I absolutely love to ice fish. A perfect calendar for me would be one where I had 3 months of spring turkey hunting, 3 months of fall fishing, and 6 months of ice fishing! I have heard one of the moons of Jupiter is entirely frozen over–I wonder what “big ones” might be swimming underneath the ice there? I wonder how many extensions I would need on my Jiffy to drill through all of that ice?
Anyway, I am hating this winter. Do not walk up to me and tell me what a nice mild winter we are having because I might scream. We may get some cold weather before it is over and maybe we will get on the ice again, but who can predict what the weather is going to be like? Oh, by the way, before you play the “global warming” card, let me point out that on occasion we have had winters like this before. My fishing records indicate that the winters of ’86 and ’99 were particularly mild and I got to spend hardly any time on the ice those winters. Spent very little time on the ice in the winters of ’90 and ’92 as well.
So, what is a person to do? It is still a long time to spring and one nice thing about Nebraska is there is no closed season for fishing. Fortunately I can think of a few open-water fishing options that are available even if we do have ice, and they will be even more attractive if this winter continues to be mild.
First of all, and you probably have heard me say this before, my fishing strategies through the year try to take advantage of prime fishing times for a variety of species. Fishing for different species of fish will peak at different times and by taking advantage of that fact an angler can ride the wave of good fishing right through the year. Whenever the water is cold, my thoughts turn to trout because they are cold-water fish and are much more active in cold water than other species of fish found in Nebraska. We stock catchable-size, 10-inch, rainbow trout in a variety of urban and parks waters across the state in the fall and early winter and anglers can catch those fish either through the ice or in open water. If you need a reminder about the waters where we stock some of those put & take trout, go back and check here, http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2011/09/fall-trout-stockings-3/ , http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2011/10/fall-trout-stocking-update/ .
A mild winter day would also be the perfect time to explore one of our streams that supports trout year-round. We have a booklet, Trout Fishing in Nebraska’s Streams, that highlights those cold-water fisheries that support trout year round and if you have not seen a copy of that, e-mail me or leave a comment here on my blog with your U.S. Postal mailing address and I will put a couple copies in the mail for you. Some of the most popular trout streams that would be worth checking right now would be the East Branch of Verdigre Creek, Long Pine Creek, and Ninemile Creek, but those certainly are not the only ones where a person could catch a mid-winter, open-water trout. Do not forget that Lake Ogallala and associated waters have rainbow trout fishing right now as good as any that can be experienced anywhere, and I know those fish can be caught in open water year-round.
Trout can be caught on a variety of baits and presentations, so even in the middle of winter it will pay to experiment and try everything from shiny spinners, spoons and small crankbaits to jigs, and of course a variety of natural and prepared baits. However in the cold water of winter, “tackling down” to smaller baits and lighter lines might be necessary. Fly anglers may be most successful by presenting a variety of very small (down to size 20 or even smaller) nymphs on light tippets.
The Missouri River in northeast Nebraska always offers some open-water fishing through the winter. Usually the tailwaters below Gavins Point Dam provide some open-water opportunities regardless of the severity of the winter. After the high water of this past summer, the Missouri River fishing has been H-O-T, HOT! The tailwaters below Gavins would be an excellent place to fish right now, but there is also some excellent fishing upstream of Lewis & Clark Reservoir. Cool-water fish like walleyes and sauger will provide most of the action, but there are other species to be caught right now, especially following last year’s flooding.
If you fish the river above Lewis & Clark expect it to look nothing like it used to; last year’s high water has created a lot of changes. In the winter look for fish to be concentrated in deeper holes, especially in areas where there may be less current. Jigs and minnows are the traditional favorite for catching mid-winter walleyes and sauger as well as a variety of other species. An angler might also try tipping jigs with a variety of plastic bodies or some of the PowerBait or GULP! baits. Vertically jigging some blade baits (e.g. Sonars, Silver Buddies) would be an alternate presentation to try and do not be afraid to experiment with others as well. Generally slower presentations will be best during in the cold water of mid-winter and natural baits may work best, but do not be afraid to fish artificials as well, especially if they can be fished slowly.
Another system that has running water, and therefore open water during the winter, where an angler can catch some mid-winter, open-water fish would be the Tri-County canal system in central Nebraska. There are a series of reservoirs on that system (e.g. Maloney, Jeffrey, Johnson) and fish can be caught at the inlets and perhaps outlets of those reservoirs just about any time of year. In addition the canal itself has water control structures or check dams every few miles and those structures also tend to concentrate fish. Again the target species on most of that canal system will be walleyes, but Johnson Reservoir (i.e. Johnson “Lake”) and the waters above Johnson have an excellent sauger population right now. Jigs and minnows again are traditionally productive, but jigs and twister tails or jigs and GULP! minnows could also produce. Expect to lose some jigs to the snags, but be patient and keep bouncing them along the bottom–the fish are there.
The first reservoir on the Tri-County canal system is Sutherland Reservoir and it deserves special mention here because it also has a warm-water return from the coal-fired Gerald Gentleman Power Plant that sits on its shores. Water from the power plant runs through a canal to a cooling pond and the water that is dumped into the cooling pond will be at mid-summer temperatures. A variety of fish can be caught at that location, primarily channel catfish. After winding its way through the cooling pond the water is directed back into Sutherland Reservoir itself at the area popularly known as “the bubble” (the water exits through a couple of very large pipes back into the reservoir and depending on the water elevation it “bubbles” up where it enters the reservoir, if you are on Sutherland, you cannot miss it).
If you check the 2012 Fishing Forecast, http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2012/01/fishing-forecast-2012/ , you will notice that Sutherland should be a particularly good place to catch a bunch of eating-size walleyes this year. With the warm water return the walleye fishing on Sutherland often gets hot in late winter/early spring and I would expect with a mild winter that fishing could take off even earlier. Folks usually drift a variety of live-bait rigs in the vicinity of “the bubble”, but a person could try tossing a jig there or in the inlet and outlet areas as well.
Pits and Ponds
A person may not find many cold-water or cool-water fish in Nebraska pits and ponds, but small waters are the fastest to cool and freeze, and to warm and thaw. Given some mild mid-winter days, a person might find a few panfish or even a bass or two absorbing some heat from the sun and looking for something to eat. Look for areas where the water may warm just a degree or two on a mild, sunny afternoon. South-facing banks and shorelines will catch more of the sun’s energy and northwest corners will be somewhat protected from the cold winds that blow from that direction. If there are some trees that provide more protection from the wind and some cover in the water in those locations, fish will be even more likely to be found in those areas.
Again think small, slow and natural for some mid-winter, open-water bluegills, crappies or largemouth bass in pits and ponds. As a matter of fact, the same small jigs tipped with wax-worms that would be used through a hole in the ice also work very well when suspended below a float (i.e. bobber) and fished in liquid water. I have even seen on a very mild day in mid-winter bluegills sipping small insects off the surface of a pond. There are some species of aquatic insect that will “hatch” on a warm mid-winter’s day; do not ask me what “bug” those bluegills were sipping off the surface because they were very small. I would guess they were some species of midge. All I know is once we started suspending small jigs and wax-worms just a few inches below the surface we stared catching fish!
I will continue to be grumpy if the mild winter continues and I cannot get back on the ice to fish. But, over the years I have learned a person can do absolutely nothing about the weather. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Successful anglers adapt and adjust; the only thing constant in nature is change.