Cozy casting

Wichitan Chris Siler tries for crappie at the heated fishing dock at Melvern Reservoir.
Wichitan Chris Siler tries for crappie at the heated fishing dock at Melvern Reservoir. The Wichita Eagle

The temperature was 10 degrees, with a wind chill of 10 below. Fishaholic Issac Roland had a problem Wednesday morning. He was sweating.

“Man, I’m going to have to go back to fishing over there,” said Roland, nodding toward a spot opposite where the wood-burning stove had radiated heat in an enclosed dock then buffeted by a fierce north wind. “This one side of me is about ready to bake.”

A few seconds later, he was back fishing beside a bucket of a dozen crappie about ready to fry.

When work was canceled due to the cold, cement truck drivers Roland, and his friend, Chris Siler, made the two-hour drive from Wichita to Melvern Reservoir to be on hand when the enclosed section of dock at Melvern Lake Marina opened at 7 a.m. Siler said it was the report of nice crappie being caught from the lake recently that pulled them from Wichita to the lake south of Topeka. Other times they have headed in the same direction and fished a similar dock at Marion County Lake. Usually, they head the other direction.

“Oklahoma has a lot more (heated) docks than we do up in Kansas,” Siler said. Down there, some of the heated docks are the size of houses, and there may be several on some of the larger waters, such as Grand Lake. Siler said he’s fished heated docks at at least nine lakes, mostly out of state.

Given a choice, Siler prefers the days when he can fish for crappie in different parts of a lake from his boat. He takes his fishing indoors when ice covers prime crappie spots or the cold wind is blowing too hard for him to be able to fish comfortably, and safely, from his boat.

There was a time when there were more heated docks in Kansas. He said he has heard stories from his father, and others, of places like Toronto and Fall River reservoirs having heated docks 40 years ago. Some eventually burned, and others fell into disrepair. Most lakes need an active marina to be able to support and maintain a heated fishing dock throughout the winter.

Siler and Roland, plus two anglers from Leavenworth, each paid $6 to fish in the heated dock at Melvern. Within a few minutes they were pulling crappie from the submerged brush that’s sunk below the enclosed dock. Then, at mid-morning, the action shut down. The anglers kept fishing, patiently, hoping the fish would again start feeding.

“You hear a lot of people at places like this say they want another school to come through, kind of like a merry-go-round,” Siler said. “But that’s probably not the way it works. The fish are still down there, they’re just not biting right now. Every time our bait goes down, a crappie is probably seeing it.” Siler said high-quality electronics have proven what he’d just stated.

As they fished, the temperature in the enclosed dock stayed between 45 and 60 degrees. A stack of Osage orange wood in the corner of the building was furnished by the marina. It took only a few modest logs every couple of hours to have things toasty for the four anglers. All fished with either bare hands or gloves with the fingertips removed so they could detect the usually subtle bite of a cold-water crappie.

Siler used the tiny rod and reel normally associated with ice fishing. It was the same for the tiny lures on the end of his line. Opening a foam-lined box small enough to fit in a coat pocket, he displayed a selection of more than 150 half-inch jigs he makes from a tiny willow leaf spinner blade and a cut down hook normally used for trout. He solders the two together, then paints them an array of color combinations.

“They can work really well, but they’re such a pain to make. It’s tedious and I have to buff up the blade so it’ll hold paint,” he said. “I’ve had people offer me $5 apiece for them, but I won’t sell them. They’re just too much work to sell.”

Rarely have their been times when his little creations have been out-fished by traditional plastic or feathery jigs. They sometimes use the homemade-style jigs all year, and at about all places.

“We tailor them to (the heated docks) in Oklahoma and they look at us like we’re from outer space,” said Roland, “but they stop that once we start catching the most fish, then we’re not so crazy.”

“Crazy” might be a word some would use to describe the two Wichitans, still staring at their lines four or five hours after the last legitimate crappie bite on Wednesday. The fishing buddies saw it differently.

“It started off good but doesn’t look like it’s going to finish so good,” Roland said at about 3:30 p.m. “But you never really know. We’ve been up here the majority of the day without a single bite. Then, after everybody else has left late in the afternoon, they turned on and we really got into them. As far as we drive to get here, we figure we might as well fish as long as we can.”

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