What's in store for Sunflower State bass anglers in the months ahead? If these patterns hold, probably lots of action -- and maybe some big-fish tales! (February 2006)
Photo by Jeff Samsel
Before you read much more of this story, you have a question to answer -- and your answer will help guide you to the information here that will be most useful to you.
It's a simple question, really: How do you define "good bass fishing"?
Because everyone is different, there'll likely be as many answers to that as there are readers of this story. In general, most bass chasers want either to catch lots of fish on every outing, or to go after the biggest bass swimming in the lake. Neither group is wrong. Really, there's no wrong answer to the question -- except maybe for a dishonest one.
Not too long ago, my editor got a letter from a reader who took issue with a story published on these pages within the past year. The story included mention of a particular Kansas lake as a good bet for bass action. The letter writer kindly objected because he'd never caught a largemouth there much bigger than about 2 1/2 pounds -- in other words, just a tad larger than a normal "keeper" in states, like Kansas, with 15-inch size minimums.
Water's not the only thing in life that flows downhill. My editor passed the note along to me, inviting me to respond in defense of my reporting. It was easy.
I had included that lake because state fisheries biologists had recorded a fairly dense population of bass in the impoundment. I'm talking upward of 50,000 largemouths, with about 40 percent of them keeper-sized or larger! And that lake is only about 2,500 acres when full.
What all those numbers suggested to me in researching the piece was that anglers who fish there have a darned good chance of hooking, playing and landing multiple keeper-sized largemouths. And between tussles with 15-inch fish, they've got a decent shot at enjoying consistent action, if conditions cooperate.
I provided that information to the letter writer, who seemed satisfied with the explanation -- not that he necessarily agreed with it. But that's OK, of course -- and that's the point: Not everything that follows here is going to apply to you and your fishing. So take a minute now to think honestly about the days of Sunflower State bass fishing that you remember most vividly. Did they involve lots of bass? Lots of keepers? A really big fish? A big lake? A small lake? A farm pond?
Whatever provides the fond memories is likely to serve as a solid foundation for your general bassin' interests. Keep that in mind as you read the succeeding paragraphs, which will take you around the state and into waters of all sizes to uncover what you can expect from your bass trips this season.
What follows comes from data that Kansas' Department of Wildlife and Parks biologists routinely gather in annual surveys of anglers (creel surveys) and waters (actual on-the-water fish sampling). Data for this story include statistics gathered from 15 reservoirs around the state -- from Sebelius and Cedar Bluff in the west to La Cygne and Clinton in the east.
This might sound like an easy answer, but it also happens to be true. Kansas' premier "hot-water" lake, La Cygne in Linn County, is home to the biggest largemouths to be had at any of the major Sunflower State impoundments. Sampling has turned up bass pushing 8 1/2 pounds there. There's a logical reason for that: Because it's a power-plant lake -- the mission of which includes serving as a cooling basin for water involved in generation at the adjacent plant -- La Cygne offers year-round "growing season" water temperatures. Active bass are always found somewhere on the lake, and they never stop growing, as lower water temperatures never slow their metabolisms.
As a result, La Cygne may be the closest thing to a true "bass factory" that you'll find anywhere in the Great Plains. When KDWP folks gather fish-population data, they break down the numbers to report on the overall number of bass in a given water that are at least a foot long. Then they further refine the report to include fish at least 15 inches long, and then those at least 20 inches. Finally, they report on the heaviest bass encountered during the surveys.
Only one lake in Kansas -- Sebelius Reservoir out west -- holds more bass at least a foot long than does La Cygne. However, none of the other 14 reservoirs included in the most recent report had higher numbers of keeper-sized fish, or of bass at least 20 inches long. In those two reporting categories, in fact, no other reservoir in the state even comes close to equaling La Cygne.
If, when we posed that question earlier in this piece, you had a hard time deciding whether you'd prefer to catch lots of bass or just a few big ones, you should probably make La Cygne your No. 1 stop for bass fishing this season. The numbers suggest that this lake offers the best of both worlds.
It's also one of only two lakes in the entire eastern half of the state --the other being Big Hill in southeastern Kansas -- that can boast double-digit numbers of bass per unit sampled by the KDWP. Those units generally are about a surface-acre in size.
The remaining three lakes reported to have substantial numbers of keeper bass are out west -- Cedar Bluff, Kirwin and Toronto. Of them all, La Cygne is arguably located nearest to the highest number of licensed anglers in the state, since it's only about an hour's drive south of greater Kansas City.
As noted earlier, no reservoir in the Sunflower State can top another western water when it comes to sheer numbers of bass. Only 1,500 surface-acres in area, Sebelius Reservoir revealed in surveys there that it contains more than 70 bass per unit sampled that are at least a foot long. Using that surface-acre as the unit of measure -- well, do the math: More than 106,000 largemouths swimming the waters of Sebelius are at least a foot long! In other words, it's likely to be much tougher not to catch plenty of decent-sized bass at Sebelius than otherwise.
When you look at the overall figures, it seems that the largemouth forecast in Kansas generally brings good news -- in this case, that 10 of the 15 reservoirs included in the survey data summary boasted double-digit numbers of bass measuring at least a foot long per unit sampled. Of those, only Fall River Reservoir earned a rating of "poor" from state biologists, which I suspect has to do with its very low numbers of bass much larger than 12 inches. However, if you're one of the anglers who prefer to catch lots of bass regardless of their size, you shouldn't simply look at Fall River's poor rating and then eliminate it from your list. Plenty of bass are there; they
're just not terribly large.
And like Big Hill, Fall River is in a part of the state -- the southeast -- that just might be home to the highest concentration of bass in all of the Great Plains. Even if you remove Big Hill and Fall River from the equation, dozens of old strip-mine pits that are full of bass. Many of those sit on the chunks of Kansas real estate that the Mined Land Wildlife Area comprises. These public waters are amazing, especially for Kansas. Gin-clear, deep, and generally cooler than other lakes their size, most are chock-full of scrappy largemouths.
You were asked at the beginning of this story to try to remember those bass-fishing days that were your most exciting. I vividly recall one of mine, which unfolded on strip pits in southeast Kansas. Virtually from sunup to sundown, I caught bass in those pits. I caught them using every soft plastic I had in a too-full tackle box: every size, every shape, and every color. These bass hit with reckless abandon.
And then, along about 5:30 that spring evening, I noticed a bass swirl along a weedy shoreline. Switching from the plastics to a Pop-R, I enjoyed about three hours of the finest topwater bass action I've ever been blessed with. There was a fish in every place that I thought should hold one! None weighed much more than 2 pounds, and most were around a foot long. But when you're getting strikes on practically every cast for more than 10 hours, it's difficult to dismiss that kind of fishing as mediocre just because the fish weren't terribly long or heavy. At least it is for me.
With that in mind, let's shift attention to Kansas' smaller public waters. State fishing lakes and community waters offer an alternative to the large reservoirs that's appealing to many people, simply because they're close to home. During the more than nine years that I lived in Johnson County, I fished Lake Olathe more than any other Kansas water, because I could be casting for bass no more than 15 minutes after deciding to hook up the boat and go fishing. When you consider where gasoline prices are today, that kind of option sounds really good to many people, I suspect. For that reason alone, it's a good bet that local community waters will be getting more bass-fishing pressure than ever this season.
Happily, many of the state's smaller waters offer the kinds of numbers to support extra attention. How many small lakes included in the state survey report do you think revealed bass-population densities of more than 10 bass a foot long per unit sampled? Would you believe it's almost 90?
Understand, of course, that we're talking about lakes no larger than roughly 400 acres; many of them are much, much smaller. The point is that they're mostly loaded with largemouths, albeit not many lunkers.
Still, the big bass do exist in small public waters. Lake Olathe produced what remains the biggest largemouth I've ever hooked anywhere. She was a real chunk, but I never got to weigh her, because she spit the hook back at me the first time she jumped. Having gotten a really good look at her, however, I know she weighed at least 8 pounds. It was an exciting encounter.
There's another interesting statistic about the nearly 90 small lakes boasting double-digit densities. More than a third of them reported at least one bass in excess of 5 pounds! So never dismiss small public lakes as not being able to produce bass that many anglers would consider trophies.
We all know that many farm ponds around Kansas have "big ol' bass" in them. But many are private, and landowners can limit access and manage their pothole(s) as necessary to help assure they produce some trophy largemouths. Public waters by their very nature usually don't enjoy this kind of attention. And that's not a knock on the KDWP -- just plain fact.
Rankings are big in the world today, mostly because of spots. You know: the Top 20 this or the Top 10 that. With that in mind, here are some rankings of Kansas' small waters -- those included in the survey data, at least -- in terms of largemouth bass.
The top 15 small waters in the state with regard to population densities, are: Antelope Lake in Graham County; Old Sedan City Lake; Butler State Fishing Lake; Severy City Lake; New Sedan City Lake; Pleasanton West Lake; Cedar Lake in Olathe; New Moline City Lake; Gardner Lake; Cowley SFL; Pratt County Lake; New Yates Center City Lake; Plainville Lake; Pottawatomie SFL No. 1; and Sheridan SFL. Only Severy City Lake, at a mere 5 acres, is less than 20 acres in size.
Here are Kansas' top 10 small lakes when measured by the number of keeper-sized bass (at least 15 inches long) that turned up in the surveys: Old Sedan City Lake; Butler SFL, Severy City Lake; Pleasanton West Lake; Cedar Lake in Olathe; Gardner Lake; New Yates Center City Lake; Plainville Lake; and Clark SFL. Two other very small waters -- really tiny, only 2 acres each -- also have bunches of keepers when you look at the stats: the Kids Pond in Olpe and the lake in Emporia's Peter Pan Park.
And here are the top 5 small lakes in the Sunflower State when measured in numbers of bass at least 20 inches long, according to the data: Clark SFL; Madison City Lake; Atchison County Lake; Old Sedan City Lake; and Gardner Lake.
As you can see, a large complement of small Sunflower State impoundments, all of them public waters, will offer you promising bass prospects for bass this season. Keep in mind, however, that some community lakes require purchase of special fishing permits in addition to your regular state fishing license. This is not the case at any of the SFLs, but you should check into the others, especially if you'll be driving any distance to fish them.
So far, this story has included only information on largemouth bass. Kansas waters do indeed harbor some smallmouth and spotted bass, but their respective availability is limited to only a handful of waters statewide. That said, however, you should make Cedar Bluff your No. 1 priority for mixed-bag bass fishing in Kansas. Cedar Bluff is home to all three subspecies of black bass and, seemingly, a pretty good one. Its density and keeper-sized numbers, and fishing prospects generally, are good for all three. In my view, Cedar Bluff would have a much higher profile among Great Plains fisheries if it lay within an hour's drive-time of either Kansas City or Wichita and boasted the same kind of fishing that it does now.
Other noteworthy smallmouth waters around Kansas this season: Glen Elder and Big Hill reservoirs, and Coffey County Lake. The hot-water lake at Jeffrey Energy Center also should offer the chance to catch decent numbers of bronzebacks.
If you want to go after spotted bass, the other big reservoir offering interesting possibilities is Sebelius. Given the extremely high density of largemouths reported there, the spotted bass numbers suggest that you might really have your hands full with bass action if you decided to drive west to this 1,500-acre impoundment. It certainly has no shortage of bass that'd be fun to catch, even if few are "trophy-sized."
A quartet of Kansas' SFLs providing worthy spotted bass fishing this season: Bourbon, Chase, Crawford and Wilson. An
d Lake Cahola in Emporia also contains a substantial population of spotted bass.
The bottom line on all of this is that Kansas' bass outlook for 2006 is pretty doggone good no matter how you measure it. There are dozens of lakes of all sizes with high numbers of bass, and there are plenty of places with relatively high numbers of keepers. More than a few offer plentiful lunkers, and almost any place you care to fish has the potential to produce a real trophy.
And for the most part, this report has been limited to public waters. Most anglers reading this know how dynamic and exciting farm ponds can be for bass anglers. Throw in the hundreds -- if not thousands -- of pothole jewels around the state, and you have the portrait of a Great Plains bass fishery that simply must be experienced to be truly appreciated.