VALENTINE, Neb. — Nebraska's largest waterfall and a blue-ribbon trout stream — two of the state's least-known wild and scenic wonders — soon could tumble out of the shadows of the Sand Hills and the Niobrara River.
Stretches of the Snake River and its iconic waterfall in a pine-cloaked canyon downstream from Merritt Reservoir in north-central Nebraska would open to limited public fishing and viewing under a plan by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
The deal is far from hooked, much less landed.
But owners of the 3,100-acre Snake River ranch have offered to sell the property, and complicated negotiations involving Game and Parks, the Snake Falls Sportsmen's Club and the Conservation Fund are under way. The property is valued at about $9 million.
The deal hinges in part on a Game and Parks request for a $2.417 million Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund grant to buy part of the ranch. The falls and about five miles of the river are on ranch property southwest of Valentine in Cherry County.
The ranch's canyons and grasslands support a variety of wildlife, including wild turkey, deer, ducks, grouse, wintering bald eagles and rattlesnakes.
The ranch is near several outdoor attractions: the national scenic river stretch of the Niobrara, one of the nation's best paddling streams, begins about 22 miles northeast; Merritt Reservoir, created on the Snake River in the 1960s to irrigate cropland, is a 3,000-acre lake with sand beaches and a prized walleye fishery about three miles south of the falls; the new Prairie Club golf courses are seven miles north; and the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest borders on the west.
Trout fishing in the ranch's run of the river below Merritt Dam is legendary. Rainbow trout weighing more than 13 pounds are not uncommon.
“The quality of the fish there is unrivaled anywhere in Nebraska or surrounding states,'' said Don Gabelhouse, the Game and Parks fisheries chief in Lincoln. That includes Colorado and Wyoming, where trout are the state fish.
“In terms of size of fish, I would put the Snake River up against any stream in those states. You just can't go anywhere else and have as good a chance of catching 30-inch trout,'' Gabelhouse said.
Bruce Bell of Lincoln, a member of the Snake Falls Sportsmen's Club, agrees. He has caught several Master Angler-class brown and rainbow trout in the river.
“It's a magical, magical place,'' he said. “It's one of a kind.''
There is no rush, however, for anglers, bird-watchers and picnickers to pack their bags for a new Sand Hills destination.
A decision by the Nebraska Environmental Trust on 2011 grant applications won't be announced until February. The Game and Parks request is one of more than 240 totaling nearly $54.2 million. The trust — funded through Nebraska Lottery proceeds since 1992 — has distributed about $14 million to $15 million annually in recent years.
Game and Parks officials said Nebraska's belt-tightening budgetary outlook should not be a deal breaker for the agency because the majority of the commission's share of the purchase cost would come from the trust and federal grants.
Nebraska's fish and wildlife programs are largely funded by fishing and hunting permits and a federal excise tax paid by anglers and hunters on things such as gear, guns, ammunition and motor boat fuel.
The Conservation Fund is handling negotiations. The national organization helps government agencies, land trusts, nonprofit organizations and others acquire and protect recreation, wildlife and historic landscapes.
“The outcome is still uncertain,'' said Clint Miller, a Conservation Fund field representative.
Said Kirk Nelson, the commission's Lincoln-based western region parks manager: “It's an incredible asset and would be wonderful to have … but negotiations are very complicated. Any one of so many components could go wrong.''
The Game and Parks acquisition plan is a partnership with the private Snake Falls Sportsmen's Club, which leases fishing rights to the entire ranch. Seventeen heirs of Les and Betty Kime own the ranch. Miller said the family members have initiated sale talks.
Game and Parks would acquire about 1,300 acres, an area that includes nearly three miles of the Snake River and the 54-foot-wide Snake River Falls.
The club would acquire an adjacent 1,800 acres below the falls and continue private access to its run of the river.
Gabelhouse said the Game and Parks acquisition would establish permanent but limited public access to the falls and the river.
Some canyons are 300 feet deep and could be used as a site to introduce Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, Gabelhouse said. The state currently has four bighorn herds in the Nebraska Panhandle.
Anglers would be required to release fish of a certain size to maintain the fishery, which sustains itself by natural reproduction. There has been no stocking in the river for decades.
Gabelhouse said nutrients in the water released from the reservoir are a primary reason for the health and size of the trout.
“It's a classic tailwater fishery,'' Gabelhouse said.
Since 1985, 40 percent of all Master Angler brown trout caught in Nebraska were caught in the Snake on the ranch. Ten percent of Nebraska's Master Angler rainbow trout came from the river.
Bell has fished the river nearly 40 years, since the time anglers paid the Kimes a few dollars daily to fish. The family closed public access about 20 years ago except to a select group — about 100 members of the Snake Falls Sportsmen's Club, plus their guests.
“Set your waders in the water and close your eyes,'' Bell said, “and when you open them, you'd think you were in Montana or Colorado.''
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