Kickoff For Kansas Bass

A whole new "season" of bass fishing is fast approaching for Sunflower State anglers. Here are the best places to fish for success in 2003.

By Tim Lilley

Kansas' top fisheries manager will have you thinking a little differently about bass in the Sunflower State after only a few minutes. He talks about things that most anglers don't even consider when they try to figure out where to go for the best action as a new fishing season approaches.

Doug Nygren, head of fisheries for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, says that anglers can thank water rights and water willows for helping to create some of the hottest fishing spots in all of Kansas as the 2003 season unfolds. The water rights impact is felt at Cedar Bluff, which is not only the best bass fishery in the west, but also likely the best in the state these days. Water willows have a much broader impact. They are key tools in the state's management approach to small impoundments.

More about the specifics of those rights and willows later. For now, just know that in the state of Kansas, bassin' is pretty doggone good just about everywhere.

As this was written, Nygren and his counterparts had not finalized their 2003 angling forecasts for any particular species. "I believe what we reported in 2002 for bass will be pretty consistent this season, though," he said.

That's awfully good news because it means at least five major reservoirs will offer excellent bass prospects this season - Big Hill, Cedar Bluff, La Cygne, Sebelius and Webster. If hawgs are your quarry, target La Cygne and Cedar Bluff. The former is most notable now because it's a power plant lake and, as such, offers the chance to take a real trophy even now. I know that for a fact - been there, done that.

Fishing Tip No. 1: At La Cygne during the late winter, you can catch bass upwards of 5 pounds by drifting with the current near the hot-water outlet on the east side of the lake and casting shallow- to medium-running crankbaits to the shoreline cover. I caught my very first "official" Sunflower State keeper that way one cold February morning many years ago with Jim Givens, of Olathe, in the boat. Givens added a couple of keepers, too, and wasn't too harsh on this then-novice Great Plains bass fisherman when I tried to horse a second keeper - this one possibly heavier than 5 pounds - a little too much, and lost it.

This month, Kansas bass anglers can get out and catch some chunky bass -- or they can sit home and think about it. So what'll it be for you? Photo by Lee Leschper

I was throwing a small Believer, a 4-inch version of a much-larger plug that is a muskie-killer up north. It's action is similar to other, more popular bass crankbaits in that size range, so I don't think it was movement that got the fish's attention that day. Rather, it was the golden color. Black over gold is a good bet for La Cygne largemouths at this time of year.

A month or so from now, temperatures will be warmer, and the western Kansas bass action also will start heating up. When it comes to major reservoirs, that's where you'll find the real meat of the 2003 state bass outlook . . . at Cedar Bluff Reservoir.

It's one of several major impoundments that benefited from a historic cycle of drought-then-rain that ran its course just about 10 years ago. Starting in the late 1980s, a series of hot, arid summers practically dried up Cedar Bluff and its western counterparts. Boat ramps became scorched, useless ribbons of concrete that ended so far from the water's edge that some folks were left wondering whether these lakes would ever be any good for fishing again.

Mother Nature responded with a return to healthy rainfall in the early 1990s, and a funny thing happened. Cedar Bluff and our other extremely low western impoundments started filling and kept on rising - in the process, flooding acres and acres of vegetation that had sprouted and grown when a lot of the former lake bed was getting bathed in summer sun instead of dammed-up water.

Talk about a rebirth! They all became new lakes, full of aquatic life that thrived in and around the newly submerged weeds and brush. Bass saw food, and they responded incredibly. Stories soon began circulating about bass fishing unlike any that some Kansans had ever enjoyed before. It remains so to this day, and KDWP officials took a major step toward assuring that Cedar Bluff - the crown jewel of western bass waters - would sparkle on for many years to come.

"We bought the water rights to Cedar Bluff," Nygren explained. "It no longer serves as a source of water for irrigation; it's no longer drawn down during the hottest weeks of the year.

"Not only do we have an outstanding bass population with excellent cover and forage," he continued, "but purchasing the water rights added an element of stability to the fishery that is only going to benefit it this season and into the future."

Nygren noted that during the dog days of last summer, lakes like Webster and Norton were drawn down as much as 12 feet due to the continued use of their waters for irrigation. Fishing is affected when that happens, and dynamics like that impact angler success. But not at Cedar Bluff - not anymore.

Look at the numbers. Cedar Bluff outperformed every major-reservoir bass fishery in the state, according to the 2002 information. All except La Cygne, which, because of infusions of warm water from the power plant, offers what is literally a year-round growing season. Cedar Bluff provided almost 31 bass per acre over 15 inches, and almost three per acre over 20 inches in biologists' samples. At 6,500 surface-acres, in-your-head math quickly shows that Cedar Bluff is strong when it comes to largemouth bass.

But that's not all. Cedar Bluff also produced a half-dozen smallmouth bass per acre larger than 14 inches, and seven spotted bass per acre over 14. That's almost four dozen bass per surface-acre that measure at or near that magical 15-inch mark.

Fishing Tip No. 2: Most bass anglers know how successful weighted, suspending stick baits can be during the pre-spawn period, which isn't that far away at Cedar Bluff and most other Sunflower State bass waters. Not many of them, however, think about fishing a Slapstick!

Made by the Bill Lewis Lure Company, the Slapstick is a bait with a unique movement. Maybe you've fished it as a topwater lure, jerking it along and then letting it do its special stuff. Slapsticks, when at rest, settle into the surface film tail-first, stopping almost vertically. Add some weight to them, and they suspend that way, too - and drive pre-spawn smallmouth bass crazy in the process.

Pro angler, guide, and topwater legend Charlie Campbell

let me in on that secret several years ago, and it works - big-time! Something else does, too. Later on in the season, during post-spawn, unweighted Slapsticks with their diving lips removed settle a little deeper into the surface film, and bass of all kinds attack them with reckless abandon. I learned that by accident, when I threw one of the baits into a rocky shoreline and snapped its lip off. Deciding to fish out the cast, I was rewarded by a keeper spotted bass. It was followed by a nice smallmouth, then a keeper largemouth. To this day, that very lure is one of my most productive when bass are active at the surface.

And you don't have to save it just for big waters like Cedar Bluff. The tactic works anywhere, and that's good news because Kansas' smaller impoundments seem to keep getting better when it comes to bass fishing.

Nygren attributes that to water willows.

"For the past three years," he explained, "we have focused on enhancing the bass fisheries in smaller lakes around the state . . . any of them that have the potential for good bass fishing. Our goal has been to improve the habitat by planting vegetation - specifically, water willows. They really help young bass, and that improves the overall populations."

It's fascinating how something so plain and unremarkable can make such a big difference. Here's a description of the plant found on the Internet: "A perennial from rhizomes that is capable of forming large colonies. Water willow is primarily found along the shorelines or in shallow water of lakes, ponds or streams."

It's nothing amazing; it's just effective at giving smaller bass what they need to survive and grow, and that is improving smaller bass fisheries all over Kansas.

As proof, consider that less than a quarter of the small lakes (20 of 93 that are under 1,000 surface-acres) surveyed by the KDWP produced 2002 ratings of fair. The other 73 earned either good or excellent marks - and 9 of those produced largemouths of at least 6 pounds in the sampling. Many more yielded fish between 4 and 6. Those are pretty strong numbers.

Fishing Tip No. 3: If you can sneak away from the family this Easter Sunday, even for a little while, find a small lake with some shallow or shoreline cover and thrown spinnerbaits around it. You're likely to be rewarded by some of the biggest bass of the year.

In reporting this tip, I'm letting you in on a combination of superstition and tradition practiced by another fishing buddy from eastern Kansas. "You have to come fish with me Easter Sunday this year," he begged one spring several years ago. "You won't believe the fish we'll catch." He was right; I didn't. Among the bass that shamelessly attacked my half-ounce white spinnerbait were three that weighed over 5 pounds - at that time, the largest bass I had ever hooked, caught and released in Kansas or anywhere else.

"It's best if you have a little bit of chop on the water," he explained. That morning, we did. "You don't have to fish too slowly," he added. I didn't. It was chunk-and-wind fishing, and few casts went unrewarded. You simply have to try this; it even works in ponds.

No small lakes rank very high for smallmouth bass. Only three, in fact, were sampled: Jeffrey Energy Lake near Tuttle Creek reservoir, Lebo City Lake, and Geary State Fishing Lake. All ranked fair last season, and likely will again for 2003.

When it comes to spotted bass, however, the small-lake picture is a little better. Bourbon and Wilson SFLs are good bets, as is Marion County Lake. Bourbon SFL even produced a spot that weight almost 4 pounds in the sampling.

Make no mistake though, Kansas' small lakes shine by the dozens when it comes to largemouth bass. Here are some random samples to give you an idea of how good it can get away from the reservoirs.

Practically within the shadow of Kansas City skyscrapers - and only 56 surface-acres in size - Olathe's Cedar Lake produced almost 124 largemouth bass greater than a foot long in the most recent sampling. Less than a 5K jog away, its big sister, all 172 acres of Lake Olathe, produced more than 74 12-inch-plus bass per surface-acre, including a 5.6-pound lunker.

Kingman SFL gave up more than 130 largemouths per acre that were at least a foot long. Butler SFL, not that far from Wichita, produced 68 bass per acre that were 15 inches or longer. And when it comes to lunkers, no lake of any size in the state can compete with Ottawa SFL's 8.3 bass per surface-acre that measure 20 inches or longer. At 138 acres, you do the math. There are a lot of big bass in that smallish fishin' hole!

Fishing Tip No. 4: Don't ever think the biggest bass around stop biting when the spawn is over. Without question, that early spring period is magical everywhere, on every kind of water, when it comes to having a chance at taking big bass. But they have to eat regularly, not just before they reproduce.

To this second, the largest bass I've ever hooked came at an unexpected time (the dog days of summer) and at an unexpected place (the middle of Lake Olathe). She was hanging out along a submerged log that I didn't know existed until the city began using water from the lake to keep its adjacent public golf course as green as possible. She hit a purple plastic worm and, when she broke water, looked just like she felt - which was every bit of 7 pounds. Sadly, I lost her; I never got a good hookset before she spit the bait back at me.

Then there is fall - a time at which Kansas anglers can really enjoy great action with fish weighing 3 pounds or more. On one outing alone, visiting smallish Osage SFL and then larger Hillsdale reservoir, I took bass at both places between 3 and 5 pounds fishing a jig-and-pig, then a Texas-rigged worm. Even in the bitter chill of a late-November norther not long ago, a 3-pounder simply inhaled my jig-and-pig on Osage SFL. You can catch them then, too.

And from now till then, Kansas' waters will offer you some outstanding bass action. On waters big or small, you'll find bass. And heck, we haven't even touched on farm ponds. We probably shouldn't, though, since there isn't enough room left on these pages to do them justice.

Just know that the smallest of Kansas' "potholes" are home to some of its biggest bass. They are less difficult to fish because you generally can cover them more thoroughly than any other lakes around. Their size - or, rather, their lack of it - is the reason. And also know that the tips sprinkled throughout this piece apply to ponds, too, although my favorite time and tactic for pond bass has to be late spring/early summer with a topwater popper.

Nothing beats the sound that rattles your ear drums a split-second after your eyes catch the surface-film explosion that created it. Your lure disappears in a vicious swirl. Just remember to wait a second before trying to set the hook. Immediate reaction in that kind of fishing results in a lot of missed opportunities.

When all is said and done, your bassin' opportunities in Kansas have never been better. Large lakes like

Cedar Bluff are full of nice fish, and it alone may be the best overall destination you could pick for a go at largemouths, smallmouths or spotted bass in the Sunflower State.

That notwithstanding, you're likely to find good options closer to home, since the state's angling populations are fairly concentrated in or near the larger towns and cities. Small lakes dot a landscape decorated with shopping areas and bedroom communities, and many of them - as measured by biologists' sampling nets - are home to healthy populations of bass that will grow to trophy proportions.

Wherever you are reading this, you very likely have bass fishing rated good or excellent for 2003 within easy driving distance. And many of them are small enough that you don't even need a boat to enjoy their outstanding action.

As a result, this is a high point in the state's bass fishing forecast. And the good fishing appears to be settled in for a lengthy stay.

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