Fishing the Sandhills Guide

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NEBRASKAland Magazine • Fishing the Sandhills alk to anglers who have fished them, and they may tell you that Sandhills lakes are like no other lakes you've fished. And while the words may literally be true, as the makeup of these lakes is truly unique, the reasoning behind the words can vary widely, even if it applies only to the fishing. For some, the draw is northern pike. While not all Sandhills lakes hold pike, these shallow waters are some of Nebraska's best habitats for the toothy predator, and the only waters where they can consistently reproduce. For other anglers, it's both the size and number of largemouth bass the lakes can hold. Still others are drawn by the size and number of panfish. As with pike, Sandhills lakes are the only in Nebraska that contain self-sustaining populations of yellow perch. Perch, bluegills and crappies can grow fast and fat in these lakes, which are as fertile as any lake on the planet. There are, indeed, no lakes like those in the Sandhills in this hemisphere and perhaps in the world. They are natural lakes, but they aren't fed by surface runoff like ponds and reservoirs elsewhere in Nebraska or natural lakes found in other states. Nearly every drop of rain that falls in this 19,000-square-mile area of grass-stabilized sand dunes goes straight down into the Ogallala Aquifer. These lakes, and countless wetlands, are simply locations where the landscape dips below the surface of the aquifer. Rarely will you find water deeper than 10 feet in a Sandhills lake, and in some the maximum depth might be only 3 feet. Of the 1,640 lakes 10 acres or larger, 86 percent are too shallow or alkaline to support fish. In the ones that do, the year-round movement of groundwater keeps the water fresh, preventing winter and summer kills due to loss of oxygen that hamper fish production in other types of lakes that are this shallow, and also keep the lakes cool enough to support fish like pike and perch. The lake levels, and often the fish populations, follow those of the water table. When it drops, die-offs can and do occur in Sandhills lakes. When it rises, good fishing will follow. Shallow, clear water also allows sunlight to reach the bottom of even the deepest parts of most Sandhills lakes, producing an abundance of zooplankton and phytoplankton, the tiny animals and plants that are the foundation of the aquatic food web. It also promotes the growth of smartweed, pondweed, coontail and other aquatic vegetation. These plants are the basis for the abundant invertebrates such as damselfly and dragonfly nymph, snails and leeches that panfish and young bass and pike feast and thrive on. Most lakes are ringed by marshlands, with dense stands of cattails and bulrushes rising from the shallows. These features are what make Sandhills lakes produce fish in both quantity and quality, especially panfish, which thrive with the abundant food and cover. Unlike reservoirs and ponds, which have a narrow band of highly productive water around their shorelines, nearly every acre of a Sandhills lake supports fish. Anglers may curse the abundance of aquatic vegetation found in Sandhills lakes, especially in the summer when it is seemingly impossible to retrieve a lure without it becoming fouled by weeds, and frequent stops to clean the vegetation from the props of "weedless" electric trolling motors are required. But those anglers need to remember that when they fish other waters, they target these "weeds" because they know that's where the bass, pike and panfish are most often found. In Sandhills lakes, the target is simply much bigger. If you can't handle the weeds, fish early, from April to June, and come back in the fall, when weeds start to die back and fish are gorging themselves for winter. The ring of vegetation that surrounds the entire shoreline of most lakes makes bank fishing impossible. Those who don waders can reach the outside edge of the cattails, or pockets of water within them, on several lakes, but footing can be difficult and in some cases the bottom is too soft to wade. When winter arrives, however, ice-up is the great equalizer that opens a lake to all anglers. And because a m othe liter truly vary T PHOTO BY ERIC FOWLER

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