On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons this spring, when the sky looked as dreamy and warm as an Albert Bierstadt painting and the wind refrained from howling, a small coterie of fishermen ventured to Melvern Lake to give chase to a smallmouth bass of grand proportions.
This noble fish is a relative newcomer to these parts.
Back in the early 1980s, a few pint-sized smallmouths lurked around the dam at Clinton Lake, but ranks of anglers abused these acrobatic and pugnacious creatures, and they quickly perished.
Until Coffey County Lake's bountiful population of smallmouths was opened to public fishing on Oct. 1, 1996, smallmouth devotees hereabouts had to travel to the Ozarks or Wilson and Milford lakes or to the northwoods of Minnesota and Canada.
About the same time eastern Kansas anglers began appreciating the manifold virtues of the smallmouth bass at Coffey, rumors spread that Leonard Jirak, a Wildlife and Parks fisheries, had stocked 308 eight-inch smallmouths into Melvern in September of 1994.
Then by the fall of 2000, smallmouth aficionados such as Dick Bessey of Shawnee and Clyde Holscher of Topeka discovered those 308 smallmouths had multiplied copiously and grown to handsome proportions.
According to the best calculations of Bessey and Holscher, an egg-laden female from the 1994 stocking ought to weigh nearly six pounds this spring. So these two anglers and some friends set their sights on catching such a specimen during the weeks before the spawn, which can occur when the water temperature exceeds 56 degrees.
On the late afternoon of March 22, Holscher and a friend made their first smallmouth trip of the spring to Melvern Lake.
The water was exceedingly clear with more than six feet of visibility, and the lake was about four feet low. The surface temperature registered 44 degrees, the wind came from the northeast at 12 mph and area thermometers hit a high of 64 degrees.
For three hours, these two anglers employed a Rapala Husky Jerk and a Smithwick Rogue, slowly twitching them across four rocky points.
They failed to catch the big one, but they caught and released two three-pounders and battled two good-sized fish they didn't see.
Bessey and a friend visited Melvern for the first time on the afternoon of March 29. Then the water temperature ranged from 46 to 50 degrees. A south breeze blew at three to 10 mph, and the bright sun warmed the late afternoon air to 57 degrees.
These two anglers worked Rogues and small jigs on rocky points and along three stretches of rip-rap shorelines.
They managed to catch and release a four-pounder and a smaller one, but not the giant they sought.
It wasn't until the afternoon of April 17 that Bessey and his friend tangled with the titan of their dreams.
On this day, a frosty cold front pummeled the Melvern area, dropping early morning temperatures to 30 degrees, and a chilly wind jetted out of the northeast at 13 mph. By 4 p.m., however, the sun had warmed the air to 59 degrees, and the lake's surface temperature ranged from 56 to 61 degrees. However, after two weeks of extremely strong winds, the water visibility had decreased to three feet.
The two anglers probed several miles of rocky points and shorelines with white spinnerbaits, Wiggle Warts and Berkely Power Grubs on 1/16-ounce jigheads.
When that big smallmouth engulfed the Power Grub in three feet of water, it made several long electric runs and many acrobatic somersaults.
And as it finally came submissively to the surface, the grub became dislodged from the brute's mouth. Quick as a wink the fish of their dreams darted out of sight.