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PBD Fish Reports

Fishing Nebraska’s Sandhill Lakes

Fishing Report on Locations in the Sandhill Area of Nebraska

Paul B Downing, May 2014

Standing on the bank of this sm​​all lake, I spotted bass and ​blue gills patrolling the edge of the weeds. Ripe with anticipation, I tied on a jig with a green tube and waited. Shortly, two nice bass came into view. Casting in front of them the jig sank. It never made it to the bottom. As the line tightened, I set on a strong fish. Almost instantly it was on the surface shaking its head. But it didn’t help. I landed and released a stout 2 pound largemouth. Subsequent casts yielded a couple of smaller bass. But as I fished, I kept on seeing large blue gills cruising a foot below the surface. They looked to be good sized. Proving to be too much of a temptation, I abandoned my spinning outfit and headed back to the car for my fly rod.​

Catching bass and blue gills on a popper fly is a treat I do not get to enjoy often enough. I couldn’t pass it up. Selecting a yellow popper that was small enough for the larger blue gills, I was hopeful it was big enough to also attract the lunker bass known to haunt the lake. It worked instantly. Snap! A blue gill hit as the popper settled on the surface. No fish. Another cast and snap. This time I landed
a beautiful hand size blue gill colored with iridescent green and vibrant orange. There were many more to come. Sprinkled among them were small bass. That afternoon did not yield the lunkers that inhabit the lake but I hardly cared. I was in heaven landing blue gills on my popper.

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Meanwhile, Jim Pfaff, Art Director for In-Fisherman and Fly Fisherman magazines, was getting his first lesson in kayak fishing from Marty Hughes, owner of Kayakjak Outfitters Marty is extraordinarily enthusiastic about kayak fishing and has caused its popularity to spread throughout Nebraska. After some brief instructions, Jim paddled off with Marty in search of bass. A bass was caught that afternoon but not by them. Another kayaker hooked into a nice 4 pounder way back in the weeds. These nimble little craft can get to places inaccessible in any ordinary boat. You get up close and personal. Although not successful that day, Jim was hooked on kayak fishing. 

Jim and I were on Rock Creek Lake in the famous Sandhills of southwestern Nebraska. It is near the town of Enders. There are camp sites at the lake. Find it on the map at  40o10’18”N 105o45’51”W. This small 50 acre reservoir is one of many fishing opportunities in the Sandhills. I was visiting to sample as many as I could fit in. 

The Sandhills area has a unique topography. Sand dunes, some over 300 feet high and covered in prairie grasses, cover much of western Nebraska. The area is beautiful, filled with expansive views, rolling hills dotted with windmills that water beef cattle, and abundant deer and game birds. Scattered among them are lakes of all sizes. Small kettle lakes fill valleys between the dunes. Reservoirs, from small to gigantic, add to the fishing opportunities. Here you will find every kind of warm water game and pan fish you might like to pursue. Trophy walleyes swim in the large reservoirs. Voracious northern pike haunt waters large and small. Largemouth and smallmouth bass are targeted throughout the region as are wipers. You truly can pick whatever specie you wish to catch.

Swanson Reservoir

Next stop was Swanson Reservoir on the Republic River. The reservoir is known for large northerns and walleyes, as well as crappies and white bass. Lesser known, the reservoir’s  wipers reach significant size as well. We were here to fight whatever we could. Steve Lytle, professional guide from McCook, (, greeted us at the put-in (40o10’18”N 101o4’14”W). Joining us was Park Superintendent Aric Riggins. Offering me a crank bait, Steve suggested we start by fishing the dam face. White bass and occasional wipers were hitting just off the rocks. The white bass were there for sure. Every few casts we were hooked up. But the wipers proved elusive, that is until one cast.The crank bait just stopped, then slowly headed out to deep water. The rod bent in a satisfying arc. I was in to a big wiper. But the fates were not with me that day. In the middle of this fish’s orderly retreat to deep water the line went slack. I got back everything; line, lure and the scent of what might have been. 

As the day progressed the wind freshened, making fishing difficult. Steve moved about the lake searching with a swim bait, then to a jerk bait, and even a live minnow with little success before finally settling back on a crank bait. While fishing was slow by Steve’s standards, we did manage to catch three walleye from 24 to 26 inches and a wiper of 23 inches along with more white bass, a couple of largemouths and even a catfish. Considering the conditions, not a bad day in my mind. In the middle of the week in late May we had the place virtually to ourselves. However, Aric warned, by Memorial Day the shoreline would be covered with vacationers. Interestingly, Aric said that over half of the vacationers were from Colorado. Denver is less than 4 hours away. I would have thought that Colorado vacationers would have gone up into the mountains rather than east onto the plains. But as I got to know the area, I learned that there is a special charm here that people find soothing. This is good old America. Friendly, unhurried, and clean.

Merrit Reservoir

The next day found us bound for Merritt Reservoir near Valentine with the hope of catching a monster walleye. This long deep narrow reservoir dams the Snake River and Boardman Creek. No, not that Snake River, this one heads east. It can be found on your map at 42o0’0”N 100o53’9”W. We were joined by Steve Isom, a professional walleye fisher who has fished many walleye tournaments throughout the mid-west. Expectations again were high but the wind had other ideas. Two days before fishers in a walleye tournament had caught numerous walleyes over 25 inches. Today we could only scare up two small guys. Going from spot to spot, Steve told us of catching numerous fish just a few days before. We never connected. For some reason the walleyes were not there.

The next morning we started by fishing along the dam. Steve hoped for a large walleye. Instead he caught a 30 inch musky. No walleye were to be found so Steve took us into the Boardman arm. We fished shallow bays full of emerging weeds that looked to me to be perfect northern territory. Steve allowed as how there were northerns around but he had caught lots of walleyes
on spinner baits in these bays. As the day warmed we started catching fish. A small walleye here. A small northern there. Not the big guy we were looking for but fun just the same.

Cruising the shore, Steve turned into a tiny opening. He was taking us to “No Name” lake. This shallow indent in the bay can only be reached through a nearly invisible channel and only in high water. We made it in but just barely. Spread before us was a circle of shallow water surrounded by low trees with water lapping at their roots. It seemed a magic place but would there be any fish there? I switched to a Johnson Silver Minnow with a motor oil colored plastic worm.  Shortly I had a hard hit from what seemed a heavy fish. We were not destine to find out as the lure came back unattached. Disappointed, I continued to cast. Another hit and a 24 inch northern came to net. At least we knew there were fish in the area. Then,casting to a shoreline weed patch, the water exploded. Another heavy fish. But this one we saw. A large northern. Heavy weeds and shallow water made it a challenge to land this guy. Diving into the weeds, I feared I had lost him. But no, he worked himself free. Next to the boat he tried the old northern trick. Under the boat he went. That was his last effort and a fine 30 incher was netted. All in all, a fun morning.

Valebtine NWR

South and east of Valentine and Merritt Reservoir is the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. At 72,000 acres, the Refuge, set in the rolling sandhills, is home to mule and whitetail deer as well as thousands of birds of every description. It is also home to many small lakes teeming with fish. Pelican Lake is a case in point (42o31’8”N 100o38’45”W). Arriving at the lake, we were greeted by a shoreline guarded by tall reeds and rich weed beds. Prime bass country. The lake is known for bass and northerns but Doug Jacobs, our guide for the lake, said that the
lake also contained large blue gills. My ears perked up but Doug said he did not know how to catch them in the summer. He only fished for them through the ice. So off to find the bass and northerns we went. Casting into the shoreline weeds, bass after bass was hooked. Most were in the 2 to 3 pound range.  A northern would appear once in a while just to add variety. One could spend the whole month fishing the lakes of Valentine NWR and never fish the same one twice. That would be great fun.

Lake McConaughy

​​Our final destination was Lake McConaughy near Ogallala (41o13’30”N 101o43’00”W). Over 22 miles long but less than 4 mile wide, the lake has 76 miles of fish attracting shoreline. Our guides, Kevin Jenny and Jerry Steinke work together ( The first afternoon Kevin took us to hunt for smallmouth. Heading toward the dam, Kevin slowed at a rock bluff stretching into the lake. We cast spinner baits as close to shore as we could get. This yielded some small bass but not the lunkers Kevin hoped for so we headed to fish the face of the dam. Here a spinner bait yielded a nice 17 inch smallmouth. As I slid it back into the water, Kevin hooked into the fish of the day. It headed for deep water as Kevin

backed from the face of the dam. Fighting deep, it slowly came to net. Gleaming in the net, dripping with water, was a proud walleye. It measured 26 inches. A fish to be proud of. 

We found no more fish feeding on the dam face so off we went. Kevin pulled in to a shoreline with submerged trees. I asked what kind of fish we might catch here and Kevin said it was another trophy walleye location plus it could hold a big wiper. All week I had been fishing for walleyes in shallow water with a spinner bait and never imagining I would have any success. That was a bass or northern tactic, not walleye fishing. Walleye fishing was fishing deep with nightcrawlers or minnows. You would think that after observing several big walleyes being caught using this technique and even catching few small ones myself, I would have accepted that it was effective.  I still had little faith that it would work. I did manage to catch a walleye but it was not the trophy we sought. The next morning Jerry took us out. He said that he could take us to a location where we would catch all the walleyes we could ever want but they would be on the small side. Jim and I both really wanted to catch a big wiper or walleye so that is what we decided to do. Wouldn’t you know, Jerry headed right for the sunken trees we had fished the night before.  A different day. Perhaps the fish will have moved in. Fish were in there all right but not the kind we expected. I quickly picked up a nice 28 inch northern. Then another smashed my spinner bait right at the boat. It was classic northern fishing punctuated by vicious strikes and desperate dives beneath the boat. I loved it. Jim was not successful fishing the same bait. Over the week I had become the northern meister. Others caught big walleyes. Not me. Where I was supposed to catch walleyes or wipers, I caught northerns. Not that I was complaining. I love northerns but why would one fisher using the same lure catch one specie and another in the same boat using the same lure catch predominantly a different specie? When you figure that out, let me know.

The Sandhills is a wonderful place. It has its own special feel. As Charles Kuralt put it...  

“The Rocky Mountains scream beauty, the Sandhills whisper it.”