FREDERICK: Helping a visitor enjoy a fine day of western Nebraska fishing

Steve Frederick

I spent most of a day last week with Charlie Campbell, a lawyer from York who travels the state defending cities and counties from lawsuits.

I spent most of an afternoon and an evening this week with some guys who want to make a straight creek crooked.

And I spent part of Wednesday afternoon listening to the state’s new tourism director.

Believe it or not, all of that relates to fishing.

Awhile back, my friends Cher and Allan Maybee of Barn Anew bed-and-breakfast told me they sometimes get guests who enjoy fly fishing. We talked about it and I came up with a map of some of the places on Nine Mile Creek where public access is permitted. I didn’t do much fly fishing at the time, but I told them I’d be willing to take somebody out there if he or she wasn’t comfortable going alone.

Charlie was one of the first guests who gave me a call. I couldn’t fish on the day he wanted to go, so he followed me out there and I walked in a ways and tried to give him an idea of where he might catch some. He’s a nice guy, and I felt as if I owed him one. When he called last week, I arranged to take him up north to fish at Fort Robinson and the Soldier Creek Wilderness. We caught a few fish, put seven miles on our sneakers and had a great time.

The Grabel Ponds are one spot at Fort Rob where you can catch rainbow trout. The water is clear and the fish rise to dry flies. It’s a beautiful place to warm up before tackling the wilderness. Soldier Creek flows out of the wild land into the state park, filling Carter P. Johnson Lake. We didn’t fish the lake, but we hiked up the creek, which contains brook and cutthroat trout, and fished the Wood Reserve Ponds, which contain tiger trout, a hybrid of brookies and browns. It’s a mile or more from the trail head to the ponds, which once served as an officer’s retreat during Fort Rob’s military era.

The creek project involved some guys from Trout Unlimited and Nebraska Game and Parks. They had put together a proposal to use funds from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, which funnels lottery receipts toward projects that improve Nebraska’s ecology and recreational opportunities, to enhance trout habitat on Dry Spotted Tail Creek near Mitchell. The creek is anything but dry. In fact, it has a strong, year-round flow that long ago was funnelled between two adjoining farms as a matter of convenience.

These days it’s on property managed by Platte River Basin Environments, which owns a mile or more of North Platte River front. The land, open to fishing and limited hunting, includes seasonal ponds for waterfowl. The plan calls for a new channel for the creek that would meander a bit to create additional length and direct water at the proper velocity and temperature to provide places for trout to thrive. Many of the TU guys remember a time when Nine Mile and a few other local creeks grew monster trout, five to 10 pounds. They’ve formed a western chapter to try to bring back those fish and create better places than drive-up urban ponds for anglers to fish for trout. The Spotted Tail project would be a first for Nebraska Game and Parks, which is working with a firm that specializes in trout stream enhancement, and would serve as a model for future projects. It was turned down in the recent round of Environmental Trust funding, but the new TU chapter hopes to raise local matching funds and provide volunteer opportunities, such as planting streamside trees, that would bring down the cost and make the project more attractive in a future funding cycle. It would also make the Spotted Tail site more attractive to recreationists.

There are lots of places where a person could catch trout in the Panhandle, but many of them are on private property. I don’t always feel comfortable kncking on doors to ask permission. Last year, I created a magazine guide to Spotted Tail and similar public sites, walking into each tract at least once, shooting a lot of photos, adding a map to the magazine and giving folks an idea of what they’d find. I figured a guide would help folks find their way on self-guided adventures. I’ve learned since that for some, a map isn’t enough. They don’t feel comfortable venturing off the beaten track all alone.

Coincidentally, that topic came up during a tourism town hall meeting Wednesday with the new director of the Nebraska Tourism Commission, John Ricks. Because Nebraska has such a low percentage of public land, the commission is exploring the idea of creating more guided experiences for visitors, using folks who are familiar with communities and have access to otherwise inaccessible places. In a state with little public land, local knowlege is invaluable. For years, our local tourism officials have long promoted the idea of being a local ambassador, sharing information with visitors about what they can see and do. On Friday, they’re offering special training on that topic for workers who serve the tourism industry.

In my experience, it does help to go the extra mile — or seven miles — to make sure visitors have a good time. As Charlie told me at the end of our fishing trip, “This is a beautiful area, and I love coming back.”

Steve Frederick is  the editor of the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9055 or by email at steve.frederick@starherald.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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