When you catch a large striped fish in Kansas waters, it isn't always clear just what you've hooked and landed. Here are some tips to set you straight.
By Tim Lilley
OK - let's get this out of the way quickly: Unless you're out in western Kansas, specifically on Wilson Reservoir, the bar-sided silver bullet that's trying to tear your tackle apart is probably the white bass/striped bass hybrid known as a "wiper."
Wilson still offers a population of pure stripers that's decent enough for sampling and rating by fisheries biologists with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. Attempts were made to develop viable striper fisheries at other lakes around the state, but Wilson remains the best bet if stripers are your target.
Otherwise, wipers are the game. There are some excellent "playing fields" in the Sunflower State. With apologies to Hollywood, our "magnificent seven" include six major reservoirs and Marion County Lake, located in the middle of the state. The half-dozen-plus large impoundments with the best wiper fishing are La Cygne, Pomona and Milford in the east and Webster, Cedar Bluff, Kirwin and Sebelius out west.
Wipers do well in these waters, and state hatcheries can produce them. They grow fairly quickly, although the fish don't have the potential to get as large as pure stripers. You can see that just by looking at the state's published fisheries ratings.
At Wilson, the smallest group of stripers noted is composed of those at least 20 inches in length. For wipers, fish at least 20 inches long are the biggest groups included in sampling data.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Just don't let that size disparity fool you. One thing wipers definitely get from their larger parents is the kind of fighting ability that has made them so popular not only in Kansas, but in other parts of the country as well.
As hybrids, of course, these fish are not native anywhere. White bass are the freshwater species, while stripers naturally occur in salt water and in brackish watersheds. In those places, they can grow to lengths measured in feet and require the stoutest of tackle to deal with.
Fortunately for Kansas' anglers, the hybrid offspring of those fish display many of their best traits. And those hybrids fit well into the ecosystems of the lakes they inhabit. All of the lakes have healthy populations of forage fish; wipers serve the necessary role in helping to control those baitfish numbers through voracious appetites.
They generally prefer open water, which means they're not competing with other predators like black bass, walleyes, catfish and crappie for habitat. They sure ought to be competing for your angling attention, though, because wipers are an absolute blast to tangle with.
Fans of pure white bass already know it: May is the month that brings those surface-film feeding frenzies that provide some of the hottest, most exciting angling action that Kansas fishing has to offer.
Anglers in the know always have a rod rigged with a swimming jig or in-line spinnerbait or a lipless crankbait when they're out on the state's major reservoirs at this time of year. Early in the morning, and again as the sun begins to set, it's not unusual to see the surface of a lake begin to boil as schools of hungry white bass corner a mass of baitfish and start feeding.
You can expect the same thing from wipers; just expect the fight to be a lot stronger from a fish that generally will be much larger than most of the white bass you'll encounter in the Sunflower State.
Fortunately for those who get bit by a wiper, and in the process learn just how much fun catching them can be, you don't have to wait for the dance party in the surface film to get after them. You have a number of other options at your disposal.
One of the least known involves a special kind of trolling that will put big fish in your boat. Use it along flats at places like Pomona and La Cygne, especially from late afternoon through dark.
Your first step will be to make a pass over those flats, paying close attention to your depthfinder and locating the schools of baitfish that are meandering around. Personal experience suggests that the most important thing isn't those schools of forage fish, nor is it the depth they're suspended at. Rather, it's the overall depth of water they're using.
Don't ask me to explain; I can't. I just know it works. Say you find the baitfish suspended at anywhere from 2 to 6 feet over 18 feet of water. Concentrate on following that 18-foot contour as you troll the flat. If, the next time you visit, the baitfish are still suspended 2 to 6 feet deep - but over 23 feet of water - follow the 23-foot contour.
My best guess is that the wipers and other predators - including truly large crappie and white bass - key on the schools of fish that are suspending over a certain depth of water for some reason. You follow that contour and you're going to catch fish.
Once you've figured out the depth contour, start trolling crankbaits that will get down to or just above the baitfish. However, only troll them fast enough to get their built-in action going. This is not a speed game.
Some of the most consistent success I've enjoyed with this technique has come by trolling into the wind instead of letting it drift me along a flat with fish below. Using a trolling motor against the wind allows me to fine-tune the boat speed just right.
I'll get the baits out on 40 to 50 feet of line - 10-pound-test for full-sized crankbaits and 6-pound for baits a quarter-ounce and lighter. The key is to go only fast enough for the rods to begin signaling the baits are working by the flittering of their tips. That generally is much slower than most folks are used to trolling.
Many other anglers will fish from shore this month, concentrating on the faces of dams and also on other areas of riprap and large chunk rock. Some fish jigs, others fish on bottom using live or natural bait. Both techniques can be effective.
The best way to go, if you're planning to fish from the bank, is to rig one outfit for bottom-fishing and get it going. Once that's done, throw an in-line spinner or crankbait, or swim a jig on another rod. Doing this will get your offerings in front of more fish more often, and thus increase your chances for a strike.
Also, if you decide to fish from shore, pay attention to the wind. Black bass fishermen know that on windy days schools of baitfish get blown onto points and into shore. They concentrate
their fishing efforts on windy banks, and so should shore-bound wiper fans.
Sure, it's tougher to cast into the wind, especially the kind we have here in Kansas. You're liable to have to deal with tangles, especially if you're casting an artificial bait. But windy, rocky banks are going to offer your best chances for success because it's a good bet baitfish are nearby. If they are, wipers will be too.
Finally, there is the open-water approach. It's the tried-and-true method that freshwater striper guides and fanatics have used for more than a generation.
Open-water fishing is nothing more than finding and following schools of baitfish in open water and keeping live bait or a lure in and around that bait as you drift with it. It's different from the trolling mentioned earlier because you're liable to be over the deepest part of the lake, and because you want your offering in or around that baitfish school at all times.
When trolling as described earlier, you're going to move your baits through suspending schools but not staying with them. In this process, you're going to pick up cruising wipers, too - not just those that are focused on a wad of bait.
If you're using live bait, don't react to a strike as soon as you feel it. In some respects, this is more like catfishing. Let the wiper have your offering and make a run with it for several seconds - then make a powerful, deliberate hookset because you are trying to get leverage against quite a bit of line, which makes solid hook-ups tougher to achieve.
Some live-bait anglers loosen their reel's drag so that a wiper can straighten out line and make a run against the reel. If you try that, you'll have to be quick and forceful in tightening up the drag and setting the hook at the same time. If not, you're either going to pull your bait away from the fish or get the kind of weak hookset that will allow a strong-fighting wiper to shake free.
When you get right down to it, there's nothing magic about any of it. It's just different from what many Kansans grew up doing when they learned to fish. Wipers have now been around long enough that fathers are teaching their sons the fine points of catching this fine hybrid game fish.
If you haven't given it a try, do it soon. You don't know how much fight, fish and fun you're missing.
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