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Panhandle Passages: What’s Up at Whitney?

Joe Rydell places a frame net in Whitney Lake.

One thing I like is the sight of a fish coming over the side of a boat.

That’s just one of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed a boat ride Thursday with Al Hanson and Joe Rydell, fisheries biologists for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s northwestern district. Hanson, district supervisor, and Rydell were collecting data from the frame nets they had set in Whitney Lake the previous day, a process they use to keep tabs on fish populations at bodies of water throughout the region.

Rydell shows one of the thin northern pike caught in the nets.

I especially wanted to tag along at Whitney because, similar to other fishermen in the region, I’ve been curious about the health of the lake’s fish population after its water level reached an incredible low in 2012. The effects of heat and drought were certainly apparent as there was no water covering a large portion of the lake’s 900 acres after irrigation season last year. Whether the fish were trapped in the shallows to be a prime target for predators or lived to face competition for a diminished food source, the situation has surely had some consequences from an angling perspective.

Rydell shows one of the walleye caught in the net at Whitney Lake while Al Hanson records data.

Hanson said there’s no doubt more fish were lost than usual last year, but predicts populations will rebound with water and time. Similar to many bodies of water in Nebraska, the primary purpose of Whitney Lake is to store water for crops. While Whitney Lake is accessible to the public, it is owned by the Whitney Irrigation District. The lake is supplied from a tube, about six miles long, that diverts flow from the White River. The NGPC leases the small piece of school ground where the boat ramp and dock is located.

The lake has taken on more water since winter, although irrigation is under way and the shoreline is still lower than most years at this time. Hanson said a stocking of gizzard shad has surely helped in the food department.

No water stood in much of Whitney Lake, as shown in this November 2012 photo.

Thursday was my first time observing a full-scale sampling, so I was amazed at how many fish had been trapped by the nets. As Hanson and Rydell were tallying the data and getting fish back to the water, I was itching to get a fishing rod in my hands. To see that many fish caught “just passing through” a given area makes me wonder how I can walk away from the lake so often without a catch. Alas, I was surprised when they said the hauls from the nets were much smaller than usual. They are accustomed to seeing 70-80 fish per net at Whitney, but this week it was about 20-30.

Hanson marks an envelope for fish scales which will later be examined to determine ages.
Scales are collected from a black crappie to help biologists determine the fish's age.

One subspecies that seems to be doing well in Whitney is white crappie, a variety that wasn’t present in the lake until recently. In 2009, NGPC fisheries personnel introduced 90,000 one-inch whites in Whitney, predicting that they’d feel right at home with their affinity for cloudy water and would even fare better than the lake’s reputed black crappie population, which prefers clear water surroundings. The plan seems to be working.

The nets also trapped a number of nice sized catfish and walleye, the latter of which I’ve heard reports of success from both ice fishermen and soft water anglers this year. The northern pike, which were apparently stocked by “bucket biologists” and not the NGPC, are not faring as well. Each that was caught and measured in the nets was incredibly thin – perhaps a commentary on the lake’s forage predicament.

Detailed information about the survey will be released later this year. Here’s the report about Whitney and other northwestern irrigation reservoirs from fall 2012.

In Hanson’s words, the fishery at Whitney is “not broken” but it’s not what it has been in the past. As far as the water level in Whitney and other western Nebraska lakes, we’ll see what the summer brings. Hopefully, it’s rain.

Justin Haag of Chadron is a public information officer for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and regional editor for NEBRASKAland magazine. He can be reached at justin.haag@nebraska.gov or 308-430-8515.

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and have two children.

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