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How to Fish

|Ice Fishing | Safety | Fishing from a Boat |

Ice Fishing for Walleye

A good-sized walleye is considered the ultimate prize by most Nebraska anglers. They are among the most elusive of Nebraska fish any time of the year, and outwitting one in the winter is a real accomplishment. The walleye is almost universally acclaimed as the most palatable fish in these parts, particularly when caught through the ice.

Walleye fishing techniques vary but are similar to northern pike fishing. A walleye might be found a bit deeper, perhaps down to 25 feet, and it prefers bait on or near the bottom. In many ways, the habits and habitats of walleye and northern pike are similar, and many walleyes are taken by pleasantly surprised pike fishermen.

Since they also feed at night, walleyes also cause some excitement among crappie anglers. However, crappie fishermen often lose some of the walleyes they hook because they normally choose light line and hooks, and few crappie fishermen carry the gaff needed to land a big walleye.

Walleyes usually insist on the liveliest of baits, with chubs and large minnows being their favorites. Occasionally, walleyes will also hit a jigged spoon with a minnow or belly strip attached. Among Nebraska waters yielding walleye through the ice are the Salt Valley lakes, Whitney Lake and Merritt Reservoir.

Ice Fishing for Perch

In large, western Nebraska reservoirs and the natural Sandhills lakes in northcentral Nebraska, the yellow perch is the king of the panfish, much as the bluegill and crappie rule eastern Nebraska waters.

Perch stay in the depths of the reservoirs, often in 20 to 50 feet of water. They hug the bottom, run in schools and are strictly daytime feeders. They are also daytime feeders in the natural Sandhills lakes, but depth is not a factor in those shallow waters.

There are many effective ice-fishing baits for perch. One day, a plain hook and minnow might work best, while the next might require a teardrop and waxworm. Sometimes a small, flashy spoon tipped with a grubworm or a strip of belly meat and skin from an already-subdued fish secured to a Russian spoon or teardrop might be the ticket.

One old standby bait -- the perch eye -- should be included in every serious perch fisherman's arsenal. An eyeball plucked from a recently caught and dispatched perch can be used in place of a minnow or worm, often with better results. The eyeball is effective on a plain hook, teardrop or spoon, and once the first perch is iced, a supply of bait is assured.

Ice Fishing for Northern Pike

The northern pike is probably the best suited to ice fishing of all Nebraska gamefish. Northerns feed often and aggressively, giving fishermen a good chance of hooking one. They grow large, with 10- to 15-pounders common in some lakes, and they make fine eating.

Northern pike are fairly well distributed across the state, but most Nebraska pike fishing occurs in Sandhills lakes and Box Butte Reservoir. Sherman, Swanson and Elwood reservoirs and Alkali Lake, where fewer but bigger fish are taken, are also popular.

Most fishermen use a fairly large hook, such as a No. 1 or No. 2 short-shanked single hook or a No. 1 or No. 1/0 treble hook attached to a steel leader one to three feet long. The steel leader keeps the northern's formidable teeth from cutting the line.

Tip-ups are the nearly unanimous choice among pike fishermen, although their rigs vary. Fishermen usually fill their spools with heavy braided line in the 20- to 50-pound-test range just in case they tie into one of the lunkers they dream about.

The best bait is a lively chub or large shiner hooked beneath the dorsal fin or a bluegill of about four inches. In some Sandhills waters where live bait is prohibited, a piece of red meat, a dead minnow or a piece of smelt is used.

Most pike fishermen have the best success by keeping their bait about one foot off the bottom. On occasion, pike prowl just beneath the ice, and it is a good idea to set one or two lines to hold the bait about three feet below the ice. If the deep rigs have been unproductive all day, give the shallow setting a try on all tip-ups.

When a novice sees the flag on a tip-up spring up, the natural first reaction is to run to the hole and haul back on the line as quickly as possible. However, experience has taught veteran anglers that that is a sure way to lose a fish.

When a pike first grabs a bait, it swims off with it a short distance. At that point the fish doesn't always have the bait completely in its mouth and any attempt to set the hook may jerk it free. When the fish begins its second run, set the hook with a firm jerk.

Ice Fishing for Bass

Few anglers set out to catch largemouth bass, but many bass are caught incidentally, during the pursuit of other species. Bass live in the same waters and lurk in the same kinds of habitat as bluegill and crappie, and they often take teardrop-waxworm rigs or minnows set to entice other fish.

Ice fishing for bass requires only slight refining of some panfishing tactics; primarily switching to a heavier line, stronger hooks and larger bait. Otherwise, the time, place and techniques of winter bassing are about the same as they are for bluegill. Minnows might be tried if big teardrops and waxworms don't produce.

Bass prowl water from five to 20 feet deep, and they prefer flooded trees and brush with a dropoff to deeper water nearby. They seem to be most active in the morning and evening, but can be taken any time. Farm ponds, sandpits, NRD lakes, the Salt Valley lakes, Merritt Reservoir and Valentine Refuge lakes are some of the best Nebraska waters for winter bass fishing.

Finding Crappie

Another fish that is popular with winter anglers is the crappie. In some years and in some places crappie are more numerous and more in demand than bluegill. Abundant, fairly easy to catch, and fine table fare; they are popular with winter anglers.

Crappie stay in schools, so once they are located it's fairly easy to catch enough for a good fish fry. Concentration points for crappie include the rock faces of dams and flooded timber along inundated creek channels and draws.

Because crappie tend to school, ice fishermen also concentrate in those spots. On good crappie waters such as the Salt Valley lakes near Lincoln large numbers of anglers gather and by nightfall the crappie hotspots look like small towns on Saturday night. Often hundreds of gas lanterns dot the ice while fishermen tend their lines among sleds and shelters or visit with their neighbors.

The crappie's noctumal habits appeal to many fishermen allowing them several hours of good sport after work. Though darkness seems to trigger the fastest and most consistent crappie activity good catches are also common during the day.

Schools of crappie often stay suspended at specific depths and an angler must not only try different locations but also different depths at each location. Generally crappie are found in 10 to 25 feet of water. Once located, crappie are fairly easy to catch. A jig-pole with four-pound-test, monofilament line; a No. 4 or No. 6 light wire hook; a small split-shot for weight a foot or so above the hook; and a bobber that barely supports the rig and bait or a spring bobber are all that is needed.

For times when the fish are finicky, veteran anglers have a few tricks to stimulate feeding. Nearly all jig their minnows now and then although sometimes the jigging is rather gentle. Some anglers clip part of the minnow's tail fin to increase its activity, while others hook the minnow below the backbone through the fleshy area behind the body cavity so that it hangs upside down. The minnow must then swim constantly to remain upright, and the extra action provided by the active minnow is more likely to attract a crappie's attention. Some fishermen also sift crumbled egg- shells into the hole, hoping that the flash of the falling white flakes might resemble a school of minnows and attract hungry crappie.

Ice Fishing for Blue Gill

Probably the most sought-after and most frequently taken fish in the winter, bluegill seem made for ice fishing. They're easily caught, and they make a tasty platterful when the fishing's done. Bluegill are widely distributed across the state, living in farm ponds, sandpits, and most other small and medium-size lakes and impoundments.

Another point in the bluegill's favor is the civilized schedule it keeps. There is no need for a pre-dawn arrival at the lake, nor is it necessary to brave frigid temperatures and inconvenience at night. Bluegill usually begin feeding an hour or two after sunrise and consistently bite best at midday. There is sometimes a feeding spree at dusk, but it's over soon enough to allow the fisherman to pack his gear and get off the lake before dark.

The guiding principle of winter bluegill fishing is "think small." The bluegill's food preferences, its dainty winter appetite and its rather small mouth all dictate the use of small baits and hooks. In Nebraska, the most popular lure is a teardrop on a No. 8 or No. 10 hook and a grub, such as a waxworm or mouse.

Bluegill often nibble or peck at a bait or just pick it up without moving off, so it is difficult to detect them or know when to set the hook. Thus, a tiny bobber that barely supports the bait or a flimsy wire "spring bobber" attached to the rod is useful. Monofilament line in the two- to four-pound-test range is appropriate.

Bluegill usually stay near the lake bottom in five to 15 feet of water unless they are in brush or other submerged cover. Then they might be found suspended somewhere between the bottom and the ice.
When no cover is present the angler should experiment with various teardrop colors before deciding to move. In cover, try varying the depth at which you fish. In either case, though, it's best to abandon a spot if it doesn't pay off in 15 minutes or so.

Sometimes bluegill will slam a teardrop-and-waxwork rig as it hangs motionless beneath the bobber, but at other times they demand a bit of action before they bite. Often a series of short, gentle twitches of the rod tip will be all it takes to turn a spot that at first looks like a dud into a real producer.


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