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Sandhill Lakes

By now you have probably heard reports and rumors of low oxygen levels in at least some of our sandhill lakes this winter.  When I say “low oxygen levels” I mean to the point of causing fish die-offs.  No, I have not said anything until now.  Even now I do not have an official news release to share with you.  Unfortunately, at this time, it is something that needs to be mentioned.

Yes, I hesitate to bring the subject up.  No, not just because it is bad news.  I hesitate to mention it because right now I cannot give you a list of waters that are affected.  I cannot tell you exactly how bad it might be.  There may be some things we do not know until the ice goes out this spring.  Just know this, an ice-fishing trip to your favorite sandhills lake right now might be an exercise in futility.  You may have already heard reports from one waterbody or another where not a single fish was seen all day; not even the lightest nibble.  In some cases, you might have heard reports of stressed or even dead fish, or other aquatic critters, showing up in newly-drilled ice holes.

I also hesitate to mention this because I do not want to be the “chicken little” that says the sky is falling.  Yes, we are going to see some sandhill lakes experience winterkill this winter.  No, it is not going to be all of them.  Even in lakes that do have some winterkill it may not kill every fish.  In most cases we are just going to have to wait to see how bad it was.

It is hard to say if a lake is suffering from low oxygen right now unless you have a dissolved oxygen meter and took the readings.  It is hard to predict which lakes might have been impacted because there are a lot of variables involved.  I have heard reports of lakes that are doing fine while similar waters close by appear to have been impacted.  Likewise, there have been waters that were good, even producing fish, a few weeks ago that now appear to be the “dead sea”.  I will say this, the shallower the lake, the more likely there is going to be some winterkill.

We have experienced a “perfect storm” to bring this about.  Oh sure, we have always known that environmental factors including periodic winterkills are major drivers in fish population dynamics in Nebraska’s sandhill lakes.  However, going into this winter we saw drought conditions and relatively low lake levels on many sandhill lakes.  On top of that, there has been record snowfall this winter through much of the sandhills.  That heavy snowfall started early, in December.  Besides low water and shallow depths, snow cover is a major factor contributing to winterkill.

I hate everyone expecting to get all the fishing information they need over the interwebs.  Always, the best way to know what is happening is to go.  Make the trip, get on the water, find out for yourself.  However, in this case, gather as much intelligence as you can before you go.  Some waters are not going to be worth the trip right now.  If you do get on the ice in the sandhills yet this winter, and out in those parts there is going to be ice-fishing for some time yet, if you are not seeing any life on the ole Vexilar, you might want to head to another lake.

Again, don’t be “chicken little” and assume this is going to ruin fishing in the sandhills forever.  Yes, at this point it would be wise to prepare for the worse, but I will still hope for the best.  As I said, even on waters that do experience some fish die-offs this winter it may not be as bad as it seems.  Die-offs may not be 100% of all fish.  Those habitats and fish communities have been through this before and they will again.  Waters that experience significant die-offs will also have little or no competition for fish that are re-introduced, and that will mean relatively quick recoveries.

“Stay tuned”.  As we know more we will pass it along.  There will be good times again!


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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