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The Fall Before the Ice

Waterfowl at Smith Lake Wildlife Management Area
The most traffic at Smith Lake on this fall Sunday was of the waterfowl variety. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

My ice-scraper went to work this week for the first time in months. Some may lament this annual milestone and the coming of winter, but each scrape gets me more excited for ice-fishing and the soon-to-come season of fun on the hardwater – even if I am just a few days removed from a more summer-like scene of comparable enjoyment.

This group of mule deer bucks caught our eye on the trip to the lake.
This group of mule deer bucks was among the scenery on the trip to the lake. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

JH20131024_1752.tifWith abundant sunshine and near perfect temperatures Sunday, Smith Lake Wildlife Management Area in Sheridan County reeled in my son Sawyer and me for a father-son outing. The 290-acre lake, nestled in the Sandhills between Rushville and Lakeside, is among my favorite fishing destinations – if for the scenic drive alone.

After crossing the sea of rolling hills, the Niobrara River and Pine Creek on our familiar journey, we were greeted with beautiful fall colors in the treetops and a welcoming committee of waterfowl – a variety of ducks mixed among hundreds of coots dotting the water’s surface.

Sawyer Haag with largemouth bass.
Sawyer displays a healthy Sandhills largemouth bass that he landed from the kayak. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

We quickly unloaded the kayaks and hit the water. It didn’t take much paddling before it was time to shed the sweatshirts in favor of short-sleeved T-shirts underneath. Such a nice day didn’t require fish to be caught in order to meet the threshold of a “successful” trip. Regardless, while reveling in the warm temperatures, we enjoyed several strikes from the lake’s chunky largemouth bass. Add numerous catch-and-release encounters with yellow perch of the “harvest-sized” variety, and we were happy.

With all the other outdoor opportunities this time of year, fishing can get overlooked. The weeks leading up to ice-up, though, not only serve as prime time for hunting but provide opportunities for anglers. The many Sandhills lakes are ideal for such an excursion.

Al Hanson, fisheries supervisor for the Game and Parks Commission’s northwestern district, calls October a “fin-and-feather month” in the Sandhills, with opportunities to hunt grouse at each ends of the day and catch perch — and much bigger fish — in the middle.

Sharp-tailed grouse
With sharp-tailed grouse, the fall provides a “fin-and-feather” opportunity in the Sandhills. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

His partner in management, fisheries biologist Joe Rydell, agrees.

“Most predator fish are packing on the forage for winter. Bass, pike and walleye get real aggressive in the fall and it is typically one of the best times of the year to catch big fish,” Rydell said. “Best part is that fishing pressure is very low.”

Seeds on sunflower stalk
Among the many fall scenes at the wildlife management area are these sunflower stalks, which have at least slowed the wind-fueled journey of wispy seeds. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

He’s right. Only two other anglers were fishing at Smith when we arrived, and our kayaks were the only vessels on the water the entire afternoon. You can call such a low number of visitors a shame but I never mind having an entire lake to myself.

I should note that an advisory about a high level of blue-green algae at Smith Lake was distributed in early October. If water clarity serves as an indicator I’m guessing conditions have improved since then. To be on the safe side, though, we left our lake-water-lapping canine, Cookie, at home that day.

The danger of toxicity will surely have long passed when the lake is covered with a beautiful sheet of hardwater in coming weeks, and I’m sure the dog will eagerly join us as we’re drilling holes and drowning waxworms. Until then, I wouldn’t mind having a few more shirtsleeve Sundays. Regardless of the temperature, a trip to Smith Lake rarely disappoints.

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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