COUNCIL GROVE RESERVOIR — Craig Johnson needn’t wait until spring to know Council Grove’s wiper fishing will probably be the best in 2014. Nor does he need to talk with locals to know the saugeye fishing was great this year.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism fisheries biologist learned that and much more after two recent days of setting and checking nets at the lake. He’s one of 17 fisheries biologists testing nearly every reservoir and sizable public lake in Kansas this fall as part of a three-plus decade program.
“A lot of surrounding states are really jealous of the data we gather every year with our fall test nettings,” said Kyle Austin, Wildlife and Parks fisheries administrator. “They do it every two or three years. It’s the best way for us to know what’s going on out there … and the public expects us to know what’s going on.”
This is Johnson’s 17th fall of test netting. He’s in charge of El Dorado and Council Grove reservoirs and about five smaller lakes. Much of his management strategy comes from what he learns every October.
“A lot of it is looking for young-of-the-year fish that by now are big enough to be caught in nests,” Johnson said as he worked Council Grove with fellow biologist Jeff Koch. “The colder water also starts pushing fish towards shallower water. Cold water also reduces stress on the fish so most can be released unharmed.”
Biologists follow well-prescribed guidelines to gain consistent information.
For many years, each biologist selected the places to set their nets. Koch and Johnson said that could lead to misleading results if a biologist at one lake annually placed nets where they knew the highest numbers of a particular species were concentrated — while at other lakes, more inexperienced biologists placed nets in more unproductive waters.
The end result was sometimes a lake with fewer fish would gain a higher rating than a lake that actually had better quality and quantity of the same species. Now, nets are placed randomly. The number of nets used is determined by a lake’s acreage. Koch said randomly set nets allows for better comparisons in other states, too, since most states now follow the same guidelines.
Recently purchased nets also give biologists a better sense of what’s beneath their lake’s surface.
At Council Grove, Johnson placed 12 nets one afternoon to be checked the next morning. For deep-water species, like saugeye and wipers, six of the sets were with gill nets, which entangle a fish’s fins or gill covers. Those nets were about 80 feet long and six feet tall, with eight sections of different-sized mesh that ranged from about three-quarters to 2 1/2 inches. The wide range of sizes allows the nets to catch many sizes of fish.
For species more confined to autumn shallows, Johnson set six trap nets. For them, a 50-foot section of fine mesh net ran from shore, leading fish into a series of mesh boxes in deeper water.
From those trap nets, he concluded low-water conditions had foiled this spring’s crappie spawn because freshly-hatched fish had no places to hide from predators. That will impact the lake’s crappie fishing in a few years.
From the gill nets, he and Koch untangled lots of fat wipers.
“I first stocked wipers in 2008 and they’re now starting to look good,” Johnson said. “Today we saw good numbers and some 21-inch fish. It should be good next year. That’s by far the best sample, by far, I’ve had from Council Grove.”
While the nets held nice numbers of saugeye, the numbers were down from last fall’s burgeoning nets which ranked Council Grove as one of Kansas’ best for 2013. Most of the missing fish probably went home in the coolers of anglers.
Some of the fish found in the nets, however, died before they could be removed from the mesh.
“I always figured we lost a few limits worth of fish anytime we did the netting,” said Austin, who managed several lakes for about 15 years, “but that’s a pretty small price to pay for the knowledge we gain.”
Johnson agreed, saying most of the mortalities at Council Grove were wipers, a species that are easily raised in a state hatchery for stocking.
All of the gamefish removed from the nets had their length and weight measured and recorded. Later this fall, Johnson will enter it all into a database from which he can determine if changes need to be made for future fish stockings or in size or creel limits. He’ll also be able to accurately predict what Council Grove’s fishing should be in 2014.
He and Koch said the fall nettings are some of their favorite weeks on the job.
“It’s a time of the year when it’s just great to be out in a boat, out in nature,” Johnson said, “but a lot depends on the weather, I guess. I’ve had some days my hands have frozen nicely to the gunnels…. that’s kind of creepy.”