CHENEY RESERVOIR, Kan. — Mark Fowler has fished Cheney Reservoir hundreds of times in the past 24 years. In some ways, he’s never seen the lake better than it’s been this year.
“For numbers of big wipers, this is probably as good as I’ve ever seen,” Fowler said as he tried to subdue an 8-pounder while he fished during the Aug. 21 eclipse. “They’re so big. So solid. That’s what, at least 15, 20 that size today.”
But there was more to the day than just one species.
Through a trip timed to coincide with the solstice, Fowler boated several white bass to at least 16 3/4 inches. Even the white perch, the smallest species of the day, measured to 12 inches. Both species, Fowler said, were the best he’d ever seen in the lake.
Big numbers of big fish seems to be a common theme at the reservoir west of Wichita this year.
Here’s a look at the lake’s population of wiper, white bass, white perch and walleye.
Kacci Everitt has fished Cheney most of his 31 years, and agrees with Fowler about the lake’s wipers.
“It’s crazy, the average size of the wipers this year, compared to years past,” said Everitt. “The first one I caught up the river this year was 29 inches. We went up there and caught a lot that were 24 to 26 inches. You can catch a lot more keeper-sized (21 inches or over) wipers this year than in past years.”
This year’s fish have been thicker, too. Some past summers, Fowler released fish over the lake’s minimum length limit because they were too thin to produce fillets worth the effort of cleaning. This year, fish are as thick as he’s ever seen them.
That’s because they’re being well fed.
“From what I’ve seen the shad production has been pretty good the last couple of years,” said Andrew Schaefer, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism fisheries biologist for Cheney. “Two weeks ago I was out electro-fishing, and we had a lot of shad up to the 3- to 4-inch range. That’s a perfect size, especially for all of those wipers.”
“I’m really excited for next year,” said Everitt. “The day’s coming when we can catch 10-pound wipers. That would be so much fun.”
Twenty years ago Cheney was a good white bass lake. Anglers caught them on spring spawning runs up the Ninnescah River, during the heat of summer and through holes in the ice over many winters.
Then, they all but disappeared after white perch were accidentally stocked into the lake with a shipment of tiny striped bass. The invasive perch are native to estuaries along the East Coast and hit Cheney fast and hard, eating a lot of fish eggs and freshly hatched game fish, then out-competed things like fingerling white bass for food.
Everitt and Fowler went years with only an occasional nice white bass. This year has been far different.
“I can’t believe how they’ve gone from almost nothing three or four years ago to abundant and big this year,” said Everitt.
Everitt said anglers were blessed with about three weeks of spring spawn fishing up the Ninnescah, where anglers caught quantity and quality like they haven’t for years, if ever.
His father caught a white bass that measured 18 inches. Schaefer caught one the same size. Other than some he’s caught at Fall River, Fowler said this year’s white bass at Cheney are some of the best he’s ever found in Kansas.
The accidental addition of white perch to Cheney has been a disaster. For years, the lake was filled with monstrous schools of 3- to 4-inch little fish. Natural spawns for things like white bass, walleye and crappie were almost eliminated.
Limits were reduced on wipers and walleye, hoping more and bigger predatory fish would eat more white perch. Anglers are required to immediately kill every white perch they catch.
While that probably helped, a cold blow by Mother Nature certainly did more when millions of white perch died as an Arctic clipper went through Kansas. That meant bigger white perch in the future.
“When you have lower numbers of fish, the growth rates get a chance to increase,” Schaefer said. “The early 2000s were the bad old days, but then we had that big die off. We now consistently see white perch get up to the sizes that’s of interest to anglers.”
Fowler and Everitt said anglers have caught a lot of white perch from 10 to 14 inches. The largest Fowler has heard of is 16 inches
Most anglers rate white perch as one of the best-tasting fish in Kansas, with a mellow flavor.
Slow walleye fishing has been one of the rare disappointments at Cheney this year. Fowler said it’s been weeks since he caught one. Everitt said numbers have been down all year, including during the early spring spawn and following feeding spree.
Schaefer said all is not lost.
“The test nets last fall showed decent numbers of walleye but very few keepers (21 inches or longer) out there,” he said. “We had a decent group in that 15- to 17-inch range. From what I’ve seen this summer, most are 18 to 19 inches now. I’m hoping next year will be a better year for keeper-sized walleye at Cheney.
How to catch them
• Fowler has his best fishing spots marked on a global positioning system and uses some of the best fish-finding sonar on the market to finds schools of fish. He uses downriggers, which allow him to clip his fishing lines to heavy weights lowered to an exact depth, to keep his lures where he wants them. At the strike, the fish pulls the line free from the clip and the fight is on. Normally he fishes with a crankbait at the end of the line with a large, plastic jig several feet above it.
Others troll Cheney with deep-diving crankbaits trolled behind regular fishing rods. They experiment to find the right depth and locations.
• Everitt likes to find fish with a sonar, anchor his boat a ways away and cast heavy jigging spoons into the area. After the lure hits the bottom, he’ll work it back with long, elevated jerks on his fishing rod. He also likes fishing live shad he’s caught in a cast net, much like people do for catfish. Drifting with shad, or cut pieces of white perch, is another way to find good fish at Cheney.
• Schaefer said anglers with an old pair of tennis shoes, a medium-action rod and reel, a few crankbaits or large jigs and a willingness to get wet can catch fish at Cheney.
“When I did that electro-fishing, I was pretty surprised to see the good numbers of nice wipers, white bass and even walleye up in 3 feet of water,” said the biologist. “Just because you don’t have a boat, doesn’t mean you can’t take part in this good fishing. There’s some good wade-fishing out there for people who want it.”