Six Great Plains Fishing Destinations
These waters make for great angling road trips in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
Fishing across the Great Plains is as diverse as the topography. In the near future I hope to own a truck camper, so I can hook my boat behind and just go. I’ll be like a turtle with my house on my back. I’ll be able to strike out and catch some trout in Castle Creek in the Black Hills.
The next day, I’m on Devils Lake in North Dakota hoisting jumbo perch over the side of the boat or trying to duplicate a fantastic day of fishing on Swanson Reservoir in Nebraska.
Where would I head next?
Milford Reservoir I Variety of Species
On a long-distance fishing vacation, it’s always good to have a back-up plan. Milford Lake, 15 miles northwest of Junction City, offers alternatives. Milford holds giant smallmouths, plenty of walleyes, catfish and white bass and wipers. Summer is prime time for all of them.
“We have two distinctly different populations of walleyes in Milford,” says Brad Roether of Grandpa Boones Cabins and Outfitters in the lakeside city of Milford. “We have a population that spawns on the face of the dam and another that migrates upriver to spawn. Come June, they’re all back in the reservoir. Post-spawn fishing is the best in the northern half of the reservoir. The walleyes migrate down as the season progresses.”
And it’s pretty simple to match Milford’s walleye fishing regulations. There is a two-fish, 21-inch, minimum-size limit for walleyes on Milford right now.
“We drift a lot with bottom bouncers and jigs,” Roether says. “We’ll use a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce jig and tip it with a ‘crawler, and vertically jig over humps and cast to points. The jigs and bottom bouncers we use are all made locally.”
But Roether admits, white bass and wipers (white bass/striped bass hybrid) are Milford’s most-sought game fish.
“It’s a great fishery for families and kids, because it’s constant action,” he says. “We’ll catch them on live shad, blade baits, slab spoons and on topwater lures, like Storm Chug Bugs and Rebel Pop-Rs, early and late in the day.”
Smallmouths alone are worth making a trip to Milford. Concentrate on the upper half of the reservoir and pitch swimbaits, like Northland Mimic Minnows, to points, rocks and ledges along Milford City Park, Farnum Creek Park and Milford State Park. Smallies to 6 pounds are not uncommon. You’ll catch some walleyes, too.
If You Go
Many fish planted in Kansas are raised at the Milford Nature Center and Fish Hatchery. Witness the weigh-in at one of the many fishing tournaments held on Milford Lake each summer. Or enjoy the Milford Wetlands in the northern reach of the lake.
Glen Elder Reservoir | Smallmouths
Glen Elder Reservoir — near Cawker, about 80 miles northwest of Salina — is worth a long-distance road trip, especially for giant smallmouths. The Kansas Department of Parks and Wildlife placed a 21-inch size limit on smallmouths in the reservoir.
“We’re just hoping to see how big the smallmouth can really get,” admits state fisheries biologist Mark Shaw. “There’s quite a bit of harvest once they reach 18 inches, so we’re looking at eliminating harvest.” The result will be a bass fishing bonanza. Four- and 5-pound smallies are already very common. Look for smallmouths in the lower end of the reservoir along the south shore.
“Five years ago, the ratio was 95 percent smallmouths versus largemouths,” Shaw reveals. “Now, I’d say the ratio is 60-40. Largemouths have really come on. Look to the coves and bays where you find cattails.”
If You Go
Glen Elder State Park on the lake’s north shore provides several miles of hiking and biking trails. The Palen Bike Trails, located about 12 miles south of Glen Elder, are noted for the annual Cruise the Blues biking event held each August.
Swanson Reservoir | White Bass/Wipers
A June trip to Nebraska’s Swanson Reservoir, 25 miles west of McCook, years ago was one of my most memorable fishing trips ever.
June can get hot on the Great Plains. Guide Steve Lytle assured us the hot spell would have no effect on the fishing. He was right. We started by casting in the wide-open spaces of the lake.
The wipers and white bass like to suspend over open water, chasing shad. Lytle handed us one of his own creations called a Secret Tail Spinner, and 12- to 17-inch white bass jumped all over it. We caught well over 100 of them. There were at least a dozen times when all three of us had a fish on.
Wanting to target wipers more than their smaller cousins, the white bass, Lytle had us switch to 5-inch long Pro Minnow Swimbaits. Bigger lures would dissuade the white bass from biting. Feisty 8- to 12-pound wipers crushed the swimbaits. Lytle chucked some Strike Pro Model 5XD and 6XD crankbaits, too. It didn’t matter.
When we tired of the whites and wipers, we decided to pitch the swimbaits to some stick-ups not far from the flats we were fishing. We caught a limit of walleyes and a bunch of chunky largemouths from the structure.
Lytle had one more trick up his sleeve. We raced down to the dam and hovered over some trees the Nebraska Game, Fish and Parks department placed for fish structure. A couple jigs with a white twister-tail and I had a slab crappie. We caught a half dozen more before we called it quits.
Swanson Reservoir is just one of several southwest Nebraska reservoirs, formed by the Republican River, that serve up outstanding summer angling. Look to Enders, Red Willow, Medicine Creek and Harlan reservoirs to offer similar opportunities.
If You Go
When in McCook, discover its beautiful historic district. Pick up a Historical Walking Tour brochure at the Keystone Business Center or the Museum of the High Plains. Experience fine dining at the Coppermill Steakhouse.
Trout in the Black Hills
The Black Hills in South Dakota is one of my all-time favorite fishing destinations. Not only is it extremely beautiful country, the diversity of fishing opportunities makes it a can’t-miss, road-trip destination.
One of my favorite species to target in the Black Hills is trout. Yes, I’ve had incredible fishing on Black Hills streams. Castle Creek, 40 miles north of Hill City, is a great place to slap terrestrials around during the summer. I’ve caught trout that reach upward of 5 pounds on Rapid Creek, a stream where special regulations apply, and just 20 miles from Rapid City. And on your hands and knees you can explore dozens of trickles and creeks in the Black Hills National Forest— little, jump-across creeks, where a 12-inch trout is going to be a trophy.
Reservoirs in the Black Hills offer a surfeit of opportunities. Pactola Reservoir has lake trout and rainbows. The lake trout are deep during the summer and you need downriggers, divers and lead core to reach them. Drag flashers and flies or pull cowbells with small Flatfish or Rapalas in trail to fool lake trout in excess of 10 pounds. Rotund rainbows fall for Kastmasters, Yeck spoons and Woolly Buggers.
Other reservoirs in the area receive regular plants of trout and pump out limits between 10 and 20 inches. Try Stockade, Deerfield, Sheridan and Center reservoirs. Contact the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce for information on campgrounds, amenities and accommodations.
If You Go
Rapid City is within an hour’s drive of six national parks and monuments. Wind Caves is a favorite. There’s famous Mount Rushmore, too. The City of Presidents is part of the Rapid City Historic District Tour. Deadwood offers casinos and gambling.
Northern Pike at Devils Lake
Devils Lake, 110 miles west of Grand Rapids, is on my bucket list. This summer might be the year.
Ever-expanding Devils Lake features an abundance of structure that just keeps increasing. Rising waters that flood roadbeds, farms, pastures and fence rows offer an abundance of new habitat. Pike, in particular, love the virgin water, especially in Pelican Bay, Six Mile Bay, Black Tiger Bay and Creel Bay.Fishing guide Jason Mitchell of Mitchell’s Guide Service in Devils Lake says there are so many pike in the lake you can’t help but catch them, but he says a couple lures produce the larger pike.
“A white-bass (patterned) Reed-Runner Magnum spinnerbait is one of my go-to baits for pike,” Mitchell says. “The other would be a weed-less spoon, like a Jaw Breaker Spoon, with a pork trailer.”
Average-sized walleyes are caught just about anywhere on Devils Lake, but to consistently catch trophy walleyes in the summer requires locating isolated rock piles in deeper water. Use a high-quality fishfinder to pinpoint structure in the deeper parts of the lake, like West Bay. Use your trolling motor to hover over the spot while jigging with Custom Jig and Spins’ RPM jigs, a Northland Puppet Minnow, a Current Cutter Jig, and Impulse smelt minnow. Or use a slip-bobber, with a 5 mm, Chekai tungsten jig with a wriggling leech. Walleyes up to 8 pounds abound.
If You Go
Take a hike up Sully’s Hill to enjoy the scenic vista. Marvel at the times gone by at the Fort Totten historic site. Take a bird-watching excursion to Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge.
Lake Sakakawea | Walleyes
North Dakota’s largest reservoir, stretching westward on the southern flank of the city of Garrison, is loaded with walleyes right now and an exploding population of rainbow smelt. The two make or an interesting combination because the key to catching walleyes is finding a place where there aren’t so many smelt.
“Fishing has been fantastic,” claimed Cody Roswick of Fin-Hunters Guide Service. “Smelt numbers are way up, and Sakakawea might be the hottest walleye fishery in the Midwest right now. There’s not a lot of weeds in the reservoir, so locating main-lake points and the edge of the old river channel is key.” The lower two-thirds of the reservoir is best all the way to Independence Point. “Faster presentations seem to work best. Troll a little faster and add some jerks and snaps. Bottom bouncers work well with a Gulp! trailer for that,” Roswick adds.
Many local anglers rely on live-bait rigs, like Northland Butterfly Blades, and glide baits, such as RPM Minnows and Puppet Minnows.Access sites at Sakakawea include Garrison, Douglas Bay, Indian Hills, Deep Water Bay, Riverdale and Pick City. It can be a very long way between access points, so study your maps and GPS, make sure your gas tank is full and plan accordingly.
If You Go
When in Garrison, visit the North Dakota Fishing Museum and Hall of Fame. Stroll the North Dakota Firefighter’s Museum and Hall of Fame. Partake in Fort Stevenson Frontier Military Days or watch the weigh-in in July for the North Dakota Governor’s Walleye Cup 2019 tournament.