Nebraska kayak fishing homecoming

Katie Froning with a northern pike from Nebraska's Pelican Lake.

Katie Froning with a northern pike from Nebraska’s Pelican Lake.

Home Waters

Author Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again. He probably meant you can’t go home without a kayak. And the Nebraska kayak fishing is as good as home cooking.

By Jerry McBride
Photos by Patricia Schemmer

Painted turtles soaking up the morning sun atop a muskrat house finally noticed my approach, swinging their heads in unison toward the yellow kayak. They plopped into the water simultaneously, setting off a chain reaction–a fish easing from the shadow of the rodent dome into open water, while a muskrat scurried into nearby cattails. A lone prairie chicken gliding high over the lake temporarily distracted me from the task at hand, but I recovered in time to land a lure on the fish’s dissipating wake. The frog barely settled before it was plucked off the surface, only to leap from the water when I missed the hookset. The slow-to-learn fish hit twice more on consecutive casts before eating the hook. I anticipated another weed-cloaked largemouth, but the swirl promised something longer than the chunky 2- to 4-pound bass that had entertained our group since first light.

Spotted, amber fin. Long, toothy snout. The little northern pike triggered memories its size normally wouldn’t justify. My daughter Jenny was with me the last time I’d caught a northern. Now working on her master’s degree, she was just three weeks old at the time, on this very lake. A lot of time and events had transpired between the two fish.

Redwing and yellow-headed blackbirds nesting among the reeds vociferously voiced their displeasure at my intrusion. Unseen meadowlarks on the surrounding hillsides sounded far more welcoming, while a trio of pheasants cackled anonymously deep inside shoreline plum thickets. Surrounded by vibrant life, though encompassed by desolate dunes capped by more barren sand, cactus and yucca than green grass. The sights and sounds just didn’t mesh, yet decades spent in Texas and Florida happily evaporated.

Nostalgia was in the air. I felt home.

A feistly little bass fell prey to Jerry McBride's kayak fishing tactics.

A feistly little bass fell prey to Jerry McBride’s kayak fishing tactics.

Millions of Interstate-80 travelers think they see Nebraska every year. They follow the same pancake-flat Platte River route as America’s early California-bound pioneers. Present-day explorers would discover a distinctly more diverse, picturesque Nebraska along a parallel river 130 miles to the north. The Niobrara and its tributaries visually share nothing with the nondescript, sandy Platte. It’s the Nebraska I grew up in.

Given the prominent sand blowouts and needle-spined yucca that stretch for hundreds of miles, it’s understandable that geographers dismissively stamped “Great American Desert” on early maps of the region. In reality, Nebraska lies atop the Ogallala Aquifer, probably the largest underground pool of water on the planet. That water nourishes the immense agricultural machine to the south. In north-central Nebraska’s Sandhills, where the rolling topography and glacially deposited sand are largely unsuitable for row-farming, it fuels traditional cattle ranches and unexpectedly rich recreational opportunities.

This is big, sparsely populated country. Cherry County alone covers more area than the entire state of Connecticut; subtract Valentine’s population, and there are two square miles for each resident. Fly over the area just to the south at night, and you may not see a light on the ground for 50 miles.

Nebraska Sandhills fishing has long been overshadowed by its reputation as a hunting paradise—mule and whitetail deer, sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens, pheasant, ducks, geese, turkeys.

But what makes it all work is water. Where’s there’s water, there are fish.

Jerry McBride goes bendo in the flooded reeds.

Jerry McBride goes bendo in the flooded reeds.

Water seeps from the earth here, pooling in low-lying areas 20 miles south. The 72,000-acre Valentine National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1935 to protect the vast numbers of migratory waterfowl–270 bird species have been documented–that utilize the marshes and shallow lakes as feeding and nesting sites. Administered in conjunction with the adjacent Fort Niobrara NWR, fishing has long been a fringe benefit to knowledgeable locals. Lakes that are deep enough to sustain life beneath a thick sheet of winter ice produce largemouth bass and, though at the southern extreme of their range, huge numbers of northern pike. Amazingly, refuge lakes draw the biggest crowds in the winter, when bundled-up anglers dot the icescape in search of 2-pound bluegills and yellow perch.

This is not big-water fishing, which is readily available in the massive Missouri River reservoirs an easy drive to the north. But for anglers who relish intimate settings, the nine refuge lakes currently open to fishing offer outstanding kayak habitat.

A freak cold front and snowstorm struck a few days prior to our arrival, and refuge lake levels were unnaturally high, cold and somewhat turbid from prolonged rain—two chilling inches fell as Joe Ramirez and I hauled gear into the Niobrara Lodge the previous evening. As we formed a dawn caravan in a brisk, breezy and gray parking lot, only Pat Schemmer, a local artist, photographer and rabid angler, felt confident that the rapidly fluctuating temperatures and high water wouldn’t disrupt fishing.

“The fish are gonna bite,” she proclaimed adamantly. “It’s supposed to clear up. These lakes are all shallow, and the vegetation is dark, so they warm up fast.”

“Internal combustion engines aren’t allowed anywhere on the refuge. No intrusive noise, no boat wakes…”

I was all eyes as we followed guide Doug Jacobs down memory lane—Hwy. 83–on the half-hour drive south to Pelican Lake, one of the larger and more popular fishing options within the refuge. Names from my youth–Hackberry, Dewey, Long, Watts–came back as we passed signs directing us to lakes nestled among the nearby dunes. A rooster pheasant perched brazenly on a log next to the road, tauntingly aware that hunting season was months away. Mule deer twice the size of Florida’s minuscule whitetails grazed on a distant hillside. Fishing waited as we photographed parading turkeys silhouetted on hilltops among the yucca.

Katie Froning, who began fishing area lakes at age 5, was already unloading fishing tackle from her pickup truck at the boat ramp. Blue jeans, flannel shirt, and of course, worn leather boots, she looked the part of someone who has worked as a ranch hand since she turned 13.

Katie also got into the Nebraska largemouth bass.

Katie also got into the Nebraska largemouth bass.

Pelican Lake, essentially a carbon copy of the many other refuge waters, is fringed with an unbroken ring of shoreline grass and reeds. A variety of bottom growth emerges as the water warms in late spring, virtually clogging the shallows as summer progresses. Deeper lake interiors are relatively open, with clumps of reeds marking humps. While the lakes look largely identical, individual productivity can vary markedly from year to year. Cold, prolonged winters take a toll on the shallower lakes when water levels fall during drought years, and roughly once a decade, out-of-control carp populations sometimes force managers to euthanize a lake’s fish population and start over. Refuge biologists strive to maintain these unique lakes in their natural state, even to the extent that live baitfish are not allowed, in order to prevent the introduction of exotic species that might throw off Nature’s delicate balance. Predictably, fishing quality goes through cycles. Fortunately, if one lake’s fishing drops off, there are numerous adjacent alternatives on the upswing.

Jacobs gave us the abbreviated version of what had been catching fish as we paddled out. “Stay on the outside, and cast back into the edge of the reeds. The bass and northerns hit as the lures come out into open water.”

The reeds and submerged growth made weedless lures an obvious choice. At the advice of Jacobs, we’d stocked up on gold- and silver-bladed spinnerbaits to accommodate the possibility of storm-tinged water. Always good to give fish a choice—one never knows which color will trigger a strike. I added a 3.5-inch Egret Wedgetail trailer to add color contrast and bulk for casting distance. Hoping a couple hours of sunshine would fire up the bass enough to smack a topwater, I tied a LiveTarget frog on a backup rod. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten the effects of northern pike teeth on lures that aren’t puncture-resistant. By the end of the day, several that had withstood hundreds of bass required a dab of life-restoring super glue to their wounds.

Not surprisingly, fishing started slowly until the sun had a chance to work its magic on the 56-degree water. Apparently the rest of the world anticipated this reality, as we had the lake to ourselves for almost three hours. It took almost an hour before I hooked a pair of the chunkiest bass I’d ever caught, before going off to explore a meandering channel that snaked through the grass and reeds, too shallow for boats to navigate. Katie celebrated my absence by immediately pulling several good bass and pike out of a short stretch of shoreline. We began to note a pattern—the fish weren’t in the thickest cover, but rather settled on points or in areas with scattered reeds, or guarding narrow cuts between larger open pockets back in the bushes.

When several other boaters trickled in midmorning, I hardly noticed, as internal combustion engines aren’t allowed anywhere on the refuge. No intrusive noise, no boat wakes. Amazingly, I saw no other kayaks all day, though I can’t imagine a more productive way to chase fish given the shallow habitat and the short distances involved–I released three northerns within 50 yards of the ramp.

As temperatures rose, the bass and pike discarded their lethargy in direct correlation to the layers of clothes we shed; throwing at feeding fish replaced blind casting. I wavered between finger-on-the-trigger anticipation of a strike and total serenity, only to have giant Canada geese thunder out of dense vegetation within yards of the kayak, exploding my heart rate far more than the Florida sharks and alligators I’m accustomed to.

The clear, warm day proved to be a lucky, but temporary, break in an otherwise lousy weather pattern. By midafternoon, we’d caught and released dozens of bass and pike, and hardly brought out cameras for anything other than recording scenery and wildlife. We didn’t hook any giant fish–refuge lakes rarely produce pike over a dozen pounds, and a bass over five pounds is a good one. What they offer is numbers, plus enormous panfish on tiny poppers or beetle spins.

Not to mention a great place to paddle and feel at home.

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