I have been promoting the outstanding rainbow trout fishing at Lake Ogallala and associated waters since last fall, http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2010/10/been-october-20-2010/ , http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2010/12/been-december-1-2010/ , http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2011/04/been-april-7-2011/ , http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2011/06/weekend-report-memorial-day-2011/ . If you look back through the pictures in those posts, you will see the size of the rainbow trout steadily growing. My biggest fish out of that fishery, so far, was this 21-incher caught over Memorial Day weekend.
That is the largest one I have caught since the Lake Ogallala renovation that occurred in the late fall of 2009. I should say that is the biggest one I have caught so far, and I expect even bigger fish this fall! Don’t believe me? Well recently we had this picture show up in the mail.
The picture is not the greatest, but it is good enough that you can look at that yardstick and see that rainbow was 23 inches. It weighed over 6 pounds.
And take a look at this 22-incher my buddy Bruce caught out there recently.
I am not exaggerating when I claim that the Lake Ogallala trout fishery is as good as you can find, anywhere right now. We have always known that fishery is tremendously productive. When common carp and sucker numbers are at a minimum there is a lot of submerged aquatic vegetation in Lake Ogallala and a tremendous abundance of a variety of aquatic insects, alewives, crayfish, and other trout snacks. When habitat conditions are good and the trout do not have to compete with the rough fish, we have documented growth rates of trout in Lake Ogallala and associated waters as much as 1 inch per month! There have been periodic rotenone renovations of Lake Ogallala to knock back the carp and suckers and after those renovations the trout have responded fabulously. Those trout in those pictures I would guess were some of the first ones stocked after the most recent renovation; probably stocked on the last day of 2009. Those fish would have been stocked as 10-inchers and look where they are in less than 18 months! With the water situation as it is in McConaughy right now the water quality and habitat conditions in Lake Ogallala are excellent and that trout fishery is going to continue to be good and even better!
If you have been reading my blog for some time you probably recall that I addressed some comments about our current statewide trout regulations especially as those regulations apply to Lake Ogallala, http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2011/02/trout-regulations/ . You can read that whole post; I am not going to re-hash all of that now. Basically, the regulation that limits the harvest of 16-inch and larger trout to one per day rarely impacts any anglers on any waters except for Lake Ogallala and associated waters. On my most recent days of fishing Lake Ogallala and associated waters our rainbows would have averaged more than 16 inches. I did not care because I am perfectly happy to catch & release fish like that all day long, but some anglers would prefer to quit fishing with a limit of 16-inch and larger trout every day. Yes, I have heard comments, complaints, about every fish they catch being larger than 16 inches!
What a problem to have! I would argue that we have something very special at Lake Ogallala right now, and that resource deserves to be managed differently than every other put-and-take, 10-inch rainbow fishery we have throughout the state. How many big trout does a person have to harvest in a day? Does not the Lake Ogallala trout fishery deserve to be managed for the “something special” fishery that it can produce right now? With the restriction on the harvest of trout larger than 16 inches, imagine the potential that fishery still has!
Another complaint I continue to hear is that those trout are more fragile than other fish and cannot survive being caught and released. There are a darned lot of fly anglers around the world that would dispute that claim. Yes, trout are cold-water fish, but they are not necessarily any more fragile than any other fish that are caught and released especially when caught from the colder waters that support trout. Successful catch & release comes down to proper fish handling. I suspect some of the Lake Ogallala trout are mishandled on purpose, a practice that is against the law, but maybe some folks simply have not given any thought to proper handling of those fish.
So, let me make a few suggestions. . . .
First of all, we have not placed any bait or gear restrictions on the Lake Ogallala fishery. That fishery is no doubt producing a high-quality trout fishing experience right now. We would like all anglers of all skill levels to be able to enjoy that fishery. A person can go out there and catch big rainbows on everything from nightcrawlers to spoons to #16 midge nymph patterns. Yes, trout caught on live baits or GULP or PowerBaits or salmon eggs or Velveeta cheese are more likely to swallow the hook. But, it does not necessarily have to be that way. I have experimented with circle hooks while fishing some ‘crawlers and similar baits for trout. The hardest part is finding circle hooks that are small enough for trout, Owner circle hooks are the ones I have used, http://www.ownerhooks.com/index.htm . Interestingly, I have played around with a #8 light wire Tru-Turn hook, have modified it by bending it into a “circle” hook, and that has worked as well or better than the commercially-made circle hooks that I have tried.
Those hooks work as advertised. Even with nightcrawlers most trout end up hooked right in the corner of the mouth.
If you fish live or similar baits for Lake Ogallala trout, another trick that will keep those fish from swallowing hooks is to fish baits on jig-heads.
One of the best tools for the catch & release of any fish is a landing net! Years ago I might not have said that, but many companies now make landing nets specifically for the catch & release of fish. Those nets are over-sized and made of knotless mesh, usually rubber mesh or rubber-coated mesh. For trout I prefer the rubber-mesh landing nets.
Land the fish and then leave them in the net, in the water. A person can then remove the hooks, get the camera ready for a quick picture, and then release the fish with a minimum of handling and stress on the fish. Handled that way, trout are no more delicate than any other fish.
Now, I have fished the many miles of canal below Lake Ogallala and have had a darned lot of great trout fishing in that canal. I am very much aware that there are stretches of that canal where the banks are very steep and some of those banks are even completely concrete. I know it is difficult to land and handle trout on those canal banks. But. . . (you knew I was going to say that). . . my landing net has an extendable handle and when water levels in the canal are high, like they are now, that long handle is all a person needs to land a trout on the canal. Once the fish is landed on the canal a person may not be able to leave it in the water, but the fish can still be handled in the net, NOT ON THE GROUND, where the fish can be unhooked and then released back into the canal. If a fish has to be thrown back into the water, then absolutely throw it; the important part is to get them back in the water ASAP.
Every few years the power and irrigation district has to drain the canal below Lake Ogallala for inspection and repairs. I have spent a lot of time fishing the canal under minimum flow conditions. During the recent long-term drought, water levels in the canal could be so low that there was none left to support any fish. But, when we are not in the middle of a long-term drought, the canal usually has some stretches that still support fish even during the months when the canal is de-watered for inspection and repairs. I have caught a lot of those fish at those times because they become concentrated in a few areas. Under those conditions, a long-handled landing net is still not enough to extend down the steep banks to the water. When it is like that I have gotten innovative by removing the net portion, the hoop, from the handle and making a landing basket out of it. Look closer at my net pictures, see the floats on the hoop? I rig a rope sling on the hoop and then I can toss that down the steep bank into the water where the hoop floats, and then a fish can be led into the hoop where it is then hoisted to the top of the canal bank. The fish gets hoisted up the bank that way, but it is in the bag of the net and protected. That handling is not as good as keeping the fish in the water, but it is a darned lot better than dragging the fish up the canal bank and then letting them flop in the gravel. As a result, those fish are still releasable.
Why release them when the canal is de-watered? Aren’t they all going to die anyway? No, not necessarily. If we are not in a drought, there can be enough water in stretches to keep some fish alive. In addition during the years when the canal is de-watered there are some of those canal trout that are rescued and returned to Lake Ogallala where they can continue to live and grow.
I am excited about the Lake Ogallala rainbow fishery right now. I believe it is something special and if the regulations are followed and the fish are properly handled, we have not seen the best of it yet!