By Jeff Kurrus, Nebraskaland Magazine
Not all fishing trips are created equal, nor do they need to be. Some are after-work, two-hour jaunts in the middle of the summer and others are all-day ice-fishing affairs where the mind, and body, are exhausted at day’s end. And while each is pleasurable in its own fantastic ways, these aren’t the only types of trips to make. Some require windshield time first. Here are my favorites.
The message boards fill up every year telling anglers where the crappie are biting, the bass are hitting and where the wipers are running the shallows. But you can also form your own calendar. Where you caught fish last year most likely will be where you catch fish this year.
Doug Steinke, longtime Nebraskaland contributor, rarely misses the April and May wiper bite out west, concentrating at Harlan Reservoir, Lake McConaughy and all points in between. Fisheries biologist Daryl Bauer sees the muskie bite at Merritt Reservoir the same way, knowing he’ll be bank fishing for trophies in May. Personally, I wait for the hottest days of the year in July and chase channel catfish with topwater plugs at any number of eastern lakes and reservoirs, including newly renovated Conestoga. The lakes have cleared of people but the action hasn’t.
More Than the Fish
A trip like this often occurs when family is involved, when a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week trip is not desired by everyone in the vehicle. But these trips can still be memorable for all.
Do a search at OutdoorNebraska.org for your favorite state park or recreation area. The overwhelming majority have fishable water. Compare amenities with your family members and fish when you can. If you’re camping, early mornings are perfect for solo excursions and an opportune time to allow your significant other to sleep in. Then, in the middle of the day, go and sightsee together.
This time of year, the Omaha area — and a destination like Two Rivers Recreation Area just on the outskirts — offers parkgoers opportunities to fish for newly stocked rainbow trout as well as experience unique lodging in one of Two Rivers’ train cars. As spring moves forward, lakes like Flanagan and Prairie View can scratch the fishing bug and easily be combined with a trip to the Henry Doorly Zoo or the GoApe course at Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, where you’ll also have a number of lodging options.
But the metro isn’t the only place to have a fish-and-play trip in Nebraska. Look no farther than visiting Valentine this summer, fishing at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, canoeing down the Niobrara River and settling in for the evening at Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area or Smith Falls State Park. Or, just a few hours east at Ponca State Park, play golf in the morning, visit the on-site water park in the afternoon, and then fish in the evening at the park pond.
You’ll have as much fun not fishing as you will wetting a line.
Stick and Stay
One of the first steps I make in the spring is to view the latest Nebraska Fishing Forecast. With information on 16 fish species in this season’s version, it’s the perfect starting point to decide the fish you want to chase and what size or amount you want to pursue. Then, simply cross-compare these fisheries with the state parks and state recreation areas in that vicinity for lodging options.
On my list this year:
Merritt Reservoir and Lake McConaughy SRAs for walleye. Merritt remains a walleye hotspot year after year, even more so because of the cabin accommodations on the reservoir. You could fish a month straight and never completely learn McConaughy, and you have a multitude of camping options on site.
In the southwest, look at both Swanson and Elwood SRAs. Both top the wiper list, and Elwood surveyed more 20-inch-plus wipers than anywhere in the state. They also have tent and RV camping areas available.
I could also make arguments for sticking and staying at Branched Oak SRA for channel catfish, Calamus SRA for white bass and Lewis and Clark SRA for sauger and walleye.
Read the forecast, find the hotspots, and pack your tent.
My first road trip through Nebraska occurred in 2001. With a john boat in the back of the truck, my dad and I plotted a map across the state where we fished, drove, then fished some more. It was five days of pure joy.
But a road trip doesn’t have to last multiple days. A 4-hour drive, starting at 3 a.m., from the metro could give you and a partner 14 hours of daytime fishing and much needed windshield time on an Interstate 80 fishing trip starting at smallmouth hotspot Fort McPherson near Maxwell and ending at Sandy Channel near Elm Creek.
Having participated in multiple trips like this, the goal is to drive to your farthest destination first, finding water that is manageable for the species of fish you covet. Then, if the fish aren’t cooperating, pretend you’re fishing a gigantic waterbody and move to a new location. But instead of relocating to a new area at a lake, simply grab a drink and some chips at the nearest gas station and head toward home. Stop at the next lake, then rinse and repeat.
One last road trip is a modified version, yet works the same way. Several years back, Dad and I were on another trip, this time to the Black Hills, to trout fish. While we had a multitude of successful days stream fishing for brookies and rainbows, it was the “break up the trip” stop we made to the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge when our afternoon pit stop turned into one of the most memorable trips we’ve ever had.
All the way until sunset, gigantic northern pike chased our buzzbaits across the water, a perfect exclamation point for that road trip.
Staying in the Sandhills, I have found no better outdoor thrill than driving down a two-track, knowing there’s a gigantic lake over the next hill but worried that — because of its unrivaled beauty and uniquity — the entire lake will be filled with bank and boat anglers, each fighting for a spot to fish.
Why wouldn’t there be a long waiting line to fish a lake in heaven?
Then, something even more magical happens. There’s only one other boat on the lake. You have one of the best places in the country to fish all by yourself.
That’s fishing in the Nebraska Sandhills.
I’ve fished at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge when it was 100 degrees, 0 degrees and every temperature in between. I’ve caught 20-inch largemouth through the ice and 40-inch pike through the summer bulrushes. I’ve trolled for northern at Clear Lake, caught trophy bluegill at Pelican and couldn’t keep largemouth off of my line at Duck.
And the entire time, I felt like my partner and I were the last people on the planet.
If you haven’t felt like the last person on the planet while wetting a line, it needs to be added to your bucket list. There is no boat beside you. There is no sharing.
Everything in the world is yours.
One of these Nebraska fishing road trips will suit you perfectly. Just get in the vehicle and drive. You might even find out that sometimes one type of trip quickly changes to another.
And for good reason.