September 30, 2010
Bass anglers have a lot to look forward to this year whether you want to catch a bunch of bass or a lunker for the wall.
By Tim Lilley
Kansas bass anglers have another good year to look forward to in 2010.
There are big bass at Cedar Bluffs Reservoir. PowerBait soft baits, Whistler Jigs and .38 Special spinnerbaits are popular lures here.
Photo by Tim Lilley.
Water conditions statewide are good, and that bodes well for anglers in every region.
What follows is a look at your best bets for great Sunflower State bass fishing this season.
One of the challenges in doing a story like this is emphasizing that readers shouldn't conclude that the lakes specifically mentioned will be the only Sunflower State waters that offer good bass prospects, either for numbers of fish or good numbers of larger fish. That's not the case.
We've focused on specific bodies of water because data show them to be primed for offering quality fishing throughout 2010.
"Folks need to know that water conditions out west have improved dramatically, and that definitely will have a positive impact on the bass fishing and many other species," said Kyle Austin, Kansas' statewide fisheries management coordinator. "But water conditions also are going to be very good throughout the eastern part of the state.
"There are some that will stand out this coming year," said Austin.
I like to take a multifaceted look at things because the additional information provides a more complete picture of bass-fishing prospects around the Sunflower State. Kansas anglers are fortunate to have a variety of water types to fish, including large impoundments, small public impoundments and private water that include hundreds of farm ponds full of bass.
Not every bass fan sets out in search of the next wallhanger. Many are thrilled to simply spend time on waters that give them the opportunity to catch a lot of fish on most outings, regardless of their size. These lakes also provide wonderful opportunities for introducing newcomers to fishing in general and bass fishing in particular. The positive reinforcement of having a "first outing" that produces a good number of bass is priceless; it goes a long way toward hooking newcomers like they hook the bass.
Residents both east and west have good reservoir options for trips when they just want to catch some bass. Keith Sebelius Reservoir in Norton County is a great destination in western Kansas for this kind of outing, while Hillsdale and Perry reservoirs are at the top of the list in the eastern part of the state.
"These recommendations are direct results of the annual samplings our biologists take on waters around the state," Austin said. "Hillsdale, Perry and Sebelius all are home to really good numbers of bass, which means anglers have the chance to enjoy great days on the water."
There is, of course, always a "but" in these kinds of forecasts.
"We have a lot of fishing going on in Kansas, and the bass in our major, popular reservoirs get a lot of pressure. They get educated," Austin said. "As a result, anglers are going to have to be ready to change up and try a variety of baits of techniques until they key in on what the fish are responding to that day. When they figure that out, they have a chance to catch a lot of bass on an outing."
That's especially important to note with the eastern reservoirs mentioned here. Hillsdale is a short drive southwest of the state's major population center, the greater Kansas City area, and Perry is a short drive north of Topeka, the state capitol. Kansas City-area anglers also have easy access to Perry.
Later, you'll hear from a longtime angler who now guides on Hillsdale. When I talked to him, he mentioned a series of weeknight bass tournaments during the heart of the fishing season that runs more than 20 weeks. So in addition to the pressure from more casual weekend anglers, Hillsdale's bass get attention every week from a core group of anglers who are the best of the best when it comes to finding and catching bass on the lake.
Why mention that? Because it reinforces Austin's thought about versatility. No angler should visit Hillsdale without spinnerbaits, crankbaits (topwaters, shallow divers and medium divers) and a variety of soft plastics. Being able to cover water with the faster-moving baits, then slowing down when you locate bass to fish areas more thoroughly, will go a long way toward improving your chances for boating a bunch of bass.
When it comes to smaller public impoundments, Kansas is blessed with a series of State Fishing Lakes (SFLs) that generally get less pressure than our major reservoirs. That doesn't mean they're short on bass.
Top prospects this season for smaller Kansas lakes include Moline New City Lake and Lyon SFLs in southeastern Kansas, and Sheridan SFL out west. Each is significantly smaller than any of our reservoirs, but that doesn't mean you can't visit them and expect to catch a decent number of bass. I learned that lesson first-hand more than 25 years ago when I first started trying to catch Sunflower State bass.
Specifically, I frequented Douglas SFL south of Lawrence, and I consistently caught bass in the most unlikely of places, a wide-open cove on the west side of the lakes where the boat ramp was. Who would expect to catch bass there?
More people visited that spot, arguably, than any other on the lake. But I always caught multiple bass there after discovering the key by accident.
A small creek fed into the cove, and its channel meandered through the open water. I discovered it one evening when I showed up, Texas-rigged a 6-inch purple worm below a quarter-ounce bullet weight, and cast it absolutely as far as I could.
As I slowly crawled the worm along the bottom, I didn't feel anything to suggest any kind of cover or structure until, all at once, my line momentarily went slack. I was paying attention (fortunately!) and saw that the slack line happened because the worms dropped a foot or two. I let it sit for a moment while I reeled in the little bit of slack, then felt the kind of resistance that told me it was coming up out of something. This was the tiny creek channel.
A split-second after that registered, I felt a light tap, and my line started swimming off at a right angle to me. Setting the hook, a 14-inch largemouth immediately exploded from the shallow water. After playing, landing, admiring and releasing the bass
, I moved about 10 yards up the bank and made a similar cast to a slightly different spot.
The same thing happened.
From then until dark (about 90 minutes), I "surveyed" the channel with my worm and caught another six or eight chunky bass in the process. From that evening on, I knew exactly where and how to fish that part of Douglas SLF, from the shore no less, to consistently score bass.
You can do the same thing on smaller lakes like Moline, Lyon and Sheridan. Taking the time to learn the structure of these little lakes by fishing them thoroughly will help you consistently boat bass when others can't.
The exception in the Kansas bass numbers game is known as the Mined Land Wildlife Area, in the southeastern part of the state. Reclaimed public strip mine pits are the draw. There is no better destination for sheer numbers of feisty largemouths. You shouldn't expect to catch a lot of bass over two pounds. Most, in fact, will run between 1 and 2 pounds, but they are plentiful.
You anglers who prefer to catch big bass to catching big numbers of bass also have some lakes to check out this season. One of them is home to good numbers of fish and possibly more anglers than any other impoundment in the Sunflower State.
Hillsdale also is on Austin's list of "best bets" for big Kansas bass. "Hillsdale is probably going to be No. 3 among our impoundments in terms of big bass this season, below LaCygne and Big Hill," Austin said. "Our sampling indicates that all of them have good numbers of large bass."
You'd expect that on lakes with 18-inch (Hillsdale and LaCygne) and 21-inch (Big Hill) minimum length limits for keepers. My personal experiences with Kansas bass suggest that those lengths correspond to healthy bass weight roughly 3 pounds at 18 inches and 4 to 5 pounds at 21 inches.
"Bass habitat is dynamic on all of our lakes," Austin said. "Over time, some disappears. Bass react to the changes in their environment, and that's part of the challenge of finding the big fish, especially for anglers who have fished a given lake for many seasons. When the timber goes away, for example, it can take a while to figure out what the big bass are doing.
"It's always tough to list the lakes with good numbers of big bass because anglers sometimes will go a whole season without seeing one of them," Austin said. "That doesn't mean they aren't there. LaCygne, for example, has pretty much been our best big-bass lake for decades. But not everyone who fishes it catches a trophy."
Pressure is the culprit. The more baits and techniques fish are exposed to, the more educated they become. They will challenge you. But they all still eat, so you're going to have a chance to catch a big largemouth on these waters with the right approach.
That means being meticulous in your presentation and thorough in your search. You can argue that, during pre-spawn, the biggest bass of the season are easier than ever to catch. But for the rest of the year, fooling a trophy will challenge you.
Check out Clark SFL, Eureka City Lake and Ottawa SFL if you want to enjoy that challenge on smaller waters this season. Austin said they hold good numbers of nice bass. Size minimums vary from 15 to 18 inches, so check the state's Web site to make sure you know what a "keeper" is on the lakes you plan to fish in 2010.
BACK TO NO. 1
From here (and although Austin didn't say it) Hillsdale emerges from the mountain of data state biologists assembled with their annual samplings as the No. 1 bass lake in the state.
Don Cunningham knows the big lake well. He's been fishing it for decades, and now guides on Hillsdale. "I have fished Hillsdale religiously since 1990," he said, "and it definitely has changed over the years."
Habitat today is made up of a lot more stumps than trees. Many of the flooded trees have decayed over the years, but their underwater stumps are still there. And there are now spots on the main lake and several coves with beds of button willow grass, he said.
There also has been a move to cut shoreline trees and wire them to the stumps after cutting to make them stay in place longer.
"Over the past 10 years or so, we've seen a lot of willow trees come up around the lake, and they are providing new kinds of bass habitat," said Cunningham. The local expert has fished the Wednesday Night Bass Anglers Tournament Series on Hillsdale since 1995, and he has been running the series since 2005. Over that time, he's seen the kinds of baits and tactics that consistently produce change some.
"For the most part," he said, "I'm still fishing the same places and doing the same things I always have," he said. "The one significant thing that has changed for me is that I don't catch nearly as many bass on a jig-and-pig as I did from the early '90s through about 2003. Now, I'm catching many more fish on a worm."
Cunningham said it's become rare to catch a bass on a crankbait once summer arrives, which is quite a departure from his early days of fishing Hillsdale. He also said he's doing more Carolina rigging than he used to, which would make sense because of its effectiveness in covering underwater structure like stumpfields.
"After the spawn," Cunningham said, "I generally move out and focus my fishing in the 10- to 12-foot depth range. I catch most of my bass that way."
A MIXED-BAG OPTION
One reservoir in western Kansas that deserves mention is Cedar Bluff because it offers anglers the chance to catch largemouths, smallmouths and spotted bass on the same impoundment. Biologist Dave Spalsbury, who moved to Cedar Bluff from an assignment in eastern Kansas that included Hillsdale, said Cedar Bluff ought to be good in 2010, although he didn't suggest that each subspecies would offer great fishing.
"Smallmouths typically are the most difficult to catch in Cedar Bluff," he said. "But they are here. I recommend that people who want to catch them, or who want to try to catch all three subspecies when they're here, focus their efforts along the face of the dam.
Smallmouths prefer rocky structure, and the dam is among the best spots on the lake for them, along with the bluff on the west end of the lake, according to the biologist.
Spalsbury said fishing the pre-spawn and in the fall will likely be the best times to catch a Cedar Bluff smallmouth.
He said spotted bass like to hang out in areas where Cedar Bluff's bottom is made of Blue Hill Shale, which provides a real hard bottom with scattered large boulders and a little brush here and there. He said anglers would find largemouths where they'd typically expect, along main lake points and in flooded brush.
"We also have some milfoil in Cedar Bluff, and the largemouths use it, too," Spalsbury said, adding that angler
s who boat on the lake should pay attention to their post-trip boat cleanup.
"The Eurasian water milfoil found in Cedar Bluff is an exotic invasive plant, not one we'd like to have spread statewide," he said.
Spalsbury encouraged boaters who spend time on Cedar Bluff to clean and inspect their boats to make sure they're not carrying even little pieces of the plant to other waters.
Clean hulls and inspect them in detail, and totally drain the bilge.
"Anglers also need to drain and clean their livewells," he said. "It takes very little material to spread invasives like this milfoil."
Anglers at Cedar Bluff are using a lot of Berkley PowerBait soft baits, Whistler Jigs and .38 Special spinnerbaits, according to Kathy Farber of Red's Bait and Tackle in Hoxie.