Let us take this opportunity to thank all of our patrons, employees and friends for their help and support this past year. Here's a quick run down of the high and low lights of 2011 and a look ahead at 2012. 2011 opened with good ice cover on Merritt and other area lakes. Panfishing for crappie and bluegill was good, especially on the Boardman Creek arm. Our bluegills have really increased in both size and numbers and I, among others, enjoyed many days of fast action in the back stretches of the Boardman Creek in 12 to 15 feet of water. Further out, in the Boardman arm, crappie anglers also enjoyed good action on 9-14 inch crappies near the creek channeling 28 to 35 feet of water. The annual Cork Thornton Ice Derby of 2011 saw anglers from around the state and beyond test their skills in late January. It took 2 man stringers in the neighborhood of 20 pounds to come out on top. It should take similar or better weights to win in 2012. Other nearby lakes including the Valentine Refuge also produced great action throughout the hard water season. Pike, bass, bluegill and perch are all feature winter species in these productive sandhills waters.
Experienced fishermen know that weather can be your best friend or worst enemy. As the calendar moved forward we experienced one of the chilliest, rainiest and most volatile springs (like most parts of the country) and early summers in recent memory. It was not until the latter part of June that weather patterns even showed signs of moderating and our fishing showed signs of consistency. Yes, some great catches were made to be sure, but as I review our photo gallery, the number of anglers dressed in layered jackets and rain gear through May and sporadically into June are a vivid reminder of a spring that most of the country would prefer to forget. Many of those that braved the elements caught some walleyes in the 5 to 9 pound range, lots of pike from 22-28 inches along with some big pike, and lots of really big channel catfish, plus a decent showing of bass and panfish. Considering the weather, the action was better than you might expect.
Summer patterns of 2011 emerged somewhat late as waters finally warmed and weather patterns showed more stability. Water levels remained high due to a wet spring forcing anglers to adapt. Strong year classes of small walleyes were caught in large numbers in June on into July. We've all got plenty to look forward to as these fish reach maturity. The dark of the moon period in June triggered the strongest muskie bite we have ever experienced. Bob Altwine reported catching around 20 muskies in 10 days topped by a 48 inch, 33# 'ski along with many walleyes, pike and some bass. Others reported good muskie fishing in June as well. Catfishing remained strong all spring and summer. As summer moved on to fall, we saw a good bite on nice sized walleyes and most of our other species as well. The shallows produced bass, pike and panfish. Slab spoons and blade baits being fished vertically, on fast dropping sand breaks in 14 to 20 feet of water produced walleyes and many other species. On September 10th, I did a guide job, taking out 2 guys in the morning and two others in the afternoon. The first fish in the boat was an 8.25# walleye followed by nearly every other species in the lake including pike to 6#'s and catfish to 14#'s. Merritt truly is the premier multi-species fishery in the state. Stable fall weather ushered in some of the best and most consistent fishing of 2011. Good angling for pike, bass, walleyes and catfish lasted well into late fall (some anglers caught walleyes and pike well into November) and brought a strong finish to the open water season.
So, what conclusions can we draw from the fishing in 2011 and what can we look for in 2012?
1.) The weather can really help or hurt fishing success. If May or parts of June were your first trip to Merritt, you might think this spring was typical and not schedule to be here at that time next year. And you would miss out on some great fishing. Fortunately, we usually see much friendlier conditions on the average. Good fishing at Merritt typically begins around the 7th to the 10th of May. Great fishing can last nearly all summer and fall.
2.) Be versatile and open minded. When you come to Merritt, you are fishing one of the mid-west's best multi-species fisheries. If your target species is slow to bite, change gears and go after some of the other fish we offer. For example, while some experienced slow walleye action or mostly small fish, others were having a blast catching huge catfish, pike of all sizes, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and a variety of panfish.
What will fishing be like in 2012? I know top of mind for many of you is the walleye fishery. Each fall Game and Parks does a netting survey to approximate fish populations. It has been published and Merritt looks good in size and numbers of fish. The local biologist told me that fish per net were up nicely vs. last year. Merritt listed very near the top of the states walleye fisheries. A well balanced size profile indicates a healthy population with good numbers of both keepers and big fish too. That report reflects accurately what I and other anglers caught in the fall of 2011. A very healthy forage base will promote peak growth rates on all our predator species. The really strong year class of fish just below the size limit will easily become keepers. Walleye fishing should be good in 2012.
The northern pike fishery continues to produce good numbers plus some big fish as well. In 2011, we noted especially strong year classes of 24 and 28 inch pike that with Merritt's high growth rate will make for super pike angling in 2012. Good numbers of bigger fish in the 8-12 pound plus range will be caught as well. Always one of the first fish to bite in the spring, look for pike action to start with first warming trends in April and remain good to excellent through spring into mid- summer and again in the fall. There are no size restrictions on pike so anglers can harvest 3 per day with 6 in possession. Northern pike are great on the table. Follow instructions at the fish cleaning stations to remove the "Y" bones or try pickling them.
Channel cat fishing continues at phenomenal levels with dozens upon dozens of 12 to 28 pound fish and even a few bigger brought to our scales every summer. Stocking helps sustain this fishery and provide eating size fish to go with the trophies. The bite starts in May and lasts well into fall. Action can peak in August, but can be great anytime water temps rise above 50 degrees.
For the third year in a row, Merritt has produced multiple musky measuring 48 inches or more. Most people, including myself, feel it is just a matter of time before Merritt eclipses its own state record weight of 41#'s, 8oz. Good numbers of fish under 4 feet exist as well. Please practice catch and release on muskies to enhance and preserve this trophy fishery. The best bites seem to occur in streaks with lulls in between hot bites. Dark of the moon periods or spawning activity of their forage species appear to be the most consistent bite indicators.
Largemouth and smallmouth bass at Merritt continue to do very well. The move to a 15 inch minimum size on smallmouths has increased both size and numbers of my favorite fish. Largemouth fishing remains strong with lots of fish to four pounds and some bigger. We really saw a great frog bite from late June on. From spring through fall, when water temps are above 50 degrees you can catch bass on Merritt.
Panfishing should also be great in 2012 starting with the ice bite. Higher summer water levels have left nursery habitat in the weed beds for the past three years. Crappie, bluegills, and perch have all benefited from these conditions. The strong year class of perch that were 5-7 inches in 2011 will grow to keeper size this year and provide steady action on these tasty panfish. Bluegills in the 7-8 inch range along with a few bigger ones will be common. The crappie population is healthy with a good distribution of year clases up to 14-15 inches.
Hunting success was somewhat below last year. Grouse and turkey numbers were lower due to the cold wet windy spring affecting the hatch. Range and cover conditions are excellent so barring an exceptionally hard winter, I expect numbers to rebound since we still have a good population of adult birds. Antelope numbers continue to expand. We saw some really nice bucks harvested this fall. A full moon during rifle deer season had many animals moving at night which affected harvest. The same situation occurred during the muzzle loader opener. More recently, late season muzzle loader hunters have recently reported seeing plenty of deer so I don't think populations are down.
I look for Merritt to produce some really good fishing in 2012 on pretty much all of our many species. If the law of averages means much, we shuld see a milder spring and earlier summer than was the case of 2011. Cabins are filling up so don't wait too long to make reservations.
June 9th is the Andrew Claymon Memorial Youth/Adult all species tournament. This is the second year for this fun tournament. Trophies, and prizes await participants in this fun filled event celebrating the life of a super talented young angler. It is a great family event.
Bits and pieces:
We now have a geat topographic map of Merritt available. More highly detailed than formerly available (no longer in print) maps, this waterproof, tear resistant, colored map features 10 foot contour lines, updated campsite information, species specific fishing patterns and tactics for Merritt, GPS coordinates for ramps and more! It's easy to read and packed with information.
I made a 20 pint batch of pickled northern pike this fall. They turned out to be very tasty and while the process is a little time consuming, well worth the effort. Maybe best of all, you don't have to remove the "Y" bones, they dissolve in the brine. Just freeze the filets until you have as much as you want to pickle, then thaw and follow your favorite recipe.
Speaking of recipes, we are now carrying "Wild Game Simple" cook book. Packed with hundreds of easy fish and game recipes (including pickled pike), it also has color illustrated game cleaning and processing instructions, wine tips and more.
The Nebraska Game and Parks has been stocking white bass for the past two years. We support these efforts for the following reasons. Merritt has long had a small population of white bass that have grown to impressive size (commonly 2-3#'s). A stronger population of this open water ranging fish would be helpful in managing our consistently large population of alewives. That could improve our fall walleye bite when alewife populations are highest. Also, white bass are aggressive feeders during the warmest months when action on other species slows. Establishing white bass as a fairly populous species could pay long term dividends.
In summary, I would have to say 2011 was a good year for the Merritt Reservoir and greater Sandhills area. We continue to have some of the best hunting, fishing, beaches, and scenery of several surrounding states that are known for just those things!
In closing, we wish you all the best for 2012. We also say, "Thank you" again to all of you who support our small business, making amenities available to the area. We look forward to seeing you this year!
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John Bauer & the Trading Post Crew
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Merritt Trading Post Resort