It can get mighty cold in both states this time of year, but not too cold for truly dedicated bass anglers. If that sounds like you, then here are some places where you can enjoy your sport this month.
By Gene Hornbeck
A snowmobile suit or pair of insulated coveralls accessorized with gloves and long johns isn't the usual attire you associate with bass fishing, but in Kansas and Nebraska this month, that's the dress code of the season for serious bass anglers.
Yes, some conventional open-water bassin' is still available - especially in Kansas and at times in Nebraska during the frostbite months - but it's very limited.
Larry Tiemann, regional fisheries and wildlife supervisor for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks in Chanute, says open-water fishing in the winter is assured at two eastern reservoirs in his region - La Cygne and Coffey County. Both are fed by warmwater inflows from power-generating facilities and stay at least partially open all winter.
"La Cygne is run by Kansas City Power and Light and it has a reputation for producing big bass," Tiemann said. "It is a fee lake. There's an 18-inch size limit on black bass and wipers.
"Coffey County is a fairly big lake (more than 5,000 acres) and wind can be a factor in boating and fishing safety. The recreational use of the lake is governed by the County and fishermen in boats are required to wear a life jacket at all times."
Currently the daily limits on Coffey County, which also has an excellent smallmouth bass population, includes one largemouth of at least 21 inches, one smallmouth 18 or over and one 13 or under, or two under 13 inches in length, and one wiper measuring at least 24 inches.
The fee for fishing La Cygne is $2 daily or $15 for an annual permit. The daily limit on black bass is five; on wipers it's two. The lake is open seven days a week. The marina on the lake is open six days a week.
Photo by Tom Evans
Veterans of fishing the two open-water lakes in the winter say tackle and lures are very much the same as what they use for spring and fall bass fishing - spinnerbaits, crankbaits, grubs and tube lures.
Tiemann said a couple other reservoirs in his district are very good bass fisheries and offer additional winter bass action.
"Big Hill Reservoir is down near the Oklahoma line, and it has open water most of the time," he said. "We have a 21-inch minimum-size limit on the lake, so it does produce some good bass fishing. Bone Creek, a small new lake near Pittsburg, also has some good bass fishing for both largemouths and smallmouths. It can ice up at times."
Addressing the issue of open-water fishing vs. ice-fishing, Tiemann suggests calling the district offices of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks for current information before traveling very far to fish any given body of water. That way, you'll know whether to come with an ice auger or a bass boat. The regional office phone numbers are: Region 1 at Hays - (785) 628-8614; Region 2 at Topeka - (785) 273-6740; Region 3 at Dodge City - (620) 227-8609; Region 4 at Wichita - (620) 683-8069; Region 5 at Chanute - (620) 431-0380. Public fishing waters are listed in the current fishing guide by region.
Also worth a mention in the southeastern corner of Kansas is the Mined Land Wildlife Area. It encompasses about 14,000 acres with hundreds of strip mine lakes. A good many of them hold bass. There is also a trout fishery on the area. If you do opt to try for trout after a bit of bass action, you also will need a current Kansas trout permit.
Many of the lakes on Mined Land are deep and are fed by ground water, so anglers should be cautious about ice-fishing if things do ice over.
In the Cornhusker State, anglers will likely find they need an auger to get to bass at this time of year. I personally have drilled through 3 feet of clear ice on waters such as Merritt Reservoir and some of the Valentine Refuge lakes in January.
The lakes of the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in Cherry County have historically been the best for catching winter bass. Lakes such as Pelican, Dewey, Hackberry, West Long, Rice, Duck and Clear all have largemouths. Watts is a catch-and-release lake and it offers perhaps the best chance to ice a big one and then release it. If you are looking for a wallhanger or just a couple for the pan, try Pelican, Hackberry, West Long or Dewey lakes.
Live bait is out for fishing the refuge, and thus, most anglers rely on jigging spoons such as the Swedish Pimple, Baby Cobra, Kastmaster and Dardevle. The small sizes work best - say, 1/32- to 1/4-ounce.
Anglers should be prepared to lose a few spoons if they tie directly to the lure. Hackberry, Clear, and Pelican all have a good northern pike population and the fish do hit spoons on occasion. The same thing can happen on Watts, which has a hook-and-release fishery for muskies.
Pelican Lake is the best of the refuge lakes for big, keeper bass. While anglers cannot use live bait, they can use frozen or dead smelt for bait, and that's what many anglers use for both northerns and bass. A check of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Master Angler awards shows that Don Colburn of Valentine iced an 8-pound bass on March 8, 2001. Kevin LeDroit of North Platte caught a 6-pound, 4-ounce fish on March 3, and Brent Bozovsky of Lincoln pulled a 5-pound, 9-ounce specimen through the hole on Feb. 2. All those bass came from Pelican; all were taken on smelt.
Lyle Hamernik of Leigh was fishing a teardrop spoon baited with a wax worm on Jan. 10 when he hooked and landed a 5-pound, 4-ouncer on Pelican.
Merritt Reservoir, which is located just a few miles west of the refuge lakes, also has a good bass fishery. Boardman Bay is a favorite spot for largemouths because of the inundated brush and trees. Live baits such as minnows, chubs or shiners are good bets for the bass; fish them in 10 to 20 feet of water around cover. Some fishermen use conventional tackle, some ice-fishing rods and others use tip-ups on Merritt and many other Nebraska waters where they can fish live bait. The tip-up is also common tackle on the refuge lakes for those who are fishing with smelt for pike and bass.
In a normal year, the ice cover starts to build on the lakes and reservoirs of northern Nebraska in late November or early December. It is normally safe for ice-fishing by mid-December and begins to break up in late February or early March.
Many anglers firmly believe the best ice-fishing occurs for about two weeks after freeze-up and again a we
ek or two before the ice begins to break up in the spring.
Ice-fishing in Kansas can be a hit-or-miss situation. There are years when the good bass reservoirs in northern Kansas such as Sebelius, Webster and Cedar Bluff remain fairly open. If the boat ramps are ice-free, open-water fishing is possible.
Doug Nygren, fisheries chief for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks at Pratt, said there are numerous small state fishing lakes that offer good bass fishing.
"We have 40 such small lakes and they are more apt to freeze up, rather quickly because of their size, so they would offer the best ice-fishing opportunities," he said. "Another resource Kansas anglers have are the community lakes scattered throughout the state. There are a lot of them and many offer some pretty good fishing for bass as well as other species. Our current fishing guide carries a list of them."
Nebraska also has a number of small lakes and reservoirs that serve up bass action throughout the year. Big Alkali Lake just east of the refuge lakes provides similar fishing and is open to bait-fishing. It offers bass plus a good pike population and has some nice crappie in it if anyone is inclined to fish for them on a light ice-fishing rig with a minnow while working on the bass and pike on additional lines such as tip-ups.
Nebraska rules allow the use of five lines for ice-fishing. Kansas's rules allow two lines plus eight tip-ups.
Joel Klammer, district fisheries supervisor at Bassett, said many of the public lakes on the state wildlife management areas in the Sandhills offer some bass fishing. "There is some good bass fishing in the small lakes we manage in the hills and the fishing pressure is light at best in the winter," he said. "Cottonwood-Stevenson, Twin Lakes, South Pine, Yellowthroat and Willow WMAs are good examples. There are also a number of private lakes, wherein permission is required, that have some good bass fishing - lakes such as Schoolhouse and Medicine in Cherry County."
The reservoirs of the southwest - Medicine Creek, Red Willow, Enders and Swanson all have bass. Red Willow is rated the best bet for winter fishing by Steve Lytle, a fishing guide living in McCook.
"I use a depthfinder for my winter fishing," Lytle said. "It gives me an under-ice eye. I usually find the bass around the underwater brush in 10 to 30 feet of water. At times I find a lot of fish in the same cover. By 'a lot' I mean largemouths, wipers and white bass. I like to use jigging spoons and fish them slowly - moving them maybe only in 5- or 6-inch strokes. I even have fish hit them hanging still."
In the Panhandle, Box Butte Reservoir is the best bet for action on the ice for bass and pike. Smith Lake can serve up some largemouths, as can Walgren Lake and Oliver Reservoir.
Lake Minatare has a good population of smallmouths. Bear in mind that it is closed to fishing from Oct. 1 to Jan. 14, or the end of the waterfowl season, due to the fact that it is a federal refuge. While on the refuge front, there is good bass fishing at Island Lake on the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The same rules apply there as on the Valentine Refuge lakes.
In northeastern Nebraska, there is a chance for some open-water fishing below Gavins Point Dam, but it isn't a place I would go to catch winter bass. There are some smallmouths in the area and an occasional largemouth is taken, but the bulk of the catch is made up of walleyes and saugers. Most are taken on minnows or jig-minnow combinations.
Mark Porath, district biologist at Norfolk, said there are a number of wildlife management area lakes in the northeast that host decent numbers of bass.
"We don't see many winter bass fishermen, but Grove Lake, Buckskin Hills, Goose Lake and Maskenthine WMAs all have fair to good numbers of bass," Porath said. "Cottonwood, the lake just below the dam at Gavins Point, has a good bass population, but it can be a little tricky to fish in the winter - sometimes the water stays open and sometimes it ices over, but the bass are there."
The Missouri River from Lewis and Clark Lake upstream to the South Dakota border carries a good population of smallmouth as well as largemouth bass. If the winter is mild, it can be fishable. Fishable, that is, if the boat ramps are not snowed in or iced up and the river isn't running cake ice.
Work the deep holes and back eddies with a chub, shiner or big minnow on a bottom-bouncer or slip-sinker or use the jig-minnow combination. It can be tough to predict what will pick up your bait, as the river is host to walleyes, saugers, northerns and catfish as well as the bass.
In southeastern Nebraska, the Salt Valley Lakes in the Lincoln area all have a reasonable bass population. Surveys indicate that Stagecoach Lake south of Hickman is probably the best bass lake at present.
Daryl Bauer, lakes and reservoirs program manager for the commission in Lincoln, said a couple of recently renovated lakes - Olive Creek and Wagon Train - have good to excellent bass numbers now and some of the young fish are up to the 15-inch minimum.
"Zorinsky and Wehrspann in the Omaha area are still good lakes for some big bass, and a relatively new one, Walnut Creek, has lots of bass," he said. "Burchard Lake is a steady producer of largemouths. It is closed to fishing, however, except for the face of the dam, during the waterfowl season."
There are scores of small lakes on wildlife management areas in the southeast and many offer bass; check the fishing guide. A lot of the more heavily fished lakes carry more restrictive size limits than the statewide 15-inch norm. Check the rules before fishing them.
Winter bass fishing opportunities in Kansas and Nebraska don't end with public waters. In both states, privately owned farm ponds and sandpit lakes produce far more big bass than do the public waters.
Some of us who have fished the farm ponds have found them a bit reluctant to give up their bass in the winter. Personally, I have no explanation for the tight-mouthed attitude of farm-pond winter bass. I've found the same thing true with bluegills.
I have tried all types of bait on both species in ponds where I catch them during the open-water months and came away somewhat short of enough fish for a good fish fry only to try another pond and do reasonably well there.
In addition to the Kansas regional offices, you can get current information on many lakes from the State Park and Public Land offices. They are listed in the current fishing regulations pamphlet.
In Nebraska the district offices are the route to go for information as well. The Lincoln office: (402) 471-0641; Kearney: (308) 865-5310; North Platte: (308) 535-8025; Alliance: (308) 763-2940; Bassett: (402) 684-2921 and Norfolk: (402) 370-3374. There is a detailed list of lakes and reservoirs in that state's fishing guide, too.
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