For anglers, Nebraska is well known for its reservoir fishing. Lake McConaughy near Ogallala (30,000 acres when full), Lewis & Clark reservoir on the South Dakota border (30,000 acres when full), and Harland County Reservoir in south-central Nebraska (13,500 acres when full) are the largest reservoirs in the state. Smaller irrigation reservoirs in western and central Nebraska, and flood-control reservoirs in eastern Nebraska also provide fishing opportunities, as do many farm ponds and sand pits across the state.
Several years of drought in Nebraska and in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana that supply rivers like the Platte and Missouri, have left Nebraska reservoirs less than full, but most still provide excellent fishing. Catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, white bass, striped bass, northern pike, crappie, walleye, yellow perch, bluegill, sunfish, trout, carp — depending on the reservoir, the variety of available fish can be staggering.
Nebraska rivers, creeks, and natural lakes also provide fun fishing, although they tend to be much less well known and less utilized in Nebraska. Nebraska’s prairie rivers historically supported a diverse population of fish, including northern pike, grass pickerel, several species of catfish, bass, buffalo fish, and eels as well as smaller darters, gizzard shad, minnows and dace. Paddlefish and sturgeon, both ancient fish families, still ply the Missouri.
Nebraska also boasts over 1,300 natural lakes, most of them in the Sandhills in north-central Nebraska, although many are surrounded by private land without regular public access. Those natural lakes host native fish, as well as native and non-native fish that have been stocked in their waters.
Challenges to Nebraska’s Fishable Waters
Unfortunately, Nebraska’s fisheries face major challenges. Continued water development, both in Nebraska and in upstream states, continues to deplete Nebraska streams. The flow in the 100-mile stretch of the Platte between North Platte and Lexington has been cut to just 10-15 percent of its historic level, as a result of municipal use, irrigation diversions and groundwater wells upstream. Streams like Pumpkin Creek in the Panhandle, and the Frenchman River in southwest Nebraska, have been dried up by irrigation wells, the farmers who hold surface water rights to their flows left high and dry.
Nearly every major river system in Nebraska is polluted, typically by some combination of runoff of sediment, nutrients, pesticides from farm fields and feedlots, bacteria and ammonia from out-dated municipal treatment plants, and sediment from construction sites. Excessive sediment load in most Nebraska streams has driven out many native fish species.
Meandering streams have been straightened, braided rivers been channelized, streamside wetlands drained and urban streams armored with rock and concrete. The result: fast-moving water, down-cutting streams, degrading river banks, and destruction of fish habitat.
The Missouri River was once an enormously productive fishery, and supported hundreds of commercial fishermen well into the early-1900’s — before huge dams upstream, and more than a century’s worth of work to straighten and channelize the river and remove snags caused fish populations and the commercial fishery to collapse.
Yet, there is hope. The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 promised to make America’s rivers fishable and swimmable again by 1985. We are still working to see that promise fulfilled, but Nebraska lags well behind other states in surface water monitoring and watershed cleanup.
In 1984, the Nebraska Legislature authorized the Game & Parks Commission and Nebraska Natural Resource Districts to apply for and hold ‘in-stream flow’ water rights, which would preserve what remains of natural river flows from future development. To date, only two Nebraska streams have in-stream flow protections, but the law has the potential to do far more good.
In 2004, Nebraska’s Legislature passed LB 962, the latest effort to modernize Nebraska’s outdated water laws. While not perfect, the new law should at least ‘slow the bleeding’ of stream flows in Nebraska, by slowing future development in watersheds where irrigation, industry, and municipal use have already appropriated available water rights.
Fish for the Future
The Nebraska Wildlife Federation continues 40 years of work to make sure that future generations of Nebraskans will be able to catch fish in Nebraska’s rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. For example:
For people who hunt and fish, Nebraska is a land of many opportunities, and a few challenges.
The diverse landscape of Nebraska includes large unbroken tracts of native prairie in the Sandhills, the rugged Pine Ridge, and wooded streams and river bottoms in the east. Some of the Nation’s most critical waterfowl habitat is in the Rainwater Basin wetlands and along the Platte River. That diverse landscape supports one of the Nation’s most diverse collections of huntable wildlife.
Nebraska’s prairie rivers, natural lakes and constructed reservoirs support catfish, bullhead, bass, perch, walleye, panfish, and northern pike. Trout, an introduced species, survive in some Nebraska coldwater streams. Snag-fishing of paddlefish in the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska is a one-of-a-kind experience.
Whether working to expand Farm Bill conservation programs, protect the Platte and other Nebraska rivers, expand Nebraska’s network of publicly accessible lands and waters, or protect Nebraska wetlands, the Nebraska Wildlife Federation is working in Nebraska for people who hunt, fish, and enjoy wildlife here in our state.
Click on the link below for more information on hunting and fishing in Nebraska. And, please join us in our work to make sure that The Good Life means Wildlife, for current and future generations!