Ready for a road trip? Here are 36 excellent places to fish -- three for each month -- in the Great Plains states.
There's no reason for me to ramble on about the great fishing opportunities across the Great Plains this year. I'd rather just let the experts do the talking. So, here it goes.
Crappie, Cedar Bluff
"We get a week a year of ice in Kansas," said angler Monte Mares. "And we take full advantage of it."
Because Kansas is not known for its ice-fishing opportunities, anglers fortunate enough to find ice south usually have the lakes to themselves.
"Cedar Bluff has huge crappie, in the 14- to 18-inch range," said Mares. "But sometimes you will find 8- to 10-inch crappie. If so, just move. These sized fish will not be with the larger ones."
Catch these slabs with some sort of tail, minnow or jig and target buoy-marked brushpiles on the water.
"You can limit out on nice walleyes and big perch by knocking on doors and getting permission to private lakes in northeastern South Dakota," added Mares. "There are a bunch of places to stay, and most of the lakes, both private and public, are less than 15 minutes apart."
A third option is recently renovated Summit Lake in eastern Nebraska. Because of this recent project, this mid-sized reservoir has become one of the state's best fisheries right now, especially for largemouth bass. While extremely hot a couple of months after ice-out, these fish can be caught now with crappie and bluegill jigs near underwater structure close to the lake's multiple jetties.
Northern Pike, Valentine NWR
"The refuge lakes are good every year," said Nebraska fisheries biologist Daryl Bauer. "This year will be no different."
Use tip-ups with dead smelt because live bait is prohibited on the refuge. If you can't sit still, jig big spoons and chubby darters. Bigger baits are easier for fish to find, and they match the perch and young-of-the-year carp better than smaller options. Fish Pelican and Hackberry first for numbers, then look at Clear for 30- to 40-inch pike through the ice.
While La Cygne is known as Kansas' year-round fishery because of it local power plant that warms its water through the winter, Kansas statewide fisheries management coordinator Kyle Austin said don't overlook La Cygne as a white bass and wiper hotspot.
Also this month, recently renovated Cunningham Lake in Omaha will offer large numbers of bluegills through the ice. Some fish will be keeper size, but don't expect many. Do expect, however, a good amount of fish being caught.
Bluegill, Lyons SFL
"Lyons State Fishing Lake is a hell of a good bluegill fishery right now," said Austin. "And I'm talking quality."
Fish quickly while you're looking for bluegills, and do so with both live and artificial options. For artificial, use a 1/32-ounce jighead with a curly-tail grub to find fish. Change colors and locations often.
From personal experience, one of the most repeated mistakes when bluegill fishing is thinking that this species can be caught with any lure at any time. Make adjustments to find some of Lyons' best fish.
At Two Rivers SRA Lake No. 5 outside of Omaha, buy an inexpensive rainbow trout permit on this mid-month opening day for 12-inch fish.
A bit farther south, folks at Kansas' Hillsdale start walleye fishing using two methods. "Real slow trolling and vertical jigging along the spawning grounds are your best techniques," said Austin.
Walleye, Coffee County Lake
"It's an overlooked walleye lake," said local guide Chad Richardson. "A lot of people only fish near the warm-water discharge area."
While that upper end is a great spot to catch a grab bag of fish, Richardson often finds himself alone on the lake's lower end. "I fish near the face of the dam and on main-lake points using traditional walleye tactics, including bottom bouncers and spinners while trolling."
April is prime time to be in South Dakota's Black Hills for trout fishing. Use the Dakota Angler and Outfitter Web site at www.flyfishsd.com for fishing reports regarding this region's plethora of stream and lake fishing options for various species of trout, including rainbows.
April is also a good time to begin walk-trolling for walleyes at Kansas' Glen Elder. Because of the lake's soil-cement dam, anglers in hip boots can walk along this lake's two-mile dam and "troll" with a long pole using gizzard shad-colored crankbaits and shallow-water divers. Walleyes hit as they move shallow to spawn.
Mixed Bag, Merritt Reservoir
"In May or June," said biologist Bauer, "you just can't beat Merritt." Walleyes, channel catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, pike, and even muskies, are available in this lake's backwater coves near the Snake River.
"Plus, there are flooded smartweeds all over the lake," said Bauer. "And everything will be there."
For the non-particular angler, traditional techniques include slip-bobbing live baits, mainly leeches and crawlers. "Folks are starting to figure out that these fish are chasing alewives, and they can also be caught on spinnerbaits and crankbaits," said Bauer. "For big pike and muskies, put on a spinnerbait with a steel leader."
Often known for its walleye fishing, Kansas' El Dorado provides some of the region's best white bass fishing. "When the weather gets in the 50s, you'll have a good bite triggered in the creeks," said Kansas fisheries biologist Craig Johnson. Wading and small-boat anglers can catch fish in the riffles or the deep-water pools using jigs and spinners, double-rigging and fishing them about 18 inches apart.
May's third option is bass fishing just about anywhere in southeastern Nebraska. Verdon and Mayberry lakes should be first on the list for small-boat anglers and bank-anglers. Big-boat fishermen can catch fish at Burchard with just about any lure that moves, most notably floating soft plastics.
Channel Catfish, Red River
Last year on the Red River during a three-day stretch, guide Kent Hollands' anglers caught more than three tons of fish.
"On one of those days, we caught over 80 c
hannel cats and didn't catch one under 10 pounds," he said.
The rigs he uses are basic. Plain, flat no-roll sinkers, 12- to 24-inch smelt, the fresher the better, with 80-pound braid and 30-pound mono (so he won't lose the whole rig if he hits a snag). Stink bait doesn't work as well for the big fish.
When on the river, both bank- and boat-fishing can be productive, and anglers should fish below one of the river's check dams if possible. Before you fish, visit www.invoman.com to see Hollands' latest fishing reports, which describe water levels, bait selections, and the tactics used during his latest trips on the river.
A bit farther southwest, South Dakota's mid-June to July walleye bite is spectacular. "Fish are consistently in the Cheyenne River and Little Bend arms of Oahe," said South Dakota fisheries biologist Chris Longhenry. "Fish flooded timber and main points using half of a crawler behind a bottom bouncer." During a good day, expect a few fish more than 20 inches.
For a third option, "If you have enough money to buy a dozen crawlers or leeches and can find a lawn chair, you can catch fish at Devils Lake," said local guide Greg Schoneck. Miles of excellent shore-fishing for trophy walleyes, northern pike, and white bass make this lake a summertime bank-angler's dream.
Walleyes, Milford Reservoir
For most, fishing changes in the heat of the summer. At Milford it's no different, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. "You won't catch as many in July as you would in May and June," said guide Richardson. "But 50 percent to 75 percent of your fish will be above the lake's 18-inch minimum." At this time of year, fish go deeper and Richardson trolls shad-colored crankbaits.
The guide targets main-lake points and deep flats, usually in the 15- to 25-foot range. "Walleye guys have to do more at Milford in the hot summer than dragging a jig and a crawler," said Richardson. "For someone who knows how to troll it can be very good fishing."
Greg Powers, head of fisheries in North Dakota, said that the largemouth and smallmouth fisheries are very underutilized near Bismarck and Jamestown.
"Because everyone is so walleye-focused up here, there are few people concentrating on these excellent small-lake bass fisheries," said Powers.
At Sakakawea, fishing is best for walleyes at the New Town area north of Williston in late May and June. But good fish can still be caught in this area during July as well.
Wipers, Branched Oak
"Some of Nebraska's best dog-day fishing is for white bass and wipers," said Bauer.
Either by bank, float tube, or boat, look for surface feeding, fishing windblown banks where shad are most likely to be following plankton to shallow water. From the boat, trust your electronics. "These fish are moving a lot, chasing open-water baitfish," said Bauer.
Move with them by covering a lot of water with shad-imitations.
Much like Nebraska, August is wiper time in Kansas as well.
"When things get slow in July and August and the walleye fishing is tough," said Austin, "wipers, particularly at Clinton, offer some excitement for us."
Summer is also always a good time for channel catfishing. "You won't have the same trophy fishery on the North Dakota stretch of Lake Oahe as you do on the Red River," said Powers, "but you'll catch a ton of eaters in this underutilized catfish fishery."
Northern Pike, Goose Lake
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission recently completed a renovation project at Goose Lake, and now the lake is producing excellent fish. You'll catch pike from a johnboat, bass boat or in the shallows in waders. Spinnerbaits near bulrushes and topwaters and crankbaits on the edges make for fast fishing. Expecting 20-50 pike in a day is not uncommon, and most of these fish are in the 20- to 30-inch range.
Johnson Lake's smallmouth fishery at its outlet and near its riprap banks with crankbaits is a great treat for the fall.
In addition, a trip to Roy Lake in the fall revealed that a simple black spinnerbait near heavy cover produced northern pike, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and walleyes on this northeastern South Dakota glacial lake.
Smallmouth Bass, Glen Elder
Glen Elder's smallmouth fishery is one of Kansas's best-kept secrets. "We stocked smallmouth bass in here in the mid-1990s from a strain of fish from Tennessee's Dale Hollow," said Austin. "And, man, did they take hold." Now, fish in the 5- to 6-pound range are common.
The lake isn't covered in smallmouth habitat, but the South Bluffs area and at Glen Elder State Park are great places to start. "There are some places out from the state park that have riprap 20 to 30 yards from the bank," said Austin. "We've surveyed a lot of smallies in that area close to the park."
Also, along the south side of the dam, there is an old underwater roadbed about a mile long that is another great spot. Fish these areas with jigs, spinnerbaits and crankbaits, and don't be afraid to upsize your lures a little bit in search of bigger fish.
At Devils Lake, first ice has already arrived or will soon. Guide Steve Bourcy said the yellow perch bite is excellent at first ice. "For those new to Devils, check with local bait shops for GPS coordinates for structure and past bite locations," he said.
For a chance at saugers, saugeyes and walleyes, look to Lewis and Clark Reservoir on the South Dakota-Nebraska line. "Find the old river channel and jig with live bait for all three of these species," said Bauer.
Yellow Perch, Waubay
"At first ice, we drive north from Nebraska to northeastern South Dakota," said Mares. "Bittern and Waubay are our spots, but they get hit pretty hard by anglers. But the perch are there, and there's no better time to catch them."
Because these glacial lakes are, as Mares described, fish bowls, he and his brother Scott look for points close to deep water and rocks and fish these areas with frosties. "Problem is, they just don't stay in the same spot," said Mares. "They're there, then they're gone. If you haven't seen fish on your Vexlar in a half-hour, change spots. You could have a long weekend if you don't."
"Harlan County Reservoir is going to have some dang good crappies pretty soon," said Bauer. "With the recent crappie stockings and all the lake's acres and acres of flooded willow trees and cottonwoods since it's filled back up, it's going to offer some great ice-fishing next winter."
Stay in Nebraska for
a great third option; 14- to 17-inch crappie, walleyes, catfish and even saugers are at Willow Creek, said Mares. For a mixed-bag day, use teardrops with something a little different on them, such as the addition of a tail.
Mixed Bag, The Tailrace
For a winter open-water option, anglers can't beat the tailrace below the dam at Sakakawea. "It's typically good in bad years and phenomenal now," said guide Schoneck. "Ten- to 12-pound walleyes, brown, cutthroat and rainbow trout, sturgeon, catfish -- you name it and it's at the tailrace." It will usually stay open for at least three miles, and during this time of the year the water will be open even more.
Use a jig and a minnow or a Lindy Rig. "The lighter the line, 4- to 6-pound-test, and clearer the better," added Schoneck. Some anglers drift with three-way bell sinkers and stick baits, then run back up to the tailrace and do it all over again. Others anchor and jig. Regardless of the choice, this open-water fishery could be the Great Plains' best winter option.
Staying close to Lincoln isn't a bad thing. Wagon Train has 14- to 15-inch crappie, and there are good numbers of bass, crappie and bluegills at Wildwood.
For a third option, last year I found myself watching boat after boat of anglers coming into the ramp at Sherman Reservoir on a late June afternoon. Keepable walleyes, white bass and crappie made a believer out of me regarding this water body's mixed-bag potential. Those same fish are also there through the ice.