A First Look at This Year's Fishing Trips
By Jeff Kurrus
Maps....Computers....Surveys....Biologists. Spending a bit more time in the off-season organizing this year's fishing trips will pay the dividends you're looking for during the fishing season.
Growing up, I couldn't count the number of good lakes and reservoirs I had to fish on my fingers and toes. I lived in a rural area, went to a big school, and knew a lot of people. Permission came easy. Then I moved from Tennessee to Nebraska where my wife, who had enlisted in the Air Force, was stationed. "They have hunting and fishing there," she told me, but I didn't have my private water any longer, no round-the-corner honey holes where I locked the gate behind me when accessing. So I had to start researching. I learned slowly at first, yet with each new tactic I came across, I was better able to pinpoint exactly what I was looking for - fish.
What I didn't realize early on was how much information was available to anglers. I quickly learned. Many states don't offer the kind of services the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission does, and it's information people should use to their advantage. So, using the Commission's web site and a few other tricks I've learned along the way, I'll take you through everything you need to know about planning this year's Nebraska fishing trip from the seat of your chair. Bring some bottled water and a snack. There's a lot of information out there, all you have to do is fish for it.Maps
First and foremost, purchase a DeLorme atlas of Nebraska, which runs around $20. This map can be bought at your local outdoor store
More specifically, on page 79 of this atlas you'll find Verdon State Recreation Area (SRA), with a fish symbol and number beside it. In my book, the number is 3828. At the front of the map book, there is a fishing section that outlines all the lakes identified by a four-digit code. I can find Verdon Lake either by its number or from the alphabetic listing and note its acreage as well as the species of fish it holds.
The drawbacks to the map are small, but must be noted. One, all the species listed are not necessarily accurate for the lakes themselves, so I would consult the Commission's 2007 Nebraska Fishing Guide for the most up-to-date information regarding lake location, access and harvest regulations. This fishing guide not only outlines the rules and regulations set forth by the Commission, it allows anglers to note any changes, such as creel or size limits, that have been adjusted from one year to the next on your favorite lakes.
Two, every once in a while with the DeLorme you'll find that a road on your map doesn't necessarily match up with the roads you see as you drive. As with anything, progress occurs each and every year. You might find a road you once traveled is no longer in use, and one that used to dead end no longer has this abrupt conclusion. Make notes in your DeLorme as you travel the back roads of the state. You'll be glad you did.
These problems are minor with the atlas, which I primarily use for the following three reasons. First, it helps pinpoint lake locations in rural parts of the state. In many of these locations, there is a section road at each mile. As an atlas user, I can count the number of sections before I have to make a turn to my destination. It's an easy way to locate lakes when you are traveling in new territories. Second, the map shows readers boat ramp locations. Instead of driving around an entire 200-acre lake looking for a ramp, a boat symbol on the map shows me where one is before I even get there. Lastly, I can see the general shape of the lake.
Once I've found out if a certain lake fits my fishing needs, I refer to the list of topographic maps displayed on the Commission's web site to see if the lake is listed. And since there are a large number of Nebraska lakes on the web site, 63 when this magazine went to press, I have a good feeling I'll have a topographical map to reference for my trip.
A topographical map can give you a wealth of knowledge about a lake before you ever get there, most importantly information concerning a lake's bottom contours. For example, if a body of water maintains the same water depth through nearly all of the lake, then an angler will have to make their adjustments from there. Take Hackberry Lake south of Valentine, for example. Its contour lines are 1 foot each, with a maximum depth around 5 feet. It's okay to fish a place that's 5 feet at its deepest as long as you know that's what you're getting into.
If there are depth changes in a particular lake, how sharp are these changes? Does the lake have any islands and, if so, are there steep drop-offs by the island? Take a look at the topographical map for Grove Lake. On the lake's west side, notice how the contour lines are very close together and listed in 3-foot increments, meaning a much steeper drop-off than a lake whose contour lines are further apart. If I'm an angler looking for a tapered bank, then Grove's western side is not my best choice. Also on the Grove map, notice the south end of the lake. There is a 3-foot contour covering much of the water on that particular end, compared to both the east and the west sides of the lake. If I'm searching for a large amount of deep water during the summer, Grove's south end won't provide the necessary habitat I'm looking for.
Another factor is the shape of the lake. At Grove, there are at least 10 coves for anglers to fish and these coves are significant for a number of reasons. Coves like these create at least two points where they connect to the main lake and often have secondary points inside the coves themselves. In the northeastern corner of Grove you'll find the lake's largest cove, with water depths ranging from 15 feet to just a few inches in an area that provides a windbreak and shade on a hot, sunny day. There are also a number of secondary points in this area, creating a long list of possible ambush places for species like largemouth bass and northern pike.Fish Population Surveys
On the next page is a section of the 2006 largemouth bass electrofishing results first published in the 2007 Winter/Spring Outdoor Nebraska and also available at OutdoorNebraska.org. The graph is arranged from the highest density of fish on the far left side to the lowest density of fish (of lakes surveyed) to the right. If you find Verdon on the list, you see that it's the second-ranked lake on the chart, with more than 450 bass surveyed per hour of electrofishing. Of those, around 350 were less than 8 inches long, about 40 were between 8 and 12 inches, and approximately 40 were between 12 to 15 inches. After referring back to the latest state fishing guide and checking Verdon's size limits, it is evident there were only a small number of harvestable bass surveyed at Verdon. Should that influence someone's decision on whether or not to go there? Sure it should.
If I'm looking at this selection of lakes and want the opportunity to catch 50 bass, I'll check out lakes on the left side of the graph, including Louisville No. 1a, Summit and Ta-Ha-Zouka. I might target this type of bass abundance if I'm taking my 9-year-old nephew fishing, or have had a long day at work and want to feel as if one thing went right that day.
On the flip side, if I'm thinking big fish, I'll pay more attention to lakes that have tan at the top of their bars, indicating the number of bass 15 inches or longer that were surveyed. These would include Walnut Creek, Carter P. Johnson, Louisville No. 2, and Cub Creek. Throw Zorinsky and Smith in the mix, and I have a number of big bass waters to fish throughout the state. Does that mean that some of those other lakes don't have big fish in them? No, but this line of thinking gives anglers a better chance to catch the sizes and numbers of bass they are looking for.
Anglers can also look at the predator/prey relationship of particular species at a given lake with these surveys. For the best example, let's take the bass/bluegill angle. "We rely on largemouth bass to control bluegill populations," said fisheries biologist Daryl Bauer. "So on the lakes where you're catching a ton of smaller bass, you should be finding bigger bluegill."
Also, look at past surveys, comparing numbers from one year to the next. Throughout their lives, lakes have a natural ebb and flow concerning their production, so research information from past years. I still look back at the 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 surveys the Commission has online. Walnut Creek, located in Papillion, is a great example. In 2000, Walnut Creek had a lot of bass less than 12 inches, but very few that were larger. In 2002, the number of bass smaller than 12 inches decreased but there were more fish above 12 inches. By 2005, more fish longer than 12 inches were surveyed than fish below 12 inches. Finally, for 2006, around 70 percent of the bass surveyed at Walnut Creek were above 12 inches and the lake boasted one of the largest numbers of largemouths above 15 inches in the state.
With that in mind, Walnut Creek has a length limit of 21 inches. A 21-inch bass is probably going to weigh over 5 pounds, which means I might have the opportunity to catch and release a number of fish between 3 and 5 pounds. Where do I sign up to fish there? But Bauer also warns anglers that every population goes through highs and lows and there is always mortality when looking at old fisheries. "At Willow Creek by Pierce, we've been building a good density of walleyes. Last year we had real strong crop of 15-inch walleye. That doesn't mean there's going to be a bunch of 20-inch walleye this coming year. You can see a big year class coming up, but many may get harvested once they reach legal size."Other Online Tricks
I've made successful fishing trips using these public techniques in many states, including Nebraska, Kansas, and Minnesota. If I want the opportunity to catch a large number of fish, I know where to go. And if it's one of those days when I'm after the big boys, then I have my list for that as well. But my research still isn't done. In a recent conversation with Bauer, he said he checks Master Angler Awards before heading off to a lake. This program, also available on the Commission's web site, lets anglers see what trophy-sized fish were caught on lakes throughout the state. They can also note which baits caught those big fish. For example, taking a look at McConaughy's 2005 Master Angler walleye list reveals that out of the 52 trophies listed, at least 12 were caught on a nightcrawler, 13 on crankbaits and 14 on leeches.
By knowing fish are hitting various baits and having confidence in these baits, anglers can keep themselves on the lake a bit longer when their initial techniques aren't working. Ten years ago people were complaining that walleye fishing at McConaughy was terrible but the walleye survey numbers were great. Once people were able to get away from their traditional tactics and adapt, trophy-sized walleye started showing up. These Master Angler awards and their corresponding baits might just be the difference between a person giving up after a few hours versus fishing confidently for an entire day.
Another telling section of the Commission's web site is the Fishing Stocking Database. This shows the number of fish stocked in various lakes across the state, including the sizes of fish and the dates they were stocked. At Holmes Lake in Lincoln, 3,000 11.75-inch channel catfish were stocked in May 2006 and 3,825 9-inch channels were stocked the following September. This summer, if you're looking for channel catfish for the pan, then you probably can't beat Holmes and its three catfish per day limit.
Holmes also has another thing going for it, as do a number of other lakes in Nebraska - a rehabilitation project was completed there in 2004 (see "Pumping New Life Into Old Lakes" in the January/February 2007 edition of NEBRASKAland). Each rehabilitation project, including the specifics of what was accomplished, is listed on the fishing portion of the Commission's web site under the heading Aquatic Habitat Program.
"Look at the renovation lakes three to five years later," said Bauer. "There's going to be some good fishing there. Those fish grow fast after the renovation projects and there's very little competition when we re-stock them."
This spring, the largemouth fishing at Memphis SRA will be an example of this. After its recent renovation project, the fish sizes should increase this year and provide excellent dividends within a few years. A person can fish a white spinnerbait from its banks and catch 20 bass in a given morning, but the size of the fish, for the most part, will be small. If you have an idea of what you want to accomplish when you fish, it makes the trip much easier to plan.Make a Call
Finally, talk to the Commission fisheries officials that are responsible for the lake(s) you plan on fishing. I met a couple guys near North Platte last summer and they informed me they had gone to a lake near their home only to find out it had been renovated to remove rough fish. That's fine if the lake's five minutes away and you have other choices, but if you're traveling a long way to your favorite bluegill honey hole only to find out renovations are occurring, then that's a wasted trip if you're not prepared to fish somewhere else. But that's not the only reason why you call fisheries officials. At the bare minimum, you want to ask the following questions about a lake if you've never been there:
1) Lake Level - You can ask a biologist what the lake's maximum level is, but what you really want to know is what its level will be when you're there. Most people don't like fishing lakes that are extremely down, while others argue it reduces the amount of water to fish, thus creating a smaller barrel of fish. Personally, I want the lake as full as it can get when I'm fishing it.
If a lake has deep water, summertime fishing is always going to be a possibility. If it's extremely shallow or an irrigation reservoir, the level could be extremely low in the summer months. Plus, on lakes in areas like the Sandhills, a large amount of vegetation could become a problem to fish through as well as maneuver the boat around.
2) Cover - This is a question I always ask local bait shop owners and biologists when thinking about fishing a place for the first time. I'm not looking for any particular type, I'm just looking for variety. Here are a few types you'll come across in Nebraska, and what you should think about each:
Flooded timber. The best thing about flooded timber is that, regardless of water depth or change in depth, anglers can access this timber throughout the year for many different species of fish, from crappie in the winter to largemouth in the summer. It's excellent to fish, but anglers should take heed to at least one thought: Timber always looks good, whether it's a newly fallen green tree or the top of a dying cottonwood. The problem with this is simple. If you fish everything that looks good in a lake, then you could catch yourself fishing water that is eye-appealing, but isn't fish-producing. I think you're looking for the latter.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to fish a beautiful stump-infested swamp in a Louisiana bayou. As far as you could see were submerged trees. And I think we fished every one of them, each looking better than the one before it. At the end of the day, my boat had two fish. We never thought of where fish might be versus "this looks good." Don't get sucked in so easily like we did.
Riprap. Rocks usually line the dam and jetties a lake might have. The deep water adjacent to the shallow rocks is the most pleasing for anglers. The higher the water is on that particular lake, the more the rocks come into play. In my experience, if the fish have been on one set of rocks in a day, they've often been on most of the other rocks that day. I can't remember a day I've fished Verdon when the fish weren't on the rocky peninsula.
Vegetation. This is the most complicated of all the forms of cover, so let's get specific first. "Lots of reservoirs on the eastern end of the state have curly-leaf pondweed," said Bauer. "When we get warm water in April, this weed goes nuts. It makes it tougher to fish early in the year. You can learn to fish it, but it's going to be a challenge." During this time of the year, before the curly-leaf pondweed dies off in this part of the state, schedule a fishing trip in the Sandhills. There, the opposite is occurring. The aquatic vegetation that dominates these shallow lakes makes them almost impossible to fish or maneuver through during the summer. Fish the Sandhills early and come back and try the curly-leafed lakes in the summer after it has died off in the heat.
A type of aquatic vegetation that can be accessed throughout the year is bulrush. Anglers can fish through it easily, since it is tall and round, but it still provides the necessary cover for ambushing fish. With a variety of lures, a good caster or flipper can work through these patches, pulling lures out to the edge while also catching fish between the reeds. Finally, if you happen to find lily pads in a Nebraska lake, then you can assume at least a couple things: "The water quality is good and the water level is stable. You don't have lily pads without these," said Bauer.
The 'vegetation' question is one that I always ask. It goes back to knowing what I'm getting myself into. If I'm going to fish Memphis, I want to know that there is a large amount of vegetation that covers much of the lake in the summer. If I'm willing to fight through it for the large number of fish I think I'll be able to catch, then no problem. But if I don't feel like doing that, the last thing I want to do is be surprised by the amount of vegetation and spend my day fighting a body of water instead of fishing it.
Before you put your trip together, start with this list of tips. A little research before you're on the lake will provide a lot more satisfaction once you're there.
Look in next month's issue for the second part of this story, where we will deal with not just planning a trip, but planning the perfect trip.