The good news is that Jay Melkus caught a potential state record rainbow trout on March 7 at Lake Shawnee. The salmon-sized fish was about 30 inches long and weighed 14.25 pounds.
The bad news is his “fish of a lifetime” was bested three days later by a 15.43-pounder caught by Nicole Wilson at the same lake.
At least Melkus isn’t alone in his disappointment. Last year the state rainbow record was also bested twice at Lake Shawnee.
The lake of about 425 acres near Topeka has been stocked with unusually large trout the past few years.
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Melkus said his best last year was about 10 pounds. His second-best this year was about eight or nine.
“I caught two that weighed about six (pounds) each over on that bank one afternoon last week,” Melkus said as he cast for more fish during Wednesday afternoon’s steady rain. “We catch a lot around four pounds.”
Like most Kansas waters, Lake Shawnee gets too warm to support trout year-around. The finned tanks people like Melkus and Wilson are catching have been added to the water in the past few weeks.
Chuck Beaver, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism biologist in charge of the state’s trout program, said the agency orders most of the fish stocked in about 40 public waters to create some cold water fun. Most of those fish are about 11 inches, with about 5 percent 14 inches or longer.
Lake Shawnee officials, however, opt to take the department’s money and purchase fish from a different supplier, opting to focus as much on quality fish as quantity. Beaver said many of the larger fish, like the record-setters, are probably old females that no longer produce a lot of eggs for the hatcheries.
“Apparently they have a supplier who doesn’t want those big brood fish dying on the vine,” said Beaver. He added the state prefers to stock a lot of smaller fish rather than smaller amounts of huge fish.
Still, Lake Shawnee anglers seem to have little problem keeping in the action.
Wilson said she and her husband, Jeremy, generally catch about 10 nice trout per day fishing from shore, casting 1/64th-ounce jigs below small floats.
Wednesday, Melkus joined Clyde Holscher for about three hours of casting in the cold rain. Rather than casting the 1/80th-ounce hand-tied jigs Melkus used to catch his short-lived record, the longtime friends cast 2½-inch soft plastic grubs so they could double up on trout and bass.
The largemouth and smallmouth seemed particularly active, with about 35 brought to boat. According to Melkus, the trout bite was a bit off though the livewell held nine fat rainbows when the trip was over. A good trout broke Holscher’s line, and several came unhooked, including one that left Melkus wide-eyed.
“Wow,” said the lifetime local, “I want that one back. That fish really had some shoulders on it. It was really big.”
At one point a rainbow of 16 inches was brought to the boat. “Honestly, that’s the smallest trout I’ve netted all year,” Holscher said. “These things probably average three or four pounds.”
As well as large, Lake Shawnee’s trout are especially vibrant. Their scarlet stripes and silver flashes are easily seen many yards from the boat. They also seem as powerful as any native-born fish of the Colorado high country. One fish hooked, but lost, took off across the lake’s surface like a well-skipped rock. Melkus’ 30-inch fish cleared the water twice and took more than 20 minutes to land.
With that piscine muscle comes another advantage — taste.
“A lot of stocked trout are white and oily and have a really nasty flavor,” Melkus said as he looked at a cleaned fish when the trip was over. “These are kind of pink, and have some color. They have a really, really good flavor. We enjoy eating them a lot of different ways.”
And that, he’s quick to add, is some of the best fishing news he’s had this year.