Lake Wanahoo

Steve Satra (right) of Nebraska Game and Parks helps Robert Weak of Papillion push his boat off from the ramp on Saturday, April 28, 2012 during the the opening day of Lake Wanahoo to the public. Earlier in the week, Game and Parks Commission officials had predicted up to 100 boats could be waiting by 8 a.m., but then Saturday's forecast changed to overcast skies and 40-degree temperatures. (JACOB HANNAH/Lincoln Journal Star)

JACOB HANNAH/Lincoln Journal Star

WAHOO -- The fishing boats trickled into Lake Wanahoo long before dawn Saturday.

Miles Otte, who drove in at about 4 a.m., was among the first in line at the boat ramp area on the west side of the 662-acre lake on the north edge of Wahoo.

Asked why he got up so early, the fisherman from the nearby town of Colon replied: "I don't know. I'm crazy."

Otte was not alone.

Troy Nott of Cedar Bluffs, who occupied the pole position in the second line at the boat ramp, arrived at about 6 a.m. "so I don't have to wait like all the other guys."

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission officially opened Lake Wanahoo -- the state's newest recreation area -- at 8 a.m. By then, more than two dozen boat-toting vehicles were lined up to get to the water.

Earlier in the week, commission officials had predicted up to 100 boats could be waiting by 8 a.m., but then Saturday's forecast changed to overcast skies and 40-degree temperatures.

"I think it's all good. There's no rain and not much wind," said Roger Kuhn, director of the commission's parks division. "A lot of people adjusted their plans due to the weather."

A small army of commission and Lower Platte North Natural Resources District employees were on hand to help fishermen at the boat ramp.

"I can't believe how fast they're getting the boats out," NRD general manager John Miyoshi said. "There were five (RV) campers in line when I got here at 7 a.m."

Miyoshi and other officials said they were pleased with the turnout. A formal dedication ceremony is planned for June 16.

"You have to bring the first fish back," hollered Mike Murren, the NRD's project coordinator for Lake Wanahoo, as Otte chugged towards a forest of submerged trees that serve as fish habitat.

It didn't take long. Within minutes someone on Otte's boat caught a largemouth bass.

Miyoshi wasn't surprised that the fish was caught so quickly.

"It's never been fished," he said of the lake.

The commission began stocking adult largemouth bass into the lake in 2009. It followed it up next year with thousands of walleye, more bass, bluegill, crappie, northern pike and blue catfish.

Built by the NRD in partnership with the city of Wahoo and Saunders County, the $30.5 million project has been in the works for two decades. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also helped with its development.

The project includes a dam and 662-acre reservoir which provides flood protection for the Sand Creek watershed north of Wahoo. When full, the lake is about the size of Pawnee Lake near Emerald.

Jim McDermott, an NRD board member, said the project took a tremendous amount of work and countless meetings.

"It's going to provide, I believe, a lot of flood-control for people in the future," said McDermott, who farms along Sand Creek and has had his cropland flooded in the past.

The last two of seven small flood-control structures upstream from Lake Wanahoo should be completed by the end of this year and will provide additional protection, he said.

McDermott and others said Lake Wanahoo should bring some economic benefits, too, for the Wahoo area. The project is within a 30-minute drive of Lincoln and Omaha, the state's largest cities.

"To what stage or magnitude, time will tell," McDermott said. "I believe it will be a benefit. Absolutely."

Murren, who has spent more than 14 years on the project, said there are still several tasks that need to be finished, including bringing U.S. 77 across the dam. Bids will be taken in August 2013, and the expressway could be opened the next year.

Saturday, Josh Zoucha of Grand Island -- who planned to fish from the shore with his cousin, Ethan Saber of Lincoln -- said he's waited a long time for the lake to open.

"This is the first opportunity I got to go fishing, so I'm taking it," Zoucha said, adding that he would like to land a northern pike.

Thomas Jackson of Wahoo said he'd been waiting for years for the day Wanahoo opened. Now he won't have to drive 40 miles to fish or camp.

Jackson arrived at the lake at about 6:30 a.m. to pitch the family tent. He and his wife, Tiffani, and their two children planned to spend the weekend.

"I thought it was going to be full," he said. "It's beautiful. It will bring a lot to Wahoo, hopefully."

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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