Jeff Buckingham says this has been the best winter of crappie fishing he's seen in many years at Hillsdale Lake.
Buckingham, a former standout Kansas University pole vaulter who lives in Gardner, has been pursuing crappie at Hillsdale and Clinton Lakes since 1980.
Bob Timmons, his former coach at KU, called Buckingham a tough and thoughtful athlete who had a knack for finding a way to succeed. As an angler, the same description fits.
Even though his crappie harvests at Hillsdale have been bountiful this winter, Buckingham says they still don't equal those extraordinary winters at Clinton Lake in the '80s when anglers had a myriad of lairs from which to extract inestimable numbers of crappie.
At Hillsdale this winter, Buckingham estimates there are only five major crappie hot spots.
One of those is about a quarter of a mile long and shelters scads of crappie and gizzard shad, the crappie's main food source. Here various schools of crappie gambol about a submerged creek channel more than 40 feet deep in its basin.
At times the crappie can be found suspended in 15 to 25 feet of water around the big partially flooded trees that border the creek channel. At other times, Buckingham finds schools of crappie roaming in the middle of the creek in 30 feet of water. From this quarter-mile area, Buckingham has caught as many as 300 crappie in a single outing.
The beauty of this spot, Buckingham says, revolves around all of the partially flooded trees. These trees provide him a place to tie his boat when the wind and white caps pummel the lake.
When the crappie are concentrated in just a few spots in the winter, wind is a fisherman's No. 1 foe because most of those winter spots are in the middle of the lake and are battered by the wind from every angle.
If he couldn't tie to a tree on a windy day, Buckingham could not control his boat and keep his lure at the correct depth.
Moreover, Buckingham has found crappie feed more rapaciously on windy days than on calm ones. He has been afloat at times, catching crappie at a rapid pace, when the wind broached 20 mph.
On a recent Tuesday, when the wind was light and variable, the sky mostly cloudy and area thermometers ranging from a low of 26 and a high of 36 degrees, I joined Buckingham for a seven-hour stint at his Hillsdale honey hole.
Throughout this day, the preponderance of the 117 crappie we caught preferred an eighth-ounce chartreuse and white jig tipped with Berkley Crappie Nibble. Before 10 a.m., we caught them in 20 to 25 feet of water, but from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., the majority came out of 29 feet of water.
There were spells when the crappie wanted the jig pitched about 25 feet and allowed to swing slowly at a 45-degree angle into their hideaway.
At other times the crappie wanted the jig to rise slowly from 29 to 26 feet of water. Then there were periods when they wanted it slowly dropping from 26 to 29 feet. There was also a spell when they wanted it moving vertically in 29 feet of water.
At day's end, Buckingham opined that we should have done better than catch crappie at a rate of 16 per hour. He blamed our so-so success on the lack of wind.