Bob Roberts looked at the maze of brush jutting out of the Cottonwood River and knew he was in the right boat.
As a branch cut a large scratch in the side of his 1977 Champion, he just laughed. When you fish out of an antique, there aren’t too many places you won’t try to squeeze into.
“If I was in a new boat right now, I wouldn’t be too happy,” Roberts said as the loud squeak of a branch rubbing against his boat sounded another scratch. “This old boat has so many scratches that I don’t worry about it.
“This boat has been through a lot. But it’s perfect for a place like this where there’s a lot of brush and trees in the water.”
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Roberts’ boat is nicknamed the Blue Heron, partly for its faded color, partly for the fishing ability of the guy running the trolling motor at the bow.
Roberts is as serious about his fishing as the Heron. He is constantly on the water in central Kansas, whether it be for saugeyes at Kanopolis, crappies and wipers at Marion, or walleyes at Wilson.
He usually stays with the larger reservoirs that are no secret to the average Kansas fisherman. But he slips away to lesser-known waters every once in a while, too.
That’s what brought him to the Cottonwood River, a tributary of Marion Reservoir, last weekend.
The wind was howling, churning up big whitecaps on the main reservoir. So Roberts headed to the Cottonwood River, a narrow, high-bank waterway that is protected from the wind. The minute you pull up to this scenic place, it looks like a fishing spot. It is chockful of snags, brush and laydowns, and a canopy of trees hangs over the water.
“Lot of places to get snagged in here,” Roberts said.
And lots of places to catch fish.
As Roberts turned on his sonar unit on a stretch of river about a mile from where it joins with Marion Reservoir, it showed that the water was 10 feet deep in the channel. Brush extended over the dropoff, providing a likely looking spot for fish to hide.
As Roberts maneuvered the Blue Heron behind the branches of a large tree laying in the water, he dropped his white Panfish Assassin into the clear water. He jigged it slightly, then felt a tug. When he set the hook, he said, “This is no crappie.”
The fish pulled hard and tried to wrap the line around one of many branches in its lair. Before long, though, Roberts won the tug-of-war and pulled a nice-sized wiper out of the maze of brush.
Roberts and I spent the rest of the afternoon dipping jigs into the thick brush and occasionally pulling out fish. No, the action wasn’t great. But by the time we were done, we had caught and released a variety of crappies, white and largemouth bass and one wiper.
Roberts wasn’t surprised. He knows that many Kansas rivers and streams that are relatively overlooked can produce good fishing. Much of that can depend on water levels. In the midst of the drought, the Cottonwood was almost cut off from Marion Reservoir that it feeds, and access to the river was difficult.
But now that the water in both the reservoir and the river is back to normal, boat ramps maintained by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism are again accessible and fishermen have plenty of water to float their boats.
“Even at low flow, the fish can come and go (from the reservoir to the river),” said Doug Nygren, chief of fisheries for Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “It’s always been good for crappies and white bass.
“But the same is true for some other tributaries in Kansas. You have to do some exploring, but some of these spots can produce good fishing.”
Advice to Kansas fishermen: Don’t overlook tributaries
Most Kansas fishermen concentrate on major reservoirs or state fishing lakes. But the tributaries can produce some outstanding fishing too if conditions are right. Here are a few that Doug Nygren, chief of fisheries for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Torism, recomends.
FOX CREEK (in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, north of Cottonwood Falls): For bank fishermen, this creek can be a hidden gem. It’s not big enough to put a large boat on, but it is readily accessible for fishermen on foot or with waders. It has a good population of spotted bass and has a wide range of other species.
REPUBLICAN RIVER (accessible from the Wakefield ramp on Milford Reservoir): You have to be careful when traveling from the reservoir into the river. There are stumps and shallow spots. But once you get a ways up river, you can find good fishing. Nygren has caught big blue catfish on trotlines. He even has a fish story about fishing there. “One time, we were baiting a trotline and we caught a couple of nice-sized blue cats on bare hooks while were baiting the other hooks,” he said. “The fish must have been attracted to the flash of the hooks.”
NEOSHO RIVER (the Hartford Riffles above John Redmond Reservoir): The Hartford Riffles are known for their huge white bass. When the fish making their spawning run up the Neosho, big whites are caught. In fact, the Kansas state-record white bass was caught in the Neosho near John Redmond in April, 2002. It weighed 5.67 pounds.
WAKARUSA RIVER (above and below Clinton Reservoir): The Wakarusa produces good fishhing for white bass in the spring and for catfish throughout spring, summer and fall.
FALL RIVER (above Fall River Reservoir): Accessible in the wildlife area, this section of the Fall River has a good bass population and also produces good crappie fishing.