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Adventure Report, New Year’s Break

My family and I got out of town for an extended time over the New Year’s holiday.  We went “out west” to celebrate Christmas with family, and as I promised before we left, we spent as much time as possible enjoying Nebraska’s great outdoors!  Time to give you a report. . . .

I have listened to plenty of negativity and complaining about pheasant numbers and pheasant hunting this year.  Believe me, I know there are not the number of birds out there that we have had before.  But, I also know that I have been finding a few, have to spend some time looking for them, and have to work a little bit harder for them, but there are still some out there.  My absolute favorite pheasant hunting is when we have snow on the ground, so since we finally have had some snow I have been spending some time chasing pheasants.  I can tell you of a lot more failed hunts than successes, but that is hunting.  My son and I did finally catch up to a couple of roosters while we were “out west” for a few days.

If we would have been a little better with the wing-shooting, there would have been at least a couple more birds bagged.  I shot as poorly as I have for a long time; missed one shot that should have been an easy “lay up”, but again, that’s hunting.  I cannot remember many hunts where there would not have been more birds bagged if we had only shot better.  Those two birds both had nice spurs on them, so I believe we bagged a couple of “trophies”.  I know this, we had to work for them.

Now before you worry that there was no production of young birds last year and that we killed the last two roosters, let me assure you that we saw lots more roosters than what we killed.  Remember, I said our wing-shooting was not up to standard.

Let me again sound like a broken record, but I have to say it–“habitat is where it’s at”.  We have found some pheasants where there are pockets of habitat.  If you go down the road a couple miles from where we hunted, good luck finding even a field mouse, but where there is some habitat, the birds are there.  I know farming practices and last year’s drought were tough for Nebraska’s pheasant population–the habitat simply is nothing like it used to be.  Believe me, I am old enough to remember when rural Nebraska looked a lot different than it does now, and I can remember a lot more pheasants back then.  Will that ever change?  I do not know.  I am sure it cannot be as dry as it was in 2012 every year, so we can look for improvement there.  We had some drought years just a few years back when habitat conditions were poor, and we did bounce back from that.  Regardless, I will still chase pheasants when I can, where I can, maybe not in the numbers of “the good old days”, but there are still some birds out there if a person works for them, and they still taste as great!

We have ice, and you know I have been on it!  While we were “out west” we spent a couple of days fishing the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, http://www.fws.gov/valentine/ .  I have blogged many times about fishing those waters.  I have ice-fished there for a long, long time.  The Valentine Refuge lakes have been some of the best ice fishing in the country, let alone Nebraska, for years and years, and they still are.  Every winter I cannot wait until I am sitting on a bucket on one of those lakes–that is my “New Year’s” celebration!

The first day the wind blew a bit, enough to start blowing snow across the ice.  I tried to get some “shots” that would show that:

This one is not as good of a “shot”, but maybe it gives you a better idea:

That was a bit of a “pain” because it kept blowing snow in our ice holes.  At its worst we were scooping slush out of our holes continually.  In fact, for awhile I was fishing only one pole in one hole while scooping out slush.  But we caught fish!

My son and I started fishing in the mornings and then were joined by more family in the afternoon.  Daniel and I drilled lots of holes and covered water, my motto for ice-fishing is the same as Sarah Palin’s, “Drill baby, drill”.  We covered water and searched for fish and then managed to have some fish nailed down by the time our fishing partners joined us.  I have had a darned lot of fun in Nebraska’s outdoors with my cousin Robin over the years; we made some more memories on the ice for a couple of afternoons.

His wife Theresa loves to ice-fish, and honestly, is better at it than Robin!

Notice the fur hat!  That is something else that runs in the family!

The second afternoon Theresa managed to get a pike through the hole, on a panfish jigging rod, with no leader, and she did it like a pro!

Our bluegill bite had slowed for a bit before she caught that pike.  It picked back up right after she caught and released the pike.

Yes, I managed to dry off a few myself.  In fact I ended up with an 18-inch bass,

and caught one of the biggest bluegills, a 9.5-incher, on one of my home-made sandhills jigging poles.

That bass and bluegill were caught back-to-back, within about 5 minutes of each other.  One of the things I love about fishing, one reason I never get tired of it, is you just never know what is going to happen.  You never know what that next bite might produce.

I am not going to tell you exactly which refuge lake we fished; you can figure that out yourself.  Honestly, I have heard good reports from several of the Valentine Refuge lakes again this winter and part of your adventure can be the exploration and discovery.  We kept a few 8-9-inch bluegills and one 10-inch perch one day, the fiance of one of my cousin’s daughters fished with us one afternoon and he wanted a few fish for a fish fry.  Other than that, all of our fish were released; they are still there.  You can go explore and find them yourself.

However, I will give you a few tips about the fishing.  As I said, we almost always start by drilling lots of holes and covering some water.  It is not at all unusual to discover that only a few holes, only one specific spot, holds the most fish.  Sometimes a person can guess where those spots are going to be, but most of the time you just have to drill holes and fish.  The hot hole might be the first one you fish or it might be the 512th.  You never know, you just have to fish.  When we are in “search mode” we may spend only a few minutes, sometimes not much more than a minute or two, fishing a hole–if the fish are there, you will know it, especially if you ice-fish with a depth-finder.

Once we find fish, we will slow down and spend some time fishing an area.  At that time a person can start experimenting with baits.  I will tell you that on those couple of days on the Valentine Refuge last week, the bait being used, maybe even the color, did make a difference.  I will not tell you what it was, because that was then.  By the next time I fish those waters, I would expect that some other bait, some other presentation trick, may work better.  My point is to experiment and pay attention to little details.  Do not assume that what was hot last time will be hot again; it might be a logical place to start, but you have to experiment.

Speaking of little details, I will tell you another one that made a big difference.  I use a variety of jigs and “tear-drops” while ice-fishing, you can read some of my thoughts on that here, http://magazine.outdoornebraska.gov/2010/02/hang-time/ .  I do use a variety of plastics to tip those baits.  However, I also continue to use a lot of the good ole wax-worms to tip my ice-fishing jigs.  We noticed that keeping fresh bait on the hook made a difference; if the bite slowed, it often picked right up again if we dug the wax-worms out of our pockets and put a fresh bait on the hook.

That is all I can think of for now.  It was a great time away from the office.  We have ice and I plan to spend as much time as possible on it in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned, there will be more reports.

Leave ’em with a sunset picture. . . .

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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