It's a good thing we have 12 months in a year. With this much great fishing action, we'd never be able to squeeze it all into any fewer months! (February 2008).
It's already February. When the year began a month ago, anxious fishermen in the Great Plains wasted no time in starting up their search for their favorite species -- either in open water or through the ice. If you haven't, you're already behind.
With that in mind, let's get started with the greatest fishing opportunities for the rest of the year in the Great Plains. And remember, that same ice on Devils Lake in January is still on the lake this month. So you're not actually too far behind -- as long as you read fast.
"Devils Lake is one of the best fisheries in North America," said local guide Ted Robinette, "and to fish for northern pike through the ice this time of year is just a hoot."
Count on it! Obtain a topographic map of Devils and stay in shallow water once you arrive. Northerns can be caught throughout the day and will average in the 4- to 6-pound range, with fish topping out over 30 pounds.
"We fish with tip-ups most of the time," Robinette said. "It's much more fun running back and forth than it is standing still and jigging."
Using smelt and herring with a 1/0 treble hook, Robinette fishes these shallow areas and does his best to find spots near vegetation, which can be challenging on 150,000 acres of water. But if you can find these spots, as the man said, it's certainly a hoot!
In the spring following ice-out, stripers can be caught in relatively shallow water in the backs of coves and in the Saline River.
"You have to pay attention to your water temperature in the early spring," advised Jack Hoskinson, who has been guiding for stripers on Wilson for more than 10 years. "About a week after ice-out, I'll start catching fish for three months straight."
Hoskinson fishes with large live bait, sometimes traveling for as far as 300 miles roundtrip to locate what he needs. "Because Wilson is pretty sterile, if we have good ice, then we will have a good die-off of gizzard shad."
The fishing that follows, he said, will be fantastic. Stripers in the 15- to 25-pound range are common, and most of his fish come off planer boards in water 5 feet or less in depth!
Red Willow Reservoir,NE
OK, this time I'm cheating, but it's with good cause that I'm doing so. I'm putting Red Willow in March because that's when the fishing starts, but it certainly doesn't end then. In the spring, look on shallow flats and in mouths of bays for wipers. Gradually move deeper toward summer, said guide Steve Lytle, and work off the lake's deep points for more action with wipers.
Find shallow walleyes early in the year as well, looking for a food source that also moves deeper toward summer. However, also keep this in mind: "Last year we caught a good number of Master Angler walleyes in July and August in less than 15 feet of water," said Lytle. "We paid a lot of attention to the thermocline, stayed just above it, and were able to catch walleyes during the hottest part of the year."
Last year when I fished the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, I went immediately to Clear Lake, even though I've been told that it doesn't necessarily have the best pike fishing.
"From year to year, look at Clear, Pelican, and Dewey for great northern fishing," said Nebraska Game and Parks Commission biologist Daryl Bauer. "Tie on a spinnerbait with your steel leader and find the bulrushes."
If the water is down and doesn't carry to the rushes, look for any dropoff areas in these historically shallow water bodies. A dropoff of 2 feet may be just enough to make your fishing day memorable. It did for me when I fished it. While other anglers fished shallow-water spots, I stayed on the deep-water edges, trolling and casting, and caught northerns all day, several of them measuring more than 30 inches.
And if safety-pin spinnerbaits aren't working, try Mepps spinners and Rapalas. Get there early, though, for the underwater vegetation chokes nearly all fishing out by the middle of the summer. But for April and into early May, the fishing's perfect.
When Lake Sakakawea gets its spring run-off from the west -- rushing east from Yellowstone and bringing cold water, silt, and trash -- the best spot for walleyes to dodge that influx is in the Van Hook arm of the lake. Which also happens to be the best place to catch them.
"When the water is between 60 and 65 degrees," said guide Evan Barker of Van Hook Guide Service, "we usually catch walleyes after the spring smelt spawn in 8 to 12 feet of water."
Barker starts in late May and early June with minnows and then switches to night crawlers as the summer progresses, quite often using a plain Lindy rig. Last year, the guide's average fish typically measured in the 18- to 19-inch range, and finding a limit of those in the largest of Sakakawea's bays wasn't hard.
"If you don't find fish in the Van Hook Arm this time of the year, you're not doing something right," said Barker. "And if you are having problems finding fish, visit the Van Hook Bait Shop and ask where to catch them. People are different up this way. We'll tell you where we are catching them. We want people to come to this part of the world and be successful."
What do these numbers -- 212, 90, 145, 130, 84 -- have in common? These are just the largemouth numbers from a few days on the water at some of Nebraska's best lakes at this time of the year.
Memphis SRA, located 20 minutes from Omaha, offers riprap jetties, vegetation, and a deep creek channel to find bass both shallow and deep at this time of year. During the week, Walnut Creek is another great option at 100 acres and the chance for 100 bass. Mayberry Lake, located in the southeastern part of the state, gives wading anglers
-- as well as those in shape enough to drag a canoe or john boat 100 yards -- another great place to catch bass.
But don't forget Fremont, Two Rivers, Fort Kearny, or Windmill SRAs, all lakes that won't offer large numbers of fish, but plenty of chances for those in Master Angler sizes. How could I write more without mentioning Verdon Lake, or a recent find that is sure to produce early next spring: Iron Horse.
As far as lures, keep it simple. Go with a white spinnerbait, green scum frog, and a crawfish-colored shallow-running crankbait. If the fish are active, you can find them with these few lures. Remember, there's always another great lake right down the road.
"While my clients don't always like it," said catfishing guide R.R. Shumway, "I want the water temperature to be as hot as possible, from 85 degrees on up."
Last year, guide Evan Barker's average fish typically measured in the 18- to 19-inch range, and finding a limit of those in the largest of Sakakawea's bays wasn't hard.
On the Kansas River, he said, catfish can be found from Kansas City to Topeka. They're blues and channels, but most flatheads are on at least two different types of places along the river.
"Look for the backsides of sandbars where there are deep dropoffs," Shumway advised. "You're not looking for a feathering drop. Instead, look for deep holes. The best spots you want might be where you can step out of the boat on one side and be in 2 feet of water, but be casting into 20 feet of water."
At these spots, Shumway uses a variety of baits, including fresh cut shad, live gold fish, and river toads. "Live baits work so much better than frozen," he said. "I always have some frozen with me, but I want the most natural I can find. And in the heat of the summer, the water allows the scent from these baits to drift better in the water."
Plus, as Shumway put it, a catfishing angler needs to be as variable as other anglers who have a large amount of lures for their desired fish. Catfish can be just as picky, and the guide prepares for these situations by having many bait choices.
When not on the sandbars, he looks for long L-dikes and fishes adjacent to those, especially on the points. "Some of the deepest holes are on the very tips of these L-dikes," he said. "I want spots where big flats can get themselves buried in some of the deepest holes on the river."
While on these spots, Shumway fishes the calm water on the inside holes of the L, where catfish attempt to stay out of the current. "When the river is high," he said, "these are some of the best spots to be."
Coffee County Lake,KS
The dog days mean catfish, right? Of course they do, especially at Coffee County Lake in Kansas.
Clyde Holscher, who has been guiding on Coffee County for 15 years, said the catfishing at this time of year is a little different. "My job as a guide is to make sure I can put clients on at least 100 bites during a four-hour period," he said.
Asked if he can do that with dog day channel catfish, he said, "Yes, I can."
He starts by working the edges of channels, looking for a major hump or break. Then he chums -- but not with your traditional five-gallon bucketfuls. He uses a coffee can, putting three cups of soured soybeans in the water around the boat. Using a spinning rod, 6-pound-test line, a 1/16- to 1/4-ounce sinker (depending on the wind), a size 8 treble hook, and the punch bait J-piggs, he tells his clients that when the catfish hits, it's going to be subtle.
"Touch the tip of your own nose as light as you can," he said, "and that's what the bite will feel like."
Anglers have a good chance of finding channels, and even blues, across Coffee County in the 1- to 4-pound range, with most of the fish weighing between 1 and 2 pounds.
"We look for our catfish on our electronics, showing up on the bottom, and then we target those areas," said Holscher. Vertical jig your bait out, allow it to hit bottom, and then pull up one revolution, said Holscher, and that's where you'll find your fish. But remember, it's a subtle bite, and will probably come in between wiping the sweat from your brow.
In September, try fishing the Yankton area below Gavins Point Dam all the way to Ponca State Park in northeastern Nebraska. What should you look for? Frequent tournament angler Brian Caughron has the answer.
"Rocks, rocks, and more rocks," he said. "And if that doesn't pan out, try the wealth of sandbars on the downcurrent side, or the backwater areas near the public state park areas along this stretch."
Crawfish imitators, including small jigs, crankbaits, and spinnerbaits work best. If you get a chance, start looking for smallies even earlier than September, getting on the river toward the end of May and the first of June. Fish near the Niobrara State Park area or the Verdel Landing area in northern Nebraska. Easily accessible from both South Dakota and Nebraska, this stretch of river proves worthy during most times of the year.
The fall walleye bite is in full swing by October at Cattail Lake in the northeastern Glacial Lakes region of South Dakota. Taking effect in the middle of September, the fishing heats up when the water starts to cool down. "When the water gets between 56 and 64 degrees," said local guide Gary Gangle, "the walleye bite is best."
Gangle finds his fish a couple of ways, among them having lived in the area all his life and by paying attention to the various forage foods near the lake. The fall of 2007 saw anglers finding fish with live frogs, since the spring hatch was as large as Gangle had ever seen.
"During years like that, the shore fishing will be phenomenal," said Gangle. "It's simply a matter of looking for frog eyes and finding walleyes close to that food source." By getting out early in the year, anglers can locate what the fall food source will be. "The fish will always go toward food," he added. "You
just have to see what that food source is."
Walleyes up to 9 pounds can be expected this summer in Cattail's shallow-water areas. Gangle uses a Lindy rig, hooking his frogs through the nose and letting their natural action take over. Good numbers of fish can be expected in the 3- to 6-pound range.
When shallow-water areas near forage aren't producing, look for walleyes close to the large number of stickups along the shoreline. Since there isn't a lot of aquatic vegetation on that lake, the walleyes tend to congregate around the woody structure. And if live baits aren't the ticket, pitch to shorelines using a host of shallow-running, shad-colored imitations.
I spoke with guide Clyde Holscher again when it came to late-season fishing in Kansas, and he said there was no better time to find white bass than right before winter. There are a large number of fish in the 1- to 2-pound range at Perry that can be caught on shad imitations. Holscher has used silver hair jigs from 1/16 to 1/32 ounce to find fish, and added red jigheads as well. Once again, it's a subtle bite for him, with most fish being caught in 5 to 7 feet of water.
When searching for fish, fish quickly, using light spinning tackle and leave the trolling motor on medium. Keep your rod tip down and don't be afraid to make casts toward the shallower areas.
Find walleyes through the ice by first obtaining a map from one of the local bait shops on the lake's northern end. Nebraskans Monte and Scott Mares spend a large amount of time fishing north of the Cornhusker State when ice evades them farther south. At Waubay, specifically near the town of Greenville, they look for bottom-covering riprap, fishing fatboys, teardrops and spoons.
"If you can find a change in bottom structure, such as riprap, or a change in contour, you can find fish," said Monte.
With their maps, anglers should also note the accompanying GPS coordinates. "You can walk right to the humps with these maps," Monte added.
The Mares catch most of their fish in 15 to 20 feet of water, with the deepest down to 22 feet. And I've seen them at work myself, so if the fish aren't in these areas, they don't mind drilling a few more holes.
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Just one final tip: Pay a lot of attention to the lakes ranked second and third for each month on the calendar graphic that accompanies this article. There definitely are some sleepers among them, as well as some angler favorites that I wish I could have talked more about.
Now get out there and start fishing. From the first warm day in spring to the first warm day next spring, the Great Plains offers some of the best fishing in the country. Just make sure you take advantage of the best of it each month of the year!
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