Best Bets For Kansas Bass

Best Bets For Kansas Bass

Want to catch your share of bass in the Sunflower State this year? Then you'd better not pass up any opportunities to fish these waters. (February 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

It's tough not to open this look at Kansas' 2007 bass fishing prospects by suggesting that history has repeated itself. At face value, it really does appear that drought conditions around the state, particularly in western Kansas, have taken some fisheries back to their lowest days, literally and figuratively.

But when you look closer, you see that things actually may already have gone beyond what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- at least at some lakes.

"Some of our western reservoirs are right back where they were in the early '90s," reported Doug Nygren, of Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "Kanopolis and Glen Elder in particular are suffering significant effects from the current drought."

KDWP fisheries management specialist Kyle Austin works with Nygren in the agency's Pratt headquarters. He used a term that really brings home the point about how tough things are out west.

"Many of our western waters are pretty much at dead pool," he said. "Only Mother Nature can fill them again. The fish are there -- bass, and other game species -- but they are suffering. What water is there warms up like bath water when we get into the late spring and summer months."

It's been almost 20 years since rain suddenly disappeared from Kansas' routine weather reports for much of the state. Drought conditions didn't affect only western Kansas back then, either. Many impoundments around the state, large and small, suffered.

I remember a late-season visit years ago to Osage State Fishing Lake, just south of Topeka. It was so low that when my smallish aluminum modified-V bass boat finally slid off the trailer, only the front wheels of my 4x4 were left on the concrete boat ramp. I had to use 4-wheel-drive low both to get up off the ramp and to load the boat. That was after a day of fishing that was one of the best I'd ever enjoyed at Osage.

As Austin mentioned, the fish are still there when lakes get terribly low from drought. And by the time fishing buddy Jim Givens and I visited Osage, the water temperature had moderated quite a bit. Bass were active; heck, they were aggressive! We caught dozens, and I managed to fool a huge walleye on the fire tiger Storm ThunderStick I was throwing. Talk about a memorable fishing trip!

You can enjoy trips like that this season, too, especially on lakes that are significantly low. But the good news is short-term -- short-lived. Unless some of these impoundments start getting lots of water soon, things will only get worse.

That's especially true out west. As Austin noted, the state was able to acquire significant water rights to one of those western reservoirs, Cedar Bluff, during the late-1980s, early-'90s drought. When rain returned, beginning in 1992 and 1993, and those western impoundments refilled, Cedar Bluff turned into the jewel of Kansas bass fishing.

Like its other western counterparts, it was reborn thanks to the new vegetation that was submerged when it refilled. That inundation created amazing bass habitat that fostered some of the best bass fishing anywhere on the Great Plains. As this story was written, Cedar Bluff was "only" 16 feet low. Some other western lakes are as much as 50 feet low.

Irrigation plays a major role in the ecology of those lakes. They are drawn down routinely for irrigation purposes, but Cedar Bluff now is spared most of that kind of impact, so you can blame evaporation and lack of rain for its 16-foot drop in level. Imagine where things are going to go without rain.

"There is no question that our destination bass fisheries out west are hurting," Austin said. "Fish need water."

They also need habitat. "Water is the primary part of that habitat," Austin said emphatically. "Around the state, our bass fisheries are holding steady. Our surveys tell us that recruitment, survival and growth rates are, for the most part, good . . . where there is water. The fishing is going to be good this season in those lakes where we have habitat."

So that's the bottom line. But as has been the case in the past, I set out to report on the lakes around Kansas at which anglers can find the best bass prospects regardless of whether they want quantity or quality. Austin helped a great deal in this effort.

The first thing you'll notice about this year's run-down is that the western reservoirs aren't near the top of the list, and I'm not calling them, collectively, the best bass fishery in all the Great Plains. All of us need to hold that thought until rain refills them and their ecosystems are re-established. When that happens, I suspect those lakes will be reborn again; fishing that has been good for many years will actually have a chance to get even better.

It's been almost 20 years since rain suddenly disappeared from Kansas' routine weather reports for much of the state. Drought conditions didn't affect only western Kansas back then, either. Many impoundments around the state, large and small, suffered.

But for 2007, we have to turn back time and look at Kansas' bass fishing as if most of the western reservoirs didn't exist. Austin pointed out that those willing to drive out west likely will do OK at Cedar Bluff this season, even with it pushing 20 feet below normal pool.

During the last drought, boat ramps were built to provide low-water access, and they're now available again. You'll likely be able to get on Cedar Bluff, and that's good news. Just know that the fishing isn't going to last forever without rain, and lots of it.

Another of those severely-affected western reservoirs made Austin's list of lakes that will offer plenty of bass to anglers just looking to go out and catch a bunch of fish -- and not necessarily a real hawg. "Sebelius Reservoir has good numbers," he explained, "but it's so very low. The fish are crowded in there just now, and there could be high mortality if we get into another really hot, dry summer."

Austin didn't say this, but I will: Sebelius will be a good bet early this season, maybe until as late as Memorial Day. But if that part of the state doesn't start getting some rain, its fishery -- and, as a result, the fishing there -- is going to suffer big-time. If you want to catch a lot of bass at Sebelius, get out there this spring, because now I the time to do it.

Aus

tin also mentioned El Dorado Reservoir, just north of Wichita in Butler County, as one with good numbers of bass. It has rebounded some from the effects of dramatically high fishing pressure, especially during its early days. Plenty of tournaments are still held there annually, and it's a safe bet that El Dorado's bass are among the most educated of all Kansas' game-fish species. They likely see more baits than just about any other bass population in the state.

Enjoy a good day at El Dorado, and you should consider yourself quite adept at fooling pressured fish. Just know that you can, in fact, do that because the numbers are there.

The two other major reservoirs Austin mentioned as having good numbers of catchable bass are in the greater Kansas City area: Hillsdale and La Cygne. Like El Dorado, Hillsdale gets plenty of pressure from tournament anglers. But it's got a wonderful mix of habitat, and plenty of it. Now into its third decade, this impoundment consistently offers steady, predictable fishing for good numbers of bass.

That leaves La Cygne, a lake that Austin referred to as a "bass factory." He's only partially right. Actually, it's a fish factory, because the growing season there never ends.

Tucked into the gently rolling topography of Linn County, which borders Missouri about an hour south of greater Kansas City, La Cygne is a power-plant lake with a hot-water source -- from the power plant -- that offers the right mix of water temperature and dissolved-oxygen content somewhere on the lake every single day. OK-- maybe it does get a little too warm for optimum growth and activity through the hottest months of the summer, but make no mistake: You can show up there with actual temperatures in the single digits and still catch keeper bass on shallow-running crankbaits. I know; I've done it.

The KDWP's Kyle Austin didn't say this, but I will: Sebelius

will be a good bet early this season, maybe until as late

as Memorial Day.

And Austin noted that surveys reveal really high numbers of bass on Hillsdale as 2007 unfolds. This could prove to be one of the lake's best seasons ever, and that's saying a lot, because it's generally good every year.

Austin also pointed to a handful of smaller State Fishing Lakes with high numbers of bass in the 12-inch-plus range. They include: Butler SFL, which is not far from El Dorado Reservoir or Wichita; Lyon SFL, which was renovated recently and is now offering some really good bass fishing, according to Austin; Brown SFL; and Clarke SFL, which is one of the prettiest little public lakes in all of the Sunflower State.

I also asked him about some of the non-state-managed community lakes around Kansas with good numbers of bass as 2007 unfolds. There are names here you have heard in previous years. Among them is Gardner Lake, on the southwest edge of the sprawling Kansas City area. "Gardner Lake is a hotspot right now," Austin said.

Antelope Lake in Graham County is another good bet this season, as is Madison City Lake. And then, there are two relatively new lakes you also ought to consider.

"Banner Creek Lake is near Holton, in Jackson County," Austin said, "and it's got some good numbers of good-sized bass. So does Bone Creek Lake, which is just north of Pittsburg. A lot of structure was left when that lake was built, so it's got the potential to be a really, really good bass lake for some time."

After talking about all the lakes with good numbers, I asked Austin to switch gears and talk about those lakes with real lunkers. If you're determined to catch the biggest bass of your career this season, here are the lakes you should consider visiting.

Oh, wait: dang -- these are some of the same places we just talked about! All three of the SFLs Austin mentioned are on the list -- Butler, Lyon and Clarke -- which in my view means that they might be among the very best bets for a pre-spawn visit this season, because that's when the heaviest bass of the year can be taken.

He also mentioned Big Hills Reservoir in southeast Kansas. "Big Hill has a 21-inch minimum length for keepers," Austin said, "so it's going to have higher numbers of larger bass. It's a little low for that part of the world, but it's not quite as bad as out west."

The other reservoir he mentioned is that Linn County bass factory. "Day in and day out, I believe La Cygne just might be the best bass fishery in the state," he explained. "You talked about how the growing season basically never ends there. As a result, it had good numbers of bass, and more than a few big bass. It really is a bass factory."

El Dorado's bass are among the most educated of all Kansas' game-fish species. They likely see more baits than just about any other bass population in the state.

Austin also took note of three community lakes with the potential to give up some truly large bass. They include Pony Creek Lake in Sabetha; Lone Star Lake, near Lawrence; and 135-acre Eureka City Lake.

"Our biologist whose area includes Eureka City Lake is Carson Cox," Austin noted. "He tells me that it has some beautiful fish, and it's just not getting a lot of pressure."

It didn't surprise me to hear that. For the nine years I lived in Olathe, I chose to fish Lake Olathe more than anywhere else because it hardly got any pressure either, certainly not from anglers in boats. And there was an easy-to-understand reason for that: I had to buy extra tags.

Olathe, like many other municipalities around the state, required a city fishing license and boat tag. Back then they cost me $15 a year over and above my state license and boat numbers. But I spent more than that on gasoline for just a few trips to La Cygne. It made sense to me, especially when Lake Olathe had some pretty doggoned good fishing.

That's why I got excited when Austin explained the KDWP's Community Fisheries Assistance Program. "We essentially lease the fishing rights for more than 200 community lakes around the state, and they are now open to fishing with just a state license and boat registration," he explained.

"I suspect there are some folks reading this story who are upset with me for mentioned Lone Star Lake, for example. It has been a good destination for anglers in eastern Kansas -- and they were willing to pay the extra fees and keep it to themselves.

"I understand that," he added, "but our goal with CFAP is to recruit new anglers, and we hope that opening up more water to public fishing without extra expense will help us do that."

It should. Lake Olathe is open. Gardner Lake is open. Wyandotte County Lake is open. Those are three excellent community fisheries in the greater Kansas City area, for example. Sadly, Johnson County officials have chosen not to become a part of the program. Lakes that it manages, as a result, still require you to buy additional tags.

Austin also talked about smallmouth and spotted bass around the state. "Cedar Bluff remains about the best lake in the state for spotted bass," he said. "Even though it's so low, it will be pretty good."

On the smallmouth front, El Dorado is reemerging as a bronzeback destination. "We worked for years at establishing vegetation there to provide additional habitat," Austin said. "And the smallmouths there aren't quite so susceptible to the tournament pressure."

He mentioned Wilson Reservoir and Glen Elder, both out west, as having good smallmouth prospects. The story of Glen Elder, in particular, is interesting. "I was the biologist in that area in the late 1990s," Austin recalled, "and we were able to get fingerlings three consecutive years from Dale Hollow Reservoir in Tennessee. They 'took' in two of those three years in Glen Elder, and the smallmouth fishery is doing really well there."

"I suspect there are some folks reading this story who are pset with me for mentioningLone Star Lake, for example.It has been a good destination for anglers in eastern Kansas -- and they were willing to pay the extra fees and keep it to themselves." -- Kyle Austin, KDWP

And as Austin noted, smallmouths tend to use rocky, non-vegetation structure whenever possible, so they aren't being stressed so much by the low water induced by drought conditions. "The smallies will just stay deep," he noted. "They don't need vegetation for habitat.

"It's kind of a secret," he added about Glen Elder's smallmouth fishing, "but there are pretty good numbers of 4- and 5-pound smallmouths in Glen Elder now."

My take: It seems clear that the overall quality of Kansas' bass fishing remains a secret to many outside the Sunflower State. It also seems clear that, the effects of the drought notwithstanding, 2007 shapes up to be a pretty good bassin' year in Kansas.

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