Text and photos by Eric Fowler
Shallow water and plenty of sandbars make navigating the Platte River nearly impossible in a conventional motorboat, but those obstacles don't phase airboats, making the craft a perfect choice for anglers looking to pull catfish from its waters.
It didn’t take long for Dave Ortlieb to catch the first channel catfish of the day and put it in a cooler on ice. To be exact, it was just six minutes after he cast his line to a logjam in the Platte River near Louisville State Recreation Area and not quite 20 minutes after he pointed his airboat up the river from the boat ramp at Highway 50 and hit the gas.
It’s not always that easy, but for someone who has spent his entire life fishing this part of the Platte, it can be. The key is simply dipping a plastic worm in stink bait and tossing it in a catfish hole. “If they’re in the neighborhood, they will be caught,” Ortlieb said.
There are plenty of channel cats in the neighborhood, and a few flatheads too. Ortlieb, 45, has been fishing for them since he was old enough to get himself to the river from his home near Platte River State Park west of Louisville.
“When I was a kid we’d come down here and fish all the time,” Ortlieb said. “We’d ride our bicycles down from Dad’s and we’d sit right here and fish.
“There were big slabs of limestone you could walk on out here in the summer. They’ve been silted over and undermined and actually sunk down into the riverbed.”
When those limestone slabs disappeared, so did the holes they helped create. But there are plenty of holes in the Platte. When he turned 16, Ortlieb abandoned his bicycle and started strapping his rod, a tub of stink bait and a cooler onto his motorcycle and heading to the river to find them. “I’d just ride out on the river, park out on a sandbar and go fish,” he said. Of course that strategy only worked when the river was low. Even then, there were plenty of holes he couldn’t reach.
As Ortlieb's rod tip danced, he yanked it from the rod holder and reared back. “Did I get him,” he asked rhetorically. “No, I missed him. It’s just like golf; you’ve got to have a good follow- through.”
After that, the rod tip quit dancing. “Well, fish? I’m getting kinda' antsy,” Ortlieb said after about a half hour with nothing to do except watch the sun try to burn through the low clouds and haze that blanketed the river valley on this early September morning. “That one bit and he must’ve went back and told them all ‘There’s somebody up there fishing.’”
So off to the next hole he went.
Ortlieb now lives near Elmwood. While he’s a little further from the river, fishing it has been easier for him since 1990, when he finished building his first airboat. Now no hole on the Lower Platte is out of reach, and no catfish living in them is safe. “It’s the best way to get around here,” he said.
Airboats navigate the sandbar-choked Platte with ease. They move in little to no water, and, when necessary, can even scoot across dry sandbars. Less water is actually better, Ortlieb said, because of the reduced drag on the boat. Whenever possible, Ortlieb tries to run in the shallow water next to sandbars and in doing so picks up an extra three or four miles per hour without changing his throttle position. That’s a good thing in a boat that only burns five or six gallons of gas an hour at 1,700 rpm and more than twice that at 2,500 rpm. “That’s the worse thing about these aircraft engines,” Ortlieb said. “The way gas prices are these days, I guess I can keep my foot out of it.”
Ortlieb opted for a 540 cubic-inch, 260 horsepower Lycoming aircraft engine for his first airboat rather than the big-block Chevy’s most people were using. Aircraft engines cost more to both buy and maintain, but they are designed to turn a propeller directly, and produce high torque at low rpm. Keeping the propeller speed low is important, because that is the primary source of noise in airboats. Car engines, on the other hand, produce more torque at higher rpm, which means a reduction drive is needed between the engine and propeller to keep performance high and noise low.
About five years ago, Ortlieb put the same engine on a new 15-foot fiberglass hull, on which he built a deck with two fishing chairs. “I like to go fishing,” he said, “There are guys that got seats, seats and seats and they just drive around. I’ve got room for people to move around and fish.”
When Ortlieb built his first airboat, there were only four or five others on the Lower Platte. “A guy pretty much knew everybody who had an airboat out here, and now I’d say down in this area there are probably 40 or 50.” Most of those are pleasure boats, but some are owned by catfishermen. Other anglers use johnboats with Go-Devil motors designed to run in shallow water. Some even drop a canoe in upriver and stop at holes on their way down.
“He’s another eater,” Ortlieb said with a laugh as he threw another fish in the cooler at the second stop of the day, a logjam on one of the footings of the Lied Platte River Bridge south of Gretna, a segment of the abandoned Rock Island Railroad that is now a hiking trail. “We need to get a few more of them. Three or four of them and a 15-pounder would be nice.”
That hole produced two more fish, one for the cooler and one that didn’t quite make the grade size-wise. There were plenty of bites, most of which came while Ortlieb was either tightening the engine’s alternator belt or tying another dip worm rig after breaking one off on a snag. “Well by golly, when I don’t have any worms to tie or boats to work on, the darned fish won’t bite. Maybe I should change the oil or something.”
Or head upriver.
The first place Ortlieb looks for catfish on the river is usually a logjam, and there’s no shortage of those. When the current hits a pile of logs, it scours a deep hole around them. Catfish like to tuck themselves between the logs to stay out of the current and wait for dinner to float by. Other likely places to find catfish include cutbanks, banks protected by riprap, and holes on the downstream end of sandbars. “There are times when these holes can be shoulder deep or deeper,” Ortlieb said.
During his many years fishing the Platte, Ortlieb has learned a few tricks for reading the river, including watching his boat wake to find holes that can be hard to spot when the water is murky, and those that might look good at first but turn out otherwise. “If you’ve got one little quick little channel and then it shallows up, the wave will start breaking and you know ‘Man, the water ain’t deep enough. Nobody’s living in that,’” he said.
With few exceptions, Ortlieb has always used Doc’s Catfish Getter Dip Bait. One of many such products known as stink bait, this thick goo made with cheese, liver, blood or other ingredients is a favorite of many catfishermen. It works well in reservoirs, and can be deadly in rivers and streams, where the current slowly washes the bait off the dip worm and carries it downstream, leaving a trail of scent fish can follow to the hook. “They’re smelling her in,” Ortlieb said. “You sit here a half hour and you’re bringing fish in from 200 yards downriver. They’re coming to try to find what the smell is.”
He buys worms in bulk in six different colors and builds his own rigs by tying a No. 6 Mustad treble hook to two feet a 20-pound-test monofilament leader and threading the worm on the line with a darning needle. He figures he’s got about a quarter in each rig, a bargain compared to the $2 or so a two-pack of commercially tied rigs costs.
Ortlieb fishes with heavy baitcasting rods and Abu Garcia reels spooled with 25-pound-test monofilament. He makes his own three- and four-ounce egg sinkers every few years at a “smelting party” with fellow fishermen. Those are slid onto the line above a heavy snap swivel, on which he hooks his dip bait worm rig.
The third stop of the day, a cut bank on the river’s west side a mile upriver from the Lied Bridge, didn’t yield a bite. Neither did the fourth, a deep hole where the river flowed against a bank covered with concrete rubble. Not one to dawdle where the fish aren’t biting, Ortlieb fired up the boat and headed across the river to a narrow channel that flowed between the bank and a small island.
By now, it was time for the photographer to wet a line. To Ortlieb’s delight, I found a good follow-through on a hook-set doesn’t always produce a fish. “That’ll come back and have a set of dentures on it,” he said with a laugh.
Ortlieb’s next chance felt like a good fish when he set the hook, but to his surprise it turned out to be a smooth soft shell turtle. “If that was about a 15-pound snapper, by golly, we might’ve had to throw him in the cooler.”
The turtle was the biggest thing that hole produced. It did give up some fish, but most were barely longer than the three-inch dip-bait worms.
“We’re just going to have to move out of the nursery. We might as well motor. When four fish come to the boat and none go in the cooler, we found the daycare.”
Ortlieb has learned the best bite comes when the river is rising, which happens once a day thanks to releases from the Loup Power District canal. Water diverted from the Loup River near Genoa passes through hydroelectric plants at Monroe and Columbus before dumping into the Platte. The hydro plants ramp up production during the day to meet increased demand, and when they do, more water ends up in the Platte, causing what is known as hydropeaking. Several variables influence when and how much the river rises when the water reaches Louisville about two days later. But for the most part, the river at Louisville is rising for a half day and falling for the other half.
“Sometimes it really doesn’t come up much,” Ortlieb said. “I mean sometimes you’re only talking two inches of difference, but it’s just enough to turn them on.”
The rising water washes debris and food from the sandbars that was left there when it fell, and hungry catfish are waiting. Whenever Ortlieb is thinking about going fishing, he checks the USGS Web site at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/ne/nwis/sw and tries to plan his trip around the rise. “Sometimes it’s peaking down at Louisville at six in the morning and it’s like ‘Yeah, right. I don’t want to be there then,’” he said with a laugh.
Bigger surges often follow heavy rains elsewhere in Nebraska. While those rises can be good for fishing, they aren’t necessarily good for navigating the river in an airboat. When the river is high, the cage covering the prop on Ortlieb’s boat won’t fit under the Lied Bridge.
Ortlieb has been on the river when one of those surges hit. “All of a sudden a log hits the side of the boat,” he said, remembering one of those days. “I mean I’m just parked on a sandbar like this and the next thing you know. ‘Clunk.’ I look upriver and it was nothing but logs. You’ve got to beat the surge to the bridge, otherwise you don’t make it under the bridge.”
If Ortlieb hasn’t checked river levels online, he can still tell when the river’s rising. “There are little things that after a while a guy kind of gets to paying attention to,” he said. “You’ve got that little stick over there floating down river. I mean that’s a sign. At the high point of the deal, you can see the foam.”
Ortlieb’s boat can move much quicker than the river, which flows along at about two mph. If he’s on the river ahead of the rise, Ortlieb will head upstream, wait for it, and follow it all the way back to Louisville.
Hole number five, a logjam on the east bank of the river a few hundred yards from Interstate 80, produced the biggest channel cat of the day, a two-and-a-half pounder and another 12-incher, but not the big fish Ortlieb was looking for.
“We went to the daycare down the street,” Ortlieb said. “We’re looking for the old folks' home. We got granny out of there but all the kids are coming out to play now. We need some benders, some of them that you can’t get the rod out of the holder.”
The sun finally burned through the clouds. But while the temperature was heating up, the fishing wasn’t. It was still a better day than the construction crews working on the I-80 bridge were having. Ortlieb decided we’d tortured them long enough, making them watch us fish while they worked, and headed downriver to fish one more hole.
Ortlieb usually doesn’t get much further upriver than the U.S. Highway 6 bridge near Ashland, but occasionally makes it as far as the mouth of the Elkhorn River west of Gretna, a 16-mile jaunt from Louisville. “There’s good fishing way upriver but a guy usually has his limit by the time you get up that far,” he said.
“You can catch your limit of pan-sized ones, catch a good mess of fish and on occasion you’ll pull in a big one. This year we stopped down there in one little hole and we caught a couple of them that were running a pound or so, maybe a pound-and-a-half. And then the next throw out, here you come back with a six pounder. Just fishing with this stuff here in the broad daylight, I mean I’ve gotten 15- or 16-pounders off these piles before.”
For about half of that 16-mile stretch, the Elkhorn’s muddier water stays on the east side of the Platte and the water on the west bank is clearer. While one would think that water clarity wouldn’t make much difference when you’re looking for a fish that feeds more by taste and smell than sight, Ortlieb said he does have better luck in clear water. Worm color can make a big difference some days as well.
“There are days that it’s actually the reds and the purples,” he said. “Whoever’s got them on will catch fish. In the clearer water, the brighter colors work. But you get into the black and the reds and purples, they work when the water’s a little stained.”
Ortlieb fishes places other than the Platte, including the Tri-County and Sutherland canals in western Nebraska. “We usually go out there for a week every year and live on catfish and sweet corn,” he said. But the Platte is always there waiting. He’ll fish it as soon as he can get the boat on the river. A few years ago, he hit the water when the temperature hit 60 one January day. “There were chunks of ice coming down the river and I would pull up in the creeks. The catfish were lying up in there. I was using jars of shad and man … in the winter if the creek mouth is open, you’re only there for an hour and you’re like, ‘Well, we’re done. Now we might as well go drive around.’”
In late-March or early April, flatheads are especially fond of those creek mouths and a bluegill-baited hook dropped in front of them. Flatheads put the feedbag on again in the fall, too, Ortlieb said. He’s landed his share, and failed to land a few more. He’ll never forget one fish that took his bait and headed for the main channel. After he finally got his pole out of the holder, he started tightening the drag. “And I was tightening and tightening and it never slowed down and the line just came down to the end and away she went. It was like, ‘What can you do?’” he recalled.
Ortlieb has pulled his share of channel and flathead catfish from a hole at the mouth of Fountain Creek. But on this day, it didn’t even produce a bite. Ortlieb didn’t mind. There were fish in the cooler that would be in the fry pan that evening, a good way to end a day.
“The occasional train kind of breaks the silence but it’s awful peaceful out here,” he said. “It’s a good day to be on the river.”