When discussing Fort Robinson State Park, fishing may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Perhaps it should be.
Tall buttes rising over pine forests and sweeping grasslands. Herds of bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and other megafauna. Historical architecture. Theatrical performances, weekly rodeos, two museums, cookouts and an indoor swimming pool. More than 120 miles of trails suited for horse hooves and hiking shoes.
With so much to see and do at Fort Robinson State Park, it is understandable that whatever is below the surface may get overshadowed. Those inclined to carry a rod and reel, though, have long known it is wise to divert attention from the park’s terrestrial sights to see what swims in the 10 fishing ponds and coldwater streams in or near this 22,000-acre Pine Ridge playground in the northwestern corner of the state.
Al Hanson, fisheries supervisor for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s northwestern district, bestows Fort Robinson a lofty ranking among the eight state parks. He refers to it as “Nebraska’s fishing state park.”
“Some of our other state parks have excellent fishing opportunities, but none offer anglers what Fort Robinson does,” he said.
Having said that, Fort Robinson anglers should leave their big motorboats — or any gas-powered watercraft, for that matter — at home. This is a place for those who prefer to fish from foot, belly boat or kayak. Whether it be families with small children and elderly anglers, or adventurous fly-fishermen, an array of aquatic species are on tap to provide a tug of the line.
Game and Parks has made a great thing even better by investing in major enhancements to about half of those ponds, with the first phase of a $2.8 million renovation project completed in spring 2020.
Major improvements have occurred at the Grabel Ponds, Cherry Creek Ponds and the Ice House Ponds, and more are planned at other locations.
The most obvious changes to the ponds are structures such as fishing piers and ramps for launching kayaks and canoes. Workers deepened a number of the ponds, replaced water control structures, created fish habitat features, and developed access points for anglers. Where anglers battled steep banks and thick vegetation before the renovations, they now enjoy casting from wooden piers, angler access pads and gently sloping shorelines near artificial structures, gravel beds and rock piles that attract fish.
The improvements were funded from the sale of Aquatic Habitat Stamps, required by most anglers, and matched by federal Sport Fish Restoration Program dollars generated from taxes on fishing equipment and grants from many sources including the Nebraska Environmental Trust.
The renovations have provided the opportunity for Game and Parks to restock waters with a goal to develop populations best suited for habitat and usage. Anglers can often find both coldwater and warmwater species by taking a short walk.
All four species of the state’s Trout Slam — brook, rainbow, cutthroat and brown — can be caught in the park or nearby, as well as the brown-brook hybrid known as tiger trout. Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, rock bass, bluegills, channel catfish, crappies and yellow perch also swim waters of select ponds.
As the fish continue to grow, surely too will tales of fishing success by those who visit Fort Robinson.
Larry Olson of Crawford has developed a love of the area’s fishing opportunities over the years, first during his time as a student at Chadron State College, then as a father and now as a grandfather. Olson said he and his family are looking forward to the smallmouth bass, brook trout and panfish recently stocked in the renovated waters to grow in coming years. There is plenty to keep the family busy in the meantime, though.
“The ponds with trout are always well stocked,” he said. “There are plenty of small panfish in Carter P. Johnson Reservoir to keep anyone busy with just a bobber and a worm. The streams offer quality trout fishing whether it be with a fly rod or spinning tackle. There are some real lunker bass and catfish in some of the ponds that can test your tackle.”
Fort Robinson, by Pond and Stream
Joe Rydell, a fisheries biologist for the Game and Parks Commission’s northwestern district, has played a key role in the planning and execution of the aquatic habitat and access projects at Fort Robinson State Park. A guide for those looking to explore the depths of Fort Robinson’s fishing opportunities, with Rydell’s insights, follows.
Ice House Ponds
At the western edge of Fort Robinson, the Ice House Ponds are situated just one-half mile from U.S. Highway 20. From a gravel parking lot, anglers access the ponds by crossing a footbridge over the White River, which receives the overflow from the ponds. With depths approaching 12 feet, the ponds required no excavations during the renovations.
North Pond (2.5 acres) — The first pond anglers encounter after the short hike over the bridge is a dandy. To complement the existing largemouth bass and bluegill population, Rydell said stockings of yellow perch, channel catfish, rainbow trout and crappies are planned. Three angler access pads and a canoe-kayak launch were added during the recent renovations.
Middle Pond (1.4 acres) — As with the north pond, the middle is managed for warmwater species and has a similar population of species and stocking plan. Note that in fish stocking reports, the middle pond is referred to as the Ice House Diversion Pond.
South Pond (0.5 acre) — As the farthest pond from the parking lot, the south pond requires a hike of about a half-mile over a trail that was cleared by a bulldozer during the renovations. Because it is directly fed by cool water from the spring, it is being managed for brook trout only and has received two years of stockings. Rydell said many of those fish have had some time to grow and some should be more than 12 inches long.
“It’s a pretty challenging fishery. It has brushy terrain, and no angler access features. It’s more for the experienced angler,” Rydell said.
Cherry Creek System
By turning east from U.S. Highway 20 at the entrance of the park’s main campus and traveling gravel road for 1.2 miles, visitors encounter the Cherry Creek ponds, both of which were drained and renovated in 2019-2020.
Cherry Creek Pond (2.6 acres) — The main pond sits near the road, so anglers can have their line in the water after a short walk from the vehicle. Since renovation, the primary goal has been to establish a smallmouth bass population, with yellow perch and bluegills also on the stocking schedule for this year. If those species do well enough, the plan calls for adding channel catfish and black crappies.
“Until the smallmouth grow a little, there’s not much worth fishing for in Cherry Creek. It will take a few years to get those populations established,” Rydell said.
Regardless, it is not too early for a visit to its new boardwalk pier or a float from one of its two canoe-kayak launches.
Cherry Creek Diversion (0.5 acres) — Nestled just behind the Cherry Creek Pond to the west is its diversion pond. Directly fed by the cold water of a spring, the pond is being managed for trout. It already has had two stockings of brook trout. Rainbow stockings also are in the plan, mainly to alleviate fishing pressure on the brookies, Rydell said.
“Even with two-fish bag limit on brook trout, we anticipate that pond getting a lot of pressure,” he said. “It is sure to be popular among anglers working on the Trout Slam.”
About a mile southeast down the road from Cherry Creek Ponds are the three Grabel Ponds. Fed from a spring that originates nearby, the water becomes warmer as it travels northward through the ponds. Through the years, five ponds have been consolidated to three. The south and middle ponds were the subject of extensive renovations in 2019-2020. Amply stocked, these ponds provide promise to anglers of many skill levels.
Grabel South (1.75 acres) — Similar to Cherry, the first pond in the system is directly fed by cold spring water and is managed for trout. Moreover, because the pond was deepened, it can hold more fish than before. Rainbows, brookies and tigers have been stocked so far, and cutthroats are in the plan. Recent improvements to the pond included a handicapped-accessible covered pier and concrete canoe-kayak launch.
Grabel Middle (2.3 acres) — Similar to the south pond, the middle was deepened and supplemented with habitat structures. Rainbow and tiger trout have been stocked. Plans call for the addition of smallmouth bass, rock bass and bluegill. Visitors also are enjoying new angler access pads and a canoe-kayak launch.
Grabel North (1.7 acres) — It is the one pond in this series that was not renovated, and unfortunately, a broken dam board this spring caused devastation to the fishery as almost all of the water drained from the pond. Prior to that, the pond challenged anglers to catch largemouth bass, bluegills, crappies and channel catfish from its stump- and cattail-laden banks. The pond has now been added to the final phase of the aquatic habitat project, and officials are sure it will once again complement the park’s superb fishing opportunities after renovation.
Carter P. Johnson Reservoir
Located 3.2 miles west-northwest of U.S. Highway 20 on Soldier Creek Road, the 20-acre Carter P. Johnson Reservoir is the largest of Fort Robinson’s impoundments and features the most diverse fish population. It has long received annual rainbow trout stockings and has a sizable population of largemouth bass, many of which are lunkers, in addition to bluegills.
Other species include rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, channel catfish, crappies and rock bass. A wooden pier serves anglers of many ages and abilities, and the unpaved gradual slope on the east end of the pond serves as a ramp for small electric-powered boats, kayaks and other non-motorized watercraft.
The reservoir, which was created by damming Soldier Creek, has been scheduled to receive a major renovation during the second phase of the aquatic habitat project. Construction was delayed, however, when the Department of Natural Resources reclassified the 480-foot dam as high-hazard and in need of fortification because of danger to campsites downstream along Soldier Creek.
Funding has since been secured to include dam improvements in the project and officials hope the construction can get underway next year. If so, the lake will be drained and salvaged fish will be moved to other sites within the park.
Crazy Horse Pond
Located one-half mile east-southeast of Carter P. Johnson Reservoir is the 1.4-acre Crazy Horse Pond. As it stands, it is not considered much of a fishery. It has not been stocked, and fishing opportunities are almost exclusively limited to the largemouth bass and bluegills that make their way downstream from Carter P. Johnson Reservoir.
Phase two of the Aquatic Habitat Plan calls for transforming the pond to a prime destination for anglers willing to hike. The plan calls for developing a half-mile non-motorized trail from the Carter P. Johnson Reservoir parking lot.
“It’s already one of our most scenic ponds and will be quite an attraction when finished,” Rydell said.
This waterway, which begins as a clear, babbling coldwater stream west of Fort Robinson, assumes an entirely different appearance before its turbid waters enter South Dakota north of Chadron and flow into the Missouri River 220 miles later.
Those wanting to target trout in the White River would be wise to visit the Open Fields and Waters sites along White River Road west of Fort Robinson. Brooks, rainbows, cutthroats and browns all reside in those waters.
Downstream, within the park, Rydell said anglers find brown trout and an occasional channel catfish, along with white suckers and creek chubs. Rydell said the White River’s trout habitat ends in Crawford, where anglers can access the river at the city park. East of there, think catfish, suckers and chubs.
Three branches of this creek, which exist on the federal Soldier Creek Wilderness, merge into one before entering Fort Robinson.
Both the middle and south forks, with reproducing populations of browns and brookies, are popular among anglers. They can be accessed from the parking and camping areas about 6 miles from U.S. Highway 20. Cutthroats also have been stocked where the forks unite.
“The further upstream you go, the better chance you have to get into brook trout,” Rydell said. “The browns kind of outcompete them in the lower stretches of each of those branches.”
He noted the south fork is a little easier to fish than the middle, with more pools and accessible spots void of overhanging vegetation.
The fishing opportunity for the 5-mile stretch of creek from the Carter P. Johnson dam to the confluence of the White River is limited to whatever fish may escape from the reservoir, he said, and it is not as popular of a destination as the upper end on the Wilderness.
Wood Reserve Ponds
When visiting Soldier Creek Wilderness, it is worth the hike to these five ponds, each less than a half-acre, which are heavily stocked with trout — rainbows, tigers, cutthroats and brookies. A parking area is located at the end of Soldier Creek Road, 6.25 miles from U.S. Highway 20. The hike is another mile, as the crow flies, along the Middle Fork of Soldier Creek.
Another site on Fort Robinson that shows up on maps is Lake Crawford, which is located between Grabel Ponds and the community for which it was named. If it is fish you seek, do not bother. The outlet structure was long ago damaged and removed, so nothing remains but a marshy area void of game fish.
Within a short drive of Fort Robinson’s headquarters are even more fishing opportunities. They include Squaw Creek at Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area (9.9 miles), Whitney Reservoir (17 miles), Sowbelly Creek at Coffee Park (28 miles), Monroe Creek and a pond at Gilbert-Baker Wildlife Management Area (29 miles), and numerous ponds on the Oglala National Grassland. If one seeks permission, there are other coldwater stream fishing opportunities on private lands in the region.
Whatever the choice, anglers are sure to come away from “Nebraska’s fishing state park” with tales of success. And don’t worry: On the rare occasion the fish are not biting, there are plenty of other things to see and do. ■
Fort Robinson’s Fishing History
Just as rich as the fishing opportunities at Fort Robinson is the history of its ponds. Make plans to read about their storied past in the November issue.