Kansas bass fishermen will find some pretty good action all over the state again this year. As I researched the prospects for another fishing season, it became apparent that the Sunflower State's bass resource is pretty much underappreciated.
That said, you should know that stories like this one are never tough to write -- but they can come back to haunt you.
Like many other state natural resource agencies around the country, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks makes plenty of data available for use in forecasting the prospects for the 2005 bass-fishing season. And in general terms, the information is accurate and very useful.
But Mother Nature often has a way of throwing the proverbial monkey wrench into things when you least expect it. I learned that firsthand shortly after moving to Kansas in the early 1980s.
The outdoor editor of a major Midwestern newspaper published an article one Friday morning heralding the current fishing at a Sunflower State impoundment, including photos of the large fish that were boated there just a few days before the article appeared.
His work was enough to convince me and a couple of friends that we needed to be there as soon as possible, so we headed out at first light the next morning. We weren't alone in our assessment: Dozens of boats were already on the lake when we got there, and by the time we'd launched and cleared the boat ramp, several more anglers were waiting for their turn to slide their boats off the trailers and get in on some of the great action.
Of course, a vicious front was ripping through the area; high winds had turned the lake into a cauldron of churning whitecaps, and it was all we could do to maneuver around in my small aluminum modified-V bass boat. We never caught fish that morning, but we did catch more than a few glimpses of anglers bemoaning having let a certain newspaper writer coax them out to an awful place on a dreadful morning.
In the end, it's likely that reality was somewhere in the middle. The fishing probably wasn't always as good as the reporter had found it, and it definitely wasn't invariably as horrid as we'd found it that day.
Keep that in mind as you read what follows. The object is that of providing solid information about Kansas' best bass fisheries as the new angling season unfolds. The numbers are all we have to go by just now, but there's so much else that can affect your chances on a given outing.
Most notable -- and especially as it applies to reservoirs and lakes in the western half of the state -- is the potential for low water levels. Over the past 15 years, impoundments of all sizes in this part of the state have suffered drought, but were reborn when the rains returned. And now, another dry spell is influencing them, in some cases significantly.
It's not the kind of news anyone likes to report, but you have to be aware of it as you make plans for your bass fishing this season. Fortunately, lakes in the eastern half of Kansas should continue to provide some good bassin' prospects, so all won't be lost. The hope here, however, is that rains will return to the west because those lakes became "bass factories" about a decade ago, following the last severe drought.
Fortunately, one of the major western impoundments is no longer as vulnerable to drought as it once was. Back in the early 1990s, the state purchased the water rights to Cedar Bluff Reservoir, which removed it from the list of big western lakes whose water is used for irrigation. When other reservoirs in the region are down 20 feet or more owing to a combination of a lack of rain and the claims of irrigation, Cedar Bluff remains only a half-dozen feet or so below normal pool.
Remember that this is in general terms, and that the lake's level is going to fluctuate more or less depending on current conditions. But Cedar Bluff has to be mentioned before just about any other Kansas bass fishery, because it's No. 1 in the state -- all things considered.
Most important, it offers at least decent angling prospects for all three black-bass subspecies -- largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. Cedar Bluff is one of the few places in the state that an angler can go to with more-than-reasonable expectations of being able to complete this three-bass grand slam on one outing.
This brings us to the data mentioned earlier, which KDWP biologists obtain through annual surveys and creel samples at lakes all over the state. They use the numbers to develop ratings of species-specific fisheries. The density number tells you how many bass with a stated minimum size are present in each sample unit. (Which, for the most part, you probably should take to be a surface-acre. It may vary some, but for the purposes of this story, it works.)
KDWP biologists use a 12-inch minimum for largemouth bass, and an 11-inch minimum for smallmouths and spots. So when you read the density ratings that follow, keep those numbers in mind.
Now, back to Cedar Bluff. South of Interstate 70 and east of U.S. Highway 283, this impoundment of the Smoky Hill River is roughly 6,500 acres at normal pool -- and it now retains more of those surface-acres during drought than any other western reservoir because the state owns those water rights.
That's important. It means those of you living in the more-populated areas of eastern and south-central Kansas can plan a trip to Cedar Bluff and not feel so much apprehension about being able to fish when you get there. You should find enough water to go find some nice-sized bass. And Cedar Bluff has plenty.
The most recent sampling statements I found show density ratings of 49 fish or more for both largemouths and spotted bass, and a density rating of 6 for smallmouths. In a 6,500-acre lake, that's a lot of bass at least 11 inches long -- and in the case of the largemouths, at least a foot long.
As you might expect from a lake that was "reborn" about a decade ago, Cedar Bluff doesn't boast tons of lunkers. Its lunker rating for largemouths is only 2 per sampling unit; as for largemouths, the KDWP defines a lunker as being at least 20 inches long, which would make it 4 pounds or more.
On the other hand, almost half of the largemouths sampled to come up with that 49 density rating were keeper-sized, at 15 inches or longer. So keep in mind that Cedar Bluff has a nice population of really healthy largemouths, although the really big ones aren't so easy to come by.
The lake's lunker ratings for smallmouths and spotted bass were both 0, so your goal for multi-subspecies bassin' at this destination should be simply catching one of each and not expecting to catch lunk
ers of either subspecies.
When it comes to lunker largemouths in Kansas, you have to head east -- specifically, to La Cygne Lake in Linn County. It's a power-plant lake and, as such, offers a year-round growing season to all fish species. It should come as no surprise, then, that La Cygne's largemouth lunker rating is an amazing 10.2!
It's 2,600 surface-acres; you do the math. There are a whole lot of 20-inch-plus largemouths living there, and you definitely need to take advantage of that whenever you can.
For the record, there is only one other impoundment in the state with a largemouth lunker rating of 10 or higher, and it's a pothole. Little Lake in Horton, at a diminutive 10 acres, boasts a largemouth lunker rating of 10 even. If you live in the northeast corner of the state, it's a spot to keep in mind. But at only 10 acres, it's not a place you ought to consider fishing if it involves driving a long distance, lunker rating notwithstanding.
La Cygne is large enough to make a trip a viable option because you'll be able to find water to fish and boat ramps to launch from.
When it comes to smallmouths and spotted bass, you're just not going to find the kind of lunker honeyhole that La Cygne in terms of largemouths. You might be surprised to learn that Melvern Reservoir is one of only two big lakes in the state with smallmouth lunker ratings of 1 or higher. The other is Glen Elder. The KDWP calls a lunker smallmouth one that's at least 17 inches long -- a fish that'll push 3 pounds in the Sunflower State.
If your goal is a big spotted bass, Cedar Bluff is the destination for you. Just remember two things. First (and most important): When it comes to spotted bass, "big" definitely is a relative term. Second: Sebelius also is worth a look if it has enough water in it to fish it effectively.
No lake in the state has a lunker rating; all eight lakes surveyed in the most recent data available for this story had 0 for a lunker rating. But Cedar Bluff had 9 spots per sampling unit of at least 14 inches, and Sebelius had more than 14.
Sebelius just might not have a whole lot of water as you read this, or when you plan your trip. So you'll probably be best served by making Cedar Bluff your primary spotted bass destination.
And you'll definitely be well served by considering a 2-pound spot a trophy in Kansas this season, because it will be one -- for that subspecies, anyway. From here, one of the neatest "destination" fishing trips you could make would be a Cedar Bluff "adventure" in search of truly large specimens of each subspecies.
That being said, there are plenty of places you can go for good largemouth-specific action. Here are some places to keep in mind as you fill in your 2005 fishing agenda.
All of the western impoundments offer good numbers of bass at least a foot long. If they have water, Sebelius, Webster and Kirwin also should be included on a list with Cedar Bluff. And in the end, Hillsdale has decent largemouth numbers in spite of its proximity to the metro Kansas City area. I believe Hillsdale likely gets hammered harder than any other bass reservoir in the state, but it's going to offer at least fair fishing again this season. Your biggest challenge at Hillsdale will be picking times and places that don't see a lot of other anglers.
There are dozens of small lakes around the state -- public waters -- with good numbers of largemouths. Kansas' system of state fishing lakes comprises the most dynamic small-water fisheries in the state, and McPherson, Brown and Leavenworth SFLs are going to be good largemouth lakes again this year.
There also are a number of public waters managed by communities and local governments with good bass fishing. Cedar Lake and Lake Olathe, both within the city limits of the Johnson County seat, are good examples of this. But they're not the only such lakes in the Sunflower State.
When fishing these community-managed waters, be sure to check local regulations before heading out, because many of them require that you purchase a "local" or city license in addition to your state fishing license. The same can hold true for your boat. Over the years, however, I learned that paying for the city of Olathe tags was well worth it for a couple of reasons. First, the lakes were close to home, so I didn't eat up a lot of gasoline getting to and from launch ramps. Second, many anglers pass up these smaller waters to go to the bigger lakes nearby, so there wasn't as much pressure on them.
But there were plenty of bass, and some really nice ones. As you plan your bass fishing this season, think about those kinds of tradeoffs, and you might just find some really good spots that you've never fished before.
And of course, when it comes to really good spots, there are two other groups of Kansas waters you have to remember, although neither of them gets included in the KDWP's annual samplings.
First, farm ponds: They remain among the best largemouth bass waters in the state, year in and year out. They're private, though, and you'll need permission to fish them.
The other group comprises that gaggle of public strip pits in southeast Kansas on the Mined Land Wildlife Area. It's possible to argue that they represent the best bass public bass waters in Kansas in terms of sheer numbers. And several of them are home to some really big largemouths.
Only a few will accommodate you if you want to launch a boat and fish that way, but all of them will be worth the effort you put in to visit and fish them. They truly are jewels in Kansas' bass-fishing crown.
Because of the nature of this story -- a forecast of statewide bass fishing for the whole year -- it's tough to get very specific when it comes to baits and locations on given waters. There are, however, some general recommendations you should have.
From my experience, soft plastics are the No. 1 choice for Kansas bass fishing. That's because they give you the ability to cover every kind of situation and every depth level that bass might be using throughout the year. All you'll need is a selection of hooks, weights that will let you rig plastics either Texas- or Carolina-style, and some swivels for the latter rigging.
My tackle box includes 4-inch straight worms, 6-inch straight and curlytail worms, soft-plastic jerkbaits, 4-inch curlytail grubs and "creature"-style baits. Colors include purples and punpkinseeds, the latter with chartreuse tails. In the grubs and creature bodies, I'll also include colors that suggest a crawfish, because bass love them anytime, anywhere.
You also should have some spinnerbaits, but my recommendation is going to be lighter than you're probably used to. I rely on 1/4-ounce baits because I can fish them just under the surface without a lot of effort, or slow them down and work them at virtually any depth.
I also include a selection of hard bait
s. Among them are stick baits, lipless lures like the venerable Rat-L-Trap, medium-diving minnow imitations, topwater poppers and crawfish imitations. That might sound like a lot, but it's really not. You only need a few of each in natural colors, and a couple in bright shades for those days when the water is off-color or the overcast is heavy.
Another element of reality is that 2005 promises to be another pretty good bass year on Kansas' waters. You have some excellent options, and the ability to take some truly large fish at spots around the state.
Low water could prove problematic out west, but there'll be enough other options to keep you fishing regardless.