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Fishing the Sticks

Kayaking in trees
Sawyer paddles through the flooded trees of Box Butte Reservoir. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

The high country of the Nebraska Panhandle is about as far as one can get from what’s considered to be swampland. It is, however, a place you can find a little taste of most outdoor experiences if you look for them.

JH20131024_1752.tifAmong my favorite fishing excursions each spring and early summer is taking the kayaks into the flooded timber of Box Butte Reservoir State Recreation Area, one of the Panhandle’s irrigation lakes that have much higher water levels in spring than late in the summer. No, it’s not the Everglades or the Okefenokee, but it’s sure to satisfy one’s urge to float into “the sticks.” As a bonus, I’ve yet to quarrel with alligators there.

Sign in flooded timber
Here’s the scene. No violations of this rule were observed during the trip. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

Earlier this week, with both the temperature and wind speed rising, my son Sawyer and I set out for the backwoods of Box Butte. Upon arrival, we were greeted with water standing about as high into the trees as it gets. As is usually the case this time of year, the familiar path through the tall stands of deciduous trees is mostly underwater – a much different look from winter when we drive through the trees to pursue fish from a thick coating of ice.

After donning some bug spray, we embarked on our afternoon journey and began paddling through the swamp-like scene. We could hear the buzz of the few motorboats still braving the whitecaps farther offshore as we moved through calm waters in the trees. Kayaks, with their capability to glide over and through floating logs with ease, are perfect vessels for fishing such places.

As a fishing photographer, I’m always right at home. Flooded vegetation is teeming with life – from birds chattering overhead to the swirls in water all around, there is plenty to catch a person’s attention. The water of Box Butte is clear enough that you can usually catch sight of a strike – or at least know what you’ve hooked well before getting it in the boat. Consequently, the lake is considered to be among the state’s top spearfishing destinations (you can read about that in Eric Fowler’s “Dive Nebraska” in the June issue of NEBRASKAland).

Northern pike
Profile of a “hammer-handle” northern pike. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

While paddling along the tree line and hooking a few hammer-handle northern pike on small spinner-baits, my eyes were drawn to an active red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) nest constructed in a willow just a few feet above the water. I paddled in for a closer look and a few photos.

Bluegill
Profile of a big Box Butte bluegill. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

Before getting too serious about the photography, though, I rigged a nightcrawler below a slip bobber and dropped it to the side of the kayak. With a male red-winged blackbird loudly projecting its calls from nearby, the female clung to the nest. After snapping a few photos, I noticed from the corner of my eye some movement of the float. I quickly traded the camera for the fishing rod and found a beautiful 10-inch bluegill at the end of the line. For the remainder of the trip we targeted that area, bringing in several more bluegills, the blackest black crappie I’ve ever landed and only the “what-ifs” of something much larger that got under a log and snapped my line. Great fun.

Black crappie
Black crappie. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)
Red-winged blackbird in nest
The female red-winged blackbird tends to the nest. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

With sundown nearing, it was soon time to paddle back to the truck. We zigged and zagged, enjoying the challenge of moving through the maze of cottonwoods, willows and dead logs. At the truck we were greeted by strong gusts of wind which seemed to be taking one last shot at spoiling our day. It could blow all it wanted to. Thanks to the cover of “the sticks” at Box Butte, we knew that we had defeated its bluster this day and would soon be on the road with great memories behind us and some good eating ahead.

Box Butte sunset
Sunset from the trees of Box Butte. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

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About justin haag

Justin Haag serves the Panhandle as a public information officer for the Commission, also 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 enjoy introducing their two children to the many outdoor recreational opportunities of the Pine Ridge region.

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