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A Tribute to Carter P.

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The serene water of Carter P. Johnson Lake shines below rugged terrain to the west in June 2023. The lake’s 470-foot dam, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s, was intentionally breached for safety reasons late last year.

Photo by Justin Haag, Nebraskaland Magazine

Nebraskaland regional editor Justin Haag pays tribute to Carter P. Johnson Lake at Fort Robinson State Park.

By Justin Haag

I always look forward to June, but this one is a little bittersweet because it’s the first without an old friend, “Carter P.”

Carter P. Johnson Lake, that is.

The once beautiful 20-acre lake at Fort Robinson State Park is now gone after the dam along Soldier Creek was purposely breached last fall. The Nebraska Department of Natural Resources had re-classified the dam as a high hazard in 2020 due to the risk of potential loss of life at the campground downstream should a failure occur. In 2022, it was determined to be structurally unsound. The astronomical price estimate for repair forced its removal.

The lake, straddled by the valley’s beautiful backdrops of towering hills and buttes, was loved by locals and park visitors. As the largest public lake in Sioux County, the dam was born during the Great Depression as members of the Civilian Conservation Corps worked night and day with horse-drawn equipment to build it.

The lake has long been regarded as one of the Panhandle’s best waters for big largemouth bass.

My first Carter P. experience came in the mid-1990s when a beloved college professor taught me ice-fishing there. We quickly limited out on rainbow trout, and I was hooked.

It was the perfect size for fishing from a kayak, which is how I spent countless hours there with my kids. On one trip, my son won the prize for catching the first fish during the park’s annual kids’ fishing derby. During another winter outing, one crappie after another rose to bite as soon as my jig fell below the ice.

A destination in its own right, Carter P. was conveniently located for a stop while heading upstream to pursue browns, brookies and cutthroats on the Soldier Creek Wilderness.

I’ve heard it’s the first dam in Nebraska to be destroyed for safety reasons, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it had to be done.

Let’s end this tribute on a positive note. Our fisheries team has been working on some fantastic plans to improve the stream for fishing and access. They also hope to save and renovate the smaller pond along the stream, known as Crazy Horse, that has long been silted in. Just a little ways downstream from the old lake, it would provide anglers another special opportunity at what we like to refer to as “Nebraska’s Fishing State Park.”

I look forward to what comes next, but I’ll always look at the pictures of our old friend, Carter P., with a little mist in my eye.

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.