Much had changed in the 12 years since I’d last cast into Cedar Bluff Reservoir. Then, it was arguably the best bass fishing reservoir in Kansas, and only a few years removed from being rated the best in the nation. A host and I caught 15 to 20 that day, with several more than four pounds.
But Thursday morning the flooded trees and other structure where we’d caught fish in 2001 were very high and dry.
“Cedar Bluff is a little over 23 feet low,” said Chris Smith, Cedar Bluff State Park manager. “The last time it was full was back in 2001. It’s been on a mostly steady decline since.”
Angling, camping and overall lake enjoyment haven’t fallen nearly as much as the lake’s water levels. “We’ve been holding our own,” Smith said of state park visitation and fishing.
Declining water levels are nothing new for the western Kansas reservoir. Smith said the lake reached it’s lowest in 1992 when it was 54 feet low. Then it was about 900 surface acres of water, down from about 5,900 when full. Currently it’s about 3,150 acres.
It’s because of those years when the lake was so dry that the bass and crappie fishing became so outstanding when the rains finally came from about 1993-2000. Dave Spalsbury, the lake’s fisheries biologist, said the thousands of acres of flooded terrestrial vegetation made ideal habitat. The largemouth bass population had quantity and quality. “It was common to go out and catch a bunch of four- to six-pounders, you could count on it,” he said. “You might catch a dozen or more a day.”
Now, it’s the fish of the open, and often deep, water that draw anglers to Cedar Bluff.
“We had a great walleye run this spring, with a lot of bigger fish caught,” Spalsbury said. “People were catching fish up to eight pounds, 27 to 29 inches long, post-spawn so they weren’t full of eggs.”
Cedar Bluff also rates as one of Kansas’ top white bass fisheries, and has good numbers of wipers. A healthy shad population helps the fish grow.
Several times within about the past two weeks my friend Andy Fanter has sent photos of wipers to about 10 pounds and walleye to 27 inches. Text messages had tales of triples on white bass while trolling three lines and other catches. About five hours of trolling with Fanter on Thursday morning produced five white bass and a wiper of about 23 inches. Smith said angling had been slow for several days, but should pick up with steady weather.
But even mid-week in August, the lake had quite a bit of activity as did the nearby state park.
“It used to be visitation kind of mirrored the (water level) declines but not the last few years,” Smith said. “I think people realize we still have over 3,000 acres of water and a pretty nice campground.”
While Cheney and Kanopolis Reservoirs struggled with boat access this spring when their water levels dipped to eight to 10 feet low, Smith said Cedar Bluff has at least two ramps that will launch most sizes of fishing and pleasure boats. That’s largely thanks to the state park working at lengthening and maintaining good ramps when the lake was at its lowest.
And there’s no shortage of boatable water. Even with the lake 23 feet below normal pool, Fanter’s electronics found water 39 feet deep. He was often boating in surprisingly deep water not far from where cottonwoods and willows have grown on long, sloping points and broad flats that were under several feet of water when Cedar Bluff was full.
Salsbury and Smith are waiting the time when the lake is filling and those trees are largely covered with water, duplicating the amazing fish habitat of the 1990s.
Sitting on the shallow drainage of the upper reaches of the Smoky Hill River, Cedar Bluff takes special kinds of rains, in exact places, to get much inflow. In the early 1990s about 20 inches of rain fell within a few days, just above the lake, to get the lake’s level rising.
“It’ll happen again, probably,” Salsbury said. “it’s kind of a bust to boom thing out here.”
In the meantime, anglers are still having a pretty good time.
“In the fall you can wade out a bit on that boat ramp and catch a lot of those really big wipers,” Smith said. “That’s really a lot of fun. There’s lots of good fishing in here.”