I made a trip “out of the office” last week, need to post some pictures and give you a report.
No, open-water fishing is NOT over for this year!
I had the privilege of fishing Merritt Reservoir last week. Merritt has always been one of my favorite waters, favorite places, in the entire state (http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2010/07/state-fishing-treasures/), the place where I caught my first ever Master Angler fish (a smallmouth bass a LONG time ago), and a place where I wish I could spend A LOT more time. John Bauer and his wife Regina (no relation) own and operate the Trading Post on Merritt (http://merritttradingpost.com/4/home), and John invited me out to do some fishing this fall when his schedule slowed from its summer peak. That was an offer I was not going to pass up (Thank you!).
I got out to Merritt early afternoon one day last week and found John standing by his boat waiting for me to get there! That is my kind of guy! I hurried and threw a couple, three rods and reels together, grabbed some tackle boxes and away we went. Once again I am going to tell you that we did not hammer the fish. I have fished a lot of places on some excellent waters and can tell you that even on the best fisheries there are still times when you have to work to catch fish. Merritt is one of the best multi-species fisheries in the state, and we caught fish last week, but we had to work for what we caught. That is fishing, makes no difference where you fish or who you are.
Believe it or not, that first afternoon there was hardly any wind! That is a rare occurrence for the Nebraska sandhills in general and Merritt in particular. Most of the afternoon was cloudy, but we had some sun peak out before sunset. It was a beautiful afternoon and evening.
A pattern that typically produces some good fishing in late fall on Nebraska reservoirs is to vertically jig a variety of baits in relatively deep water. Bait fish, alewives in Merritt and gizzard shad in most other Nebraska reservoirs, begin moving towards deeper water in the fall. Both of those bait fish species are sensitive to cold water temperatures and some shad and alewives will begin to stress and even die as water temperatures cool. Those dying bait fish are exactly the kind of “easy pickin’s” that a variety of predator fish utilize in the fall. The key to this pattern is to find schools of bait fish in deeper water, typically near drop-offs, creek channel bends, end of points, and typically there will be some predator fish near, often right underneath those schools, picking off the bait fish that have begun to stress and die. Yes, it takes a boat and a watchful eye on the depth-finder to take advantage of this late fall fishing pattern. Once the fish are found, a variety of baits that can be jigged vertically right below the boat are excellent imitations of those stressed and dying bait fish.
This pattern has been producing fish on Merritt in recent weeks, a lot of walleyes, but also a variety of the other predator fish that can be found there. We pretty much did the vertical jigging for the entire time I was there, a day and a half, caught fish from 12 to maybe 25 feet of water. Blade baits have been the favorite bait for vertical-jigging on Merritt. By “blade baits” I am referring to baits like the old Heddon Sonar.
There are a variety of “home-made” versions of this bait, or versions that are made in small tackle shops. “Silver buddy” is another brand name blade bait, http://www.silverbuddy.com , and John sells a “Switchblade” version at the Trading Post. Those baits are a good vertical-jigging bait as they give off a lot of vibration as the bait is lifted or jigged on the upstroke and then they flutter back to the bottom on the drop. I experimented with a variety of other vertical-jigging baits while I was there, but it seemed like the “Switchblades”, the blade baits, worked as well as anything.
John hooked a small walleye within about 15 minutes of fishing the first afternoon and that was a good sign. I said we caught a variety of predator fish, and here is the second one that John caught:
That channel cat was around 18 pounds and was released after we snapped a couple of pictures.
We tried a variety of spots and on one of them I also got in on the big channel cat action:
My fish pulled the scale down to about 19.5 pounds, and, I am guessing, was about 34 inches long. What was more special about that fish was the unusual “bronco” markings on its back and fins. It was a beautiful, and beautifully healthy fish. I got to thinking that my personal best channel cat was an 18-pounder that I pulled through an ice hole on Merritt many years ago (on 4-pound test line nonetheless, another story for another time), so I guess I have a new personal best channel cat now! I mentioned that I experimented with a variety of vertical-jigging baits and I caught that big channel on a Fergie Special, http://www.reelbait.com/ccp7/index.php?app=ecom&ns=catshow&ref=fs1oz . Oh yes, that big cat also was released right after it posed for a couple of pictures.
The second day of fishing John had a couple of gentlemen from Kansas who had come up to fish, and they graciously let me butt-in on their trip (Thank You, Mark and Brad!) We spent the whole day jigging baits up and letting them flutter back to the bottom, over and over and over again. We did not catch fish one-right-after-the-other, but we kept trying, kept moving and managed to scratch a few. We lost a few fish, a couple of big fish during the day, including what I suspect was another big channel cat on my line, but managed to put together a few fish for the Kansas boys to take home.
We saw a few other folks fishing while I was there, but not many. I know some other fish were caught by other anglers, but for the most part, this time of year, there are no fishing reports because there are few anglers on the water–you gotta go make your own reports.
There were other critters fishing. We spent most of our time within a short distance of these feathered anglers.
Those are western grebes and they like to eat the same alewives that the predator fish are eating below the surface. Yes, western grebes can be a clue to good places to fish, but honestly they were all over Merritt and did not necessarily indicate the best spots to fish.
I mentioned the guys from Kansas that came up to Merritt just to spend a couple of days fishing. John also had a group of grouse hunters staying at the Trading Post; guys from Texas and Colorado. In the evenings we all spent some time swapping hunting and fishing reports and of course telling stories. I listened to tales of redfish and tarpon, white sturgeon, and a snowstorm hunt in Kansas for the last lesser prairie chicken (it was a very entertaining story, you had to be there). All of those out-of-state gentlemen were there because they wanted to experience the Nebraska sandhills, the hunting and fishing, and enjoyed being around Nebraskans. I enjoyed the evening bull sessions with them all and hopefully was able to share a little more Nebraska knowledge with them. You know I am darned proud of my home state, and hearing that folks like that wanted to come to Nebraska to hunt and fish and appreciate our resources and people just about popped the buttons off my Big Red chest.
I headed for home as John, Mark and Brad were heading out for another day of fishing on Merritt. I believe they caught a few more walleyes. I took a scenic drive through the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge on my way home. Stopped and tried to get some pictures of the trumpeter swans on the west end of Hackberry Lake:
I have been trying to get a good picture of swans on a sandhill lake for a long time. I am still trying. Anyway, you can see that there was a BUNCH of waterfowl on the lake!
I know some of you will be wondering about water levels on the sandhill lakes in general and on the Valentine Refuge lakes in particular. Here is what the shoreline of Dewey looked like.
Yes, water levels on those sandhill lakes I saw were down a couple, three feet, it is hard to judge exactly. I would always rather see more water than less water, but I suspect even with the lower water levels most of the fish in those lakes, especially the larger lakes, will be OK this winter. We sure will take precipitation in any form!
Lastly, I pulled in at Long Pine Creek. I cannot seem to travel by there without spending an hour or two trying to catch a trout. I tossed some small crankbaits around, moved more fish than I actually hooked, but managed 3 brown trout and a rainbow. Here was the prettiest brownie I caught and released, this fish was about 11 inches:
Brown trout usually do not have creamy-white margins on their fins, but that fish and one other brownie I caught sure did. Our brown trout are fall spawners and I suspect that coloration may have been present because of the spawn.
That was my latest adventure in our great state. We still have some great weather this fall and some more opportunities to get out and do some fishing or perhaps combo up a hunting/fishing trip. I want to say thanks again to John; if you get out to Merritt, be sure to stop by the Trading Post, http://merritttradingpost.com/4/home . The folks there are friendly, and will give you an honest fishing report. Thanks again to Brad and Mark for letting me tag along and share the boat with them, I enjoyed it!