Fishing in the pits is not the pits

05/24/2014 4:22 PM

05/25/2014 7:22 AM

McCUNE – Mined and marred brutally for decades, the Mined Land Wildlife Area was a part of southeast Kansas considered nearly worthless not many years ago. In the early 1980s, about 8,000 acres was given to the state by the coal mining company that contributed to the mess.

But Monday morning, Jim Clay found plenty of treasure in the land once considered trashed.

“We’re having a pretty good day of fishing,” Clay said has he unhooked about the 12th bass boated by early afternoon. “They sure are pretty coming from this clear water.”

He then dropped the 15-inch fish back into the clearest water he’d fished in more than 50 years of Kansas angling.

Though an avid and accomplished bass tournament angler, it was his first time to fish for largemouths on the 14,500-acre Mined Land Wildlife Area. Mine, too. A mutual friend arranged our trip, and suggested a 28-acre lake better known for year-round trout fishing, though we had plenty of options.

“We put in our brochures there are 200 strip-mine lakes, that compromise about 1,500 acres of fishable water, but there are a lot more,” said Rob Riggin, who managed the area for about 14 years for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “I counted around 1,600 pits. A lot are pretty secluded. A lot of people take advantage (of the remote pits) and hike back, fighting the brush, sometimes on hands and knees, but they can catch some nice fish.”

Instead of crawling, Clay drove down a county road and backed his boat down a ramp at the lake known as the Trout Pit. Rob Friggeri, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist for the area, estimated more than 25 of the pit lakes have some sort of boat ramp.

The lake was framed with lush trees, flowering wild vines and flowers. The pristine condition of the water, however, left us a bit amazed and a lot concerned.

We could still distinguish the detail’s of a spinnerbait’s skirt in 10 feet of water.

“I’m an old bullhead fisherman who grew up fishing muddy creeks,” Clay said jokingly. “I really don’t know what this clear of water will do to the fishing.”

We blamed the super-clear water for going fishless for about two hours as we pounded the shoreline with traditional bass lures.

For awhile, we were wishing we’d have brought trout fishing bait, especially after watching a guy on the dock land a couple of two-pound rainbows. While we were there, a hatchery truck dumped a load of new trout into the lake. Friggeri said the lake’s depth of about 60 feet means some water stays cold enough for the trout to live year-round, a rarity in Kansas. Riggins said the fish certainly can grow, as some brown trout stocked at about a half-pound were caught a few years later weighing more than six pounds.

Other species grow well in pit waters, too. The state-record channel catfish of 36.5 pounds was caught from a Mined Land Area pit about 10 years ago. The state-record largemouth bass of 11.8 pounds was caught in a strip pit on private land. Riggins said bass to 10 pounds have been caught from public pits in the past. We never found any bass near that big, but still did well.

Switching to smaller plastic lures, Clay found our eventual success at the edges of deep weedlines, especially where shade or waves reduced water visibility. Most of the 15 bass caught were about 15 to 17 inches, well within the area’s slot limit that says all bass 13 to 18 inches must be released. Friggeri insisted there are better bass waters within the Mined Land Area.

The best fish of the day hit a three-inch jig in about eight feet of wind-whipped water.

“That fish’ll probably go four pounds,” Clay said as I lifted the fish with gorgeous black and green markings aboard, then gently released it back overboard after a few photos. Clay closed the action a few minutes later with a slot-limit fish and we headed to shore.

“That’s a pretty darned good day considering it’s a public lake, the (30-plus mph) wind and we’ve never fished it before,” Clay said.

That, I agree, seemed every bit as clear as the water we’d been fishing.

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