CRAWFORD COUNTY, Kan. -- Gordon Elliott sat back in a boat on one of the strip pits he owns, and talked about how fortunate he is to be in the middle of a relatively undiscovered bass-fishing paradise.
But 45 years ago, his opinion of Kansas was quite different. At the time, he had no idea he would ever develop an affection for the Sunflower State.
"I was living in Minnesota at the time, and I loved to fish," said Elliott, 78, who lives in Pittsburg, Kan. "When my company told me I was being transferred to Kansas, I couldn't believe it. I didn't know a thing about Kansas, and I didn't want to.
"I made them a deal. I said, 'I'll go, but only under the condition that I stay for one year, then I get to come back.' "
The punchline of that story?
"I've re-upped on that deal 45 times,' " Elliott said with a laugh. "You couldn't get me to move from Kansas now."
Elliott quickly discovered that Kansas was a hunting paradise. He started hunting quail, and had bird dogs for 25 years. He also hunted ducks and pheasants and was amazed at the beauty of the wild, wide-open country.
But it was the strip pits of southeast Kansas that really hooked him. In the early 1990s, he and his friend Charlie Kukovich heard that a coal company was selling a tract of land that contained five strip pits, remnants of its mining days.
They fished the pits to test them, and they enjoyed some of the best bass fishing they had ever experienced. Elliott immediately bought the property. And he and Kukovich, who is now a caretaker of the land and the pits, have fished it ever since.
"Cherokee County paradise," Elliott said as he launched his bass boat.
Just a few casts into a recent trip, he proved it. As he worked a crankbait through the shallows, he felt a jolting strike. When he set the hook, a big bass swirled the surface, then sounded.
The fish took out line and strained to reach deep water, but it wasn't long before Elliott maneuvered the fish close to the boat.
"That has to go 4, 41/2 pounds," Elliott said to his friend Rich Bailey of Lawrence, at the front of the boat.
The big fish of the day? Hardly.
Bailey caught one even bigger. And Kukovich and I landed and released three others that we estimated at 5 pounds or larger.
Add many other bass in the 2-pound range and a load of crappies, and you have the makings of a great fishing trip.
But that's business as usual for Elliott and Kukovich. They can't wait for spring to arrive, when the water in the pits starts to warm and the bass and crappies begin to stir.
Over the years, Kukovich has caught bass measuring more than 25 inches, while Elliott has landed several fish weighing more than 7 pounds.
The private strip pits they fish were dug in the 1940s by a small coal mining company, said Kukovich, who lives near Arma, Kan.
"A lot of the coal veins around here were only 10 to 20 feet deep, so these pits aren't real deep," he said.
The strip mining continued until the early 1990s, when coal excavation in southeast Kansas slowed. The pits that were left filled with water and were stocked with bass, crappies and catfish.
Today, they are a bass-fishing paradise. There are hundreds of strip pits in Crawford, Cherokee and Labette counties, and places where fishermen can find relatively untouched water.
It didn't take long for Elliott to discover that his strip pits were truly special. With clear water, abundant cover in the form of weeds, logs and stumps, a good mix of shallow and deep water and good water clarity, the bass thrive.
"Part of it is that they all have flow-throughs, so there are plenty of nutrients coming through," Elliott said. "The bass grow well here. From the 1990s when we first fished these pits, we caught big bass. And it's never really changed."
Elliott catches his biggest bass on crankbaits, spinnerbaits and topwater lures. His son lands large bass on plastic baits.
"I just love fishing out here," Elliott said. "Charlie and I have fished a lot of places, but I can't think of one that has the kind of bass fishing we do right here."
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