MARION RESRVOIR — The nine-inch crappie wasn’t even Mike Hayden’s biggest of the day, but the 69-year-old angler smiled extra wide as he lifted the fish through a hole in the ice.
“That’s an accomplishment 52 years in the making,” said Hayden, a former legislator, governor and Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism secretary. “I caught my first fish from a federal reservoir (in Kansas) in 1962, now I’ve caught fish at all of them.”
Kansas has 23 reservoirs the federal government built mostly in the 1950s through 1970s for flood control. They’re generally Kansas’ biggest lakes, on some of Kansas largest streams and rivers. Locally, Cheney, El Dorado an Marion are all federal reservoirs.
Raised in Atwood, Hayden said he fished quite a few federal reservoirs and assorted lakes as a child, but few of them were in Kansas.
“Reservoirs came to that country really early, but they were in Colorado and Nebraska. Many were built there first because those were at the headwaters of the rivers,” Hayden said. He said his first trip to federal waters was at Kirwin Reservoir in 1962, when he successfully fished for channel catfish.
As a child, then young man, he was often one of the first to cast a line into many federal waters. Back then, he said, the lakes were often off-limits until an official opening day. He remembers well when Norton Reservoir opened in 1967.
“It was in April, and a very cold day and there were still 20,000 people there when they opened it to fishing,” Hayden said. “The fishing was tough because a lot of the fish were still deep. I remember I caught a largemouth that very first day that it opened.”
Hayden hasn’t missed a year of reservoir fishing through those five-plus decades. Even got in a few trips just before and just after his tour in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. His post-service days at Fort Hays State led to a lot of fishing, too.
“Wilson was really good in those days, for largemouths of all things,” Hayden said. “Webster has had a good walleye population, even back into the ’60s. I caught some good walleye there, too.”
Years working in Topeka, and now Lawrence where he is the executive director of the Missouri River Association of States and Tribes, has given Hayden a solid handle on the differences amid the Kansas Reservoirs. He sees a lot of difference between western and eastern Kansas reservoirs.
“Those western Kansas reservoirs had plenty of water (when they were first built.) so sometimes they’d fill in just a few months,” Hayden said. “But when the irrigation started, and we had some dry years, the water levels went down and vegetation grew up. Then when water came again, like with the floods of ’93, the lakes were rejuvenated and it was like fishing them when they were new again.”
Hayden said eastern Kansas Reservoirs have more stable water levels, and water that is usually more turbid and fertile.
He said he’s really only had the goal of fishing all of the federal reservoirs for about the past 10 years, when he realized he had already fished most as opportunities presented themselves. That Marion Reservoir was last seems a surprise, especially to Hayden. He’d been to the lake several times, such as the state park or some activity in a nearby town. Hayden has no idea how many dozens of times he passed with a few miles of the reservoir as he came and went from events in Wichita or Pratt while he’s lived in Topeka or Lawrence.
But it probably took less than five minutes to end his quest, after he dropped a pair of very tiny jigs through a hole Andy Fanter had drilled, and checked with an electronic locator. Hayden caught several crappie and a small white bass before he left after about two hours of fishing. Though appreciative that Marion had furnished the ending of his quest, it’s not his favorite lake. When asked where he would go if he could just fish one, he said he’d go back to where his quest began.
“I suppose it would be Kirwin, somewhat for nostalgic reasons but also because it can have tremendous crappie fishing,” Hayden said. “You can walk out of there with a better stringer of crappie than from any other federal reservoir in the state. I’ve come out of there with 50 that weighed over 100 pounds. You just can’t do much better than that.”