Ogallala, Nebraska– home of Nebraska’s largest reservoir Lake McConaughy aka “Big Mac”. This body of water isn’t just known for being the largest reservoir, it’s also the home of some of Nebraska’s largest fish! 1971 was a bumper year for state records. A new rod and reel record was set for Coho and Kokanee Salmon and walleye. There’s not much of a chance of anyone breaking any salmon records any time soon because they no longer exist in the reservoir due to habitat changes that have occurred over the years. However, walleye have now become the dominant predator in the system and there have been a few anglers very close to breaking the 16lb 2oz walleye caught by Herbert Cutshall, caught in 1971.
Big Mac offers Master Angler class fish in multiple species.
Some of the most sought-after fish are channel catfish, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, wiper, white bass, northern pike and last but not least walleye. Year after year, this lake continues to produce trophy class fish due to its diverse structure and healthy population of alewife and gizzard shad.
Over the past two decades, Big Mac has seen its fair share of fluctuation.
Starting in the late ’90s the lake’s water level started dropping due to below average inflows. This drought continued well over 10 years leaving the lake below 25% of capacity. The drought resulted in an all-time low of 65 ft. below normal pool in 2004. Consequently, trees grew where the water used to be, and some topped out at twenty feet or more. The majority of the west end of the reservoir was so thick with trees, it was difficult to even walk through. Most believed the lake would never reach full pool again but in 2011 that all changed. Heavy snowpack from the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and a few Nebraska heavy rains caused the North Platte River to reach record levels. Lake McConaughy went from below 50% to 100% in just a few months.
With high water levels and an overabundance of trees, fish had plenty of places to hide and grow big! Challenged with an underwater forest, many anglers began to put patterns together for fishing in and over the trees. Some of the popular tactics that evolved are: casting or trolling ¾-2oz spinnerbaits; trolling crankbaits like the Salmo Hornets, Berkley Flicker shads, and Rapala Shad raps; suspended Bottom bouncing over the tops of trees with a crawler or a leech and pitching jigs in and around the bank are favorites of many locals.
Since the drought, many of the underwater trees have cleared out in many areas around the lake. This makes it much easier to keep your lure in contact with the bottom without getting hung up all of the time. Throughout the west end of the lake, you can find areas where the trees have cleared out. It is important to keep an eye on your sonar unit as there will still be some spots with trees in these areas. Locating and knowing where the underwater structure is and how fish relate to it can often be vital to catching trophy walleyes. These big fish typically associate with these submerged trees. With a little practice, a few snags and a handful of retying one can learn how to fish these areas efficiently.
As we move into mid-summer patterns the water starts to warm and the baitfish start to slide out into deeper water followed by the walleyes. Finding clouds/balls of bait on the sonar with solid arches in or below is key to success. You may have to scan for a bit before you will find a cloud with active fish in the area. Once you find fish, there are many ways to catch them. One productive approach this time of year is trolling lead-core with spinnerbaits or deep running cranks. Spinnerbaits will allow you to tick the tops of the submerged trees without getting hung up as often as other presentations.
A couple of other popular methods are bottom bouncing with crawler harnesses or slow death style rigs. When using a bottom bouncer over the trees I like to keep it fairly simple. Over the past few years, I have had really good luck with the Berkley fusion slow turn hooks. Again, keeping it simple with just a bead above the hook and sometimes dressing it up with Mack’s lure smile blade on a 10lb to 14lb Mono or Fluorocarbon leader. Slow trolling around 1mph it is crucial to keep your line at a 45-degree angle. Paying attention to your graph and lifting up over the trees as you get to them will take some practice but once you get the hang of it, things will become second nature.
Another tip, if you find yourself constantly snagged, try shortening the leader length behind the bouncer. Sometimes even cutting down to 18” or less will make a difference.
Keeping up with the local fishing reports or hiring one of the many fishing guides can be a great way to get a head start on your next fishing trip. There are many local guides around the lake, but here’s a couple that I have gotten to know and would recommend. Chad Richardson (Fish the Plains) guide service 308-289-6499 and Brad Haun (Big Mac Spoiled Guide Service) 970-580-9229. These two guys are not only first class; they will greatly increase your chance at a fish of a lifetime.
When planning your next trip to McConaughy check out ilovelakemac.com. This is an informative site to keep up on fishing reports, local attractions, dining, maps, camping, and lodging. For other fishing tips follow Heartland Walleyes on Facebook or at Heartlandwalleyes.com.