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Panhandle, Sandhills offer spring fishing opportunities

ALLIANCE, Neb. — As the ice melts and days get longer, spring fishing opportunities heat up in western Nebraska.

Whether anglers want a Frye Lake crappie or a Fort Robinson trout, Joe Rydell, a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s northwest district, said spring brings diverse angling opportunities throughout the region.

From data gathered from last year’s fish surveys and other observations, Rydell has some predictions of where anglers will have success this spring. Some of his picks for this year’s best opportunities in the district, which includes the 11 counties of the Panhandle and Cherry County, are listed below.

  • Trout. Rydell said the first fishing opportunities that come to mind for spring are trout stockings. Beginning in March and through May, select lakes throughout the state receive stockings of rainbow trout. Locations include Bridgeport State Recreation Area, Terry’s Pit, the Morrill Sandpits, Chadron State Park pond and Fort Robinson State Park ponds, such as Carter P. Johnson Lake and Grabel Ponds. Spring also is a prime time to pursue trout in western Nebraska’s streams, including Nine Mile Creek, the White River, and the south and middle forks of Soldier Creek.
  • Northern pike. The second opportunity on Rydell’s list is ice-out pike fishing. Pike are a cool-water species that get aggressive in cold water. They also begin to move into the warmer shallow waters at ice-out in preparation to spawn. He said the best pike lakes in the district include Box Butte Reservoir, Dewey Lake, Hackberry Lake and Smith Lake.
  • Largemouth bass. Largemouth bass can be aggressive early in the year, seeking warmer shallow areas such as drainage ditches, feeder creeks or shallow bays. Rydell said some of the best bass waters from 2020 surveys include Frye Lake, Avocet Lake, Island Lake, Home Valley Lake and Smith Lake.
  • Walleye/Saugeye. As water becomes warmer, walleye begin to congregate in spawning locations such as gravel or rocky shorelines, along riprap, or even up flowing water. Rydell said some of the best early season walleye fishing can be found at Whitney Lake where the turbid water warms up quickly. Other lakes notable from 2020’s walleye surveys include Lake Winters Creek and Merritt Reservoir. Big Alkali Lake surveyed high for saugeye, a hybrid of walleye and sauger.
  • Bluegill, Yellow Perch, Crappie. Panfish bites typically pick up in April into May as water temperatures break 50 degrees. Rydell said some of the best bluegill lakes include Smith Lake, Frye Lake and Box Butte Reservoir. Best bets for yellow perch include Watts Lake, West Long, Smith Lake and Home Valley. For crappie, the best lakes for population are Whitney Lake and Cottonwood-Steverson, and Home Valley and Frye Lake both have crappies over 12 inches.

More survey information can be found in the Nebraska Fishing Forecast, available in print and at outdoornebraska.org/fishingforecast.

For a map with locations of these fishing destinations, visit maps.outdoornebraska.gov. The spring trout stocking schedule, along with stocking records of other species, can be found at outdoornebraska.gov/fishstockingreports.

Lastly, Game and Parks fisheries staff provided updates in virtual public meetings throughout the state in recent weeks. Recordings of those meetings can be found at the “NGPC Conferences & Sessions” YouTube channel.

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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