April 28, 2022
Spring is a special time for anglers. Warming waters signal the beginning of the spawning season for many species, especially crappies and white bass, which feed ravenously leading up to the spawn.
Both spawn heavily, migrating en masse to spawning grounds when water temperatures reach the optimal levels: 57.2 degrees for white bass and 62 degrees for crappies.
Most anglers are aware of this event and spend considerable time each spring chasing these fish in nearby waters. However, locating a fishery that produces both solid numbers of fish and superior specimens can sometimes be difficult.
Many bodies of water hold fantastic populations of smaller fish. Others contain smaller populations of larger fish. But, if you can find that Goldilocks fishery that provides a nice mix of both, you can enjoy fast action and trophy fish.
In recent years, Kansas’ Milford Reservoir has become one such place for crappie and white bass anglers. Situated in east-central Kansas north of Junction City, Milford Lake has a maximum depth of 65 feet and spans nearly 16,000 surface acres, making it the largest body of water in Kansas.
Unprecedented flooding in 2019 gave the watershed at Milford an exceptional boost in nutrients, and it also increased the amount of forage and cover.
As a result, the panfish population here—especially its crappies and white bass—is on the upswing of a boost cycle. In fact, there may be no better time than now to ply its fertile waters, and with a generous creel limit on crappies (50) and no limit on white bass, you can certainly bring home some fish for the fryer, too.
While white bass and crappie are similar-sized fish that both spawn around the 60-degree water temperature mark, their habits and patterns are often different from one another.
No doubt, you can definitely hook a few white bass when targeting crappies and vice versa, but most anglers narrow their focus to one species or the other in the spring. So, to start, we’ll examine crappie fishing on Milford.
Where to Look
As days grow longer and water temperatures warm, crappies start moving from their winter pattern—suspended along sunken structures—to shallower, warmer waters. Still keying on underwater structure such as rocks, brush piles and drop offs, male crappies are the first to move up into shallower waters in anticipation of the arrival of spawning females.
Both black and white crappies are found in Milford, and both species take on a deep, dark black—almost blue—coloration as the spawn draws near. Often in the early spawn, male fish are the only ones that anglers will catch in shallow water.
No matter what period of the spawn you’re fishing, keep tabs on the surface water temperature. Also consider changes between upwind and downwind sides of the lake. Crappies will start staging along shallow structure as the water warms, but if cloudy days or rain drop the water temps too much, fish will simply retreat to deeper water.
Spawning crappies can be caught almost anywhere along shallow-water structure at Milford. However, keep in mind both the structure that fish are moving to and the structure they are leaving. Areas like School Creek on the west side of the lake, for example, offer hard rock bottom and broken structure both at depth and in the shallows. Many crappie anglers know of this spot, but there’s still plenty of water to try.
Don’t overlook Curtis and Kemp creeks either. Their sunken brush piles have held fish all winter, and those same crappies can often be found along nearby banks when the temperatures are right.
When springtime winds push hard across the lake from the west, check for warmer water on the east side of the lake at the Farnum Creek and Rush Creek areas. Search for spawning fish in the shallows where the soft mud bottom firms up along the rocks. Making long casts of ranging depths with horsehead jigs is great for finding fish and identifying their depth and the structure they are keying on at the time.
Tactics and Tackle
Once you’ve found springtime crappies either in pre-spawn, peak-spawn or post-spawn patterns, it’s time to get the fish to eat. Often, live bait is tough to beat. Hang nose-hooked 2- to 4-inch shiner minnows under a bobber on a No. 2 to No. 4 sickle hook. Or, if the idea of live bait doesn’t appeal, try 2- to 3-inch 1/8- or 1/16-ounce crappie jigs with plastic, hair or feather bodies.
You can cast and retrieve these jigs, but a vertical presentation under a slip bobber is deadly after you pinpoint the fish and their depth.
Light-action spinning tackle works terrific for crappie fishing, but to fine-tune your presentation, try a 12-, 14- or even a 16-foot crappie rod to reach out and drop your bait right on a fish’s nose.
With these long rods, you don’t cast to the fish. Instead, let out enough line to match the depth where fish are present. Then, simply reach out with the long rod and drop your bait in place by lowering the rod tip.
Light-action 2-, 4- or 6-pound-test monofilament line is totally appropriate for crappie fishing, and plenty sporty. If you find yourself constantly losing hooks and jigs to snags, spool on 50- or 60-pound-test braided line. Braid has no stretch and offers fantastic sensitivity, as well as the strength to straighten light hooks and thus save tackle and time in tying on new rigs. My crappie rods stay spooled with 60-pound braid all year.
As with crappies, water temperature triggers the white bass spawn. Large schools congregate and start moving into upstream inlets that feed water into Milford Lake as the spawn approaches.
When the water temperature and the incoming currents are right, the white bass spawn can be a fantastic spectacle. Fish will stack up in the narrow, upper ends of creeks and along riffles across the Republican River.
Where to Look
As the pre-spawn approaches, try your luck at the inlet areas where feeder creeks and the river make their way into the main lake. Here again, male fish begin moving up first, making their way as far upstream as they can in preparation for fertile female fish.
White bass can move into a creek almost like a wave, with lots of fast action that seemingly shuts off after a while. In truth, fish may very well have moved farther upstream or back downstream, depending on the progress of the spawn. Many times, peak spawning activity happens far upstream on a feeder creek barely 6 feet across, or else just downstream from a riffle the fish cannot navigate.
If you’re fishing around the Republican River that feeds the reservoir, search for white bass making their way upstream where smaller creeks feed into the river. If the river is swollen and feeder creeks are backed up from spring rains, white bass can sometimes be found along the dam where they are drawn to the current created by the lake’s outlet.
Tactics and Tackle
White bass can be voracious eaters, particularly of shad; as such, shad imitations are ideal. Try throwing 1/8- or 1/16-ounce jig heads, horseheads or beetle spins paired with white, pearl, blue or ivory plastic bodies.
Curly-tail jig bodies or swim baits from 2 inches all the way up to 4 inches also work well to entice a white bass strike. Other baits to consider include spoons, small spinners and hard-bodied plugs made to imitate forage shad.
Light- and medium-light-action rods paired with spinning or spin cast reels spooled with 6- to 8-pound monofilament line are perfect white bass outfits. If you’re lucky enough to find peak-spawn fish in a narrow creek or along a riffle, a short 5 1/2- or 6-foot rod is plenty to pitch and retrieve those jigs.
MAKE A MILFORD RUN
Kansas’ Milford Reservoir is a fantastic fishery planted practically dead center in the Lower 48. Rich with opportunity and plenty of access, this body of water is right off Interstate 70.
It’s about a 2-hour drive from both Kansas City’s and Wichita’s respective airports, which makes it an easy trip for traveling anglers. White bass and crappies are plentiful and highly accessible to anglers in the spring, so whether you’re looking to fill a cooler or just have a good time, Milford can deliver.
ACTION IN ALL SEASONS
Catfish, bass, wipers and other species provide angling opportunities year-round at Milford.
Crappies and white bass tend to hog the spotlight on Milford in the spring, and justifiably so. However, other species offer great fishing in these same months, and at other times throughout the year.
Big bruiser channel, flathead and blue catfish tend to dominate in the summertime. In fact, Milford has built a solid reputation in catfishing circles, particularly for its large blue cats. Bass reign supreme for many anglers in the spring and early-summer months. The smallmouth bass bite, especially, can be quite good.
Hard-hitting hybrid striped bass (aka wipers) can bite well in early spring, but action can be crazy in late summer and early fall as they—and their smaller white bass cousins—devour shad on the surface. Some years, wiper fishing remains good right up until winter.
This solid mixed-bag fishery is largely the product of the lake’s healthy forage fish base, which includes shad, golden shiners and goldeyes. That, combined with effective management and supplemental stocking efforts, has built a foundation for strong game fish populations, both in terms of numbers and size. Anglers who make the trip to Milford—in any month—will have plenty to keep them busy.
Where to stay and eat around Milford Lake
Acorns Resort: This full-service resort and campground sits along the shoreline at Milford. It offers cabins, lodge rooms, yurts and RV campsites. The swim beach, restaurant (The Cove Bar & Grill) and convention area overlook the lake near the private docks, which also offer boat rentals. Private fishing guides can pick you up at the resort dock as well.
Grandpa Boone’s Cabin and Outfitters: This is a fantastic, family-friendly base for all things Milford. Owner and guide Brad Roether operates a fleet of tri-hull pontoon boats set up for serious fishing. The Grandpa Boone’s crew mainly targets crappies in the spring. A client landed the lake-record crappie (3 pounds 12 ounces) in 2021. Grandpa Boone’s also offers accommodations for clients at the lodge and a bunkhouse at their headquarters in Milford, Kan., across the street from the Milford Tropics bar and restaurant.
Other Accommodations: Cabins and campgrounds at Milford State Park; home rentals in Milford and Wakefield, Kan., and hotels in nearby Junction City and Manhattan, Kan.
Dining Options: Hit up Suzy Q Neighborhood Grill in Wakefield for a tasty burger and fries, or try their homemade chicken-fried steak. If you’re craving Mexican food, check out La Isla Mexican Cuisine and Cantina in Wakefield, which has all the tasty classics you’d expect.
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