I have been out of the office to meetings most of the past couple of weeks. . . time to give you an update on my adventures. I was in Valentine both weeks and spent time in meetings, but also had time to see some of our state’s resources and tempt a few fish into biting.
I feel like I spent all winter being “Daryl Downer” warning people to be careful on the ice this winter. It was one of those winters, we have had them before, where we just never seemed to have safe ice. I spent a fraction of the time on the ice that I would during a “normal” winter, but I got out when I could. In spite of my preaching to be cautious anytime you walk onto the ice, I will also tell you that I will be on it fishing as soon as it is safe and will stay on it fishing as long as it is safe. I have been on the ice fishing when others thought it was over, and that included last week! Here’s some late day, late season, Nebraska sandhills ice. . . .
As you can see, 1/2 to 2/3 of the lake was open water. There was safe ice on the west end of the lake, but believe me when I am on late season ice I check it every step of the way and I continue to monitor ice conditions throughout the day. A person can get in trouble on late ice by venturing on early in the morning when it is safe, no problem, but find that as the day warms and perhaps the wind blows ice conditions deteriorate throughout the day. On late ice, it may be fine in the morning, but unsafe by afternoon. A person has to check ice conditions continuously and be aware of his or her surroundings.
The bite was slow for me that afternoon; I only caught a half-dozen or so small yellow perch. I saw some other anglers catch some 8-9-inch bluegills, a handful on 11-inch+ perch and one 12-inch+ black crappie, but it was a slow bite for everyone.
After meetings the next day we had a chance to slip back onto the ice for a couple of hours before dark. Again there was plenty of open water, but a significant portion of the sandhills lake we fished had 5-7 inches of good ice at that time. Let me tell you a story about that second afternoon on the ice. I went with some fellow Nebraska Game & Parks Fisheries Division employees and we fished a public sandhills lake where they had fished the day before. We went out and started fishing some old holes that had been previously drilled. We were fishing in about 7 feet of water and I was jigging in the first hole I tried for only a few minutes when I spotted a fish on my depth-finder. I was fishing near the bottom and this fish came through a couple of feet above the bottom. I immediately raised my jigging spoon, jiggled it a couple of times and never really felt a hit so much as just felt weight on the end of my line. I set the hook into a nice fish and had visions of a huge black crappie or maybe a ginormous yellow perch when I pulled this through the hole. . . .
Yep, a carp, about 18 inches or so. Yes, I was a little disappointed, but the carp definitely ate the bait and you know that is the first carp I have ever caught through an ice hole. I hollered at the guys I was with that the fish were coming through a couple of feet off of the bottom. One of those guys, let’s call him “Grub”, lowered his bobbers so his baits were fishing a couple of feet off the bottom and soon he had another carp on one of his jigging poles. Grub figured out that those carp really liked wax worms fished a couple of feet off the bottom and before we quit that evening he had landed three of them. For some reason he did not want his picture taken with his carp; we caught 4 common carp through the ice in a couple of hours fishing; all of them sucked baits right in. I have only ever seen one other carp caught through the ice, a much bigger carp, over 15 pounds, caught by my uncle on a jigging pole (which may have been one of the greatest angling feats I have ever witnessed first hand), so this was by far the single best day of ice-fishing for carp that I had ever seen!
Besides the carp, we caught a few perch; here is the biggest.
And that’s it for ice season 2012. The coyotes were howling as I walked off the ice and I wiped a tear because I figure that is it for this winter. Some of you are thinking I am nuts, that I should just give it up and wait for open water, so let me tell you why I push it on late ice as long as it is safe. . . . As we get into late winter, the days start getting longer and the fish become more active. Yes, the water is still cold, but fish activity definitely begins to pick up late in the winter. With a cap of ice on a body of water, conditions are relatively stable and that also encourages more feeding activity. Water temperatures will actually begin to warm underneath the ice and that is another reason the fishing picks up on late ice. I also like to fish late ice as long as it is safe because with the cold water it is easier to catch those fish by fishing vertically below an ice hole than it is from open water.
Once the ice goes, all the water can again be mixed by wind and wave action and that means less stable conditions and perhaps even colder water temperatures. Cold water, schizophrenic weather and water conditions make for a tough bite in early spring, a lot tougher than what I can experience on late ice. As a matter of fact, everyone gets the spring fishing fever as soon as the ice melts off, but I consider this time of year one of the toughest for catching fish from open water. Give me ice, late ice, as long as possible!
Fortunately, there are no close seasons for fishing in Nebraska. Last week I was literally on the ice one afternoon, and on open water the next. As I mentioned, the water is cold at ice out, in early spring, and the fishing can be tough for many species of fish until that water begins to warm a bit. A person can be more successful if they have a strategy for the different seasons and by taking advantage of the variety of fish and fishing opportunities Nebraska has to offer. When the water is cold, why not fish for cold-water fish, trout? Trout are very active in cold-water and are very catchable under the ice and in open water as soon as the ice is gone. So, one afternoon last week I wandered over to Long Pine Creek and caught some trout. . . .
I fished small Rapalas, Countdowns and Husky Jerks and caught a variety of rainbows and browns. I even saw a fish rise that afternoon, presumably for a midge, but I did not experiment with the fly-fishing gear.
I was home over the weekend; worked the Omaha Boat, Sports and Travel Show Saturday night, and then Monday was back off to Valentine for another meeting. I left early enough to do some more trout fishing the afternoon before the meeting.
Once again I wobbled some Rapalas through some likely-looking spots. The brownies were cooperative!
Now, I have not been very specific on where I was fishing. All of the waters were public, I would tell you which sandhill lakes I ice-fished, but the ice is gone now, and that bite is history. I did mention Long Pine Creek, so you do not have to wonder about that one. This week I fished another stream, and you already know the part of the state. I ain’t telling you more because, well, the adventure of finding and fishing those spots is half the fun, that’s what I did. I could tell you where, already told you the baits, and if you want more, well, you are going to have to earn that. If you have been reading my blog over the long haul, there are lots of clues. If you do some research you can figure it out, and I believe if you have to work for it a little bit you will have a lot more appreciation and respect for that resource. The trout are there, I turned ‘em loose; I hope to go back and catch them again.
Since it looks like open-water from here on out, let me ramble a little more about some ice-out, early spring, open-water strategies. You already know one of them–fish for cold-water fish! Early spring and late fall are two of my favorite times for catching Nebraska trout; as cold-water fish, they are very catchable in cold water. If you are not going to fish for trout in early spring, keep a couple things in mind. First of all, species like northern pike, walleye and then yellow perch will spawn soon after the ice is gone. In fact, in a late spring, those species may even begin to spawn underneath the ice. If you want to target pike, walleye or yellow perch right now, look for them to be on their spawning habitat or near it–that would be marshy shallows with flooded vegetation or aquatic vegetation for both the pike and perch, rocky dam faces for walleyes on most Nebraska reservoirs. The actual spawn can be a tough time to catch any fish because, well, they have “other things” on their mind, but we have ice-out early enough this winter that you can sneak in some pre-spawn fishing for those early-spawning species.
Channel catfish are not a cold- or cool-water fish by any means, but we have some surprisingly good channel catfish fishing right after ice-out on many Nebraska lakes, reservoirs, pits and ponds. Over the winter many bait fish and panfish die, winter is a hard time for all living creatures. Once the ice thaws, there are a bunch of those winter-killed prey fish available for channel cats to eat. Look for those fish on wind-blown shorelines, especially after a couple, three days of warming weather. If you see some dead bait fish on the shoreline that is a great sign and those dead bait fish will work for bait! On a good afternoon, channel cats will roam right into shallow water on a wind-blown shoreline.
For all the other species of fish in Nebraska waters, think warm if you want to target them right now, right after ice-out. Any area where the water can warm a few degrees can be a key spot. Look for protected areas, bays and coves, and pay special attention to south-facing shorelines and corners where the afternoon sun could warm the water just a few degrees. If you can find some cover like fall trees, brushpiles or beaver lodges in those protected areas, that makes it even better. Keep in mind that small waters will warm quicker than larger bodies of water. Generally, you will want to fish slow because the water is still relatively cold and the fish are not real active yet. Remember, that is why I like to ice fish as late as possible; keep that ice-fishing attitude for fishing for ice-out bluegills, crappies, and bass–fish slow, fish vertical, give the fish a chance to react to your bait, especially if they do not seem to be very active.
We will go through a hundred wild shifts in the weather in the coming weeks; another reason I rate early spring as one of the toughest times of year to fish. If you can plan your fishing trips around warming trends and stable weather, you can expect more success. If you get hammered with a cold front, weather shift, well, try your best, but you may have to take your lumps. Fish will tend to move towards warmer water when the weather is nice; expect them to drop back into deeper water nearby when the weather turns cold again and the winds howl.
One other comment before I quit rambling. This is the most popular time of year to fish because everyone has spring fever and cannot wait to hit the open-water. Enjoy the spring, enjoy the entire experience even if the fishing is tough. For example, I drove the interstate from Lexington back to Lincoln yesterday afternoon. The central Platte is absolutely bursting with waterfowl right now. I like this period for watching all the waterfowl because later it will be mostly sandhill cranes; right now there is every species of goose and duck you can imagine and that is pretty cool. The spring migration we have is just another reason “There is No Place Like Nebraska”!