With spring just around the corner, here's what Sunflower State bassers have to look forward to on our area lakes.
By Tim Lilley
Your favorite weatherman might call the 2004 Kansas Bass Forecast "fair to partly cloudy," because that's pretty much what it is. No lakes are significant standouts when it comes to offering quantity fishing, quality fishing, or some combination of the two.
But some of the state's best black-bass venues are seeing changes - the result of what could be a cycle very similar to the one that created them starting more than 15 years ago.
For almost a decade, the meat of this annual Sunflower State bass-fishing outlook has been basically the same thanks to that cycle, which rejuvenated a number of reservoirs in the western half of the state and, in doing so, created bass fisheries unlike any Kansas had ever seen.
Here's what happened: Beginning in 1988 and continuing for almost five years, much of the state endured seasons that were unusually dry. Summers were hotter than is normally the case and winters milder (and, thus, warmer) than is usual. Out west, lakes like Webster, Kirwin, Sebelius and Cedar Bluff turned into potholes in comparison to their historical dimensions. Their levels dropped 30 feet or more, making access by boat impossible, because launch ramps ended yards above the water's edge.
During those seasons, a dynamic variety of plant life grew where nothing but underwater structure - and, really, very little of it - had been. Then, starting in 1992-93, the rains returned. All those western lakes returned relatively quickly to their normal sizes - and all were reborn as fisheries. Newly inundated vegetation provided food for the forage fish, whose populations exploded, providing great eating for the game fish, which also benefited from the flooded growth's transformation into lots of new-minted shoreline cover.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Since the mid-1990s, all of these lakes have continued to enjoy improved bass fisheries on what's been pretty much an annual basis. Both the quantity and quality of the bass really changed the landscape of Sunflower State bass fishing.
And now, a very hot, very dry 2003 has changed the landscape of most of those western lakes. By last Labor Day, Webster and Kirwin were 20 feet low; Sebelius was 16 to 17 feet below normal. Only Cedar Bluff stayed close to what it had been, and that's only because the state was able to take ownership of its water rights about the time the rains started falling a decade ago; only about 5 feet low at the end of last summer, it was affected only by evaporation. The others are still being drawn down to provide irrigation, and they've suffered for it.
"Just take Sebelius, for example," said Steve Price, the regional fish and game supervisor for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "For that big of a change to occur that fast on the lake, you can just imagine the kind of crowding of the bass and other game fish that has taken place there over the past year. If we have another year in 2004 like we had in 2003, things are going to get really tough on those lakes, especially for the bass, because they have lost virtually all of the woody shoreline cover they need to prosper."
Price noted that Kansas' major reservoirs are lower than normal pretty much statewide. It's just that the irrigation needs of the areas served by many of the western reservoirs are stressing those fisheries more than they are any others.
All of this really makes for a good news-bad news scenario when it comes to Sunflower State bass. The good news is that bass are going to be easier to find on those lakes you can still fish, because lower water levels are going to bunch them up at least a little bit. The bad news is that if this cycle continues as it did from the late 1980s into the early '90s, the face of the state's bass fishery will change again - for the worse - until the rain returns.
That, however, is not critical to this season's outlook, which has to be considered pretty good despite the potential gloom and doom just chronicled. Here's why.
At Sebelius, the most recent data available when this story was filed showed that the lake had a population of more than 150 bass at least 12 inches long per unit sampled when the lake was at normal pool. Drop it 20 feet, and just imagine for a second how many bass are bunched up now! If you can fish Sebelius this season, it may be the place to go for sheer numbers of bass. Plus, the research revealed, it had almost 40 keeper-sized bass per unit (again at normal pool).
Although Webster was far below Sebelius in the number of foot-long bass (roughly 78 per unit sampled), it offered almost double the size of keepers per unit - in excess of 67! So if you're after larger bass, Webster may be your destination, because those keepers are now more bunched up than they've been in years.
When it comes to a healthy bass fishery, over the long term Cedar Bluff appears poised to become Kansas' No. 1 fishing destination for largemouths. Remember, it's no longer being used for irrigation, and it benefited just like these others from that late 1980s-through-mid-'90s cycle of restoration described earlier.
It ranked No. 3 behind Sebelius and Webster both for density of bass at least 12 inches long and for keeper-sized fish. Given that its population should continue, regardless of nature's cycle this season, to fare better than do those others, it definitely should be the strongest of our western fisheries. And if the drought continues to the point that the other lakes, go as low or lower as they did about 12 years ago, Cedar Bluff should really stand out as home to the state's best reservoir bass fishing.
If there's an exception to that statement, you'll find it at La Cygne Lake, in Linn County - but only if you're after real lunkers. At only 2,600 surface-acres, this power plant reservoir is little more than a third the size of Cedar Bluff, which covers 6,500 surface-acres. But as a power plant lake, it offers something the others can't: a year-round growing season made possible by the hot-water outlet on its east side.
Largemouth bass can find the right mix of temperature and oxygen they need to thrive during all but the hottest of days, when they move far away from that outlet to seek refuge up feeder creek channels and in other parts of the lake. But during the cold months, every day is summer for La Cygne bass - and their growth reflects it.
Fisheries survey data show La Cygne to have more than 5 bass per unit sampled that measure at least 20 inches long. At this lake, those fish are going to push 4 pounds at 20 inches, because they eat so well, and so often. From the standpoint of sheer quality, no lake in Kan
sas has it like La Cygne.
At least, no big lake does. Sunflower State biologists also sample smaller waters, and there are more than a few with numbers higher than La Cygne's when it comes to bass at least 20 inches long. But when you're talking about impoundments that range in size from 50 or so acres to a few hundred, that kind of sampling can be misleading. "Plenty of trophies" is a relative term when you try comparing a 100-acre municipal lake to a 2,500-acre reservoir.
With that in mind, maybe it would be best to look at the reservoirs as a group and then deal with the smaller lakes around the state separately. And in doing that, maybe it's best to consider rankings that reflect the way things were before that drought/rain cycle of 15 years ago; doing so will perhaps give you an idea of how things could go if the rains don't start falling on the western plains soon.
If you agree that anglers out west will have a kind of fish-in-a-barrel opportunity this season, and that a more lengthy drought will have a seriously negative effect on all the fisheries out there except at Cedar Bluff, then you'll probably also agree that the balance of bass power will shift east again. That's because only Cedar Bluff is likely to stay viable in terms of both quantity and quality if the drought out there becomes full-fledged.
With that in mind, maybe you should start to learn more about Clinton, Hillsdale, Perry and Milford, since the numbers suggest that all three offer some pretty good prospects this season. That suggestion, however, requires you to put the research data into perspective, just as you do when comparing La Cygne's trophy potential to that of smaller lakes.
Here's what I mean: Perry, for example, is really much better known for its crappie fishing than for its bassing, but survey data reveal that it offers more than 4 bass per unit sampled that are at least of keeper size. No, that doesn't sound like a lot - not when you compare it to the 33 bass per unit at Cedar Bluff. But remember that Perry is more than 12,000 surface-acres! That totals up to a lot of bass over 15 inches long.
Hillsdale is the smallest of the major eastern impoundments included here, and it's also the closest of the bunch to greater Kansas City. That likely explains why its numbers of keeper and trophy-sized bass are lower than the other lakes, too. Nonetheless, the combination of a good population of bass at least a foot long (almost seven per unit sampled) and proximity to such a large segment of the state's bass anglers makes it a good bet for this season.
You can rank Clinton No. 2 overall, however. That's because it has slightly more fish of at least 12 inches (a little more than seven per sampled unit) and keepers (more than three). If you looked at recent publications from the KDWP, however, you'd wonder about this high of a ranking, given that state biologists have rated the bass prospects on Clinton "poor" more than once in recent seasons.
Hillsdale, on the other hand, has earned "fair" ratings in recent years, and La Cygne gets an "excellent" grade more often than not. What's up with that?
It's best to attribute these differences to the human element inherent in any kind of ratings system. For example: Over the years, this angler has caught more bass on Clinton than he has at Hillsdale. And I've stayed away from La Cygne during the traditional summer recreation season - that is, from Memorial Day to Labor Day - because of the impact that hot-water release has on the lake temperatures.
Hillsdale has plenty of quality bass structure; La Cygne has plenty of quality bass. And for me, Clinton has a better mix of both than many anglers are willing to give it credit for.
What often affects fishing there is a significant amount of recreational traffic - personal watercraft, pleasure boats and the like - during a lot of the most comfortable fishing days of a given season. When all is said and done, however, you shouldn't overlook it as a bass destination - especially now that many of the western waters are poised to go into a drought-induced decline.
Hey - I hope it rains starting tomorrow and fills those lakes back up right away. But if it doesn't, the pecking order around the state seems like it will be, from the top: Cedar Bluff, Perry, Clinton, Hillsdale and Milford.
Another lake that gets relatively short shrift when it comes to rankings vs. data is El Dorado, which is to Wichita as Hillsdale is to Kansas City: close by, and offering some fine bass fishing. Folks in that area need not travel long distances to get some quality bass action - because El Dorado has it. Just know going in that you'll have to deal with traffic and fishing pressure.
But here's an interesting note about El Dorado: It continues to offer at least a smallish opportunity for fans of mixed-bag black bass fishing; it's home to some spotted bass, and maybe even a few smallmouths here and there. Make no mistake: Largemouths account for the bread and butter of this fishery, but you never know what you might hook into, especially off rocky structure or in spots that offer brushpiles and other structure in deep water.
But enough about the big lakes! There are those reading this who probably would argue that Kansas' farm ponds still offer the best bass fishing in the state. They're plentiful, albeit small, and most of them are home to at least decent populations of bass. And because they don't get as much fishing pressure as any of the larger reservoirs, they often give up some of the biggest bass you'll find in the Sunflower State.
But guess what? You can make the same kind of arguments for many of the state's smaller public waters. And, unlike the case with farm ponds, you don't have to worry about tracking down a landowner to get permission to fish.
This season, there are at least a handful of public waters you should consider when planning a bass outing.
Recent research suggests that Plainville Lake, a 100-acre impoundment out west, might be the best small bass fishery in the state. But the drought could help it deteriorate in a hurry. When you see data showing more than 120 keeper-sized bass per unit sampled, and more than seven of those are at least 20 inches long, it's hard not to mention Plainville. However, given its location, many anglers would have to travel a long distance to fish it. For that reason, it'd be best to check its level before you take off from the more populous eastern part of the state.
Municipal lakes in Garnett, Pleasanton and Osawatomie also have produced fisheries that will offer anglers the opportunities to catch good numbers of bass, with at least average chances at keepers.
There also are some good small-lake fishing options fairly close to Kansas City. Johnson County's seat, Olathe, has two of them - Cedar Lake and Lake Olathe. Recent data suggest that the chances of catching a 5-pounder from either lake, along with decent numbers of keepers, are pretty fair. The same can be said of Leavenworth State Fishing Lake, which is an hour or less by road from most of metro Kansas City.
Close to Wichita is Butler SFL, which anglers should consider for its credible mix of quantity and quality, with bass as large as 6 pounds.
Other state fishing lakes that should offer quality bass prospects around the state this season include (in no particular order) Sheridan, Neosho, Brown, Woodson and McPherson. And no matter where you live in Kansas, don't forget the dozens of potholes that dot the thousands of public acres on the Mined Land Wildlife Area in southeastern Kansas. These reclaimed strip pits, remnants of the significant surface coal mining that occurred in that part of the state roughly a century ago, are home to good numbers of quality-sized bass.
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Given all these options, it's easy to see why this bass season should be a pretty good one throughout most of Kansas. Lakes out west likely will continue to suffer from lack of water, but around the rest of the state, most of the best bass waters will remain closer to normal levels and will continue to offer anglers the chance to catch plenty of bass, with a good mix of keepers and trophies.
Consider the waters mentioned here to be the best of what's available, but don't overlook the fishing at any impoundment - regardless of its size - that holds bass.
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