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It Ain’t Over, ‘Til Its Over

A couple of weeks ago I figured my ice-fishing was done for this season.  But then our weather swung back to cold, again, and last week I had some business out west.  I debated whether to take the ice-fishing gear with me or the open-water gear.  I took both.  The first afternoon I planned to do some scouting, check out the conditions and see what I could do.  I was a little surprised when I pulled onto the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge ( http://www.fws.gov/valentine/ValentineHuntFish.pdf ) and found ice fisherman tracks on the ice!  I was very careful to check ice conditions, but found it was safe to fish!  “I’m In!”

First, let me say a thing or two about fishing on late ice.  Anytime I am unsure about ice conditions I make sure to wear my life jacket, have my ice picks in my pocket and use the spud bar every step of the way.  I know I “harp” on it all the time, but you have to be sure the ice is safe every time you walk on it, and it never hurts to be reminded about ice safety, http://magazine.outdoornebraska.gov/2012/12/ice-safety/ .  I do not care what anyone else tells me about ice conditions, anytime of the winter, but especially on early and late ice, a guy still has to be sure and make that decision for themselves.  Nebraska is a big state and ice conditions vary a lot from one body of water to another, can even vary a lot on the same body of water.  On late ice those conditions can change from day to day, even hour to hour on a warm day, so if you want to know if it is safe, you just have to go and check for yourself.  Always make sure it is safe, and if you are not sure, walk away.  I have driven a long way before and just had to walk away from it.  It happens and no one else can make that call for you.

I found ice anywhere from 8 inches to less than 4 inches.  I stayed off the stuff that was less than 4 inches.  Like I said, I used the spud bar everywhere I went, and found some ice that I did not want to venture onto.  But, I found a lot that was plenty thick enough and I always hope for ice late into the winter because fishing on late ice can be spectacular.

Now let me emphasize what I just said, I said fishing on late ice CAN BE spectacular, but what I found last week were conditions that were much more like mid-winter than late ice.  There was more snow on the ice than I have fished on all winter, and that made things a lot darker underneath the ice.  That first afternoon I fished for a long time before I got a bite; was relieved to finally get one.

Early and late in the day, there is just something about the light glowing across those beautiful Nebraska sandhills.  I had to set up the camera and snap a couple of photos.

I knew there had to be some fish down there.  There were . . . 

And I could not resist trying to snap some photos of the moon rise as I walked off the ice.  It was a lot purdier than my poor photography skills.

I mentioned that the fishing was tough.  Occasionally, we have had winters where we will see the ice thaw, have some open water, and then have a cold spell that re-freezes and puts us back on the ice.  I have always found the fishing to be tough after that re-freeze.  I believe the thaw and open water results in a lot of mixing and cooling of the water and then when it re-freezes it takes some time for conditions to stabilize and the fish to settle back into consistent feeding activity.  Couple that with the snow cover I found last week, and the bite was not what I hoped for on late ice.  It seemed best during the middle of the day, but it was not as good as it had been earlier this winter.  I suspect with some thawing, the fishing will pick up again, but I will not be able to take advantage of it, and this late in the season some thawing may quickly result in unsafe ice.

Regardless, I put in a couple, three afternoons on the ice; never caught a lot, but did not get skunked either.  The last afternoon I debated whether to fish new water, but figured I better stay where I knew the ice was safe, so I hit it one more time hoping for some big fish–a big bass, pike or maybe pig bluegill–I did not care, I was just hoping for a chance at one.

I hooked three big fish that afternoon.  Did not land any of  them.

I suspect they were all pike although I never got a look at any of them.  On the first, the hook just came loose, but the last two busted the line and the first of those did that immediately as soon as I set the hook.  Oh well, there went a couple of my favorite “tear-drops”.

Probably one of the last fish of my 2013 ice season.
Pretty sunset as the coyotes howled.

Now for those of you who think I am against fishing open water during the winter/early spring–I never said I was against it.  I just know in the cold water of late winter/early spring I can be a lot more effective catching fish through a hole in the ice instead of fishing open water.  With the cold water, slow, vertical presentations are usually the most effective and that can be done a lot easier while fishing through an ice hole.

But that does not mean I cannot do it; on the way home I stopped off at Long Pine Creek and caught some trout.

For you that hope and pray for open water as soon and as much as possible, here ya go . . . (notice the ice on my rod guides).

Like most of you hard-core anglers, I am a sucker for new baits.  Rapala has some new offerings on the market again this year and I have stuffed a few of them in my tackle box already.  The new X-Rap Countdown looked like it would be a great stream trout crankbait, so I have picked up some of those already ( http://www.rapala.com/X-Rap-CountDown/X-Rap%20CountDown,default,pd.html?start=65&cgid=rapala-lures ).

They are.  Took me all of about 8 casts to catch the first fish on that new bait.

Hate it when that happens.

I dried off a couple more brownies after that fish, nothing big.  Finally, I eased up to a spot I have fished before, and I usually pull a rainbow out of that spot.  I did again.

Caught another smaller rainbow before I quit.  I did not catch any big fish, but a large part of my enjoyment on our cold-water streams is that they are pretty places and the trout are just so darned pretty too.  I always hate to quit fishing, but I had a long drive ahead of me.

On the way home, I saw waterfowl and bald eagles everywhere.  The North Loup and Platte river valleys were full of waterfowl.  The spring migration is on!  I know the sandhill cranes get all the “pub”, but my favorite time is early in the spring migration.  Make a trip to central Nebraska right now and you will see a variety of ducks and geese, maybe some swans, eagles, and a few of the cranes filtering in.  In a short time there will be far less diversity–it will all be gray, sandhill-crane gray.

That was my latest adventure in our great state.  I did not catch as many or as big of fish as I have on previous trips, but I still caught fish and still enjoyed some of the finest fisheries resources and most beautiful places, even at the end of winter, that our state has to offer.  I cannot wait to do it again, on the ice or open water.

About daryl bauer

Daryl is a lifelong resident of Nebraska (except for a couple of years spent going to graduate school in South Dakota). He has been employed as a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for 25 years, and his current tour of duty is as the fisheries outreach program manager. Daryl loves to share his educational knowledge and is an avid multi-species angler. He holds more than 120 Nebraska Master Angler Awards for 14 different species and holds more than 30 In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards for eight different species. He loves to talk fishing and answer questions about fishing in Nebraska, be sure to check out his blog at outdoornebraska.org.

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