May Day For Kansas Bass

It's May. Do you know where your bass are? (May 2007)

Many Kansas bass anglers prefer the great angling action at the estimated 150,000 farm ponds scattered across the state. During a midday break from turkey hunting, Eric Johnson caught this hefty bucketmouth at a Flint Hills farm pond.
Photo by Marc Murrell.

If you're a Kansas schoolteacher, May is a month that you've looked forward to all year: That's when most of our educators call it quits for the summer.

However, if you're a teacher who happens to be an avid bass fisherman, May might hold even greater importance: It's the very time of year in the Sunflower State that produces some of the finest fishing opportunities for Ol' Bucketmouth to be found around the state. Not only does this month account for lots of fish, but it also produces some mighty impressive wallhangers.

"May is probably the month when we receive the most Master Angler awards for largemouth bass," said the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Park's Mike Miller, also an avid bass fisherman. "It's a great month to catch bass."

And he ought to know!

While Kansas may not be the first state that comes to mind when bass fishing is mentioned, don't tell that to anglers who call this state home. "The last licensed-angler survey we did, it was the most preferred species," said KDWP fisheries chief Doug Nygren.

So how did bass beat out other popular fish -- such as crappie and channel catfish -- that produce tastier filets? "I think it's been promoted at the national level through the media and tournament events," Nygren said. "And it's a fish that can be caught a variety of ways, either on artificial lures or using live bait."

As far as places to catch bass go, Kansas has more than 20 reservoirs for anglers to try their luck at. However, some are more noteworthy than others. One 2,600-acre body of water in east-central Kansas seems to shine year in and year out.

"That's probably going to be La Cygne," Nygren said. "It has the highest density of fish, but it also has the biggest fish. Almost every year La Cygne walks away with the biggest fish sampled by our biologists. Last year the largest fish sampled in electrofishing was 8.4 pounds, and a lot of times we've had them over 10 pounds there."

Other reservoirs that Kansas' bass anglers should consider, according to Nygren, include Cedar Bluff, Wilson and Milford. And the 2005 Fishing Forecast published by the KDWP showed Sebelius, Hillsdale, El Dorado and Melvern as a few more reservoirs with high bass-fishing potential.

Kansas reservoirs that boast good bass fishing typically still have plenty of aquatic vegetation and adequate water levels. The survival of young bass in these areas is better, and as a result, more of them make it to a catchable size.

"The predator-prey relationship is better in those situations for young-of-the-year fish and we see better recruitment," said Nygren.

However, as reservoirs age, other problems crop up and aren't necessarily good for bass. "It's mostly habitat decline associated with terrestrial vegetation and water levels," Nygren said. "We've lost some good bass fishing as water levels have dropped and haven't recharged."

Biologists with the KDWP are trying to make bass fishing better in some reservoirs. Nygren points to one of the problems currently being addressed. "It has to do with the conditions during reproduction and recruitment," he said. "One of the things we're looking at is the timing of young-of-the-year bass and the gizzard shad availability as forage.

"When the young bass switch from invertebrates to wanting to eat fish, the gizzard shad are already too big to fit in the mouths of the young bass. As a result, we don't get the growth we need to get them through their first year."

Research projects are being considered to determine ways to better that situation. "We may look to see if we can improve that by stocking largemouth bass about two or three weeks ahead of when Mother Nature would have produced them naturally to see if the stocked fish can get a competitive advantage," Nygren said.

Although biologists can alter what Mother Nature does in some regards, they're helpless in others. Drought is beyond their control, and has taken its toll on some smaller popular bass fishing hotspots in recent years. "We've lost a lot of the lakes in the western half of the state in the program that have gone dry, and even some of the ones in the east are getting pretty low right now," Nygren said, referring to the Fishing Impoundments and Stream Habitats program, which leases private waters for public access. "But once we get normal rainfall we can get those things stocked back up and get them open again."

Despite the drought, there still are plenty of areas for anglers to enjoy. Nygren points to those in northeastern and north-central Kansas as good bets.

"There are some that have high densities of largemouth bass, and you can catch a lot of them, but they are fairly small," he said. "And in those situations we're actively trying to get people to get out and harvest some of those fish to help improve the quality of the populations."

Bass fishing enthusiasts have even more opportunities at other small and government-owned bodies of water, thanks to a new program started in 2005. The Community Fisheries Assistance Program is a cooperative project between the KDWP and city, county or community lake organizations.

Many of these lakes once charged an admission fee both for fishing and for using a boat on the lake. In some cases it was a daily or yearly fee that was substantial, especially for fishermen outside of that county or community. In an effort to reduce the costs and to provide more opportunity for anglers closer to home, the KDWP now makes a yearly lease payment to various cities, counties or communities to allow public access.

"It's basically about the same amount of money that they were receiving from charging the additional fees," said Nygren. "And the good news is that the entire cost of the program is federally reimbursable to the tune of about $800,000 a year."

That money comes from federal dollars derived from excise taxes on fishing equipment. The KDWP is responsible for a 25 percent cost-share for the program, but even that money is reimbursed to the state since it's related to the operation and maintenance of the fishery and facilities performed by local governments. Things like mowing, boat ramp maintenance and filling fi

sh feeders are used as the state's match. In short, it doesn't cost the KDWP any additional money to fund this program.

"It's a great situation and really doesn't cost the angler anything other than a Kansas fishing license," Nygren said.

If you added up the total acreage of all the water that now falls under this new program, it would be equivalent to Kansas' fourth-largest reservoir. "We've got about 215 lakes and more than 12,000 acres enrolled in the program," said Jessica Mounts, CFAP coordinator for the KDWP. "We'll likely add a few more in 2007."

Likely the biggest advantage to this program is the diversity. The 215 bodies of water enrolled are spread out all over the state, and so there's probably one close enough for just about everyone to visit. Youth fishing clubs are one group taking advantage of these new lakes.

Sam Starr and Kolby Martin, 13-year-old members of McPherson's Junior Bassmasters Club, have started fishing Marion County Lake, and will probably fish Herington City Lake now as well. This gives them more places to fish that aren't so far away.

Kansas has many bass anglers and clubs scattered across the state that take advantage of these public waters. Many hold local and regional tournaments at various times throughout the year. One recent change in regulations will allow these tournaments a different twist at weigh-in time.

"It's called the Bass Pass Program," Nygren said. "They can have an 18-inch (or 21-inch) minimum-length limit on largemouth bass and hold a tournament on that lake and keep two short fish, which will open up opportunities for people to use more of the CFAP lakes for weigh-in tournaments."

Bass tournament organizers must register the event with the KDWP. Registration is free, but each participant must have a $10 Bass Pass in possession during the event.

"Those registered tournaments can only occur during the cooler months of the year, as we won't issue any permits for the Bass Pass in the heat of the summer (June 15 to Aug. 31)," Nygren said. "And it won't be a full creel, as they'll only be able to keep two short fish, 15 inches or larger, but smaller than whatever the posted limit is, like an 18 or 21."

One other type of water body in Kansas has likely been responsible for more catches of bass than all others combined. "Private ponds are excellent, and that's where most of the bass fishing probably takes place," Nygren said. "People can go out and have a good time catching and releasing, or catching and keeping, if they want to. We really don't know for sure how many private ponds we have, but it's probably in the neighborhood of 150,000. And there's more being built all the time."

Naturally, anglers must gain permission from landowners to access private ponds. "That can be a problem," Nygren said. "When someone has a nice pond, they're pretty protective of it. But if you see a pond that looks good, try to find out who owns it and approach them in a manner of asking for a favor and letting them know you'll take care of the property and not abuse your privilege."

Whether a bass fisherman is in hot pursuit on a reservoir, lake or pond, their equipment and techniques are similar. Many anglers enjoy the tried-and-true bass baits and tactics. Mike Miller, who's enjoyed trying to trick hungry bass for more than three decades, is one of them.

"I think the best fishing occurs in farm ponds and watersheds," Miller said. "There are a lot of smaller state and community lakes that provide some pretty good bass fishing, a few reservoirs and then of course, the tens of thousands of farm ponds that are always good."

Quality is often appreciably better than quantity in May, according to Miller. He feels that the chances of catching a really big fish are good at this time of year -- and he's got proof in the form of his personal best, a monstrous fish estimated to weigh between 8 and 9 pounds, came on a May fishing trip at Cedar Bluff Reservoir.

"Anything over 4 pounds is a pretty good fish and when you get up in the 7-pound range, you're looking at a really good fish," Miller said. "Anything over 8 pounds is a tremendous fish in Kansas."

For finding pre-spawn fish, shallow water is the key for Miller -- and it doesn't matter if it's big water or a small pond. He keys on areas that warm faster than the rest of the water such as the upper ends, backs of coves, or the mouths of any tributaries feeding a particular body of water. Beyond that, he targets shoreline structure like flooded weedbeds, flooded timber or points.

"You usually have a big advantage if you can get a boat, or a belly boat in there and fish back to the shoreline, because that's where 90 percent of your structure is," he said. "And sometimes that's hard to cover effectively from the shore."

If you added up the total acreage of all the water that now falls under the Community Fisheries Assistance Program, it would be equivalent to Kansas' fourth-largest reservoir.

Weather is usually a factor in angler comfort, but Miller has seen that these shallow-water fish are susceptible to cold fronts or heavy rains. "That's the most frustrating thing we deal with in the spring in Kansas," he acknowledged. "If the water temperature rises 3 or 4 degrees, it can really turn the fish on and they readily bite. But if you get a cold front that drops that water temperature 6 or 8 degrees it really hurts fishing, especially in ponds."

Miller's choice of bass baits doesn't vary much, and he admits only focusing on a couple -- but those are usually all he needs. "I like a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce double-bladed silver and gold, white, or white and chartreuse spinnerbait with a trailer," he said. "And then my other bait will be a jig-and-pig and something I can flip up into the heavy structure. I'll cover water with the spinnerbait and then fish slower with the jig-and-pig near the shoreline structure."

A baitcasting enthusiast, Miller chooses to mount those types of reels on a 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-heavy rod. And when it comes to line choice, Miller doesn't waver much from his personal preference. "I'm not a heavy-line person," he said. "I rarely use over 17-pound-test, and it's usually 14."

Kansas' farm ponds are notorious for having too much vegetation, even to the point of being unfishable, according to some anglers. But Miller doesn't mind a bit. "I think that's good, and I like that because that holds a lot of fish," he said. "And then I'll go with a fluke or some type of unweighted plastic bait like a soft jerkbait that won't immediately sink down into the weeds."

The Kansas state-record bass was hauled from a Jefferson County pond in 1977 by Topeka's Kenneth Bingham. Caught on a minnow, it was 25 inches long and weighed 11 pounds, 12 ounces. Nygren believes that this mark, one of the oldest fish records in the state, might fall sometime in the near future.

"We're contemplating developing triploid Florida hy

brids," the KDWP's Nygren said. "We would take Florida hybrids and prevent them from being able to reproduce and put them in some of our hot-water lakes, like La Cygne or Coffey County, where they would have the potential to grow and reach trophy size."

The desirability of developing these triploid fish arises from the necessity of accommodating Kansas' neighbor to the east, which doesn't want Florida genes getting into its fish populations. "By having sterile fish we can be a good neighbor to Missouri and respect their wishes for not having any fertile Florida hybrid genetics that could potentially harm their native largemouth bass," Nygren said.

Miller wonders at the longevity of the state's bass record. "I'm surprised it hasn't been broken," he concluded. "It's one of those that's been around an awful long time. But with all the ponds we've got, and some of the reservoirs that came on through the '90s, I'm surprised we haven't seen a bigger fish."

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