On the Road to Good Fishing

The next time you travel along Interstate 70, don't forget to pack your fishing gear. Maple Leaf Lake Conservation Area, 25 miles east of Kansas City, is a great place to take a quick break and to catch some bass, channel catfish, bluegill and redear sunfish. And you don't have to worry about tracking mud into your business meeting later in the day or getting your Aunt Martha's carpet dirty when you arrive for that family dinner.

The paved walkway from the parking lot to the fishing docks extends into the middle of the 160-acre lake. Your feet should stay clean; just remember not to wipe your hands on your pants leg after you put that worm on the hook.

In addition to being a relaxing place to take a break from driving, this newly constructed lake is a good spot to bring family and friends for an outing. Even the youngest members of your group should be able to bring in a hungry bluegill after dropping a line near one of the brush piles or other fish habitats strategically placed around each dock. Because these docks are accessible to people with disabilities, all anglers can reach good fishing spots.

For the best bass fishing, however, bring a boat, suggests Kevin Sullivan, a Conservation Department fisheries management biologist. The standing timber in the lake's western arm provides bass with their favorite places to feed.

Boats with motors of 10 horsepower or less are permitted on the lake, but anglers who bring motorless canoes and johnboats won't have far to paddle. Prime fish habitat is within a few quick dips of a paddle. Just position your boat between the buoys on the lake, and you will be right on top of one of many specially built fish habitats.

Anglers will want to try other places, too. "We didn't mark all the good fishing areas," Sullivan says. "We didn't want to give away all our secrets."

But be prepared to get hung up. The sunken cedar trees and wooden stakes used to create fish habitat make the lake tricky to fish, but the end result - better fishing - is worth it.

Most manmade lakes have smooth bottoms that don't provide fish with the cover they need to rest, hide from bigger fish or lie in ambush for a meal. But the Conservation Department took care to make this lake a great place for fish to live and grow. Originally a 35-acre lake, the Conservation Department converted the old dam into a jetty that extends into the middle of the new lake.

Large underwater earthen peninsulas were added to serve as fish travel lanes around and between the fishing piers and docks. The peninsulas' steep dropoffs provide fish with the protection of deep water. Cedar trees placed in strategic locations alongside these structures give fish cover and attract aquatic insects for them to eat. Recycled cement from a nearby highway ramp construction project provides a maze of underwater rock islands where fish can hide.

Bass, because they are sight feeders, should be able to find plenty to eat. The lake has remained clear and should stay that way, says Frank Ryck, an administrative services supervisor with the Conservation Department. All lakes age and will eventually silt in, but this one should remain deep and clear for years because runoff water first enters special ponds that act as silt basins.

These basins allow sediments to settle out before the water is released into the main lake. These areas can be cleaned out periodically when they fill with silt. They, too, have been stocked with fish, but Sullivan predicts that the fishing won't be as good as in the main lake.

Fish and anglers won't be the only ones enjoying the area. Grab your binoculars and check out the 9-acre wetland area just below the dam. "It's the only one of its kind in this area and should provide lots of opportunities for wildlife viewing, hunting and nature studies," says Jim Gebhart, a Conservation Department wildlife supervisor.

Lake levels can be raised in the fall, winter and spring to provide feeding and resting areas for mallards, blue-winged teal, pintails and other waterfowl. Bird watchers also may catch sight of wading shorebirds, such as yellowlegs or sandpipers. In the spring and summer, the water can be lowered to allow the wetland plants a chance to grow and produce seeds.

But if you want to see this area, bring your hiking boots and be prepared to get wet. No developed paths exist, but getting to see waterfowl, amphibians and other water creatures in their natural habitat is worth the marshy walk.