Jeremy Conway was running late at last Saturday’s fishing tournament at La Cygne Reservoir. He had neither a game plan nor his gear ready when he launched his boat so he stopped by a steep bank he’d fished in past years. Once he had a rod ready, he made his first cast.
“It’s always been a pretty good bank to fish so I decided to start there,” said Conway, of Lawrence. “But I never thought I’d catch one on my first cast, or catch one that was almost 11 pounds.”
But that’s what he did, breaking the rare and coveted 10-pound mark for a Kansas largemouth bass. Even after swimming in a livewell all day, the fish weighed 10 pounds, 15 ounces at the tournament’s late-afternoon weigh-in. The fish is thought to be the biggest largemouth bass ever from La Cygne, and probably any public water in Kansas. It missed the current state record of 11.8 pounds by less than a breakfast of a nice-sized crappie.
But Conway’s trophy fish didn’t come easy.
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He was part way through his first cast with a Rapala crank bait when he felt a pretty hard hit, then just the deadweight serious anglers dread of a fish that’s gotten tangled underwater, like in a submerged tree.
“I knew it was in some kind of brush, so I just got my boat straight over it and started pulling my line at different angles, hoping it would come free,” said Conway. He knew his decision to cast 10-pound-test line, so the lure could run deeper with small-diameter line, wasn’t in his favor and could easily be snapped. After a long two minutes the bass became free and came to the surface.
Conway said his first thoughts were that he’d hooked a bass of seven to eight pounds. Either would have been his best bass. Netting the fish was easy. Lifting it aboard the boat was not.
“When I got my hands on it, that’s when I realized she was probably a lot bigger,” said Conway. “I honestly figured she was just over 10 pounds. I got her in the live well, then called my wife and told her I’d just caught a bass bigger than any I’d ever even seen before in person.”
A piscine rarity
Those who’ve caught largemouth bass of 10-plus pounds in Kansas waters are part of a small club.
Mike Miller, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism information chief, said his agency rarely gets credible reports of bass that weight 10 pounds or more.
Despite 100 or more years of bass fishing in Kansas, the first state record fish over 10 pounds was a 10 pound, 1 once fish in 1962. One in 1965 reached 11 pounds, 3 ounces. The next state record of 11.75 pounds was caught in a Jefferson County farm pond in 1977. It lasted until 2008 when the current record, 11.80 pounds, was caught from a private strip pit in extreme southeast Kansas.
A check in the agency’s Master Angler program, which began in the early 1980s, only showed four 10-pound or better bass entered through 2000, said Miller.
Since that year, fish have been measured in inches rather than pounds for the awards program, so anglers can release fish more easily.
Since no two bass of the same length will weight the same, it’s now hard to tell how many bass entered recently would crack 10 pounds. Conway said his fish was right at 27 inches, based on the width of the bag he used to carry it to the tournament weigh in.
Miller’s research showed a record of a bass of right at 10 pounds being 26 inches long when entered in 2000. Records show only six bass measuring 26 inches or longer have been entered in the statewide program over the past 12 years. Most of those fish have come from private waters. The few that have been from public have mostly come from La Cygne.
“There’s just no doubt that La Cygne is the best of our lakes when it comes to quality bass,” said Doug Nygren, Wildlife and Parks fisheries chief. “Most years, out of all those lakes we sample, the biggest are in La Cygne. It’s special.”
Since 1979, he said nearly half of all the bass over eight pounds, sampled from dozens of reservoirs, state and community lakes in Kansas, have come from La Cygne.
The 2,600-acre lake sits about 60 miles south of downtown Kansas City.
Per Kansas standards, Nygren said the lake has the best of all worlds needed to grow big bass. Part of a coal-fired power plant, discharge waters means the lake seldom freezes. That equates to longer growing seasons for everything from plankton to major predators, like Conway’s big bass.
La Cygne also has an abundance of habitat, like water willow, which offers shelter for young bass and for the fish upon which bigger bass feed. Unlike most reservoirs, La Cygne has a healthy population of big bluegill. Nygren said current research shows bluegill can be an important forage for largemouth bass.
The lake’s fish also have the best genetics of any public water largemouth bass in Kansas.
Nygren said 38 years ago Florida-strain largemouth bass were released into La Cygne, hoping the warmer water might fit the needs of the sub-species that’s known to grow to bigger proportions than most bass. Though no research has been done for several years, for decades after that long-ago stocking La Cygne’s largemouth bass still carried considerable Florida-strain genetics.
Still, Nygren rated honest 10-pounders in La Cygne as a “rarity,” but added the lake has both quality and quantity with lots of “nice bass that would be considered big bass in most places.” Conway said a bass of 8 1/2 pounds was weighed at the same annual tournament in 2016 at the lake. He only caught one more keeper after that monster fish last weekend, but it weighed four pounds.
Who knows, maybe next year, at the same tournament, he’ll be the first to crack 11 pounds at La Cygne or even set a new state record? He could even do it with the same fish, with normal growth rates.
“She was good and healthy. Right off I noticed she was in really good shape,” said Conway. “I made sure we took really good care of her. When we released her, she took off really well. Hopefully someone else will get to catch her again … maybe even me.”