September 30, 2010
No doubt about it: The Sunflower State's bass fishing is hard to beat in this part of the country — as these examples make abundantly clear.(February 2008).
By Tim Lilley
Photo by Russell Tinsley.
Good friend Jim Givens and I were bundled up so heavily that we could barely move as we prepared to slide the little aluminum fishing boat off its trailer and into the definitely warm waters of Linn County's La Cygne Reservoir. New to Kansas then -- a resident of fewer than two years -- I'd caught plenty of bass since arriving, but most of them were small and taken as a result of bank-fishing at small lakes like Lake Olathe, in Johnson County, and Douglas State Fishing Lake, south of Lawrence.
Having gotten a boat, I couldn't wait to try it out. I mean that literally: On the morning that Givens and I decided to visit La Cygne, the air temperature at the boat ramp was 17 degrees, and we really needed to get aboard. Thank goodness the wind wasn't blowing for that frigid sunrise!
Even without the wind, the only close-to-comfortable way to navigate from the ramp to the area we intended to fish was to move barely above idle. It wouldn't have taken much to get that short, light aluminum bass rig up on plane. Doing so, however, would've exposed us to frostbite in a heartbeat. February fishing in Kansas can be that cold -- for the anglers.
At places like La Cygne and Coffee County Reservoir, however, the fish don't feel the freeze. These early-season jewels of Kansas bassin' are power-plant lakes into which water heated by its use in cooling the generators is released.
So consider this: You're talking bass fishing with some friends, and one of them tells you he knows of a place where you can catch keepers in less than 4 feet of water on shallow-running crankbaits -- on a 17-degree February morning! How should you react?
You should believe it. That's exactly what happened on that frigid February day in Linn County. Givens and I would position the boat 15 to 20 yards out from the bank, and get close to the outlet. Then, we'd let the current from the hot-water release drift us away from the outlet and along the shoreline as we threw crankbaits at the shore. I'd made a cast and cranked the reel maybe three times when a 17-inch chunk of Sunflower State largemouth attacked my lure with a vengeance.
It was amazing!
But it happens all the time in February at La Cygne and Coffee County. They are, without question, the best bets for early-season bass outings in Kansas. That said, however, they're not the only places where you can enjoy some good action.
"La Cygne and Coffee County definitely are fascinating places to bass-fish in February," said Kyle Austin, fisheries biologist with Kansas' Department of Wildlife and Parks. "They are the places in Kansas where you can experience the thrill of catching aggressive bass -- fish that act like it's late spring -- in the middle of a cold winter."
Largemouth bass are the calling cards at La Cygne, and anglers can enjoy some outstanding action within a few hundred yards of that hot-water outlet. If you decide to give it a try, have some run-and-gun baits along, including the aforementioned shallow-running crankbaits and some spinnerbaits. You also should have some plastic worms that you can fish Texas-rigged. Think of a February trip to La Cygne much like a late-spring trip to just about any other Kansas reservoir.
"Coffee County has a smallmouth fishery that's pretty good," Austin said. So in addition to the baits mentioned above, your arsenal for Coffee County should include some crawdad imitations like soft-plastic baits that you can rig on a stand-up jighead. Fishing shoreline cover and structure relatively close to the hot-water outlet is the general recipe for success. If you have a surface-temperature gauge on your boat, use it to figure out the area that will provide you with the best action. You may be surprised at how far it extends away from the outlet.
Elsewhere around Kansas, you'll also find at least decent bass fishing on many different lakes during February, if the weather cooperates -- and sometimes that can be a big "if."
"Once you get away from La Cygne and Coffee County, the good February bass fishing is a little tougher call to make," Austin said. "It definitely depends a lot on the weather.
"In the northern part of the state, it's not terribly uncommon to find lakes that still have ice in February. During my time working in the region, I'd say we'd have ice in February one or two out of five years. If you're going to be driving any distance to bass fish this month, it'll be worth your while to call ahead and check on lake conditions."
One thing you definitely can count on: The western reservoirs that had been Kansas bread-and-butter bass fisheries throughout the mid and late 1990s are still in the throes of draught. Unless there has been a truly significant rain episode or episodes since this story was written, western Kansas' impoundments still are way low and not very good choices for a February outing.
"It just didn't seem like we were living right when all the heavy rains moved through the state in the spring last year," Austin said. "You could watch radar and see really heavy rains that would just miss this reservoir or that one. It was amazing, and disappointing."
Austin said that, if anything, those tremendous downpours only helped the western lakes hold their own. "They might have gained a foot or two in level," Austin said, "but they typically lose that much or maybe a little more just through evaporation during the summer. I guess the best you can say is that we didn't have a significant net loss."
That said, it remains the case that Cedar Bluff is still more than a dozen feet low, and other western impoundments like Glen Elder, Kirwin, Webster and Norton are 8 feet or more low. They didn't get the kind of impact that lakes of all sizes endured throughout the eastern two-thirds of the state.
"The good thing about bass is they tend to just move vertically when water levels change dramatically," Austin said. That is especially true while the levels are going way above normal and not dropping much below normal when the waters recede. That's what happened on many reservoirs in 2007.
"Other game fish species like walleyes or crappie will wash through reservoirs when waters get high," Austin said. "Bass tend simply to move up and down in the areas they live as the water levels fluctuate. I don't believe they endured serious troubles from the heavy rains we had last year."
What that means is the lakes that were good for bass in 2007 are set to b
e good again this year. Among them you should include El Dorado reservoir, north of Wichita, and Big Hill. Hillsdale, on the fringes of the metro Kansas City area, also should be good again.
Bass aren't generally going to be holding in the kind of thick, tangly cover that can fray lines and cause breaks at the worst of times -- as when you've hooked a 7-pounder.
Kansas bass anglers also have many other "smaller" options in the myriad of state fishing lakes and community impoundments around the Sunflower State.
Butler SFL, not far from Wichita and El Dorado, continues to be one of the better bass-fishing SFLs in the state. Brown, Clarke and Lyon state fishing lakes also should continue to offer good prospects for bass anglers in 2008.
The community impoundments have, over the past 25 or 30 years, been among the most overlooked bass fisheries in all of the Great Plains. There are some really good largemouths swimming around in some fairly small public waters, and they're worth your time to check out. As evidence, I'll note that the biggest bass I've ever hooked lived in Lake Olathe. She jumped and spit the plastic worm on me, so I never got to touch her. But she totally cleared the water in that jump, and I know that the big ol' girl was in the 7- to 8-pound range.
She's not alone in calling Kansas community lakes home. For some great action this season, you ought to be looking at places like Antelope Lake in Graham County; Gardner City Lake, not far from Kansas City; and Madison City Lake.
Reiterating, Austin surmised that more than a few community impoundments might give up true lunkers again this season. They include Lone Star Lake, near Lawrence; Eureka City Lake; and Pony Creek Lake, in Sabetha.
Collectively, Kansas farm ponds also represent some outstanding bass fishing opportunities. If you have access to some, or can get fishing permission, do so by all means. Fish them early and often. The first lake I ever caught more than one 5-pounder from was a Johnson County pothole owned by my late friend Ralph Schlagel. Fishing ponds with him was a true joy, something I'll always cherish.
All of that is well and good, you say. But this is February. How in the world am I going to catch good bass anywhere other than the hot-water lakes when it's so danged cold?
Remember two things as you plan your outings this month. First and most important -- regardless of the temperature -- bass still have to eat. Second, even the slightest of temperature changes can trigger bass into action.
"There is no doubt that a difference of as little as one or two degrees can have a big effect on bass," Austin said. "We know, too, that smaller impoundments tend to warm more quickly because of their relative size (when compared to large reservoirs like El Dorado).
"It's not unusual for temperature to begin moderating in February, especially in the southern half of the state where most of the better bass lakes are found," Austin said. "If you see an early high-pressure move in with bright, sunny days and average or higher temperatures, you can expect to be able to catch some bass, especially on the smaller impoundments because they'll warm more quickly."
Austin noted that paying particular attention to rocky shorelines and riprap on February outings can be especially effective. "Those rocks will absorb radiant heat from the sun and warm up fairly quickly," he said. "Bass are usually in a deeper water pattern in February, but they'll move up if the water warms, which it often does in these rocky areas."
So you know where to go for bass action in Kansas -- not only this month but throughout 2008. And you know that on the two hot-water lakes, La Cygne and Coffee County, an approach that mimics your fishing in April or May -- using crankbaits, spinnerbaits and Texas-rigged worms -- will be effective.
But what should you be using, and where should you be fishing, on the lakes that must warm "naturally" this month? "I suspect that everyone has heard that old rule of thumb that says slow is best when the water is cold," Austin said. "I believe that's true on our bass lakes in February, and that's the approach I'd recommend."
Here I'll describe four rigs in particular that always prove very effective for me on Kansas bass lakes this early in the year. And three of them are really good ways to fish in lighter spinning tackle, which can provide you with an advantage this time of year.
Remember two things as you plan your outings this month. First and most important -- regardless of the temperature -- bass still have to eat. Second, even the slightest of temperature changes can trigger
bass into action.
Bass aren't generally going to be holding in the kind of thick, tangly cover that can fray lines and cause breaks at the worst of times -- as when you've hooked a 7-pounder. They're going to be using structure in more open water, which gives you the chance to use spinning gear with 8- or 10-pound line. Rigs like that are generally more sensitive than traditional baitcasting bass rigs, and largemouths in February often are light strikers. The extra feel of a light- or medium-action spinning rig will help you feel more strikes and hook more bass.
The one bait I'd use on a baitcaster is a jig-and-pig, but I'd fish it like a plastic worm. That is, I'd be casting it around structure in deeper water (10 to 15 feet or deeper), then crawling it slowly back as if it was a crawdad moving sluggishly in the chilly water. Bass will hit it. Just expect to see more strikes than you feel. That is, you'll notice your line moving off in a different direction when a bass picks up the bait softly without much of a strike.
If you decide to go with a spinning rig, the first of the three rigs I prefer mimics the jig-and-pig. It's that stand-up jig with some kind of crawdad imitation soft plastic. Fish it just as slowly as the traditional jig-and-pig, and expect the same kind of strikes.
My second effective bait is a kind of "do-nothing" plastic worm like the slider rig made famous by Tennessean Charlie Brewer. This is slow, deliberate worm fishing, but it's oh-so-effective in the cooler water of the early season.
Finally, you just might want to try fishing a minnow-tipped jig. Certainly, there are those who consider using live bait some kind of bass fishing blasphemy; it's not, really. And it can be most effective of all at this time of year, when you have most of the natural conditions against you. Even on the warmest of days, bass are going to be more sluggish and slow to react than at just about any other time of the year.
Opting for live bait gives you the chance to swing the odds in your favor by offering bass something real and alive -- something they're used to ambushing and eating throughout the year. It's a great way to catch bass in February, and something you ought to at least think about.
If you just can't bring yourself to do that, then at least consider opting for some of the soft plastic baits available that are made incorporating attractants. Unless you are fishing the hot water at La Cygne or Coffee County, you are going to have to work at least a little bit of bassin' magic to get February fish to bite. Anything you can do to improve your chances of getting bites will help you enjoy more productive, albeit still chilly, days on Kansas' best bass waters this month.