Big fishing at Big Hill Lake

Big Hill Lake's is Kansas' version of an Ozark Lake only much smaller.
Big Hill Lake's is Kansas' version of an Ozark Lake only much smaller. The Wichita Eagle

BIG HILL LAKE — It's a place where oaks and hickories grow dense and tall amid rolling, rock-rimmed hills.

The water is so clear you can almost read the mind of a big smallmouth bass resting in a yard of water, waiting to ambush any crawfish, bluegill or lure passing its rocky lair.

Everything about the place speaks of Table Rock, Bull Shoals or other huge impoundment in the Missouri Ozarks.

But Big Hill Lake is comparatively small and sits solidly in southeast Kansas, a few miles west of Parsons.

"It's 1,200 acres, so it's not too overwhelming," Jim Zaleski said as he piloted his boat through a flooded forest on the lake Monday morning. "They call us the 'Gateway to the Ozarks.' It sure looks like parts of some Ozark lakes."

The avid tournament angler and tourism official from Parsons said Big Hill shares some similar attention to the larger Ozark waters.

"For years it's been known as a really good largemouth lake," Zaleski said. "It's become a top-end crappie lake and the last few years the smallmouth fishing has gotten a lot more attention."

Minutes from the launch, he slowed his boat and had two guests start casting five-inch plastic baits hooked once in the middle toward shore.

Jigged and reeled, the snapping ends of the lures resembled a baitfish trying to escape.

The ruse was convincing enough that within minutes, a 14-inch largemouth was dancing across Big Hill's placid surface.

By 1:30 p.m., about 29 more bass had added to the aerial show.

Zaleski credits Big Hill's ultra-clear water for helping establish it as one of Kansas' top public bass fisheries.

The Corps of Engineers' willingness to leave plenty of trees standing when the lake was flooded about 30 years ago also contributed.

Bass also get a chance to grow big.

"I think Wildlife and Parks has done a great job of making this a quality bass lake," Zaleski said of the state's 21-inch minimum length limit of largemouths and 18-inch length limit for smallmouth bass. "You come here, you've got a chance to put a fish in the boat of six-pounds-plus. They're certainly here."

Hoping to show off one of Big Hill's big smallmouth, Zaleski began Monday's trip casting toward rocky points and sections of shorelines along the lake's main body.

As he moved the boat along, he pointed to places where he's caught smallmouth bass of three to four pounds.

His best two from Big Hill were more than five pounds and caught last year.

When it was obvious the wide-open water wasn't producing as well as hoped, Zaleski started his boat and headed for another option.

He described the lake as three fisheries within one.

One is the open water at the lake's main body. Another is the many secluded coves with standing timber. Those heading up the river can also fish traditional fallen trees in narrow, shallow water.

"The way it's built you have about two-thirds of the lake that's in some kind of flooded timber," he said. "It's made for fishing. Even in the middle of the summer there are lots of places where I can get away from the jet skis and pleasure boaters."

He said Big Hill's many timbered coves and high banks also mean there's usually fishable water on blustery days.

"You see a lot of small boats on here," he said. "They get back in some quiet cove and putter around and usually have it to themselves."

Zaleski's next stop was a timbered cove known to hold big largemouths.

Though the fish were plentiful, the boat didn't land a bass of more than 16 inches from the flooded trees.

Time ran out before he could head his boat up the river, where friend Zac Udock had caught about 30, with many over three pounds, a few days earlier when conditions were more favorable.

"We caught quite a few fish today, just no big ones," Zaleski said as he prepared to leave early Monday afternoon. "That's pretty good for the day after a big cold front. It's a good lake."

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