MILFORD RESERVOIR — Friday’s dawn was the kind that makes it good to be alive, especially when you’re holding a fishing rod.
The air was long-sleeved cool but so calm even the thin line on long, arching casts was reflected in the lake’s surface.
But the mirror-like surface was often pierced by brown and green finned missiles headed skyward, trying to shake our hooks.
The steady action on smallmouth and largemouth bass on a post card-pretty lake confirmed my contention – Milford Reservoir is the best of its kind in Kansas.
At 16,000-plus acres it’s Kansas’ biggest lake in size and, I think, angling potential.
Draining mostly prairie, Milford’s waters are so clear it’s often possible to see a lure snagged on a stump or stone six feet below the surface.
(Trust me, I know much about that.)
Thanks to a half-century of waves beating the Flint Hills shoreline, much of Milford is ringed with pea to Pontiac-sized rocks.
It’s ideal habitat for something most reservoirs are lacking – good numbers of largemouth and smallmouth bass.
Fewer than five casts into Friday morning, a 16-inch smallmouth smashed the top-water I was casting. In a few hours Rick Dykstra and I had combined for probably 30 bass.
The best was a toad of a five-pound largemouth he caught in about three feet of water. Twice, we fought nice smallies at the same time from his boat.
And at Milford those without boats might do well.
Dykstra, of Junction City, said there are many places anglers can drive a little then walk a lot along the rocks or wade out on to shallow flats for bass and other species.
And there certainly are other species.
With catfish guru Ryan Gnagy, last Monday we drifted fist-sized chunks of shad to catch 17 Milford blue catfish from one to about 21 pounds.
First stocked about 20 years ago, Milford’s blues are steadily reproducing and growing fat. Fish of 60-plus pounds are caught annually and some day 100-pound blues could be a reality.
And last fall I watched broad schools of white bass and wipers to 10 pounds make shad wish they had wings instead of fins as the baitfish went airborne to escape the lake’s most-savage predators.
But it’s rare that a Milford trip provides just a species or two.
In near 100-degree heat, a friend and I once caught six or seven species simply casting jig-tipped leeches on a single rocky point.
And the lake is probably surrounded by amenities as good as any in Kansas.
There are federal, state and private campgrounds, with everything from primitive sites to “cabins” at Acorn Resort that are nicer than most nice houses.
Almost at the edge of Junction City, places for supplies and groceries are never more than minutes away and the area around the lake is dotted with assorted businesses.
Unlike near many lakes, the residents around Milford seem to embrace visitors. Maps with prime fishing areas circled are commonly handed out at both public marinas and several tackle shops.
Milford Tropics, a fun eatery in the town of the same name, delivers phone-ordered pizza and sandwiches to a nearby dock at no extra charge.
The lake’s plusses are far from a secret. Parking lots hold boat trailers with tags from several states.
Covering a national walleye tournament, I met a Pennsylvania pair fresh off the water. Both were laughing at the loss of three fishing poles pulled from their boat, probably by wipers, while they were photographing a six-pound walleye.
They had already called spouses and bosses to say they’d decided to stay an added week.
But even at Milford, it’s still fishing and not catching.
Some days the fish won’t bite and no bait is good enough if the angler is casting it into vacant waters.
And like at all fisheries, at Milford the big ones always seem to get away.
Friday’s most memorable fish is one that rolled behind my top-water lure, missing the hooks. The color of creamed coffee and brick-thick, it was at least 14 inches between unseen head and tail.
The big smallmouth will haunt me until I return to Milford to give him another try.
Then again, it’s not like I ever need an excuse to return.