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Fishing the ‘Down Times’


Kevin Rice of Bayard watches his fishing rod while camping at Lake Minatare’s Lake View Point.

Photo by Justin Haag

By Justin Haag

Nebraska’s fisheries have their ups and downs, especially if we’re talking water levels.

The water stored in many of the state’s most popular fishing lakes is vital for irrigating crops when Mother Nature is stingy with rain. The annual drawdown of water is important for agriculture, but can be challenging for fish populations and the people pursuing them.

Anglers at many Nebraska reservoirs have become accustomed to casting lines among trees in spring and watching the shoreline recede far away from those locations in late summer and fall when water is being diverted to the fields. This is especially true in drought years when water is in high demand.

The fluctuations of water volume pose challenges for Game and Parks biologists trying to establish fish populations. Not only does the extreme drawdown of reservoirs greatly affect habitat, it also can flush nutrients from the lakes. With a high turnover rate of water, lakes struggle to develop a population of zooplankton, the miniscule aquatic organisms that serve as the base of a food chain. In some cases, game fish also are lost in the water that is released.

Anglers should be prepared for low water situations this time of year. If levels recede below the bottoms of boat ramps, the first challenge may be access. Bank anglers often must trudge through long stretches of mud just to get to water.

Thanks to the boat ramp constructed in 2018, anglers got on the low water at Box Butte Reservoir last summer with ease. Photo by Justin Haag.

Hip or chest waders can be helpful while launching boats or fishing from the bank. Smaller vessels, such as kayaks, canoes and jon boats can be launched at places the trailers of bigger vessels cannot go.

Knowing a lake’s depth structure can help anglers know where to look for fish. With the drop in water levels coinciding with the hottest period of summer, many species head deep to lower temperatures, often converging at underwater springs. While fish might not be as willing to bite as they were in spring, such times can be advantageous for anglers as fish will be concentrated. The Game and Parks Commission has free printable maps of the bottoms of many of the state’s most popular lakes and reservoirs. Go to OutdoorNebraska.gov and search for “Lake Contour Maps.”

Finally, when selecting baits and presentations, it is always beneficial to know what the fish are eating and where they are eating it. Merritt Reservoir, Lake McConaughy and Lake Minatare, for instance, have a pelagic prey base. That is, small fish such as alewife and gizzard shad that serve as food for larger predator game species. Find those smaller fish and the bigger ones are sure to be in pursuit of them. Modern electronic sonar units are valuable for locating both game fish and prey species.

As water cools in the fall and irrigation ceases, fish leave the deep and return to the shallows. Winter arrives, and, if all goes according to plan, snow falls over the mountains and plains. It melts in spring and is joined by rainwater to bring those water levels back into the trees. The downs become ups and the cycle begins anew.

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.