Route to a Record

Route to a Record

By Gene Hornbeck

Nebraska fishers have long looked at the state record for largemouth bass – the 10-pound, 11-ounce giant that Paul Abegglen Sr. of Columbus pulled out of a sandpit lake near town in early October 1965 – with the hope that one of them can equal or break that record. With apologies to students of Shakespeare, that’d really be a midsummer night’s dream!

“It isn’t going to be easy to break the record,” said Gary Nickels, a retired art teacher from Chapman. “An 11-pound bass in Nebraska is almost unthinkable. But if it is caught, I think it’ll come from a sandpit lake.”

Is an 11-pounder unthinkable? Almost, if you consider that the record has held up for about 34 years. Geography likely plays a part in how big the bass will get in the Cornhusker State. Iowa’s state-record largemouth weighed 10 pounds, 14 ounces; Kansas’, 11 pounds, 12 ounces; Colorado’s, 11 pounds, 6 ounces; South Dakota’s, 9 pounds, 3 ounces; Missouri’s, 13 pounds, 14 ounces.

Most experienced Nebraska bassers would pick April and May as offering the best chances of landing a record, since the females are carrying eggs then. But there are big bass caught during midsummer months as well.

In 2002 there were 536 Master Angler Awards given for bass 20 inches or more or weighing at least 5 pounds; of those big bass, 428 were reported released. (It’s presumed that many fish, perhaps hundreds, were not presented for consideration.)

In May 2002, Grand Island’s Bruce Nekuda used a jig-and-pig to claim a 9-pound, 8-ounce fish from a sandpit lake. A month later, Tom Joyner Jr., also of Grand Island, fooled an 8-pounder at Farwell South Reservoir; he was working a plastic shad.

Kerry Keane of Gering led the field in 2001; fishing a topwater lure at a private pond in mid-June, he caught a 9-pound, 4-ounce specimen.

Last year, Pat Fox of Tekamah received two awards for 28-inch fish – one in May, one in October, the largest unofficially weighing 9 pounds, 8 ounces; he also laid claim to a pair of 27-inchers in 2002. All came from a farm pond.

Among the dozens of lunkers taken note of in 2003 was a 26-incher (8 pounds plus) taken from a private pond in July by Toby Miller of Lincoln, and an 8-pound, 8-ounce fish yielded by a pond in mid-May to Myron Belding of Beatrice.

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“I’ve been fishing farm ponds for bass for over 25 years,” Belding said. “I really believe there are bass in some of these ponds that will top the current state record. I have hooked a couple that I swear were larger than the 8-8 I caught.”

Nickels has scores of bass over 5 pounds to his credit. Though his favorite bass lake has been Red Willow, his largest bass – 8 pounds, 8-ounces – came from a farm pond.

“Back 20 years or so ago I loved to fish Burchard Lake where I caught a bunch of big bass,” he said. “I think Red Willow was better a few years back than it is now, but it still produces some big bass. Elwood was really good, and it still has some good bass, but the fishing has changed, due to the introduction of alewives. The summer bass fishing has more or less gone to the low-light hours, due to the habits of the alewife.”

Nickels’ ammunition for July and August fishing is the “rubber” worm. He prefers to fish the low-light hours or on overcast days.

Bruce Pitzer of Oakdale, a Missouri River guide, believes that any new record is likely to come out of a farm pond – a well-founded supposition, given the trend in the Master Angler Awards. In 2002 a total of 284 of the 536 awards went to bass caught from a farm pond or sandpit lake.

“I have fished a lot of the ponds, and they produce a lot of big bass,” Pitzer said. “My largest to date was a 6-8. The Missouri River in Knox County has a good population of largemouths and smallmouths, but I just haven’t seen anything that tells me there could be an 11-pounder there. Catching one is just something most of us will dream about this summer.”

Pitzer agrees both that the plastic worm ranks among the most effective lures for the midsummer months, and that the chances of taking big bass then are best during the low-light hours or at night. “I also use topwaters quite a bit in the summer,” he offered, “and if fishing at night, I slow down the retrieve of any lure.”

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McCook fishing guide Steve Lytle, who’s taken more Master Angler bass than anyone else in the book, has a somewhat different take on breaking the record. “I spend most of my bass-fishing time on Red Willow, but do fish Swanson Reservoir and some sandpit lakes along the Republican River, too,” he said. “July and August may not be the best months for catching big bass – but they are not the worst, either.

“My largest bass ever came out of Red Willow in July in the late ’90s. I wasn’t even fishing for largemouths when I got him. I had two guys with me, and we were fishing for wipers we found suspended at about 25 feet over 40 feet of water. We were baited up with bluegills and shiners, and nothing was happening. So I started throwing a deep-running crankbait.

“I don’t remember how many casts I had taken when something slammed into it,” Lytle said. “I played the fish for a minute or so and saw my bait rod jump. I handed the rod with the fish on it to one of my partners and grabbed the bait rod. Just about that time a fish took the bait on my other partner’s rod, and we were hung up on three big fish at the same time.

“When all was over I had a largemouth bass that weighed 9-7, the fish on the crankbait was a 14-pound northern and the third fish was an 8-pound wiper.”

That’s not a bad mixed-catch for any angling trio!

“I think we can break the record,” Lytle asserted firmly. “It might come from a sandpit lake, or a farm pond, or right here at Red Willow. I have caught and released three fish over 9 pounds in the last few years and an 8-14 was my best last year. I can’t help but think there’s one there that will top 10-11.”

Red Willow leads the state in giving up Master Angler largemouths. In 2002, the reservoir surrendered 69 – the lion’s share of them to Lytle.

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North Platte’s Wally Allison

held the Nebraska smallmouth record for 22 years. His 6-pound, 1-ounce fish, caught at Merritt Reservoir, was replaced by a 7-pound, 4-ounce specimen taken in 2000 from the Missouri River in Knox County by Omaha’s Dennis Swanson.

Taken at Red Willow back in 1974, Allison’s best largemouth weighed 7 pounds, 14 ounces; he’s yet to better that mark. However, he too believes that a new record is possible, and is sure that it’ll come from a sandpit or a farm pond.

The Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, long recognized for its bass fishing, remains one of the state’s top largemouth venues. Lakes such as Hackberry, Pelican, Clear, Dewey, Duck and Watts produce bass exceeding 5 pounds. However, one seldom sees a bass from the refuge lakes that tops 7 pounds. Clear Lake served up the largest one in the books in 2002 – a 6-pound, 4-ounce bigmouth taken on a crankbait in early May by Chris Swanson of Lincoln.

It’s also reasonable to think that a record could come from one of the catch-and-release-only lakes, or from lakes such as Wehrspann and Zorinsky in Omaha that mandate a 21-inch size limit. Zorinsky’s best in 2002 tipped the scales at 6 pounds, 12 ounces; it was taken by Tim Buckmann of Plattsmouth.

Daryl Bauer, lakes and reservoir manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in Lincoln, thinks that a largemouth over 11 pounds would be a huge bass for Nebraska. “Even under ideal conditions, with relatively fast growth, an 11-pound bass would have to live a long life,” he said. “Probably at least 10 years.

The Bard of Avon probably wasn’t thinking about fish when he penned his classic of fantasy, but his dream drama can serve as a symbol for how hard it’ll be to beat the odds on catching a bass large enough to break the Nebraska state record in midsummer. But: Never say “never”!

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>