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The Great Plains' Great Family Vacations

The Great Plains' Great Family Vacations

Fishing and family fun can combine to make a great vacation when you and yours visit these locations across the Great Plains.

By Jeff Kurrus

After last year's family vacation article in Great Plains Game & Fish - in which I talked about Lake Oahe in South Dakota, the Fremont State Recreation Area in Nebraska, Devils Lake in North Dakota, and the Fall River State Park in Kansas - I spoke with my wife. We decided that in the future, if I were given the opportunity to work on an article like this again, there would be no sense in covering even one of the same places two years in a row. That being the case, I haven't.

What I have done, in contrast, is give you and your family not one particular lake, or one particular spot to take root for the duration of your vacation. Instead, I'm sending you places with the hope that you'll find so much in each area that you'll decide on your way back home that one trip just didn't cover everything you wanted to see.

Kansas City
Kansas City here I come! Let's get the city out of the way first. Not that there's anything wrong with seeing a major league baseball game after a long day of fishing, but I wouldn't want you to think that all of my choices are near the big city. Actually, now that I think about it, Kansas City is the New York City of this family fishing article.

But before we get to the bright lights, let's do a bit of fishing on some lakes that are within an hour's drive from the heart of the metropolitan area.

Clinton Lake boasted one of the highest concentrations of white crappie above 8 inches during the state's most recent fish surveys. This 7,000-acre reservoir allows a family to take advantage of fishing, as well as swimming and even water-skiing.

Photo by Tom Berg

Perry Lake is another fishing spot you'll want to visit. This 12,600-acre reservoir boasted crappie weighing 2 pounds and the third highest density - among reservoirs - of white crappie in the state's surveys. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks' management has also surveyed largemouth bass near 5 pounds there, and Perry stands to give up a few bluegills to anyone who wants to chase them. And what kid doesn't like to catch bluegills?

For the city life, pick your poison. Your spouse may enjoy a day of shopping at the Plaza (info online at, or prefer a day at a Kansas City Royals game (, or at the Negro League Baseball Museum (, or at a great number of other activities this big city has to offer, including Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun ( and the Children's Museum of Kansas City (


Lodging is available in town, or camping is offered at both Clinton and Perry.

The Red River
This "Red River of the North" spans the entire eastern coast of North Dakota. That gives families the opportunity to see as much or as little of the state as they would like with camping and lodging opportunities from the Canadian border to South Dakota. Plus, there are chances for quality fishing all the way up and down the river.

We're not just talking about small fish here either; we're talking about lunker catfish and nationally known walleye fishing. Walleyes as large as 12 pounds are caught each year on the little Red River. In a state where Devils Lake often overruns anglers' minds with its excellent fishing, the Red River is able to creep under the radar and provide more than its fair share of angling for any family vacation.

Overall, there have been more than 50 separate species of fish caught on the Red River, including smallmouth bass, walleyes, channel catfish, carp, northern pike, and saugers. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department reported that channel catfish were the most prominent fish in the Red River, with fish growing over 30 pounds. These catfish use tributary streams to spawn in and often remain in the same relative area for much of their lives. So you can set up camp in one of the many areas along the river (a list of such areas are on the NDGFD's Web site), and put out two rods for each person in your family. Later, as night falls and the campfire stories begin to fill the air, maybe you'll hear the bell on the end of your rod signaling the first strike of the evening.

But if catfish aren't your forte, northerns have been sampled in the river, with fish as large as 45 inches surveyed in 1995. In addition, smallmouth bass can be found on both the upper and lower ends of the river, while saugers are often harvested in the lower reaches of the Red River, south of Grand Forks. Yet there might be one little problem with your familial search for fish.

"Mom? Dad? What else is there to do besides fishing?" Just in case you hear this (and you probably will), keep the following in mind. In Fargo are the Children's Museum at Yunker's Farm (, which has been rated as one of the top 25 children's museums in the nation by Child magazine, and Bonanzaville (, a pioneer village and museum. Information on children's activities in the Grand Forks area can be obtained at

With or without fishing on your mind, the scenery of North Dakota during the summer and its cool nights will provide a parent's escape and a child's memory for life. Look at it this way: Everyone has a different reason to go on these little getaways. For example, anglers from all over the world come to fish the Red River every year. The crazy thing is that many of them come to fish for carp!

So keep in mind that the opportunities for a vacation and for catching a variety of fish are at your fingertips. And to a child who is looking to catch anything, a carp is just as good as any other fish.

The Black Hills
Nature writer Dan O'Brien, author of The Rites of Autumn and Buffalo for the Broken Heart, pulled me aside once and showed me the difference between a shortgrass prairie that had been ravaged by cultivation and overgrazing for countless years, and a second section of shortgrass prairie that was in its 10th year of attempted restoration. To someone like myself, the difference was small. But for the rest of my time in the Black Hills, the difference between those two areas of grass began an education of the Western landscape that I will never forget.

This is but one small example of the learning experiences one can come across in the Black Hills. At the time, I had a tackle box in the back of my truck and two baitcasters. They never even left the truck. What happened to me while I visited will happen to you as well. You'll start in search of a trout stream, and be pulled to a state park for its spectacular sights. Or you'll go in search of bison, and find the perfect little nook to wet a line. What I've tried to do is compile a list of areas that have drawn my interest in the past. Use this as a base, then create your own.

At Bear Butte State Park, located near Sturgis, you can see four states from the butte's summit. Along with its campsite, nature trails, and an education center, you'll find a small lake and a boat ramp. It's just the kind of lake at which to start your fishing. Small yet personal, it's the kind of place where young boys and girls can walk around the lake and discover nature for themselves.

Once you've graduated past smaller water, head south to Angostura Recreation Area near Hot Springs. You'll find the park's floating convenience store and miles of shaded shoreline to find a spot to start fishing. South Dakota's State Parks and Recreation Areas Web site states that anglers of all ages and levels will be comfortable at Angostura's 5,000 acres of water. When the fishing (if the fishing) for walleye, smallmouth bass, crappie, or bluegill slows down, put the rods and reels down for a trip to the beach, playgrounds, or hiking trails. Then stay for the night, reserving one of over 165 campsites. Before leaving, keep in mind why Hot Springs is called Hot Springs, and visit the world's largest natural warmwater swimming pool on Highway 385 in Hot Springs.

If fishing doesn't sound as good as it did yesterday, you will not be disappointed with the area's other opportunities, some of which are listed below.

Wind Cave National Park ( features over 50 miles of mapped cave passages at the 28,295-acre park, and its mixed-grass prairie is one of the few remaining in the world. Animals like elk, pronghorn, bison, and mule deer are regularly seen. The park is located near Hot Springs.

At Bear Country USA ( near Rapid City, you can drive your family through to look at black bears.

Every kid loves trains, and the trip on the 1880 Train ( near Mount Rushmore National Monument and the Crazy Horse Memorial affords the chance to get up close and personal with an antique locomotive.

South of Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills Playhouse ( will feature both Arsenic and Old Lace and Inspecting Carol during the month of June.

Or, probably the most famous of all places that kids have never heard of, Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park ( is a park for kids that includes playgrounds and activities, as well as a campground.

"That's the place I remember most when my parents took me to the Black Hills when I was little," Eli McBride, from York, Neb., told me after I asked him about his favorite childhood vacationing spot. "I'll be taking my kids back there in the future."

His comments hammered home an excellent point: If you take your family to a place where fun is the main objective, they'll remember it for the rest of the year. If they happen to catch a fish while they're there, they'll remember it for life.

The Black Hills have so many opportunities for families to learn about their nation's history, as well as observe and appreciate the natural wildlife of the area. I could never be able to tell you everything available in the area - nor could anyone else. helped me with much of my information, and there were several spots on their list that I hadn't been. Spots like Custer State Park; spots that I wouldn't be able to stop talking about if I started. I wouldn't be able to ignore telling you about the countless outdoor activities available at the park, or even look past their scheduled June 7, 2003, National Trails Day program. Instead, visit their Web site at If I started talking about them now, I wouldn't have any room left to get you to Scottsbluff.

In the Scottsbluff area in northwestern Nebraska are several recreational spots that parents and kids might just want to take a look at.

Lake Minatare is a 2,158-acre reservoir located six miles east and 8 miles north of Scottsbluff. June is often Minatare's high-water month, since irrigation water is drawn from it in late summer for local crops. The lake has a modern campground with electrical hookups and showers to wash all of the beach's sand from your children's clothes.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's most recent fish surveys showed that Minatare boasted several excellent results for a variety of game fish. For white bass, Minatare had the fourth-highest number of 12- to 15-inch fish surveyed. Ranking just below Lake McConaughy, Minatare's walleye survey revealed the second-highest number of overall fish in the state. For catfish, Minatare boasted a moderate number of fish netted, but an extremely high number of 16- to 24-inch fish netted.

Winter's Creek is a 235-acre lake that had the largest number of catfish over 24 inches netted during the statewide survey. The lake also had an excellent percentage of walleyes at least 15 inches in length.

Brown and rainbow trout can be harvested on a good number of local creeks. Once landowner permission is obtained for access, you and your family might really be able to get away from it all in search of fin and fun.

One last fishing option actually coincides with another leisure activity: the Riverside Zoo ( Despite the 300 animals - representing 97 species including bison, waterbuck, and red pandas - the zoo also features the J.C. Zoo Pond, which gives families five acres of available fishing water to search for rainbow trout.

Outside of the Riverside Zoo, other activities include: Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area, which is 10 miles south of Scottsbluff. It has hiking as its main activity in the rugged pine-covered canyons and rock buttes.

And there's Chimney Rock (, which is less than 20 miles east of Scottsbluff. Nature writer Paul Gruchow, author of The Necessity of Empty Places, wrote this about arriving at Chimney Rock: "Suddenly one has passed from the real world into a fairyland. This is where the West begins."

At Chimney Rock, there is a visitor center that gives i

nformation concerning the historic site and the surrounding area. Visitors also have the opportunity to pack their wagon in preparation for a trip on the historic Oregon Trail.

Last, visit the North Platte Valley Museum ( in Gering, where you'll find historic information concerning human settlement in the North Platte River Valley of western Nebraska. One of the few remaining fully-furnished sod houses in the nation is there.

Anytime I'm in western Nebraska, I feel as if I'm in a different world that is striving for lushness in a place too often similar to a desert. It's a world where visitors can lose themselves in the thought that people were ever able to settle these arid places. It is a place full of history, life, and, as Gruchow seems to say, a place where East essentially meets West.

* * *
Regardless of what state and what vacation you choose, remember that this is just the start of your research. Contact each state for more detailed information. Understand that what you read here covers the places I like to go and the information I took from personal experience, interviews with others, and what I was able to research from innumerable online references and state agencies.

Have fun. Write out a list of what you would like to do, what you would like to see, and what you would be happy to catch. Then start mapping your plan. I'm sure that the Great Plains will have something to offer everyone seeking out family fishing fun. Who knows? You might find a place that sounds just as good to visit in 2004 as it does this year.

Good luck with your planning. Start right now to get ready for an outdoor vacation and an adventure for the whole family.

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