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Kansas' Best Crappie Waters

Kansas' Best Crappie Waters

To fill a stringer or livewell with slabs this spring, be sure to pay a visit to one or more of these fine Kansas lakes. (March 2009)

Writing this story turned out to be tougher that its title would suggest. You'd think that it'd be easy to talk to the folks who know about the overall health of Kansas' crappie fisheries and put together a report on the best waters around for crappie anglers to plan their fishing seasons by.

I wish!

You see, few Kansas crappie waters are not good places to catch the fish -- and therein lies the problem: In a state with an abundance of lakes large and small that simply appear to be crappie factories, narrowing the list to include the best of the best is tough. It's been that way for as long as I can remember.

Then, to add even more difficulty to the equation, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks embarked four years ago on a new venture known as the Community Fisheries Assistance Program. It's something like the "walk-in access" program that the state has been using to expand hunter and angler access for several years, in which the state, in essence, leases hunting and fishing rights from landowners in return for providing appropriate insurance coverage, signage and basic oversight. Literally hundreds of thousands of acres have been enrolled in the program.

CFAP does something similar with community impoundments all over the Sunflower State. The KDWP leases fishing and boating rights from the communities that owned and previously managed access to these small lakes. Instead of having to buy additional local fishing licenses and boat tags, Kansans now have access to CFAP waters on the basis of having their state fishing license and boat numbers.

"When we started the program, nobody could have predicted how gasoline prices would escalate like they have," said fisheries biologist Kyle Austin, who works out of KDWP headquarters in Pratt. "We know that CFAP is now making it possible for people to still enjoy fishing without having to travel so far from home to do it.


"Folks are still buying licenses and enjoying all the fisheries Kansas has to offer, and CFAP is contributing to that."

Big lakes like (for example) Perry have been known for generations as "crappie factories" because their resident crappie populations do so well at maintaining numbers through "recruitment," as the biologists call it; you know it as the fruit of the annual spawn.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some Kansans haven't fully embraced the program because it has exposed some of their favorite "unknown" fishing hotspots to new anglers. If I still lived as close to Lake Olathe as I did throughout most of the 1980s, I'd be among them!

Lake Olathe is one of the small community impoundments on Austin's list of "best crappie waters" in Kansas for 2009. From here, the lake could have been on the list a long time ago if CFAP had been in place and folks could have just shown up and fished without worrying about finding a city license and boat tags.

The KDWP lists the impoundment at 172 acres. Back when I called it my true home lake, it would drop quite a bit in mid-to-late summer because the city pulled water to keep the greens and fairways of the adjacent city golf course as green and healthy as possible. At this time of year, though, Lake Olathe generally is at or fairly close to full, presuming that part of eastern Kansas has enjoyed at least average amounts of moisture through the fall and winter.

"Lake Olathe was a darned good small lake for crappie last season," Austin said, "and it's still going to have good numbers of fish again this year. I actually have it ranked No. 2 among all the small lakes in the state for crappie."

Would you be surprised to learn that one of the Sunflower State's busiest lakes in terms of fishing pressure and boat traffic ranks near the top of Austin's list of hot crappie lakes again this year? It's true: Hillsdale, covering 4,580 acres in northern Miami County, comes in at No. 2.

Given its location on the west side of the Johnson County seat, Lake Olathe should draw some attention from anglers in the greater Kansas City area this season.

Only Anthony City Lake in Harper County is above it on Austin's list, and he says it's on top for good reasons "Anthony City Lake is about 156 acres," he said. "It's got really good numbers of fish, and our surveys show there are a lot of fish coming on there."

Let's talk about that last statement before moving on to the other small lakes and the big impoundments that are this season's best for Sunflower State crappie. It's worth spending a minute on the dynamics of crappie fisheries -- here and throughout the Great Plains.

Biologists will tell you that crappie are among the most prolific of game fish species available to anglers in these parts. Big lakes like (for example) Perry have been known for generations as "crappie factories" because their resident crappie populations do so well at maintaining numbers through "recruitment," as the biologists call it; you know it as the fruit of the annual spawn.

Make no mistake, however: Some spawning seasons don't go so well. When one of those unfolds, that year-class of crappie isn't strong at all, and the fishery will suffer a season or two down the road. One of the major data sets that biologists refer to in evaluating the crappie fishery in a given lake, regardless of its size, are the relative health factors of the year-classes.

Consecutive strong year-classes mean strong crappie fishing for several seasons. Drop a not-so-hot year-class in there, and the crappie fishing will suffer for a season, maybe more. And that won't show up right away. A weak year-class means not many small, young crappie that particular season. It's when those fish ought to be 1- and 2-year-olds that anglers see the impact.

And that brings us back to the crappie's prolific ways. One good spawn won't totally make up for a bad year-class, but it sure helps a bunch. Biologists will tell you that the only time anglers should expect to see a real decline in a given lake's crappie fishing is when year-classes stay weak over more than one season.

Fortunately, Kansas' crappie fans won't have to worry about that if they choose to fish Anthony City Lake and Lake Olathe this season. Austin also had three other small lakes on his

list of top waters for 2009.

Ottawa State Fishing Lake, north of Salina, is No. 3 on the current crappie hit parade. Austin said many anglers around the Sunflower State missed some good crappie fishing at Ottawa SFL last year.

"It wasn't their fault," he said. "It wasn't anybody's fault. The word about Ottawa just didn't get out very well. It definitely was a hotspot last season, but it didn't get much attention from the crappie fishermen. It definitely is going to be a good bet again this season."

That's good news, too, given its location. Many Kansans don't have to drive too far to visit Ottawa SFL. It's only about 20 miles north of Interstate 70 in Ottawa County. The lake is about 110 acres.

Also adjacent to I-70 is Ellis City Lake in Ellis County, about 12 miles west of Hays. We're staying along I-70 for a minute instead of going in rank order on Austin's list. Ellis City Lake actually ranks No. 5. It's roughly 100 surface acres, and is the smallest of the non-reservoir lakes on the list.

"The crappie fishing in Ellis City Lake has always been at least fair," he said, "but it continues to pick up. The numbers will be good there this season, and so our crappie fishermen in the western part of the state have a small-lake destination they can look forward to visiting this year."

Sandwiched between Ottawa SFL and Ellis City Lake on the list is another city lake, this one a 135-acre pond in Eureka, in Greenwood County. It's home to substantial numbers of crappie.

"The numbers at Eureka City Lake are close to those in Ottawa and the other lakes above it," Austin noted. "It will offer some strong crappie fishing this season."

It'll also provide a second destination for those reservoir-crappie fans who visit the large impoundment at the top of Austin's list for 2009: Toronto, which straddles the border of Greenwood and Woodson counties. At 2,800 acres, it's the most diminutive of the reservoirs Austin has tabbed as Kansas' best "large" crappie impoundments this season.

"It's No. 1 on my list for two reasons," he explained. "First, there is the sheer number of crappie in the lake. Toronto has a very strong population. Second, our surveys show a really good number of crappie 12 inches long and larger, so there are some very nice crappie in Toronto. When you combine a strong population with plenty of big crappie, you have the best water in Kansas -- and that's Toronto."

Would you be surprised to learn that one of the Sunflower State's busiest lakes in terms of fishing pressure and boat traffic ranks near the top of Austin's list of hot crappie lakes again this year? It's true: Hillsdale, covering 4,580 acres in northern Miami County, comes in at No. 2.

"Like Toronto, Hillsdale's crappie population is very strong," Austin explained. "We know there are very good numbers of fish in the lake. There also are high numbers of fish over 10 inches long. That's a good-sized crappie, and Hillsdale has plenty. Anglers shouldn't expect to find quite so many 12-inch and larger fish as they likely will at Toronto, but Hillsdale will still provide excellent crappie fishing this season."

So, of course, will Perry, situated northeast of Topeka in Jefferson County. Some might argue that this sprawling 11,631-acre reservoir is the stereotypical crappie factory, and has been for decades. When I first arrived in Kansas -- at about the same time then-new Hillsdale was just beginning to fill up -- everyone I talked about fishing with had the same answer when I asked about crappie hotspots. "You ought to fish Perry," they'd say.

Funny how some things never change. If you want to catch crappie this season and you live close enough to get there -- well, you ought to fish Perry.

"The thing about Perry," Austin offered, "is it always seems to have good numbers of crappie in all size brackets. Its size has something to do with that -- it's home to sheer numbers of crappie that are only matched at a few lakes around the state. But there's no question that it more than holds its own when it comes to crappie fishing in this part of the world. It's hard to imagine a list of top crappie lakes in Kansas ever not including Perry somewhere in the mix. It's routinely very, very good."

Something else hasn't changed about crappie fishing in Kansas as the 2009 season unfolds -- the regulations. "We haven't made any changes to the regs for this season," Austin confirmed. You can visit the state's Web site at at any time and read the regulations in effect.

While you're there, you might want to look at some of the other fishing opportunities in southeastern Kansas, because they're all close to the top large crappie lake and one of the best small crappie waters on Austin's list for 2009. Eureka City Lake and Toronto Reservoir are more than a stone's throw from each other -- but not by much.

Look at a Kansas map and you'll also see Fall River Reservoir right there, along with Woodson and Wilson State Fishing Lake. Are they all crappie destinations like Toronto and Eureka City Lake? Not really, but they all offer good fishing. Fall River also boasts some of the most scenic angling you'll find in all of the Sunflower State.

And if records are any indication, this chunk of Kansas has the potential to give up the largest crappie you'll see. Both state-record crappie come from the area around Toronto, Eureka and the other lakes mentioned. Each admittedly has stood for a very long time, but that doesn't suggest they can't be bettered -- and from the same general vicinity.

March 30, 2009, marks the 45th anniversary of Frank Miller's tussle with a slab that proved to be what is still the state-record white crappie. The Eureka resident was fishing minnows in a Greenwood County farm pond when the 17-inch white took his bait. When Miller got that fish to the scales, it tipped them at 4.02 pounds.

The black-crappie record, which has stood several years longer, came from Woodson State Fishing Lake. Back on Oct. 21, 1957, Hazel Fey of Toronto was also fishing minnows when she hooked and landed a monstrous black crappie. It weighed an amazing 4.63 pounds. Even more startling, from here, is its length -- 22 inches. Have you ever seen a single crappie that measured anywhere close to 2 feet long? Can you imagine what it looked like as Fey played it and it came into view for the first time?


The point is that, if overall population numbers and historic size mean anything at all, this little area of Kansas is "Crappie Central." It's not, of course, as if the other lakes in this story aren't good as well. I know first-hand that Lake Olathe has been and will be a wonderful little crappie lake. I know first-hand the same about Perry when it comes to Kansas reservoirs. That doesn't diminish the interesting facts surrounding Woodson and Greenwood counties when it comes to fishing for crappie in general and big crappie in particular.

Woodson SFL, by the way, still ranks among the better black-crappie lakes in the state, according to data you can find on the KDWP Web site. This story deals mostly with white crappie because they dominate Kansas' crappie fisheries. If you want to try to catch some black crappie this season, however, there are a few places you could target.

The only major impoundment with good prospects is probably Sebelius Reservoir, in Norton County way out northwest. It would make a great destination trip, however, and Sebelius offers more than just black-crappie fishing.

As mentioned, Woodson is near the top of the small lakes in the state for black crappie. Some others you might want to consider include Neosho, Brown, Miami and Atchison State Fishing Lakes.

Pony Creek Lake, in Sabetha in Nemaha County, might just be the black-crappie sleeper, because it has in recent seasons combined good overall numbers with good numbers of 10-inch-plus black crappie. Add its 171-acre size to the mix (not nearly as small as some highly rated community lakes you can find on the KDWP Web site), and Pony Creek might just be a good destination for a fishing trip this season, too.

As mentioned at the start of this report, very few Kansas crappie waters are not good. This story has highlighted what the biologists are calling the best for this season based on the data they've collected on the waters throughout the Sunflower State.

You can probably add your own "best" crappie waters to this list. If you do, you'll have a map to a whole season full of great fishing for black and white crappie all over the Sunflower State.

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