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No Ice Required for this Winter Fishing

If the mild weather in Nebraska has you, the avid angler, singing the ice fishing blues, then take note!

There is an open-water fishing option in Nebraska during the coldest part of the year. It involves trout and would give you the chance to work on completing the Trout Slam challenge.

So, grab the neoprene waders and gloves, and rig the spinning rod, it is time to go winter trout stream fishing!

Schlagel Creek near Valentine, NE gives up a brown trout on a crankbait during a winter fishing expedition. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Fed by groundwater springs, many of Nebraska’s trout streams, or at least stretches of them, remain relatively ice-free all winter. Some of the better streams for trout this year are listed here.

Long Pine Creek trout stream is shown in winter at the Long Pine State Recreation Area near Long Pine, NE. Photo courtesy of Andy Glidden/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

And, guess what? The rainbow, brown, brook and cutthroat trout in these flowing waters can offer some fun fishing action on nice winter afternoons, assuming you play your cards right, that is.

Daryl Bauer of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Fisheries Division shows off an attractive brown trout he landed on a winter fishing outing in the cold waters of Schlagel Creek near Valentine, NE. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Below are some helpful hints for you to land some of these cold-water fish this time of year.

Where are they in the water and will they put up fight once hooked? The cold-water trout species feed less during the winter as their metabolism has slowed. In waters that are flowing they tend to settle into some of the deepest holes and spots with the least amount of current during the winter to conserve energy. But, don’t be deceived, when hooked these trout will battle with almost the same vigor as those hooked in the summer!

A hooked rainbow trout puts up a good fight in the waters of the East Branch of the Verdigre Creek flowing through the Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Be stealthy, wear camo.  When fishing for trout in streams, it’s best to work your way upstream (against the current) whenever possible. This is especially important when fishing for wild or spooky fish in clear water. Trout usually face into the current and will be less likely to see you approaching from behind. Wear camouflage clothing or “natural colors,” and try to avoid brightly colored clothing and hats. Move slowly and disturb the water as little as possible. A ball cap and polarized glasses will aid you when wading and for seeing fish and fish-holding areas. Trout have great eyesight, feel vibrations and are very wary in any of these streams as water conditions will be super-clear with lower flows.

The clear waters of the Long Pine Creek trout stream at the Long Pine State Recreation Area near Long Pine, NE in winter. Photo by Andy Glidden/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Think small to catch trout in winter. Trout in streams during winter eat a variety of prey, and in general, all the typical trout presentations can catch fish in the winter as well as in the summer. Of course, matching the actual prey the fish are eating is always a good place to start. This means going smaller for trout with more natural baits and artificial lures.

Fly fish! Fly fishing can be highly effective during the winter months. A variety of beadhead nymphs are especially attractive to trout in streams in the winter, but on a warm afternoon there most likely will be hatches of midges or other small insects and a fly angler can pick up some fish on dry flies or emerger patterns.

Crankbaits, really? Small crankbaits can also catch trout in open water during the winter, however, those must be fished quite slowly – usually just enough to get them wobbling. Frequent and extended pauses might also be needed to trigger fish activity. Neutrally buoyant crankbaits that maintain their depth at slow speeds or even when stopped are often some of the best crankbaits for trout in streams.

A winter brown trout is caught on a small crankbait from underneath a lunker box structure in the spring-fed waters of Long Pine Creek at the Long Pine State Recreation Area near Long Pine, NE. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Other trout offerings. Waxworms, salmon eggs, prepared baits, small jigs, or tiny spinners or spoons (silver on sunny days and gold on cloudy days) should also not be overlooked for successful winter trout stream fishing.

Your blogger displays a healthy rainbow trout caught on a waxworm in the winter from the East Branch of the Verdigre Creek at the Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area near Royal, NE. Photo by Noah Wagner of Omaha, NE.

Fish when it’s warmest. The trout in these northern and western Nebraska streams are more apt to take your lure or bait on the nice, warm winter days, either sunny or cloudy, when the temperature hovers around or rises above freezing. Skip the morning and head out during the peak daytime air temperatures – usually during mid-afternoon.

Little competition. Don’t expect much competition to catch trout on public access areas along popular trout streams such as the East Branch of the Verdigre and Long Pine Creeks. There may not be anyone fishing these creeks on weekdays.

Take camera phone pics! Winter can be a wonderful time of year for simply taking iPhone or Smartphone photos while fishing, particularly for landscape photography along streams. Familiar locations around you can be transformed by snow, ice or fog. And with the winter sun lower in the sky, you can capture wonderful light, amazing long shadows and stunning silhouettes. Plus, you can validate your catches!

Angler, Daniel Bauer of Lincoln, NE, fishes the Snake River just below Merritt Reservoir Dam for trout on a pretty winter day. Photo by Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Know before you go. Be sure to check the current Nebraska Fishing Guide booklet for regulations, orders, laws, etc. pertaining to trout before you go stream side.

Selective harvest; put the big ones back. For conservation purposes and heeding those legal stipulations, keep the more abundant smaller fish for a meal, but return the larger trout to the water to swim and spawn another day! Remember for the fish you plan to release keep the fish in the water as much as possible, particularly in the winter as the outside temperature can harm and possibly kill them.

Safety. Although the splendors of winter trout stream fishing in Nebraska can be fantastic, the downfalls can be tragic. Slipping or falling into an ice-cold creek can mean more than just numb fingers and toes — it can mean hypothermia! Careful observation of the weather and water you are going to be fishing is vitally important. Pay close attention to weather reports. Winter weather can change fast and you could get stuck out in extremely cold, snowy conditions if you are not prepared for them.

With diligent planning and warm clothing plus the proper equipment and presentations, winter can provide some of the best fishing action of the year in one or more Nebraska’s pristine trout streams!

Go fish!

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Here is the East branch of the Verdigre Creek flowing through the Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area near Royal, NE after a winter snowfall. Photo courtesy of Bob Johnston of Elkhorn, NE who is a Nebraska Trout Unlimited Chapter #710 Member.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media channels, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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