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Panhandle Passages: Soldier Creek Runs Through It

Scott Johnson casts his fly rod on the south fork of Soldier Creek during a November outing.

Scott Johnson casts his fly rod on the south fork of Soldier Creek during a November 2013 outing.

Some of western Nebraska’s most enjoyable fishing can be found at the ponds on the 22,000 acres of Fort Robinson State Park. Count me among the anglers who have long enjoyed dropping a line at the Carter P. Johnson Lake, Ice House Ponds and Grabel Ponds.

Whether from the bank, through the ice, or atop kayaks and jon boats, the ponds serve as a great fishing destination. The scenery is great and the whopper largemouth bass and other species are often visible through the clear waters, even on days they’re not cooperative enough to bite.

Carly Salak kayaks at Carter P. Johnson Lake in October 2013.

Carly Salak kayaks at Carter P. Johnson Lake in October 2013.

Casting spinnerbaits over still water and dropping waxworms below the ice aren’t the only ways to pursue a fish around Fort Robinson, though. Some discover the area is home to some of the Pine Ridge’s dandy trout streams, best approached with a fly rod.

The sights-to-see begin appearing before you reach the Wilderness Area, such as this Fort Robinson longhorn calf getting its first meal.

The sights-to-see begin appearing before you reach the Wilderness Area, such as this Fort Robinson longhorn calf getting its first meal.

Last fall, my son Sawyer and I joined Scott Johnson of Chadron during a November afternoon of fishing on the Soldier Creek Wilderness Area, a National Forest Service property adjacent to the park which consists of 7,794 acres. Johnson, a chiropractor, received some statewide attention last year after catching Nebraska’s record tiger trout — a little-known hybrid species of brown trout and brook trout — from Soldier Creek. At 12 ounces the fish wasn’t exactly what a chiropractor would label a back-breaker, but it was a beautiful fish and an impressive feat, nonetheless – the state’s largest catch of a rare breed. And, he caught it on a fly rod.

While I do quite a bit of fishing, I won’t claim to be an expert. Fish would laugh if I did. Furthermore, I’m decisively an amateur when it comes to fly fishing.

The fly rod became a star of the silver screen in the 1990s while I was attending college in Chadron. After “A River Runs Through It,” the fly fishing industry saw a 60 percent increase in sales each of the two years following its release. Similar to many, I added a fly rod to my fishing arsenal during that period – an acquisition that surely couldn’t have been influenced by how popular actors Brad Pitt and Craig Scheffer became with female movie-watchers during that period. I remember landing some panfish, but let’s just say my success at catching trout with a fly rod during college was similar to my success in luring the ladies. After a wayward hook from a cast landed in my forehead at Chadron State Park, I pretty much retired the fly rod and went back to my trusty spinning gear. That is, until recently.

Sawyer, 11, got the bug to fly fish last summer after learning the basics at a Game and Parks naturalist program at Chadron State Park. He got even more hooked when Johnson gave him some pointers during our Soldier Creek outing.

Scott Johnson gives Sawyer pointers.

Scott Johnson gives Sawyer fly fishing tips during the November trip.

Johnson’s advice to us about Soldier Creek: Fish it before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. Between those dates, the vegetation creeps in and makes it much more difficult to land a fly on open water in the winding stream.

Last year's bird nests, like this one that may have been constructed by an orchard oriole, are still visible through the leaf-less branches.

Last year’s bird nests, such as this one that may have been constructed by an orchard oriole, are still visible through the trees’ leafless branches.

The middle fork of Soldier Creek flows over rocks.

The middle fork of Soldier Creek flows over its rocky bottom.

So, with temperatures hovering around 60 degrees, our precious ice season waning, and a rising case of spring fever, Sawyer and I headed back to Soldier Creek on Sunday for a little early season trout action. We chose to hike the middle fork of the creek, which leads to the diminutive but charming Wood Reserve ponds. The middle branch meets up with two others before flowing into “Carter P” and the White River.

Sawyer carried a fly rod while I lugged some of my standard hiking gear — two camera bodies, a big lens, a tripod and a backpack full of other lenses and accessories.

It wasn’t long before a glimpse of trout darting through the water caught our attention and spurred excitement. Sawyer began casting his fly to the water as I directed my cameras to nature’s other visual gifts along the creek.

Sawyer hunts for trout along Soldier Creek.

Sawyer hunts for trout along Soldier Creek.

Truthfully, I didn’t have high aspirations of Sawyer catching a lot of fish – after all, he’s still a beginner and his dad isn’t much help. Somewhat to my surprise, though, it wasn’t long before I heard him loudly pronounce “score!”

As I walked over to see what the commotion was about, I found he had just landed a small and lively brook trout – one that he hunted after seeing it swim below an overhanging bank at a bend in the creek. Again, the catch was no back-breaker, but it was his first stream fish with a fly rod and one we won’t soon forget.

Sawyer displays his first catch from Soldier Creek, a brook trout.

Sawyer displays his first catch from Soldier Creek, a brook trout.

Sawyer gives the fish a kiss.

Sawyer gives his first fish of the day a kiss, a tradition influenced by fishing buddy Zane Dickinson. Dickinson, a retired college professor says a fish that is kissed will tell all of its buddies how nice you are and prompt more strikes.

Sawyer casts for trout at the Wood Reserve ponds.

Sawyer casts for trout at the Wood Reserve ponds.

With that fun behind us, we continued working our way up the stream, marveling at the sights in and along the babbling brook. And, Sawyer wasn’t done catching fish. Once at the ponds, he soon banked a nice brown that gets bigger every time we tell the story. Unfortunately, we had no net with us and the fish became free of the hook as soon as it rose from the water to the bank, and its slippery scales allowed it to flop back to safety before Sawyer could get a handle. It was on land, though, so he’s counting it.

Too soon the sun was shining low and it was time to return home with another fond memory of “fishing the Fort.” It was a beautiful day that gave us just enough action to cause anticipation for our return to a Pine Ridge trout stream. Next time, though, I’m likely to substitute some of my photography equipment for fishing gear. One can always get a “creel limit” of photos along the creek, but we’re learning the fly rod can be equally productive.

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A small fall along the middle fork of Soldier Creek.

About Justin Haag, Regional Editor/PIO

Justin Haag serves the Panhandle as a NEBRASKAland’s Regional Editor and Public Information Officer for the Commission. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing and hunting. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and enjoy introducing their two children to the many outdoor recreational opportunities of the Pine Ridge region.

2 comments

  1. How delightful that Sawyer is sticking with the “kiss a fish” tradition. I hope he has as much fun and success–but it’s the fun that’s really important–as Zane and our kids and grandkids have had.

  2. Yep, both the scenery and the brookies would promote stickin’ to the flyrod over fishin’ Beaver Creek!

    Great story and pictures!

    Harold F.

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