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Nebraska Ice-fari

At no time this winter have I have been completely convinced that we were going to have a long ice-fishing season.  Yes, we have had some cold weather, have had plenty of ice to be safe, but then we have these bouts of warm temperatures.  It has been cold in between thaws, but not cold enough for long enough.  Since I have not been convinced it will last long, the past couple of weeks I have been on the ice as much as possible and it is time to show some pictures and tell some stories.  Pull up a chair because I have a lot.

In the past couple of weeks I have fished from southeast Nebraska to the south-central part of the state and have made a couple of excursions deep into the Nebraska sandhills.  I have fished 3 different reservoirs, an interstate lake and a couple, three, different sandhill lakes.  I have fished on ice from 8-12 inches thick, but unfortunately have seen things deteriorate rapidly with our most recent warm spell.

Where to start?  Might as well take it from the beginning, how about some nice panfish caught & released in southeast Nebraska a couple weeks ago. . . .

After that my family met my sister and her husband and kids from Montana for a long weekend.  The distance between all of us is too far and we do not get together nearly as often as we would like.  All of our kids are getting older and it is getting harder to coordinate everyone’s schedule, so we picked a date a couple months ago and planned to meet in North Platte.  Of course you know we were going to spend some time on the ice!  The first evening I rendevoused with my Dad and two nephews on an interstate lake and we dried-off some small largemouth bass and some panfish.  We caught some bluegills up to 8 inches and I caught one nice black crappie.

My youngest nephew lost a pole; a fish pulled it through the hole.  I turned around to see what the boys were doing and they were walking around looking down, following the rod and bobber underneath the ice!  The handle was made of wood so it was bobbing around under the ice as the fish continued to swim with it.  We got busy drilling holes and eventually were able to reach down and grab the rod.  Of course you know it was a huge fish that pulled that rod down the hole–it ended up being a bluegill all of 7 maybe 8 inches.  I told my nephew we should have just left the rod in the lake, at least then the fish would have been larger in our minds.

My son met up with us that night and at 0-dark thirty the next morning, the boys, my Dad and I were off on an adventure on a little bit larger water.  What happened most of that day was absolutely nothing!  We were on a reservoir so we had lots of water to cover, there were spots others had been fishing and spots I knew of where I had caught fish previously.  We walked, we drilled holes, we fished HARD.  We caught nothing, not a stinkin’ thing, in fact most of the afternoon we could not even mark a fish, any kind of fish, on our depth-finder screens.  The boys could not tempt even a small panfish from shallow water cover.  My dad hooked a nice channel cat in mid-afternoon but then he lost it at the hole.  Other than that we were tired, bored, even goofing around throwing slushballs and break-dancing on the ice (be careful about catching a creeper in the ice while “busting a move”).  But we fished on, if they were not biting all day long something had to happen that evening.  As the sun started sinking, we wandered back to a couple of spots we believed had the best potential, but I was not going to fish clear until dark unless we got some encouragement.  And then Dad caught another channel cat.  I took lots of pictures because I was afraid that might be the only fish we would have to show for the entire day.

That was encouraging, but after 8 hours of hard fishing I still was not sure I was going to stay until dark.

And then my trout-bum nephew hooked a fish that took a lot of line and then busted him off in a snag.

OK, that was more encouragement, maybe something was going to turn on.  So, I head back over to my depth-finder and start jigging, again, for the 9th hour.  I look up at Dad and the boys and then glance back down at my Hummingbird.  “HOLY COW, there’s a fish on my bait!”  Then it had my bait and I sat the hook.  Arrrggggghhhhhhhhh I missed!  “But wait, look at that”, the fish was chasing my bait, 5, 6 feet after I sat the hook and missed, “HURRY, get the slack out and JERK HIS EYE-TEETH OUT”.  Bang.  FISH ON!!!!!!!!!!!

Now I have caught hundreds of wipers, but this was my first one through an ice-hole.  Yes, it was absolutely as much fun as you might imagine.

We snapped a couple of quick photos, released the fish, and I got my bait back in the hole.  Before I could get it to the bottom, BOOM SHAKA LAKA there was another fish on my bait and “Oh yeah, FISH ON” again!  As I hook that fish I can see 3 or 4 others on my depth-finder.  “Boys, hurry up and get over here!”

My nephews come a running, “crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch” (say it really fast).  The oldest gets his bait down there, BANG, FISH ON.  The youngest gets down there, BANG, FISH ON.  Dad is a little slower, but eventually he moseys over, gets a bait down there and BANG, FISH ON.  At this point we have not a double, not a triple, but a quadruple!  My son Daniel still has not hooked up, but he eventually moves into the same area, gets his depth-finder in a hole, drops a bait, jigs it a few times and BANG, FISH ON!  Now we have a quintuple!

Here’s what they do to one of those stinkin’ little ice-fishing rods.

So here you go, after 8 hours of complete boredom, of catching nothing, hard work and patience pays off for “the Bauer boys” (actually my Montana nephews are Bylers).

None of the fish in that photo laid on the ice until we each had one for a group photo, nope, they were all hooked and landed one right after another.  After the picture, they were all released and we got back in the water for some more!  Before dark we ended up with 16 wipers, all of them 24-25.5 inches long, and a half-dozen white bass.  It was eight hours of boredom followed by a hour of absolute pandemonium!  We had lines tangled, my Dad even landed one of my youngest nephew’s fish in his hole along with the wiper he had on his own line (never seen that happen before).  We smiled like cats that just ate canaries, and hurried to land and release one fish so we could get back down for another.  It was one of the most unbelievable experiences I have ever had on the ice.

We caught those fish on a variety of jigging lures; let me tell you when those wipers moved in to feed it did not make any difference–anything that resembled the baitfish they were feeding on, just get it down there and they would hit it, would chase it.  If you missed one, just jig it a few more times and hold on.

We were tired by the time we got off the ice but very satisfied.  You can bet we will never forget that day spent fishing together.

I wish I had a picture of the mega-ice house guys were trying to launch off a semi-truck back at the boat ramp when we got there.  It was so big their 4-wheeler would not pull it!

But wait, there’s more. . . . The next day we headed north into the sandhills.  It ended up being a beautiful day so we planned to meet more family from Valentine on the ice, and when I say family, I mean everyone!  Sister, mom, cousins, wives, daughters, nieces, nephews, uncles, brothers-in-law, etc., etc.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s the group photo we took:

Now that is my idea of a family photo!  My mom and her brother are pictured in the front, right side.  Everyone else is either descended from those two, or married to descendants.  I have said it in my blog before, will say it again, hunting, fishing, and trapping literally runs through my blood.  You can see some of the “stock” I come from.

We drilled holes, we fished, we laughed, we whooped and hollered.  “Yahtzee” was the code word for a big fish coming through the hole, and of course anyone who has ever run tip-ups knows you have to holler “FFLLLLLAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGG”!!!!!!!!! at the top of your lungs anytime you get a bite on a tip-up (we even hollered it for other people’s tip-ups, Ha).  I apologize to others on the lake that day, it was relatively calm and I am afraid our carrying-on disturbed the peace for everyone else.  But oh did we have fun!

As you can see we had a number of the ladies on the ice with us that day.  I did a lot of assisting, drilling holes, baiting lines, removing hooks from fish, switching out baits and bobbers, tying leaders.  I did not fish as hard as I usually do, but I did not mind one bit.

First I ran one way("Hurry, I need a wax-worm over here"). . . .
. . . and then I ran the other (NOTE: this photo actually catches me in mid-air, white men can jump, and notice my niece Holly sitting in the background, laughing at me, she's always laughing at me?????)

I will be in trouble for not showing pictures of everyone with fish, but here are a few highlights. . . .

I do not recall ever fishing with my oldest cousin.  She had a hard time talking, eating snacks, and jigging 3 poles at the same time, but every once in awhile a fish jumped out of the hole for her.

My wife even was there and caught fish!

You can probably tell from the way she is “handling” that fish that I was helping her remove fish and bait hooks at least part of the time.

Right after she started fishing, my daughter ended up with the biggest bluegill of the day, just a fraction of an inch less than 10 inches.  She looked darned stylish catching it!

You can tell she loves purple, but notice she was wearing bluegill-green fingernail polish and that highlighted the purple and coordinated with her hat (that she knitted herself).  (EDITOR’S NOTE:  For the sake of complete accuracy, I was informed that Emily did not knit the hat, but her friend Britney did.  “Geez dad”).

Later in the day she managed a small pike on a jigging pole, it was not a big one, but it was her first pike and she was excited.  Way to go, Emily!

Speaking of pike, this one was caught on a tip-up, was skinny but 34 inches.

The last view many a carp will have.

That is my “trout-bum” nephew.  He guides fly anglers on the Big Horn in Montana and has guided the past couple summers in Alaska.  We had not been together on the water for too long.

I wish I could show you a photo of a big largemouth or two caught that day; they were hooked, but in the end all we had were some busted lines, straightened hooks, and sad faces.

The perfect end to another perfect day on the ice (aren't they all?).

This past week I was out of the office for some meetings, but you know the ice-fishing gear went along with me.

First, was an adventure deep into the Nebraska sandhills for some nice yellow perch.

On that day, my partner and I could have whacked our limit of perch in short order, but what fun would that have been?  We were both there for the biggest yellow perch we could catch; were hoping for one approaching or exceeding 14 inches, so we spent most of the day catching and releasing fish up to almost 13 inches, but never got the hawgs we were hoping for.  Next time!

Not all of the perch were big, we caught some 6-7-inchers too.  I switched out to a Chubby Darter because I thought it would keep the small fish off, and I got really excited when the first fish on the Chubby Darter was my biggest of the day, 12.75 inches.

Those big perch are very much predators; they really “thumped” that Chubby Darter when they sucked it in.

The little perch pecked at the Chubby Darter too, but there were less of them and more of the larger fish.

That was a relatively cold day on the ice.  Cold enough that the ice was “booming” and popping late in the day.  I love that sound.  I tried to capture some of those favorite sounds, the whirring of a depth-finder, the “crump” of ice creepers on hard ice, and the popping and booming. . . Click this. . . .


Need to add the sound of a Jiffy cutting ice to that audio clip.  That is another sound I love.

The end of another great day on the ice.

Another day of meetings, in the morning, but it was very cold, very windy, and I was in no hurry to get on the ice.  I got some e-mails answered and then sauntered out to fish.  It was less windy by late afternoon, but still pretty much deserted.  I ventured out to explore some new water.

All that water to myself!

Ah yes, “Hello baby, you’re what I was looking for”, but still a little short of 10 inches.

And then one more day on the ice, this time back on another reservoir.  I met up with some fellows from Minnesota and eastern South Dakota that make an annual trip down to ice-fish Nebraska (yes, I just said that–good ice-sticks from Minnesota and South Dakota that actually come to Nebraska to ice-fish every winter!)

We were on big water again, here was some of our transportation.

That is a dog-sled behind the ATV, and if you look close there were two of us on the back.  I was one of those guys.  I started shouting “Mush, mush”, but then was threatened that I would be thrown off the sled and left.  It was a long walk, so I shut up.

Again, our strategy was to keep moving, keep drilling holes and checking spots until we found the fish we wanted.  On a 3,000-acre reservoir that takes on a whole ‘nother meaning.  We covered miles and caught small crappies just about everywhere we tried, but that was not what we were there for.

Here’s more what we had in mind. . . .

Pete from eastern SoDak and me with some Merritt Reservoir black crappies.

We caught a few of those black crappies on vertical baits like Buckshot Rattlin’ Spoons, but they really preferred horizontal jigs and plastics.

A couple of channel cats livened things up.

I discovered some of my partners that day were holding out the chips and dip on the rest of us at lunch time!

And then we slipped back to a spot towards evening and caught some of the elusive Nebraska ice walleyes!

I even managed one before the feeding window closed.

My observations that evening did not change my theories on why walleyes are such a challenge to catch through the ice from most Nebraska reservoirs.  I believe most of our reservoirs still have an abundance of bait fish, and that many of those bait fish are stressed during the winter.  That results in plenty of easy-pickings for walleyes and other predator fish, and fish that are well-fed are more selective and harder to catch.  The walleyes we caught were very fat, in excellent condition, and initially were relatively aggressive, but that feeding activity did not last long.  Brief, intense feeding activity is very characteristic of fish that are well-fed and hard to catch and that would certainly have described the walleye bite that evening (described the wiper bite a week earlier too).  A guy just has to put in a lot of time, and be on the right spot at the right time.

One last beautiful, Nebraska sunset. . . .

I realize that I have rambled on for far too long in this blog post and there may not be anyone even reading this.  But let me make a couple of comments before I quit.

I have not specifically mentioned most of the waters I fished.  They were all public waters.  I know some of you will think I am being “coy” and keeping secrets, but here is what I think:  First of all, many of you will already have figured out where I was.  There are no secrets anymore.  Secondly, as you are reading this, the “intelligence” is anywhere from one to two weeks old.  “You shoulda been there yesterday”.  Yes, I swap on-the-water observations with a handful of trusted anglers, but other than that I try to predict where good fishing is going to be and be there to make my own reports.  Again let me promote our annual fishing forecast as one tool that is very useful, http://www.outdoornebraska.ne.gov/fishing/pdfs/FishForecast.pdf .  That forecast will tell you waters that have excellent potential, fish ’em, figure out how to catch fish on those waters, and then you can be the one making the reports.  I pretty much ignore most “outdoor reports” because you never know for sure how much is accurate, or if the folks giving those reports really know what they are doing.  If you are looking for current buzz on hot bites, a lot of that comes via people’s cell phone or e-mail nowadays, and that is why there are no secrets anymore.  You also can find a lot of “intell” on the internet, for example here, http://www.nefga.org/ or here, http://www.iceshanty.com/ice_fishing/index.php?board=14.0 .

For those of you that think I am a total catch & release “Nazi”, believe it or not, I chose to harvest a half-dozen crappies and a couple walleyes on that last day.  I chose to selectively harvest some fish and sizes of fish that could withstand some harvest from that body of water.  If I had been on a “fill-the-freezer” quest the past couple of weeks, I would have gotten darned tired of cleaning fish.

Lastly, I know it ain’t fair to post this with the ice conditions we currently have.  Nebraska is a big, diverse state and there is always a lot of variation in ice conditions, but right now, over much of the state, you better be very careful if not forget about getting on the ice.  I am sorry to post this adventure report and then turn around and say that you might not be able to get on the ice at some of the places I have fished in the past couple of weeks.  Less than a week ago it was below zero and there was no worry about ice safety on most waters.  Unfortunately, it is not that way now, and if you go on the  ice anywhere right now, you better make sure it is safe.  Be especially careful about getting on the ice in the morning and then finding that conditions have deteriorated and are dangerous by afternoon.

I may test some ice conditions yet, or I may throw in the towel.  If that is the case, I hate it.  I would like to ice-fish for a couple more months!  I know this, there are some great opportunities out there, and I cannot wait to go again!  FISH ON!


Steve and Don,

Thanks for sharing your knowledge and some fishing spots with me.  Thanks for the transportation.  I was reminded of some things on those big waters and learned a bunch more.  It was a pleasure and you guys spoiled me, and on one day, my family.  THANK YOU!

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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