to fish the pit in War Axe State Recreation Area, just off I-80 Exit 291 in Buffalo County, west of Grand Island -- it has smallmouths.
"The smallmouths did very well in the 'I' Lakes when we first stocked them," Bauer said, "and we've stocked them again in War Axe. They're not very large yet, but they're doing quite well. I stopped there and caught several fat little butterball-looking smallmouths. They are chunky, and you can imagine the fight in them. That is going to be a really fun fishery as the smallmouths continue to grow."
War Axe isn't the only place in Nebraska that smallmouth fans should pencil in on their "Places To Fish This Season" list. Probably the best smallmouth water in the state is the one that serves as its eastern border -- the Missouri River.
"The best smallmouth fishing in the river is from Gavin's Point Dam upstream to the South Dakota border," Bauer said. "But there is some decent fishing below the dam, too. You can catch smallmouths all the way down to Sioux City (Iowa), but really not downstream from there."
You also should be able to catch them in some western Nebraska lakes this season, the effects of the drought notwithstanding. "You'll find some smallmouths in Merritt and McConaughy, and also in Red Willow," Bauer offered. He also mentioned the canal system below Lake Maloney in Lincoln County, and also canals near Lexington in Dawson County.
"You'll catch smallmouths in the 10- to 12-inch range in these canals, and lots of them," he said. "It's fun fishing because they are typically scrappy smallmouths."
Speaking of smallmouths: Anglers could see an increase from 12 to 15 inches in the minimum-length limit for Nebraska bronzebacks, the same as for largemouths. As this was written, a vote was pending on that regulation change.
"For years, we have had a 15-inch minimum for largemouths and a 12-inch minimum for smallmouths," Bauer explained. "There seemed to be little reason for that difference to continue, and it's likely that the few smallmouth fisheries we have around the state would benefit from a 15-inch limit."
No other regulation changes had been proposed or were anticipated at press time, so anglers shouldn't expect any surprises as the 2009 bass season unfolds.
Well -- they shouldn't expect any bad surprises. Bauer's comments suggest that some pleasant bassin' surprises should be just around the corner in the Cornhusker State this season: Look for action at Red Willow to be better than it's been in recent seasons, for some big bass in Watts Lake on the Valentine Refuge, and for some pretty good bass fishing in many of the waters on that public property.
Head up to northeast Nebraska and try your hand at some Missouri River smallmouths above Gavin's Point Dam. Flowing-water smallies are among the most delightful of all to catch; they're real fighters, and the Missouri's habitat and forage base is such that anglers headed up there stand a chance at tangling with some real trophies.
The same outlook can be extended for largemouth fans who frequent the I-80 Lakes, which continue to offer the best public-water bass potential in the state -- and l
ittle reason exists to expect that to change any time soon.
Finally, of course, keep all the private farm ponds and pits that dot the Cornhusker landscape in mind. Those who regularly fly on business in, around and over Nebraska (and, really, the entire Great Plains region) develop quite an appreciation for the amazing number of little fishing holes available in these parts -- a complement of truly staggering dimensions.
And those little ponds are home to some very big bass. You want to catch a 5-pound bass in Nebraska? Stay off the big waters; make the I-80 Lakes the biggest impoundments you fish, and cultivate friendships with landowners whose acreage includes some good bass ponds.
Across the state, you won't find better largemouth fishing this season than what you'll enjoy in small ponds and pits. If smallmouths are your targets, focus on the Missouri River, and maybe pay War Axe a visit along I-80. You won't catch many -- if any -- keepers there, but the bronzebacks you do catch will be well fed, healthy and feisty. You'll enjoy tangling with them, I can assure you.
For the best water levels on public impoundments, you also should stay with the I-80 Lakes and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-control lakes in southeastern Nebraska. Many of those offer clean, clear water and plenty of vegetation, which promotes good forage growth. That, in turn, promotes good bass growth, so you should anticipate tangling with some nice largemouths when you visit these angling spots.
Finally, think about planning a visit to Iron Horse Trail before it goes off line for the work project that Bauer spoke of above. It seems a shame not to fish a good bass lake -- especially when it's about to go away for some period of time. But then, just think how great it'll be when it comes back on line!
All in all, 2009 is shaping up to be a pretty good bass year in the Cornhusker State. The usual suspects are primed to be their usually good selves, and a couple of surprises await anglers looking for some new places to tangle with nice bass.
I'll see you on the water!