A Plan for Success
By Jeff Kurrus
Afternoon trips. . . Two-day retreats. . . Weeklong excursions. The following tips include how to arrange this year's fishing trips, regardless of how long you want to fish, plus a few dream trips of my own.
If you read last monthís article and spent a little time in front of the computer, you should have some good information to use in planning this yearís fishing trips. By now you should have a list of lakes you definitely want to
Later Iíll get more specific about the best way to put a trip together and what to do once you get to the lake, but first we have to figure out what size of lake youíre interested in. Are you looking for a five-acre lake? 50 acres? Or should you be targeting something much larger, like 5,000 acres? I know youíre anxious to hit the water, so to speak, but stay patient, weíre almost there. Details first.Lake Sizes
While everyone has their own ideas as to just what constitutes a small, mid-sized, or large lake, I try to give a small boat perspective to the question regardless of what Iím fishing from. Most of the time, I work from a 12-foot johnboat, complete with trolling motor and sculling paddle. Small lakes, in my opinion, are ones I can adequately fish without a trolling motor. These lakes usually range no larger than 30 acres. Mid-sized reservoirs can be several hundred acres in size yet these lakes, if the wind cooperates, are also small enough to get by with an electric motor on most fishing trips. Reservoirs, mainly for safety reasons, must be fished from a big boat with a gas motor large enough to get across rough water if needed.
Small lakes can easily be fished from the bank or from a small boat, and anglers on small lakes can often get to prime fish locations without much effort. Iíve caught a number of big fish in lakes no larger than a few acres, places where anglers can spend a lot more time fishing than boat managing. The obvious problem with small lakes is the lack of water. Once youíve fished the same set of riprap or tree line seven times, itís time to try another spot. When fishing a small lake, youíre at the lakeís disposal when it comes to variety unless youíre fishing an area with several small lakes located near each other. But weíll get to that later.
The best part about mid-sized reservoirs is that there are usually many different types of cover to fish throughout the lake. Rarely will you fish a 500-acre lake with no visible changes in structure. For example, when fishing Walnut Creek Reservoir in Papillion, I have plenty of options, including several sections of riprap, topwater algae mats, underwater timber, exposed timber, manmade structures such as bridges, and a host of points and contour changes. Plus, there are a number of other fish attractors throughout the lake that have been placed by fisheries biologists.
Large lakes and reservoirs are the best of all worlds, given one important factor Ė time. I would never go to Lake McConaughy for white bass and expect to fill my limit the first morning. Have you ever heard someone tell you ďFish were everywhere,Ē then went to the lake and had a hard time catching fish? Youíre not the only one. Fishing a 30,000-acre reservoir for the first time without knowing where the fish are can be a daunting task. Itís even more burdensome if you need to be back at the house by 2 p.m. If fishing big water is your desire, however, begin by turning these big waters into small lakes and fish whatís familiar to you, paying attention to each and every fish you catch and where they were found.
Whenever a group of friends and I bass and pike fish a lake for the first time, we fish it fast, usually putting three different types of lures in the water at the same time. The guy in the front will fish something swift, such as a crankbait, while the guy in the middle works a spinnerbait or topwater lure and the angler in back attacks with soft plastics. That way, weíre able to fish several different depths with various styles of lures. We also fish these lakes with the trolling motor set on a low speed, trying to work as much water as possible until we find fish. Once we catch the first one, we pay attention to where and how it hit.
In general, Iíd fish the mid-sized reservoirs before I fish anything else because they offer enough variety that I feel like I have some structure choices. They also give me the opportunity to fish from a large boat or a johnboat. Even if a big storm surprises me, Iím never too far away from shelter. A 100-acre lake has enough size for me to fish an entire summer and still not know it completely, while also offering all the cover options I could ever want. Itís the best of all worlds.Special Conditions
During the year in Nebraska, at least three things are going to occur to disrupt your fishing trips, regardless of the species you are after. One, cottonwood trees drop cotton-like seeds when it starts to warm up, usually in the months of May and June. If youíre vertically jigging or trolling, you might be able to get by with little hindrance. But if youíre casting, give it up. The seeds will get on your line time after time, making casting nearly impossible without backlashing.
About this same time, carp begin running the shallows as they lay eggs. To newcomers, this is what you often see making unearthly splashes in lakes. The big problem with this is that it puts other fish species out of their normal patterns, making them very difficult to locate. Anglers can look at secondary points and the deep water edges and contours of the water theyíre fishing, but the running of the carp is one of the most challenging times to fish during the year.
The wind is the last great challenge of Nebraska fishing. For small boat anglers, much more preparation is involved, everything from what size of lake to fish to what part of a lake to tackle due to wind speed and direction, to how many extra trolling motor batteries to bring. Be ready for all three of these special conditions, because you canít control them, you canít even hope to contain them.Backup Plans
Backup plans are essential to fishing. Most often, weather plays a key role in changing my plans. Usually itís a very strong wind. When Iím fishing windy days, I think seriously about bank fishing or fishing a lake where I know I can escape the wind, one with plenty of coves or a tree line. Examples of these are Fremont Lakes SRA No. 7/8 and Hull Lake WMA. I also think small, where thereís usually not as much space for the water to gather up speed. I started keeping a pocket compass in my truck a couple years ago, and mark down the wind directions in my journal.
You can help dodge these potential problems by fishing lakes that have options close to them. When I fish Verdon SRA, located near Falls City, I know Iím going to catch fish. Iíll put all my eggs in one basket there. If the wind is forecasted to be strong, I make sure Iím there early so I can (most of the time) fish it without wind. After the wind kicks up, it has enough bank for me to fish it as well.
Most of the time, however, Iím a bit more prepared. Some of my favorite destinations in the state are areas with multiple lakes, such as Two Rivers SRA (5 lakes), Keller Park SRA (5 Lakes) and Fremont Lakes SRA (20 lakes). Once I arrive at these places, I move fairly quickly, treating each body of water as if Iím fishing one giant reservoir. I can pull my boat out of Fremont No. 7/8 after a few hours and fish lake No. 16, which is only 10 minutes away and one of my favorite lakes for bass at that recreation area.
When fishing up north and in western Nebraska, stream trout fishing is another great option for beating the wind. Bring a fly rod along for these ventures off the main lakes and into the shallow, flowing pools. A great source for information about these is Trout Fishing in Nebraskaís Streams, a publication of NEBRASKAland and available at Commission offices across the state.
If youíre not fishing a recreation area which harbors multiple lakes, get out the topo map and see what is close by. Is the next closest public spot 20 miles toward home or 35 miles in the wrong direction? Regardless of the potential problems you might face, you need a backup plan. Keep this in mind: While I told you earlier I will put myself totally out there for great lakes like Verdon that Iím confident in, Burchard Lake WMA is only 20 minutes away and a comparable distance from my house. Always have a backup plan.Putting a Trip Together
At this point you should nearly be overloaded with information. From lake shape and size, to depth and fish numbers, itís time to begin the last step of planning this yearís trip. But why look at planning just one trip? Instead, letís look at a multitude of scenarios, ones that concentrate on either one-day, weekend, or weeklong fishing ventures. Here are some possible trips Iíve researched for 2007. Iíll take advantage of them. Will you?
Day Trip ó Since I donít fish for crappies too many times during the year, I want the chance to catch several fish with a small possibility of catching a crappie over 10 inches long. Having by far the largest number of crappies below 10 inches surveyed in the 2006 trap net surveys and nearly twice as many crappies trapped as the next closest surveyed, 256-acre Zorinsky Lake in Omaha will provide the type of fishing Iím looking for. Letís talk about that for a minute, since there are going to be a number of readers out there whoíll argue that Zorinsky wouldnít be their choice because of its fish sizes. Remember, Iím looking for a lake that is going to provide the large numbers of crappies Iím looking for. I only fish for crappies a few times a year and, to be honest, this might be my only time. Iíll fish for them early, sometime this month, and then Iíll be hard-pressed to stop chasing bluegill, pike and bass the rest of the spring and summer. So yes, if I want to catch fish and donít care if theyíre small, Zorinsky is the perfect crappie starting point for me.
I like to fish for crappies around woody structure. Zorinsky has a large amount of it in both the main lake as well as its coves and shallow water, and also gives me other cover options such as riprap and deepwater contour changes. Plus, springtime is often quite windy on lakes throughout the state and Zorinsky offers enough coves and bays to hide from the wind.
As far as a backup plan, nearby Wehrspann Lake also gave up a large number of crappies between 8 and 10 inches during the 2006 surveys. Itís a good backup, yes, but it is smaller than its 245 acres listed and much more fishbowl-shaped than Zorinsky. If the windís blowing hard, Iíll stay away from it.
Weekend Trip ó On a weekend trip, I like to have a few places in mind that offer multiple species opportunities, while also giving me a chance to catch big fish as well as large numbers of fish. Iíll give you two options here, one for the million-plus people living near Lincoln and Omaha, and one a little further west.
If I wanted to spend the weekend fishing east, Iíd throw a johnboat in the back of the truck and venture to Two Rivers State Recreation Area (SRA) east of Yutan. First, Iíd bank fish for channel cats on lakes No. 3 and 4 on Friday afternoon. Both lakes boast a large number of fish between 16 and 24 inches while No. 4 has some of the stateís largest numbers of channel catfish above 24 inches. Both lakes are total catch-and-release for channel catfish and bass, but theyíre fun to battle even if you canít eat them. If I hadnít thought ahead and reserved one of the 10 cabooses available to rent and sleep in, Iíd stay at one of the camping locations on-site, wake up the next morning, and bass fish on Lake No. 1/2. Why there? After past research, Iíve gone there and caught bass over five pounds. Itís not a lake that will give up 50 bass, but it will give up a number of football-shaped fish.
Iíd take a midday break, and pick up something to eat in Omaha on my way to Walnut Creek. I hate to repeat myself about Walnut, but I really think itís on the verge of being one of the stateís best bass fisheries. Iíd bass fish there until late afternoon, then head to Louisville SRA and camp for the night. On Sunday morning, Iíd bass fish No. 1 and No. 1a for the first two hours, then bluegill fish on Lake No. 2 until lunch. Lake No. 2 offers the chance at a large number of fish, with the chance of a big fish. By the end of the weekend, I would have chased three species of fish on a number of lakes both mid-sized and smaller, while barely leaving the Omaha city limits. Plus, I will have fished a number of lakes that I have fished before, and will have used my past journal information to pinpoint spots best suited for my fishing desires that particular weekend.
If Iím going west, Iíd first make my way to Medicine Creek Reservoir north of Cambridge. Outside of being a beautiful area to spend a weekend, this lake also has one of the stateís best white bass and wiper populations. Iíd fish for these species on Friday afternoon. I spoke with George Sund, area conservation officer, about the reservoirís wiper and white bass populations. ďYou can find fish on the face of the dam in April and into May,Ē he told me, ďand catch them in the mornings and early evenings on a host of plugs, including various topwater options and floating Rapalas.Ē Then he told me about the one consistent wiper and white bass hotspot on the lake. ďDraw a line from the middle of Don Jon Cove to the center of Lime Creek. At the mouth of Lime Creek there is an island that can be seen when the water is down and found on a depth finder when the water is up. Concentrations of white bass and wipers are caught near this island most prevalently throughout May and June by anglers who troll, vertical jig, or use casting lures.Ē
After leaving Medicine Creek Reservoir, Iíd drive to Elwood Reservoir, camp there, and pursue walleye after dark. Look for windblown shorelines and keep in mind the principal forage fish for walleyes are alewives, which are more apt to move shallow after dark, especially during the months of June and July. While water levels at Elwood are extremely low because of a recent drought, and its tendency to seep about a foot of water a month, fish can still be found. Make sure you contact local fisheries officials before going there to find out if you can get a boat in the water. Also ask how long youíll have to walk if forced to fish from the bank.
Iíd fish Elwood through the night, sleep late, then make my way north for a midday spin at Johnson. There, Iíd chase white bass, walleyes and wipers. There is almost always water entering Johnson through its inlet, which makes it a very popular spot to fish. Fish the mouth of the inlet, where there is current and deeper water. ďItís an excellent multi-species spot,Ē said Daryl Bauer, fisheries biologist for the Commission. Since Johnsonís shaped like a big bowl, with flat and gentle slopes, youíll have to work for your fish. Iíd fish the inlet on the west side and also try the riprap-covered dam on the south. Thereís even a possibility of catching a few smallmouth bass on that end.
If you are doing well at Johnson, stay. If not, Iíd move east on the interstate fishing the public I-80 lakes. Iím not going to get specific and tell you where to fish on I-80. Iíve had a few lakes work well for me, yes, but any of these lakes is apt to give up a large number of fish or big fish. There are a few things to remember about the I-80 lake system. All I-80 lakes are pretty similaró they didnít pump sand or gravel from the lakes, workers just dug them out to build the interstate. The lakes generally have a 10- to 15-foot maximum depth and many of them have aquatic vegetation, including chara, sago pondweed, and milfoil; plus, thereís almost always some fallen trees of some kind. The water is usually very clear, and Bauer suggested anglers should fish it early and late in the day, or on cloudy and foggy days.
If the wind is blowing across these lakes, which it usually is, that also provides the necessary chop on the water surface anglers are looking for. The best tip I can give for the I-80 lakes is this: Treat them, as a collective group, like a big reservoir. If you imagine yourself being on big water and moving across a lake to a new spot, then look at the interstate lakes the same way. You have a large amount of water to fish on your way to or from home. Take advantage of it. And if you develop a set of lakes that you like to fish along this stretch, occasionally try to add another one. After a few years, you should have a list of lakes throughout the state, including these I-80 jewels, where you know you can consistently catch fish all year. But you canít compile this list by fishing the same ones each year.
If my I-80 fishing didnít go well, or I decided to bypass these lakes altogether, Iíd start the afternoon at Fort Kearny SRA on lakes Nos. 4, 5, and 7 for bluegill, and would expect the best-sized fish to come from No. 7. Iíd finish up on lake No. 4 either that afternoon or the next morning, throwing a combination of bluegill and bass fishing into the mix. Lake No. 4 is a great finishing lake for bluegill because of its large number of fish. Then make your way home in time to spend the rest of the evening falling asleep in a recliner.
If home is west from Darr, Iíd drop by Jeffrey Reservoir and crappie fish. The lake surveyed the largest concentration of crappies over 10 inches in the state. There is not a ton of public access on Jeffrey however, so a boat is usually needed. The dam area does have public access, but it would be much more advantageous to be able to fish the long line of docks on the east side of the lake. The lakeís not very deep due to silt, but crappies can be found near these areas and along the deeper channel that runs from the inlet to the outlet.
Week Trip ó These trips come few and far between unless you make time to actually do them. People will tell you they want to go on these longer adventures, but few will actually go. My advice is this: If you find that friend or family member to spend a week chasing fish across Nebraska, keep them for life. And if you are ever asked to go on one of these trips, go. A good friend of mine once asked me to take a week off of work to chase fish. ďI canít,Ē I told him as he stood in my office.
ďWhy?Ē he replied, ďYou have a thousand vacation and sick days. Not feeling a cold coming on?Ē he asked.
ďWhat are you going to remember more, sitting in your office this week or the time we took time off to go fishing?Ē Despite his logic, I declined his invitation. Looking back, I have no idea what I did at work that week, but I know exactly how many fish he caught without me.
A few years back I had the opportunity to take a weeklong bass fishing trip through Nebraska with my dad, who was in town visiting. I did all the research Iíve already written about, and in a nutshell here was our trip. We started in the northeast part of the state at Red Fox Wildlife Management Area (WMA) on June 18, then drove to Grove Lake WMA and fished it the following morning. That afternoon, we drove through the Sandhills and fished Atkinson SRA and Hull Lake WMA. The next day, June 20, we dropped our lines in Cub Creek, Keller Park SRA, and
Our top lakes on the trip? We loved the aggressive fish at Grove and Arnold, catching a number of bass longer than 15 inches at both lakes. Pawnee Slough was the savior of the trip, for the wind was blowing extremely hard and we were forced to fish there from the bank and were able to catch a dozen nice bass doing so. Then, after we had caught bass at War Axe, I was sitting in the truck with Dad at a gas station on I-80, debating whether to go south to Alexandria or go home. ďIt surveyed a lot of bass last year,Ē I told him. Thatís all it took.
That afternoon, we put down our rods and reels after catching, and releasing, 100 bass at Alexandria SRA. It was the perfect way to end a spectacular trip. In our five days of fishing across the state, we caught over 200 bass, many of those over 15 inches, and were able to fish from both the bank and from the boat. We drove through the Sandhills on an afternoon that never seemed to end, got lost more than once in the middle of the day, and grilled bass over a campfire on at least two different afternoons.
Remember, though, this trip was set up after spending time to plan it out. No one wants to drive four hours to a place just to find out that the water level has been drastically drawn down for irrigation. At the same time, with all the work the Commission does with its renovation projects, no angler wants to pull up to a place theyíve never fished before only to find a bulldozer in the middle of its silted-in bottom.
And Iím still learning. Now, Iím starting to analyze maps online to see lake structure before I ever arrive at a new place, and I frequently thumb through past copies of NEBRASKAland to see aerial photographs of various lakes. The more information I can get, the better off I feel before ever walking out the door.
Now itís time to fish. You should have a big head start if youíve plotted out all the steps weíve walked through, but thereís just one more thing. I want to know how your trips go. What type of planning do you do for your excursions? My techniques have been extremely successful for my friends and I, but what do you do to get ready? Iíd like to hear from you. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know how you plan your days on the water. Because Iím always looking for ways to improve my own planning practices, and for another person to share a fish story or two on the water.