In a great region like ours, a serious angler could easily fish 365 days a year. To prove it, here's 12 months' worth of the finest fishing the Great Plains has to offer. (February 2007)
The biggest problem with fishing in the Great Plains lies in knowing the direction in which you should drive to get to your favorite hotspot. If you decide on one, you'll be leaving out some other great location.
So do this: Tell yourself that you're going to fish every lake within a few hours' drive of your home, and at least one lake a month that's outside of your vicinity. This schedule will take you all over our region throughout the year, enabling you to encounter a world of beautiful scenery and fabulous fishing. Everyone needs to embark on a fishing road trip at least a few times a year -- and one of the best months to start is January.
At Merritt Reservoir, the Boardman arm is Nebraska's most consistent source of yearly ice, maintaining ice during many years in which other reservoirs and smaller lakes fail to. Because of that, Merritt does get a lot of wintertime fishing pressure.
"Despite this pressure," said Nebraska Game and Parks commission fisheries biologist Daryl Bauer, "it is one of the most consistent ice-fishing spots in the state. While many people who ice-fish in the Sandhills can only do so in a few feet of water, Merritt ice-anglers sometimes have over 40 feet of water to work with in spots."
Anglers use a variety of crappie lures for these trips, including minnows, teardrops, Kastmasters, and Swedish Pimples. And they target dropoffs, contour changes, and a long line of treetops.
"Drill holes to find fish," advised Bauer. "Don't get settled in one spot. If the fish aren't there, they aren't there. Change locations on the lake."
Using depthfinders, locate your fish through the ice. If you're a serious ice-angler or mean to become one, buy a power auger. On lakes in this region, you'll save yourself a lot of time and headaches, and enable yourself to spend more time fishing.
Reetz Lake, in northeast South Dakota, offers some of the best yellow perch fishing in the state. But these fish are not your average yellow perch.
"Anglers coming to Reetz Lake for yellow perch are searching for big fish," noted Mark Ermer, regional fisheries manager with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. "A lot of anglers fish the lake during the late-ice period before the traditional spawn that occurs in March and April."
Added Ermer: "Perch anglers here are looking for trophies." And there are several places to find them. Originally created after a flood in the mid-1990s, Reetz Lake is filled with a variety of structure ranging from old roadbeds and conventional points to aquatic vegetation and flooded timber. Structure is abundant, as are big perch. Anglers who fish the lake will be looking for big fish, and this year before the spawn, they'll have the opportunity to find them.
I'd be making a huge error if I didn't tell you that the state- and world-record 123-pound flathead catfish came from Elk City Reservoir in 1998. Bearing in mind that you never catch the biggest fish in the lake, target big flatheads with a couple of different methods.
One of these involves jigging basic catfish baits near the bottom of the lake. And don't just set out lines on the bottom: Allow your bait to move, for flatheads are very predatory and often aggressive. Another method matches flathead anglers with deep-diving crankbaits. Bounce these off of the lake's bottom, much as you would when chasing bass in shallow water.
Elk City has a number of public fishing areas on the eastern side of the lake, so search for cats in the less congested areas on the western side, taking advantage of the many points and inlets in an effort to find fish.
At Devils Lake, pike can be found throughout the spring and summer months. The larger numbers of fish are caught from March through May, while bigger fish are ordinarily met with during the later dog days. Aquatic vegetation abounds at Devils Lake, so fish it before the green stuff gets too thick to manage.
Find pike along old shorelines near Fort Totten and on the rocky structure in Budweiser Bay. Focus on big contour changes and on structure.
"Fish for pike with No. 4 and No. 5 Shad Raps and shad-colored Salmo fishing lures" said Mike Sylling, from Ed's Bait shop on the lake. Fish in the 10- to 20-pound range are quite common through the summer.
What's the best thing about fishing at Kansas' state recreation areas in the summer? You'll probably be in one of the few boats fishing them.
Many of these midsized reservoirs are not fished often, including Miami and Shawnee SFLs. At 118-acre Miami, expect plenty of good shoreline and boat angling in this stump-filled hole. When fishing it, an angler must dodge stickup after stickup, but plenty of bass are to be found.
If your fish aren't hitting on top or on your crankbaits, use soft plastics off of structure. When I fished it, we quickly turned a 10-bass day into a 60-bass day with these methods, despite a 30-m.p.h. wind that constantly threw our small boats into the shoreline.
Shawnee, at 135 acres, is another lake offering excellent largemouth numbers. It will allow crankbait fishing off of the lake's levee as well as the various dikes and points throughout. This is a great place to catch a lot of fish in the morning or evening.
Lyon Lake, whose waters originally opened on Jan 1, 2005, is another excellent midsized option in Kansas. Also at 135 acres, it too is relatively small, yet pressure is light.
"During this time of the year, there will be no more than two dozen people fishing it on a weekend, with much less on weekdays," said Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist Carson Cox, who went on to suggest a number of midsized lakes in the state that are seriously underfished, including Old Sedan City Lake, Montgomery, Yates Center, and Carbondale City Lake.
The conventional walleye-fishing wisdom holds that the fish are all over Lake Oahe at all times of the year. Yet most success comes in mid-May through mid-July, when the bite starts on the north end near Mobridge and moves southward toward Whitlock.
"The bite is usually at Gettysburg by Memorial Day," said John Lott, senior fisheries biologist for the SDDGFP. Anglers use a variety of lures through these months, using night crawlers, Phelps floaters, and plugs.
On the SDDGFP Web site is shown a map of Lake Oahe with a number of state park locations. Spend about a half-hour before your fishing trip making calls to these parks in an effort to find the most up-to-date information on the lake, and then fish accordingly.
Fishing Milford Reservoir not only enables anglers to catch nice white bass throughout its waters, but also lets them catch a large number of white bass at the same time. Local angler Randy Meerian fishes Milford regularly for white bass.
"The first time we fished Milford, we chased gulls around all day and only caught a few fish," he said in describing a common practice for some white-bass anglers, whereby gulls lead to baitfish and baitfish lead to white bass. "Then we got smart and started fishing our contour breaks."
When Meerian fishes the lake, he hides himself in one of the reservoir's many fingers, often targeting Farnam and Curtis creeks. Like many white-bass anglers, Meerian vertically jigs a number of lures including shad-colored slab spoons, Kastmasters, and doll flies, and is able to catch his share of fish in the 10- to 16-inch range.
"We really found consistency when we learned the lake and started paying attention to our depthfinders," he said. "When we find contours, we find fish."
At Box Butte, the pike fishing is hot -- the hotter the better.
"Late July and August are our best months fishing Box Butte," said Nebraska conservation officer Sean McKeehan, a frequent angler at Box Butte.
When the lake level is drawn down for irrigation, McKeehan and a group of friends take advantage of the shrinking food sources in the lake. "We fish the edges of the grass, running No. 5 Mepps spinners and spinnerbaits parallel to the grassy edges."
Plus, they'll fish the pockets that surround the lake, looking for any sort of ambushing spot that northerns love to frequent. Normally, McKeehan catches fish in the 24- to 28-inch range on these edges, while larger pike, it's long been understood, have been taken on big diving crankbaits on contour changes in the middle of the lake.
"In a variety of spots, we've caught several big pike figure-eighting near the surface after seeing fish chase our lures."
At 1,600 acres, anglers can find fish all along the grassy south shoreline of the lake. And when you're one of the few boats on the water, in the middle of near-100-degree-days in August, you might see McKeehan out there fishing 3 to 8 feet of water with black bucktailed Mepps or chartreuse spinnerbaits.
Plus, as an added attraction for those fishing the middle for big pike, a large channel catfish has on more than one occasion latched onto a lure. A few years back, McKeehan was out after pike when he caught a near-state-record 40-pound channel catfish!
Start your fall fishing by chasing deepwater bluegills at Enemy Swim. Pinpoint fish in 10 to 15 feet of water along vegetation with jigs and night crawlers. Fish these areas rapidly until you find fish, not spending too much time in any one spot.
Talk to locals about recognized hotspots. When you see flashing bass and pike, assume they're chasing bluegills and target those locations. Don't fish the same type of water if that water doesn't produce the first time; search for something different. Also, try fly-fishing for bluegills with popping bugs in shallower water.
I hate to keep telling people about this little out-of-the-way lake that won't hold many anglers and can only be accessed with, at most, a large johnboat -- but I'm still going to do it. If you haven't bassed at Verdon SRA and you live within a day's drive of Nebraska, you're cheating yourself.
Fish with your kids at this one; work it from the bank, or drop a canoe or kayak in its waters. You won't be sorry. The only drawback is the large amount of aquatic vegetation that covers a lot of the lake. It's a nightmare for anglers (which is maybe another reason that people stay away?), but it's also where the nice fish are located.
Fish the grass edges throughout the lake with white spinnerbaits and tackle the middle of the heavy grass areas with scum frogs.
You'll have to remind yourself that you're fishing on the same planet as the rest of us when you first see the Jeffrey Energy Center and the absence of visible cover on its lakes. But it does have some of the best smallmouth and wiper numbers in the state. Yet when we fished it, we didn't catch these fish. Smallmouths flashed the entire time we fished it, but largemouths and walleyes were the fish of choice on our trip.
Robbie Gaia, a friend of mine, hung into something that pulled him across the lake for several minutes before eventually breaking his line. What was it? Don't know -- never saw it.
The Jeffrey Energy Center Makeup Lake and the Jeffrey Energy Center Makeup Auxiliary Lake are definitely worth fishing, especially when there's no telling what you might catch when you hook up.
The hottest lure of the day when I fished it? A fluorescent pink crankbait fished between 4 and 6 feet below the surface. Think outside the realm of the normal when you battle these lakes and spend a lot of time looking for depth changes. These lakes have limited visible structure.
At Lake Sakakawea, ice-fishing for walleyes is not only is a yearly venture but also a necessity. Anglers have a couple of options when fishing for walleyes on the lake. First, find your summer hotspots, usually humps and points throughout the lake, and target these exact same locations in the winter. Use depthfinders the same way on the ice that you would during the summer.
"The 2006 summ
er fishing was great at Sakakawea. And we expect the same results this winter," said North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries biologist Scott Gangl. "With a strong year-class of walleyes in the 14- to 16-inch range, anglers were able to catch nice average-sized fish with an occasional large walleye over 30 inches. As a result of our lowered water in the summer, much of our forage fish died, and anglers were able to catch more fish in the summer. The walleye were hungry."
Douglas Bay has predictable ice year to year, and Wolf Creek, on the eastern side of the lake, is another long-recognized hotspot for winter ice-fishing. And, when all else fails and the ice hasn't cooperated, fish these same spots from a boat.
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Now that you have a long list of old favorites and new hotspots to try, I'll give you a little more in the form of a different bit of advice that NDGFD fisheries chief Greg Power offered with respect to lakes in his neck of the woods.
"Look for sundown walleye bites at Devils in the winter and target the back bays at Sakakawea in April for pike," he said. "Anywhere there is warm inflow to the lake, pike will be there."
I come across situations like that a lot when I'm working. One expert says to target this lake for one species, and another says another. Instead of it complicating things, however, I see this as a blessing: more options for more species on more lakes.
Plus, I didn't even get into the statistical data put forth by all four of the Great Plains states concerning their fisheries. When speaking with various biologists, many of them referred to these in talking about lakes in their specific areas. These are invaluable resources for planning trips throughout the year.
But when all else fails, just go and fish. That definitely works, too!
Find more about Great Plains fishing and hunting at: GreatPlainsGameandFish.com