GLEN ELDER LAKE — Glen Elder Lake's excellent smallmouth-bass fishing is no longer a well-guarded secret.
The rumor mill about large, chunky bass being caught on the plains of Kansas is spreading the word. And that message is being heard as far away as the West Coast.
"We have a customer who comes all the way from California to fish with us at Glen Elder," said Matt Blad, a guide at the lake in north-central Kansas. "All he wants to go for is smallmouth bass.
"One time, he drove all the way, but he usually flies to Kansas City, then rents a car. It's a long way, but he says it's worth it.
"He tells us he doesn't have anything like this where he's from."
That doesn't surprise Blad, who runs the R&M Guide Service with his dad, Ron. They have witnessed the amazing turnaround Glen Elder has experienced in the last five years.
Once, their part of the state was known for farm pond fishing and not much else when it came to bass fishing. Oh, there were smallmouths at Wilson Reservoir, but the Blads seldom got there to fish for them. And there were years when the largemouth fishing was good at Glen Elder, but it wasn't consistent.
The Blads were bass fishing addicts without much of a home. But when the smallmouth bass started to take hold at Glen Elder in the early 2000s, that changed.
The Blads were among the first to chase the feisty gamefish.
"Our smallmouth fishing is a diamond in the rough," said Blad, 35, who lives in Beloit. "It's never been very well-known, but gradually the word's getting out.
"We're guiding fishermen who travel a long way just to fish for our smallmouths."
Glen Elder's success story began to develop in the mid-1990s, when the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks stocked the fish for three years. After that, the smallmouth population began to take hold.
Even a prolonged drought in the early to mid 2000s couldn't keep the bronze bass from building their numbers.
"When I got here in 2004, the largemouth numbers were declining, but the smallmouths were flourishing," said Scott Waters, the fisheries biologist who manages Glen Elder. "They like that good, rocky habitat and we have a lot of that at Glen Elder, especially on the eastern half.
"It's gotten to the point where we've pretty much reached our carrying capacity. We have a good population, and we're seeing bigger fish every year.
"It's not unusual for fishermen to come out here and catch smallmouths 10 to 16 inches."
This spring Blad was searching for some of the bass on the upper end of that range.
He maneuvered his bass boat into the shallows along a rocky bank, and began scanning the bottom with the help of his polarized sunglasses. When he spotted a bright spot, he knew he was in the right place.
"There's a nest," he said. "And there's a fish setting on it."
He flipped a plastic bait into the clear water and guided it so that landed in the middle of that clearing in the rocks. The second it landed, he watched a bass flash toward the lure and grab it.
Blad set the hook and watched a bronze rocket shoot out of the water. When the fish landed, it immediately resumed the fight.
But the battle was short-lived. Soon, Blad had the 2 1/2-pound fish in hand and admired it for a moment before easing it back into the water.
"That fish was a chunk," Blad said. "But fish that size aren't unusual out here.
"Especially in the spring, you can catch a lot of nice-sized fish."
That day Blad and two guests spent the next several hours catching the bass that are giving Glen Elder a reputation.
They cast everything from plastic finesse worms to small jig-and-pig combinations to the rocky shallows and caught and released more than 30 fish, many of them in the 14- to 16-inch range. The largest weighed 3 1/2 pounds.
Blad has also done well on crankbaits, fishing in 6 to 10 feet of water along chunk-rock banks and points. But he knows that even in the heat of summer, the fish will hit.
"My dad is retired, and he fishes out here every minute he can," Blad said. "He just fishes for smallmouths and he knows how to catch them. He's taught me everything I know.
"We've watched this fishing get better every year. We're catching bigger fish now than we ever imagined we would."