Not into ice fishing, try a trout stream

January 29, 2024 greg wagner

You’re not into ice fishing, are you? I though so. I bet you wish there were some open-water fishing options?

Guess what? You’re in luck, there are!

Open-water fishing options exist in Nebraska during this – the coldest part of the year. These involve trout, coolwater streams and even an opportunity to work on completing your Trout Slam challenge.

So, check conditions, pack the snacks and drinks, grab the neoprene waders and gloves, rig the rod and put gas in your vehicle, because it is time to go winter trout stream fishing!

Schlagel Creek near Valentine, NE gives up a brown trout on a crankbait during a winter fishing expedition. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Fed by groundwater springs, many of Nebraska’s trout streams, or at least stretches of them, remain relatively ice-free all winter. Most are located in the northern and western parts of the state. Some of the better streams for trout this year are listed here.

Long Pine Creek trout stream is shown in winter at the Long Pine State Recreation Area near Long Pine, NE. Photo courtesy of Andy Glidden/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Know the rainbow, brown, brook, cutthroat and tiger trout swimming in these flowing waters can offer some fun fishing action on pleasant winter afternoons, assuming you play your cards right, that is.

Daryl Bauer of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Fisheries Division shows off an attractive brown trout he landed on a winter fishing outing in the cold waters of Schlagel Creek near Valentine, NE. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Below are some helpful hints I gathered from our Game and Parks fisheries biologists to help you to land some of these cold-water fish this time of year.

Where are they in the water and will they put up fight once hooked? The cold-water trout species feed less during the winter as their metabolism has slowed. In waters that are flowing they tend to settle into some of the deepest holes and spots with the least amount of current during the winter to conserve energy. Besides being tucked into holes, some trout remain in the water buried deep under grass-lined banks. Don’t overlook fishing those! When hooked, these trout will battle with almost the same vigor as those hooked in the spring or summer!

A hooked rainbow trout puts up a good fight in the waters of the East Branch of the Verdigre (actual name Verdigris)
Creek flowing through the Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area near Royal, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Be stealthy, wear camo.  When fishing for trout in streams, it’s best to work your way upstream (against the current) whenever possible. This is especially important when fishing for wild and wary fish in clear water. Trout usually face into the current and will be less likely to see you approaching from behind. You can get away with fishing downstream if you are very careful about where you wade. When it comes to clothing, wear camouflage or “natural colors,” and try to avoid brightly colored apparel. Remind yourself to move slowly and disturb the water as little as possible. Don’t dislodge sand or sediment and create cloudy water conditions that spook fish rapidly away from you. Fish a small trout stream like you are still-hunting in the woods for white-tailed deer. A ball cap and polarized glasses will aid you when wading and for seeing fish and fish-holding areas. Trout have great eyesight, feel vibrations and are quite wary in any of these streams as water conditions will be super-clear with lower flows.

The clear waters of the Long Pine Creek trout stream at the Long Pine State Recreation Area near Long Pine, NE in winter. Photo by Andy Glidden/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Think small to catch trout in winter. Trout in streams during winter eat a variety of prey, and in general, all the typical trout presentations can catch fish in the winter as well as in the summer. Of course, matching the actual prey the fish are eating is always a good place to start. This means going smaller for trout, indeed big trout, with more natural, smaller baits and artificial lures. If you are an ice angler, you know all about using tiny baits, well the same goes for trout fishing in river or stream scenarios.

Fly fish! Fly fishing can be highly effective during the winter months. A variety of beadhead nymphs are especially attractive to trout in streams in the winter, but on a warm afternoon there most likely will be hatches of midges or other small insects and a fly angler can pick up some fish on dry flies or emerger patterns. Some fly anglers dead drift streamers with success, too.

The White River rolls past its mostly snow-covered banks at Fort Robinson State Park near Crawford, NE. The White River has rainbow and brown trout in its waters. Photo courtesy of Justin Haag/NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Crankbaits, really? Small crankbaits can also catch trout in open water during the winter, however, those must be fished quite slowly – usually just enough to get them wobbling. Frequent and extended pauses might also be needed to trigger fish activity. Neutrally buoyant crankbaits that maintain their depth at slow speeds or even when stopped are often some of the best crankbaits for trout in streams. For crankbait colors in winter, darker and duller are normally best.

A winter brown trout is caught on a small crankbait from underneath a lunker box structure in the spring-fed waters of Long Pine Creek at the Long Pine State Recreation Area near Long Pine, NE. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Other trout offerings. Waxworms, salmon eggs, prepared baits, small jigs, or tiny spinners or spoons (silver on sunny days and gold on cloudy days) should also not be overlooked for successful winter trout stream fishing.

Your blogger displays a healthy rainbow trout caught on a waxworm in the winter from the East Branch of the Verdigre Creek at the Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area near Royal, NE. Photo by Noah Wagner of Omaha, NE.

Fish when it’s warmest. The trout in these northern and western Nebraska coolwater streams are more apt to take your lure or bait on the nice, warm winter days, either sunny or cloudy, when the temperature hovers around or rises above freezing. Skip the morning and head out during the peak daytime air temperatures – usually during mid-afternoon.

Little competition. Don’t expect much competition to catch trout on public access areas along popular trout streams such as the East Branch of the Verdigre and Long Pine Creeks. There may not be anyone fishing these creeks on weekdays.

Seek and fish new trout habitat structures. Find and concentrate your fishing efforts near some of the recently constructed or placed trout habitat structures if you are fishing in the waters of Long Pine and Dry Spotted Tail Creeks. From current breaks to large boulders, these areas will most likely be holding trout to catch because of slower moving water and a chance for the fish to ambush prey. The stream modifications should provide anglers with the opportunity to catch more fish – and bigger fish. See more completed coolwater stream habitat projects at this link.

Take pics! Winter can be a wonderful time of year for simply taking iPhone or Android pics while fishing, particularly for landscape photography along streams. Familiar locations around you can be transformed by snow, ice or fog. And with the winter sun lower in the sky, you can capture wonderful light, amazing long shadows and stunning silhouettes. Plus, you can validate your catches!

Here are some things to know before you go winter trout stream fishing in Nebraska. 

Read the regs. Be sure to read the 2024 Nebraska Fishing Guide booklet for regulations, orders, laws, public access sites, etc. pertaining to coolwater streams for trout prior to going stream side.

Check rural road conditions. It is always a good idea to check rural road conditions leading to and from the trout streams you plan to fish in advance of your trip. Contact the county roads department, area Game and Parks staff or local conservation officers.

Landowner permission reminder. Beyond the public access sites along Nebraska’s trout streams, be reminded that landowner permission is required to enter any private property, whether posted or not.

Selective harvest; put the big ones back. For conservation purposes and heeding those legal stipulations, keep the more abundant smaller fish for a meal, but return the larger trout to the water to swim and spawn another day! Remember for the fish you plan to release keep the fish in the water as much as possible, particularly in the winter as the outside temperature can harm and possibly kill them.

Clean, drain and dry. Make certain to clean, drain and dry your trout fishing equipment (including your waders) before you go from one stream to another. This needs to be done to prevent the introduction of any invasive species and preserve these invaluable trout stream fisheries.

The right clothing. For cold-weather fishing in open-water conditions, wear layers of clothing that you can easily add or shed depending on your body temperature to stay warm but dry. Liner socks coupled with wool socks are musts as is a shell coat, pair of neoprene or wool half-finger gloves), set of neoprene waders and a well-insulated hat you can put over your ball cap.

Safety. Although the splendors of winter trout stream fishing in Nebraska can be fantastic, the downfalls can be tragic. Go with a partner if you can or at least tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Keep in mind slipping or falling into an isolated, ice-cold creek can mean more than just numb fingers and toes — it can mean hypothermia! Consider using some sort of staff or long sturdy stick if you’re wading to judge depth and where obstacles are. Be sure to take along an extra set of warm, dry clothing and an insulated travel mug filled with a hot beverage such as hot chocolate.  Close observation of the weather you are going to be fishing is also vitally important. Pay attention to weather forecasts and updates. Winter weather can change fast and you could get stuck out in extremely cold, snowy, icy conditions if you are not prepared for them.

With diligent planning, the proper apparel plus the appropriate equipment and presentations, winter can provide some of the best fishing action of the year in one or more of Nebraska’s pristine trout streams!

Enjoy this winter trout stream fishing video on the East Branch of the Verdigre Creek in northeast Nebraska supplied by John Vrtiska of Cedar Creek, NE.

Get your current Nebraska fishing permit, learn the limits and go fish!

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

This is the East Branch of the Verdigre Creek flowing through the Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area near Royal, NE after a winter snowfall. The creek, with its aquatic vegetation, runs from 10 to 15 feet wide and its bottom is comprised mainly of gravel along with some sand and soft mud. The Verdigre Creek’s East Branch ranges in depth from a couple inches of water running clear over the gravel bars to roughly 3 feet of water in the pools typically having a darker bottom. Photo courtesy of Bob Johnston of Elkhorn, NE who is a Nebraska Trout Unlimited Chapter #710 Member.

The post Not into ice fishing, try a trout stream appeared first on Nebraskaland Magazine.

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