The temperature was in the 20s, and Shane Eustice had driven by scores of iced-over impoundments and streams last Sunday morning.
But he smiled when he ran a hand into the water and lifted a chunky white bass aboard his boat.
“That’s one of the nice things about this lake in the winter,” said Eustice. “If your hands get cold, you can stick them in the water to get warm.”
Thick clouds of steam were rising from Coffey County Lake, where water as warm as the mid-60s met the winter air. The Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant, the source of the warmer water, was visible through the mists.
Such open water is one reason Eustice and Craig Johnson made the 88-mile drive northeast from El Dorado.
“We normally come over in mid-December, when the regular lakes start icing over,” said Eustice. “It gets to where I watch the weather all week to see if I can get on here the coming weekend.”
After signing in at a security station, and piling on several layers of clothes, Eustice piloted his 22-foot fishing boat across the lake, slowing where a rip-rap dike and prairie shoreline narrowed the lake. Johnson commented that the presence of gulls diving at the water was a good sign.
Both anglers watched as bundled-up men in one boat hauled in a few white bass. In another boat, a net flashed and a wiper of about six pounds was lifted aboard.
Eustice began with his beloved “pullin’ cranks,” a term for trolling with crankbaits.
“It’s what we mainly do to find the fish,” he said. “Once we find them, we’ll usually start casting.”
The lures had only been wet a few minutes when Johnson brought a small white bass to the boat. Eustice quickly added another.
The outboard was stopped and the pair began making long casts over a flat that probably averaged water about four feet deep.
Eustice stayed with the crankbait while Johnson launched a three-inch, white, curly-tail grub. Both were quickly into white bass. Fast action is another thing that often draws Eustice to Coffey County.
Several times Eustice and a friend, or client of his Hook ’Em Guide Service, have landed 200 or more fish in a day at Coffey County Lake, when the fish are schooled tightly.
Johnson recalled a wintery day when he and friend Jerry Howard found a huge ball of gamefish with electronics and basically fished the same spot most of the day.
“We’d put a rod with a slab spoon deep in a rod holder and let it hang, then fish with another rod,” Johnson said. “We were into two, three or sometimes four fish at a time for most of the day. A lot of them were really nice white bass. I know we had to catch over 200. It wore me out… but it was fun.”
High numbers of fish are part of the overall plan at Coffey County.
According to literature at the security booth where anglers check-in, high predatory fish populations are needed to keep gizzard shad from clogging screens where Wolf Creek draws water from the 5,000-acre lake.
Size and creel limits are generally more conservative than state limits.
Eustice and Johnson mainly go for catch-and-release fishing, hoping to boat lots of numbers.
Generally that means fishing for white bass near where a cable divides off-limits part of the lake and where angling is allowed.
There, anglers normally find the warmest water.
Johnson, a Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism fisheries biologist, said they often follow the temperature change as warm water hits the main lake, to find a targeted species.
The warmest water generally attracts largemouth, wipers and white bass. Smallmouth and walleye are normally further from the warmest water and blue cats near old creek channels. Crappie are usually in the same deep, cold water places where you’d find them at regular reservoirs.
Eustice found occasional concentrations of white bass, but mostly had to stay on the move, casting far to locate fish.
The total for the day was an even 80 fish, of which most were white bass to 16½-inches long, and a handful of walleye and channel cat. They probably landed about 15 largemouths, too.
They didn’t catch any blue catfish, though photos at the security stop from last summer show several between 40 and 53 pounds.
Other anglers fishing traditional bass lures along nearby rip-rap, of which Coffey County has hundreds of yards, did well on largemouth and smallmouths up to three or four pounds.
Though successful, Eustice had hoped for at least twice as many fish.
“What, we didn’t even make it to 100? I’m never coming back,” Eustice jokingly said. “When it gets warm enough other lakes open up, I’ll go to them. They’re just a lot closer. I know guys who come here all year and they always seem to catch a lot of fish.”