Although well-known and popular for years, the Sutherland Supply Canal's miles of shoreline offer anglers plenty of elbowroom. In 1998 a survey indicated that nearly 6,000 fishermen spent 19,000 hours fishing along the canal. An average outing lasted about three hours, and more than 32,000 rainbow trout, weighing a total of nearly 20,000 pounds, were caught. The survey also recorded many fish longer than 20 inches and weighing three to five pounds.
Although anglers use a variety of techniques to catch canal trout, most favor bouncing bait along the bottom. That is the technique that Frank Aloi of North Platte was using in 1975 when he landed the state record rainbow trout. At the time, Aloi fished Lake Ogallala almost exclusively, regularly catching four- to six-pound rainbows. He had heard about anglers taking eight-pound rainbows from the canal east of the lake, but his success in the lake was so good he was reluctant to relocate.
On March 18, 1975, the weather was miserable and Aloi couldn't persuade any of his buddies to go trout fishing. Fishing alone, he was driven off Lake Ogallala by a blizzard and went to the canal for protection from the storm and to try for one of the big fish he had been hearing so much about. He located a small area of still water below a landmark anglers call the cement bridge, and dropped a nightcrawler tipped with a miniature marshmallow into the pool. In short order he hooked several large fish. Then, he caught a whopper that took more than half an hour to land. He knew it was an exceptionally large rainbow, but never imagined it might be a state record.
His spring-loaded fish scale only registered to eight pounds, and the fish bottomed it out. Another angler, drawn to the excitement of the catch, had a heftier scale, and on it Aloi's trout registered about 15 pounds. That's when Aloi decided to find a certified scale. Officially, his fish weighed 14 pounds, 2 ounces, and it remains the largest rainbow trout ever verified in Nebraska.
Most anglers who wet a line in this segment of the canal are aware of the possibility of catching a big fish. Charles Addison of North Platte has fished the canal for trout for more than 20 years, and although he has never taken a fish nearly the size of Aloi's, he is impressed with their quality. All the trout he has pulled from the supply canal have looked healthy and well-nourished. He uses several techniques, but usually uses a nightcrawler with split shot fastened to the line several inches above the hook. Addison believes most trout taken from the canal are caught on nightcrawlers and salmon eggs, but many fishermen are convinced that commercially prepared trout baits, such as Berkley PowerBait, produce the best results.
"What's easy about being the fully equipped trout fisherman is that hauling a few pouches of salmon eggs, a dozen nightcrawlers and a small jar of PowerBait doesn't take up much room," Addison said. "Hang a small spinner bait and a featherweight jig on your hat, and you're totally prepared to go with whatever is working on that particular day."
Addison lets his bait drift with the current, casting nearly across the canal, taking the slack out of his line and walking downstream as the bait bounces along on the bottom.
He allows a trout to pick up the bait, then sets the hook when the fish moves with it. He uses sensitive ultralite tackle and clear, 4- to 6-pound-test line, No.10 hooks and just enough weight to carry a cast across the canal and sink the bait to the bottom.
At normal capacity, the canal flows at an average of four miles per hour. At its center, the canal is about 14 feet deep. Walking about half the speed of the current, an angler can keep up with the bait. The drag of the current on the line eventually pulls the bait back to the angler's side of the canal, and it can be cast toward the opposite bank again.
Some anglers walk several miles downstream before returning; others walk back-and-forth over a shorter distance, fishing hotspots.
Long-distance walkers often get help from non-fishing friends who drive along the canal road carrying bait and a cooler to ice down any fish caught.
Kay and Gary Cooper of North Platte prefer fishing the canal when the water is running at 600 to 800 cubic feet per second, about half the flow at normal capacity. Low water concentrates the trout and makes them more accessible to anglers, and it allows anglers to walk along the exposed shoreline at water level, instead of fishing from the road, well above the water. At high water, retrieving hooks and weights and landing fish from atop the vegetated bank can be difficult. Scrambling up and down the steep bank can be avoided to some extent when the water is low.
Gary welcomes low-water opportunities to discover fish-hiding structures that are hidden when the canal is flowing at normal capacity. Returning to those areas when the canal is running at capacity, he catches more trout than he does when fishing randomly. The Coopers concentrate primarily on bends in the canal, repeatedly drifting bait through inside and outside bends.
Partially submerged natural rock ledges on the south side of the canal also provide excellent cover for rainbow trout. Most anglers with a good casting arm can reach the ledges from the road on the north bank, but those who want to concentrate on the outcroppings often cross one of the access bridges to the south bank. Although stocked trout are not as wary as the wild fish that stream fishermen encounter, anglers must approach the rock ledges along the south bank with stealth and cunning to avoid spooking fish hiding near the shore.
Some trout in the canal are migrants from Lake Ogallala where they were originally stocked. Every spring and fall about 10,000 fish are directly stocked into the canal.
Monte Madsen, a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission fisheries biologist in North Platte, said, "The canal is highly productive and has excellent conditions for growing trophy trout, including ideal temperature, high rates of dissolved oxygen in most years, and abundant food."
As they grow, stocked trout quickly move from plankton to more substantial prey such as insects, small minnows, bait fish and crayfish, and they rapidly put on weight, said Commission biologist, Darrol Eichner of Ogallala. Rainbow trout in Lake Ogallala have demonstrated phenomenal growth ratesof one inch per month and as much as four pounds during their first year after stocking, he said. Eichner thinks growth rates in the canal exceed rates in Lake Ogallala because floating vegetation in the canal carries a virtual smorgasbord and crayfish are abundant.
Why, then, has Aloi's state record trout never been surpassed or even approached? Madsen said there are several reasons: "First, Aloi's fish was spectacular, and spectacular fish comprise the smallest portion of the population. Second, fishing pressure annually crops off a high number of the large fish. Third, and most important, is the dewatering of the canal for inspection."
Every five years, the Nebraska Public Power District is required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to inspect the siphon east of Paxton, which carries canal water southward through a 14-foot-diameter tube under the South Platte River and Interstate 80. To conduct the inspection, NPPD must shut off the flow and drain the canal. The fishery begins anew after the canal is refilled and stocked.
Nevertheless, Madsen said, some trout survive in a few deep holes that hold water even when the canal flow is shut off. Since the inspections always take place in fall, the water stays cold enough for trout to survive. The Game and Parks Commission and NPPD salvage fish from many segments of the canal, but Madsen believes some trout remain in deep holes, and any trout that survives even one inspection will be a very big fish.
And yes, there is a fish story - a very credible one. Richard Stasiak, a professor of zoology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has extensive experience working with salmonids, the family of fish to which trout belong. As a sport fisherman, he has caught large Chinook salmon in the Pacific
One evening last year, near the spot where Aloi caught his record trout in 1975, Stasiak watched a man playing a fish. From the high bank where he was standing and watching the action through polarized sunglasses, Stasiak could clearly see the small trout the fisherman was reeling in. He also saw a very large trout take a run at the small stocker and miss it. Stasiak told the man about the big trout, but the fisherman appeared not to believe him.
The next day Stasiak returned with his ultralite gear, 4-pound-test line and a small spinner bait. He immediately caught a fish weighing about five pounds, but he was sure the fish he had seen the day before was much larger. He continued to fish and finally hooked a trout that was so strong and fast that Stasiak had to run up and down the canal bank several times to keep up with the fish and prevent it from taking all his line or breaking it.
When the big trout jumped, Stasiak was sure he had something special. Seven or eight times it jumped, and each time regurgitated several large crayfish.
After some time, he pulled the huge fish up along the rocks. When he put both hands around its body, it felt like one of the huge Chinooks from the Pacific Northwest, and he knew he wouldn't be able to
Drawing on his professional experience, he carefully estimated the length of the fish: a little more than a meter, about 40 inches.
A firm believer in catch-and-release fishing, he carefully wiggled the hook free from the fish's jaw and watched it swim out of sight into the dark water.
Scientific models used by biologists for calculating the size-to-weight ratios of rainbow trout place the average weight of a 36-inch trout at 21 pounds. A 40-inch trout would weigh an incredible 29 pounds.