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The Tackle Box

Little John, our fishing pro, and John Bauer, owner and long time Merritt addict, offers some useful fishing tips. Make sure and stop by our Current News page for breaking fishing reports.

In general fish behavior patterns vary from those in most other bodies of water in part due to the unusual bottom contours, fluctuating water levels, and heavy algae growth that block light penetration. Contour lake maps are available at the Trading Post.

When to Catch What at Merritt

May 10 - August 30
Spring & Fall
May 1 - October 30
January 1 - March 1
Large Mouth Bass:
April - October
June 1 - October 30
January 1 - March 1
June 15 - September 30
January 1 - March 1
August 1 - September 30
White bass:
April - July


I.D.- white margin on lower lobe of tail fin - dark spot near base of last few spines on spincus dorsal fin - Range=Statewide

Spring and early summer are prime times for trophy walleye at Merritt with fish in the 8-10 pound class or larger taken each year. In a typical spring, walleyes at Merritt will gather along the dam and other hard bottom areas on the main lake in late March. Spawning occurs during the first week or two in April. During this time the best approach is fishing low light or nighttime hours in water as shallow as 18” to 6 feet with floating minnow plugs (i.e. #11-#13 Rapalas). Bank fishermen often wade out to a depth of 3 feet and cast parallel to the shoreline. Flat line trolling the same baits and areas can also be productive. The first 10 to 20 days after the spawn can be slow fishing while fish recover from the rigors of reproduction. The post spawn walleye bite at Merritt typically heats up around May 10th. Boating anglers find success suspending live bait just off the bottom under slip bobbers in 7’to 10’ of water along brushy banks and over the tops and near edges of submerged weed beds. This slip bobber pattern can be productive on Merritt through June and early July when weed beds emerge into well defined patches. Early on leeches work best with night crawlers becoming more important by early June. Bank fishermen also score well this time of year by suspending live baits just off the bottom with Lindy rigs and floating jig heads or float beads. By Mid-June several patterns can be productive. Slip bobbers still work well, along with trolled or drifted Lindy rigs and trolled bottom bouncers with spinner rigs. Around the first part of July, irrigation demands begin to lower the lake level. Walleyes move to the deeper weed edges and make more extensive use of the mid depth flats, humps and points. At this time trolled hard baits work well. For this pattern our experienced anglers find Shad Raps, Wally Divers, Hot’n’Tots and Wiggle Warts, among others, to be productive. This crank bait pattern often lasts well into August. Perch and Alewives are the most common forage fish in the lake so color patterns imitating them work best during clear water periods with brighter fluorescent baits working well when the lakes waters darken with algae. By the dog days of mid to late August and well into late fall our most successful anglers are working 1/32 -3/8 ounce jigs dressed with marabou feathers or plastic grubs or minnow imitations on deeper points, drop offs or in submerged trees. White with some silver flash is a good color combination with fluorescents and solid black working at times. By the latter part of September vertical jigging spoons, and blade baits like sonars and cicadas see the majority of the action until ice up. Stop by the Trading Post for the most up to date fishing information, along with the hottest bait and tackle items.


Other than local bass club anglers, largemouth and smallmouth bass receive little pressure. The lake record was broken in the spring of 95, with a 7.14 lb. largemouth. Largemouth Bass in the 2 to 4 lb. range are common. Smallmouths to 3 pounds are also caught regularly. Merritt held the state smallmouth record until recently with a 6# 1 1/2oz bronze back caught by Wally Allison on 5/17/78. In spring, when water levels are at full pool, fish the abundant weed areas, particularly the Powderhorn arm. Numerous backwaters and pockets harbor spawning bass when water temps climb to the low 60’s, usually around Memorial weekend. Spinner baits in white/chartreuse or bluegill colors and jig’n’pig combinations in Black & blue, black, and green pumpkin work well during pre-spawn. Tubes (Texas rigged or on a jig head) floating worms and buzz baits draw post-spawn strikes. As the weed patches thicken weedless top waters, especially frog imitations can draw explosive surface strikes. Once irrigation demands leave the weed beds dry, try jigs, Texas rigged plastics or spinner baits in the standing timber sections of the Snake River and Boardman Creek arms or pull Carolina rigged lizards (smoke or watermelon) on hard bottom points and humps on the main lake. Mid- September through October or until water temps remain below the mid 40’s can be especially fun as bass stay shallow following the rising water back into the bays and arms of the reservoir. Bass stay pretty shallow every season but winter. For a change of pace, try the pristine sandhills lakes on the Valentine Wildlife Refuge. Most lakes support good largemouth populations. Action begins early during the first warm days in April on these shallow weedy lakes. Small electric powered boats, canoes or belly boats will get you to the action. Fishing and access are difficult after late June due to weed growth. For a great selection of plastic baits selected by John for Merritt, check out the JB’s Custom Baits plastics section in the Trading Post.

Northern Pike

I.D.- five or fewer pores on lower jaw - cheeks fully scaled - Range=Statewide

A top line predator, Northern Pike began showing up on stringers at Merritt in the mid-nineties. Pike were not intentionally stocked in the lake but have thrived in Merritt’s fertile waters. The lake record exceeded 22 pounds with fish in the mid to upper teens caught every year. Northern Pike are cold water spawners and will move into last years weed growth to spawn very soon after ice out. One of the first species to turn on, Pike fishing at Merritt will start in Mid March with bright colored Mepps spinners, spoons and spinner baits (white and white/chartreuse) working well when water temps are rising. Try suspending a frozen chub or smelt under a bobber during cold spells. April through mid-June and late September to ice up are the best times to catch these aggressive predators. Frozen chubs or smelt below a tip-up often work during the hard water season. Found throughout the fishery, you might encounter a pike anywhere on Merritt. In general, try ponds, pockets and backwaters where weed beds will later emerge early in the year. The Powderhorn arm produces well in early spring. Pockets in Boardman Creek and weed beds in the Snake River arm soon start producing as waters warm and the bite remains good into June. As water temps increase, target weedy points and coves in the main lake area and dam. Whatever the season or bait, steel leaders are recommended when pike are the target. Hard striking, aggressive, and good eating, Northern Pike are well established in Merritt. See the current Game & Parks Fishing guide for instructions on removing the “Y” bones from Pike filets. There are no size limits on Pike currently in place at Merritt. Northerns are also a popular species at the nearby Valentine Wildlife Refuge. Check your current fishing guide for restrictions. And check in with the Trading Post for the hottest baits and best current locations.


I.D.- six or more pores on lower jaw - upper half of cheeks scaled - Range=Watts Lake, Merritt Reservoir.

Even though this water produced the state record muskellunge, muskie receive very little direct fishing pressure. Most are caught by anglers pursuing other species. The state record Muskie was caught 8/9/92 and weighed 41# 8oz. We hear too many stories of giant fish hooked and lost to believe fish easily surpassing the current record are not present. In a typical year we see peak bites in mid-may, and the dark of the moon in July and August. A technique usually employed for other species, speed trolling small crank baits (often used for walleye and bass), does catch its share of muskie. Troll for suspended muskie in 20 to 25 feet of water over bottoms of 40 to 50 feet. A live chub, sucker or bluegill suspended under a bobber or balloon on a quick strike rig stands a good chance of getting the strike of a lifetime. If quality Muskie angling in an unpressured lake appeals to you, Merritt should be at the top of your list of places to fish.

Yellow Perch

I.D.- vertical bands on body - no visible teeth - Range=Statewide, most common in Sandhill and Panhandle

Yellow Perch are Merritt Reservoirs most popular pinfish species, though Crappie run a close second. At Merritt the Yellow Perch spawn during late April to early May. Often moving in large schools they feed most aggressively in the early morning and late evening hours. Best times to catch these tasty pinfish at Merritt are June 1st through the end of October and again during the hard water period of winter. Worms, nightcrawler pieces and small minnows work best in warm water. Tiny jigs tipped with wax worms or small minnows tempt perch under the ice in the Boardman Creek and Snake River areas whenever the ice is safe to fish on. From mid-July to well into September some of the best action of the year takes place. Fast drops near the old creek and river channels often hold large schools of hungry, active fish. Try areas where the submerged Snake River channel swings near the bank on the main lake area or Snake River arm along with the mouth of Boardman Creek. Anchoring or drifting main lake humps or flats while fishing vertically is also a good tactic at this time. We are seeing plenty of Perch in the 9”-11” range and some over 1 ½ pounds are being caught. Yellow Perch are also a popular species at the nearby Valentine Wildlife Refuge. Bring your catch of the day to Chef Jerry at the Waters Edge Restaurant. Blackened, Lemon Peppered or in our house specialty Panko Breading, you’ll fish even harder when you know how great well prepared fish can be!


I.D.- usually five to six spines in dorsal fin - vertical bar pattern on sides - Range=Statewide

In spring when the crappie spawn, a Road Runner jig (1/8-ounce) tipped with chartreuse Twister Tail is dynamite. The Crappie spawn on Merritt typically takes place within the two weeks prior to Memorial Day Fish brushy and weedy shorelines for spawners. As the water level drops from post-spawn through August, crappie school off the sharp breaks from 5 to 17 feet deep. Target channel swings and the edges of flats along the main lake, Snake River arm and from Beeds Landing out to the Main Lake. A stand-off rig which employs a center weight, two-baited lines, sits near the bottom where the crappie congregate. If you use a stand-off, hook minnows through the dorsal fin. Jigs also account for their share of summer crappie. Fishing through the ice for crappie can be excellent. Fish will be deep (25 to 45 feet) in the Boardman area of the southern part of the lake. For fresh, lively minnows and all your other fishing supplies, stop by The Trading Post.


I.D.-anal fin has 24-29 rays with outer margin rounded - spots not present on large fish - Range=Statewide

Merritt boasts a trophy channel Cat fishery with dozens of Master Angler award fish between 12 & 25 pounds caught each season. The state record of 41# 8oz. was caught here on 7/26/85. Spawning typically takes place in late May or early June. It is common to see big cats cruising in the lakes many ponds and backwaters. During this period some of our biggest catfish are caught by Walleye anglers fishing leeches or nightcrawlers under slip bobbers in 7’-10’ of water. After the spawn, snags in the Snake River arm and many of the flats in the main lake produce super catfishing. Drift fishing is recommended. Highly seasoned, home-made blood baits out-produce commercial stink baits. Nightcrawlers and other live baits or frozen chubs also take their share of channel cats. C.A.T.S holds a tournament at Merritt each August. It often takes a five fish stringer exceeding 100# to win!

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Merritt Trading Post Resort

88337 State Hwy 97
Valentine, NE 69201
Trading Post (402) 376-3437
Water'sEdge Restaurant (402) 376-1878

Fax (402) 376-5934