Going Big for Kansas Wipers

Going Big for Kansas Wipers

Where in Kansas are your chances best for taking on wipers and stripers that have attained greater-than-usual proportions? We've got the answers for you right here!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Tim Lilley

For a generation, Kansas fisheries biologists have been developing wipers as the designated open-water predator in many of the state's lakes and reservoirs. Thanks to that call, anglers these days have the chance to catch some of the biggest fish they'll ever hook in the form of these white bass/striped bass hybrids.

Fishing is good practically everywhere that wipers live in the Sunflower State, but when it comes to big fish, some spots outdo others. This season, that list comprises La Cygne, in eastern Kansas, Cheney, in the south-central part of the state, Marion, in central Kansas, and a clutch of western impoundments that includes Cedar Bluff, Kirwin and Webster.

Of the bunch, Webster might be the hottest destination, for a couple of reasons. First, there are big numbers of big wipers there. Second, the recent dry trend has lowered the lake significantly and, as a result, bunched those big wipers up.

Just look at the numbers.

State biologists annually produce a fishing forecast covering the most popular waters in the state for each species of game fish. The most recent forecast available when this story was written was developed before Webster dropped to more than 20 feet low, which was at the end of last fall.

Sampling there revealed a density rating of 26.7 wipers more than 12 inches long, more than half of which (13.9) were 20 inches or longer! Now consider that the state-record fish, at 28 1/2 inches, weighed 22 pounds! We're talking about some monster wipers in Webster, and plenty of them.

In case you're wondering, that state record was taken at Pomona Reservoir more than a decade ago. Kevin Carson, an Osage City angler, was fishing sodworms on a rod and reel when he caught the big hybrid on June 28, 1993. It could be argued that the record has stood for so long because - and we suggest this with all due respect to Carson and his trophy - anglers just might not be giving Sunflower State wipers their due. Maybe you can test that theory this month at Webster or another lake closer to your home.

Before getting into all the hotspots, here are some details on how state fisheries folks go about compiling the numbers in the annual fishing forecast. In terms of this story on lunker wipers, the two numbers that you should be most interested in will be the two density ratings already mentioned.

The fisheries people first determine a size of fish that most folks would consider a "quality catch" - in the case of wipers, a specimen at least a foot long. Next, they use nets to sample fish populations at a given lake and then record the number of fish of that size or larger for each unit sampled (consider one netting a "unit"). The numbers they come up with give a pretty good picture of what you can expect to encounter when you visit that lake.

Taking the density analysis a step further, they then set a size for a trophy fish of any given species - which, in the case of Kansas wipers, has been determined to be a fish at least 20 inches long; as they sample with the nets, they record the number of "lunkers" that are among the "quality fish" in each sampling. By looking at the two ratings, you can figure out which lakes are going to offer you the best-quality fishing in a given season.

And make no mistake about it: Those ratings can improve dramatically in just a short period of time. Sure, they can go bad, too - but when it comes to wipers in the Sunflower State, that's not going to happen too often for a number of reasons.

For one thing, the state's large reservoirs are generally acknowledged to be forage-fish factories; it's rare for wipers to come into a season without having plenty to eat. Further, the state's wiper fishery is totally dependent on stocking, and Kansas does a very good job of that. You might see low-water conditions such as those at the western lakes hurt a given year-class of fish, but because wipers are stocked, they're going to hold up better in general than naturally reproducing species will when they're stressed.

Stocking is important, because at lakes like Webster, it can mean that a quality trophy fishery can be maintained over the long term, with solid year-classes reliably succeeding one another. It also can make for significant improvements in a given fishery when conditions are right.

Consider Marion, for example. "I just got the sampling data in for Marion from the fall," said Doug Nygren, fisheries chief of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "The density rating is up to 40.67 for quality fish, which is a nice improvement."

Marion's lunker rating for fish per unit sampled was 7, so you know that number will go up, too. While that's nowhere near Webster's rating of 13.9, you also have to note that Marion covers only about 153 surface acres. That's a lot of big wipers in a pretty small area.

And that concept - big wipers in a confined space - is what could make Webster so outstanding this season. The lunker rating cited above was 13.9, but that was for a lake with an area of roughly 3,500 surface-acres. For the currently shrunken Webster - it was more than 20 feet low as last winter rolled in - that number has to be a whole lot higher.

"It's a good-news/bad-news scenario," Nygren noted. "If anglers have a chance to take advantage of the low water, their chances of catching some nice wipers definitely improve. But over the long haul, you know that all the game fish species in the lake will suffer if its level stays so low for an extended period of time."

About 15 or 16 years ago, such a dry period settled on the plains. When the western reservoirs began refilling in the early 1990s, they were reborn. Vegetation on the low-water shorelines flooded, and forage fish numbers exploded. Bass species, black and white, weren't far behind, because they suddenly found so much to eat.

"Webster is definitely the lake to go to for big fish this season," said Steve Francis, regional fisheries supervisor for western Kansas. Francis has worked for KDWP since just after the wiper program started in the late 1970s, and he's seen places like Webster turn into quality spots for real trophies.

"I had some buddies who caught 20-pound wipers there last season," he offered, "and with the low water conditions, those fish definitely are going to be piled up."

Francis explained that, during the last extended period of low water, state and fed

eral officials used the opportunity to build boat ramps that would accommodate these less-than-perfect conditions. "There is one ramp at Webster that definitely will handle this low water and still give boaters a chance to launch," he said.

Other western lakes, including Kirwin and Cedar Bluff, also have ramps that will handle launches in low water. Cedar Bluff shouldn't pose too much of a problem, since the state now owns its water rights - happy news for anglers, as the demands of irrigation will no longer pull water from the reservoir. But unfortunately, that's not the case at Webster and the others.

"Webster was low going into the winter," Francis said, "and we know it will give up water for irrigation next summer. Unless the situation there changes fairly quickly, it's going to continue to be very low."

As mentioned, Webster isn't the only lake in the state with respectable numbers of big wipers. Anglers in the Kansas City area need drive only about an hour to find some excellent wiper action at La Cygne - the power-plant lake in Linn County. Roughly 2,600 acres in area, it offers year-round fishing thanks to the hot-water outlet on the lake's east side. At this time of year, of course, that hot water's not a factor, but it can be significant during the winter, when anglers have been known to take some nice wipers in the area surrounding the outlet. Now, however, pretty much the whole lake is fair game, as is the case with the others on the list of lunker hotspots.

In case you're wondering, the latest lunker density rating for La Cygne is 5.3, with fish over 10 pounds found in the sampling.

It stands to reason that if the overall density rating of fish measuring at least a foot long is up at Marion, then the lunker density there probably has increased at least a little also. When last reported, it stood at 7, which makes this lake appear to be yet another good bet for taking plus-sized wipers.

If you decide to venture out west for a chance at one of Webster's trophies, consider making time for stops at Cedar Bluff and Kirwin, too. The former has plenty of trophy fish, and wipers approaching 10 pounds have turned up in the samples.

Kirwin's lunker-density rating last reported was 6.6, which is a creditable number for this 4,000-acre reservoir. Remember, however, that it, like Webster, is very low these days, so that rating has to be higher now, less water in the lake meaning that those big wipers are thus more concentrated.

If you want to take the fish-in-a-barrel approach, Gridley City Lake might be a destination to check out. At only 33 acres, it's one of the smallest impoundments sampled by state biologists - but talk about your impressive numbers! Sampling there shows a quality-fish rating of 50 and a lunker rating of 10. That's definitely a lot of bruiser wipers in a little bit of water, which makes Gridley an interesting wiper fishing option.

Another reservoir on the list is Milford, which is also home to the hatchery that produces many of the wipers stocked every year. You could argue that for sheer numbers, it's probably the best of the bunch. Covering more than 16,000 acres at recreational pool, its lunker-density rating was last reported at 5.7. Do the math, and you can see that plenty of big wipers prowl its open water. The bad news, of course, is that its expanses of open water are much larger than are those at any of the other lakes mentioned.

Don't let that stop you from giving it a try, though. Wipers, like their purebred parents (white bass and stripers) aren't necessarily tough to find. And when sampling yields fish in the 12-pound range, which it has at Milford, you just know that bigger fish can be had there.

The big news at Milford, however, might not be all those big wipers. Instead, you'll find it - them - swimming in three raceways at the hatchery.

"We have developed our own domesticated source of striped bass broodstock at Milford," the KDWP's Nygren reported, "and that's pretty big news. We don't have the ability, like some other states, to have fairly easy access to sexually mature female stripers, which is why we have obtained that stock over the years using trades with other states. Now, however, we have become one of the few states in the country with its own broodstock, and that enhances the program over the long term."

According to Nygren, female stripers need five to six years to reach maturity, and so the program has been in the works for some time. "We sent some of our people to Oklahoma to work with Steve Spade, one of their biologists, on this project," he said. "We even sent some of our fish down there for him to work with. Having our own broodstock makes the program that much stronger as we move forward."

Those Kansas native brooder stripers were involved in the production of roughly 2.4 million fry for stocking in state waters last year, and Nygren says the state got about that many more through the ongoing trades with other states. Kansas waters also enjoyed the stocking of fingerlings and intermediates, and even catchable wipers in the 1-pound range were stocked as part of the state's urban fishing program.

So that's where the big ones should be this month. Now - how will you go about catching them?

Fisheries supervisor Steve Francis has heard about an unusual fishing method used at Webster - unusual for wipers, at least - that should work pretty much anywhere in the state. "I know of fishermen who do really well on Webster just slow-rolling a big white spinnerbait," he explained. "It's not something you hear about often when it comes to wipers, but it definitely works."

It'd be safe to say that more anglers use live bait than just about anything else for catching these big hybrids. And when it comes to live bait, sunfish are hard to beat. They represent a natural food source for the fish. Fishing them on a slip-rig that allows you to vary the depth of your presentation is the way to go.

Some boaters will troll, and that's an effective approach, too - especially if you're able to locate migrating schools of baitfish in open water. Anytime you do that, there's a good chance that wipers are nearby.

If you're not much into trolling, however, drifting along with those schools and fishing live bait on a slip-rig also will put wipers in the boat. This can be very exciting fishing - a big wiper will hit like a ton of bricks.

But at this time of year, the most exciting action of all can occur early and late in the day, when schools of baitfish are trapped near the surface by hungry mobs of these open-water predators. Any time you see the surface churning, make a beeline to that spot and cast spinners and crankbaits into the frenzy. You'll often be rewarded with the sturdy kind of wiper that fights long and hard. True, this topwater bite can disappear as quickly as it shows up; it might last a minute, or 20 times that. Just get on it when you can, and go with it as long as you can, because the rewards will be worth the effort. The unpredictability just adds to this brand of fishing's claim to being just about the most dyn

amic and exciting angling action that Kansas has to offer.

Also remember that when you're out after Kansas' biggest wipers, you're going to be at the lakes with some of the highest overall numbers of fish. That means plenty of action, although you may have to wade through a bunch of 3-pounders to get to that 10-pounder - or one even larger!

Think about that. In the world of fishing, there aren't many kinds of action that give you the chance to tangle with really nice specimens on a regular basis as you search for the one true trophy you're after - a kind of downside that many anglers can only dream of.


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