After proclaiming Melvern the Lake of the Year in a recent column, several readers suggested a column heralding the Fish of the Year in eastern Kansas.
Even though the selection of Melvern selection failed to garner any immediate ire from readers, one must venture into such endeavors with trepidation and much counsel from veteran fishermen.
Moreover, selecting the species of the year can be a more querulous affair than determining the best lake. It pits an angler's most heart-felt bias against hankerings of scores of other anglers.
For instance, my favorite is the white bass. Blair Flynn of Overbrook favors the wiper. Jerry Benjamin of Lawrence pursues only largemouth bass. Jim and Linda Pusch of rural Lawrence prefer walleye.
Dick and Gail Bessey of Shawnee fancy the smallmouth bass. Chat Martin of Lawrence likes crappie. Renee Shumway of Topeka is a diehard catfish angler.
Most of these biases are so intense that they fish for nothing but their favorite species, and that skews their perspectives about the Fish of the Year.
If this were 1998, the choice would have been a relatively easy one. The flathead catfish would have earned the honor because on May 14, 1998, Kevin Paulie of Caney caught a world-record flathead that weighed 123 pounds from Elk City Lake.
That was also the year Jimmy Houston of ESPN Outdoors came to Lawrence and produced a television show, which featured Houston and Gary Van Pielt of Frontenac catching and releasing an 80-pound flathead on the Kansas River.
Suddenly, anglers all across America began calling eastern Kansas the flathead capital of the world. Back then even the most ardent bass or walleye fishermen hereabouts would have named the flathead fish of the year.
Perhaps in 1991 and 1992, the crappie would have been selected with only modicum of dissent. During those years, Perry Lake was recognized as a world-class crappie fishery, and anglers from across the heartland came to Perry and caught untold numbers of big crappie.
Other than the flathead and crappie, a contingent of folks perennially trumpet the merits of the channel cat. According to these advocates, eastern Kansas is known across the angling world as nirvana. These folks also note the channel cat is such an important creature that some members of the Kansas Legislature occasionally attempt to designate it as the state fish.
There is much to be said about the virtues of the channel cat and its popularity. They are prolific, grow to weigh nearly 35 pounds, fight hard and are pursued by scads of anglers especially in July and August.
Periodically, the walleye earns lots of praise from local anglers. Such was the case this year. Anglers caught hordes of walleye at Clinton, Coffey County, Hillsdale and Melvern lakes, and some big ones to boot, including a nine-pounder at Clinton.
In 2001, however, the walleye and channel cat have been overshadowed by the smallmouth bass.
The smallmouth's virtues are manifold. It is the most acrobatic and electric fighter of all Kansas fishes. In several eastern Kansas waterways its fecundity is remarkable. some weigh more than six pounds.
What's more, respectable numbers of them can be caught nearly year-round especially at Coffey County. At one six-hour outing at Coffey County, the Besseys caught 75 smallmouth. Then at Milford Lake, the Besseys regularly caught more than 40 an outing, and Gail Bessey caught and released two that weighed more than five pounds. In addition, he failed to land another one that might have weighed six pounds.
The smallmouth is such an alluring creature that several old-line anglers have succumbed to its bewitching ways.
Thus, for better or for worse, I'm naming the smallmouth bass the Fish of the Year.