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Part One Hundred-thirtytwo

Randy Fratzke

Bluegills Up The Wazoo

By Randy Fratzke

This past October, my brother-in-law invited me up to his place on the lakes to do some walleye and perch fishing. Now I have to tell you up front, he is not a fly guy, but a darn good angler just the same. Being cooped up here for a while I couldn't resist the much needed "vacation". So I loaded up the truck with all my gear, from heavy duty trolling rigs to my fly fishing stuff and headed west.

The "Iowa Great Lakes," as they are known in the region consist of five separate lakes, connected by channels and all navigable by boat. There is West Okoboji, the largest and deepest, which empties into East Okoboji, which empties into Upper Gar, which empties into Minnewashta, that empties into Lower Gar. These are surrounded by countless other smaller "pot hole" and wetland ponds and sloughs. To the north about 15 miles are Big Spirit Lake and the town of Spirit Lake, home of the Berkley Fishing Company. I got to tell you, fishing is a big thing around this part of the state, any and all kinds of fishing!

Upon arriving at his place on "Lake Minnie," Darrel came out to help unload the truck. Of course he grumbled a little about the amount of gear I'd brought and uttered a few words about me bringing "those damn, worthless fly rods" along "'cause we're walleye fishin', not trout fishin' and you can't cast for beans right now anyway." So he set them in the corner of the room I was to occupy. I didn't say much at the time, I figured his house, his rules and home turf always has the advantage, especially where relatives are involved! Welcome to the lakes . . .

His regular fishing partner, Dale, arrived shortly after I did and we loaded up the boat with "walleye and perch gear" and headed for West Okoboji where the walleye bite was on. As we passed through the first lake, Upper Gar, we noticed a few boats anchored near the shoreline and slowed enough to see what was up. Dale raised the binoculars, flatly uttered the words, "bluegills," and we kept moving. As we went under the bridge and entered East Okoboji there were three boats in line to come back through the underpass and into Upper Gar. We waved, talked back and forth, two mentioned that they'd had no luck with the walleyes all day and were going to pick up a few gillies on the way through Gar.

D&D (Darrel & Dale), being tournament level walleye anglers, said we were going to give it a try anyway and Darrel gunned the big motor into high speed and cut across East Lake flat out and over to the canal leading into West Lake. As we "no waked" it through the canal we talked with others coming back the other direction, "nothing," "no luck today," "shoulda been here yesterday," etc. were the only comments heard. Undaunted, we moved on through the canal and entered West Lake and, once again, gunned the boat into high speed, heading for their "special hole."

Needless to say, for two hours we jigged, cast and trolled for walleyes, only taking one within the slot limit and two considerably under the 14" limit. They finally conceded that the "bite was off" and we headed back towards home. As we came back into Upper Gar we couldn't help but notice the number of boats in the little lake had grown from 3 to 15 and everyone was catching bluegills as fast as they could get a line in the water. Darrel looked at Dale and I and said, "looks like if we want to catch fish we'll have to catch bluegills. What do you think?" Dale and I both nodded and we headed over toward the shore and "bobbered up" a couple of rods and proceeded to catch bluegills, hand over fist! The line wouldn't even settle but what we were pulling in the fish. I finally said, "enough" and they pulled a few more in and we headed for home. We'd been fishing for 45 minutes and had 54 keepers and didn't know how many we'd thrown back. We cleaned them, bagged and tagged them and tossed them into the freezer.

Later that evening Darrel asked an interesting question. "Uh, say Randy, um, how many of those fly rods did you bring along with you?" he asked almost sheepishly.

"Four" was my reply, and I let it drop.

A long, pregnant pause later he asked, "Do you suppose those gillies could be caught on them?" he asked, again, almost expecting me to remind him of his earlier comments.

I just looked over, smiled, and said, "I don't know why not, they don't seem to particular about what you throw out at them right now," and again let the subject drop. I knew better than make the suggestion, kind of like baiting a hook. Let him make the suggestion, then set it!

Finally, after a few more parrying questions, like "what do you suppose they'd hit on?" and "do you happen to have any of those along?" (which I did) he asked the big one: "Do you think, uh, maybe tomorrow morning we could, uhhh, give it a try?" then quickly added "I mean before Dale gets here, just the two of us, just give it a try to see if it will even work, you know it might be kind of fun pulling in those big bulls on a fly rod." I bit my lip to keep from laughing, and it was even harder to keep from keeping my mouth shut about "those damn fly rods" but I did.

I looked at him and said, "Not a problem, we'll head over right after breakfast and be back before Dale gets here at 9:00. That ought to be enough time to see if it's going to work or not."

He gave me a funny look, almost accusing me but not quite sure if I was mocking him or not. Then he said, "Well I was going to run over to the store and grab a box of doughnuts and was kind of thinking we could take those and some coffee along and just eat over there. How's that sound?"

"Sounds like a plan, Darrel. I'll get the tackle and rods together while you're at the store." The rest of the evening all he asked and talked about was the anticipation of fly fishing for those gillies in the morning. Morning came too early for me. Darrel was knocking at the bedroom door about 5:30 AM. I groggily opened it and saw he was already up and dressed as he shoved a mug of coffee into my hand. He was hopping around like a spaniel pup heading out on its first hunt of the season. I just wanted to slap him. Heck the sun wasn't even going to be up for another hour and it was only 38 degrees out. I got dressed, poured a couple of hot cups down my throat to start clearing away the night's cobwebs and kick start the brain.

Meanwhile, the spaniel had gathered up the gear and taken it down to the dock, topped off the gas tank, checked the batteries and put on the running lights, then loaded and stored the gear and was back up to the house to get me. "Whoa, slow down there guy! Let me at least come up to idle speed before I hit the cold!" was about all I could say at that point.

Finally he couldn't sit any longer, he got up from the table and said, "C'mon, Randy, you've been trying to talk me into trying this fly fishing thing for years! Now I'm ready and your wasting time sitting here drinking coffee!"

"Okay, okay," I said as put on my insulated coveralls and found my gloves and stocking hat. Wow, talk about hyper velocity! I could only imagine how well his wife had slept!

We got over to Upper Gar in record time. No waiting in line at this hour of the morning. Actually no one else was even on the lake. Darrel made a comment about being first in, I made the comment about being the only ones dumb enough to be here this early, but here we were! I assembled the rods, ran the lines through the guides and picked out a light colored nymph and tied it on. Meanwhile, Darrel drank another cup of coffee and ate three doughnuts. "Right, just what he needs right now, a little sugar on top of the caffeine." I handed him his rod started lining mine and tying on another nymph. Suddenly he was standing up flailing the rod back and forth, trying to "bait cast" the nymph towards the shore. I really felt like we were running full tilt towards the rocks at this point. A 52 year old man waving a 9 foot fly rod around in 16 foot boat at 6:30 on a cold dark morning. "Calm yourself Fritzer, calm yourself" I mumbled to myself. I took a few deep breaths, a couple sips of coffee, and a bite of doughnut.

"Well aren't you going to show me how to use this thing or am I just supposed to figure it out on my own?" he almost demanded.

I calmly looked up at him from my seat and said, "Darrel, bluegills mostly sight feed. We've got about 30 minutes before dawn, why don't you sit down and relax a few minutes and we'll go over some of the basics."

"Damn, you could have said that back at the house and we could've stayed there for a little bit longer!"

"It's ok, Darrel, I need the wake up time and you need to calm down. Have another doughnut and put the rod down." I said in calmest voice I could muster.

We sat there for the next 20 minutes, me coming up to speed, him slowing down a little. I explained the basic casts and how to make them and then had him cast a few times, away from shore. I critiqued him on how to break himself of spinning and bait casting and letting the rod and line do the work instead of the lure. Finally it was getting light and the little rings of the gillies feeding off the top were becoming more regular. I told him to cast towards the rings and to play the line back in slowly. Boom! He had one on within seconds. He'd only made a cast of about 25 feet and had plopped the line all the way across the water, but a fish had taken it any way. He reeled it in, took it off the hook, and tossed it in the live well and cast back out almost in one fluid motion! Then he looked at me and excitedly asked, "Aren't you going to fish?"

I kind of looked up and laughed, "I will in a few minutes, right now I'm having fun watching you!"

As it got lighter (and warmer) more boats pulled into the lake. We were so busy fishing that we didn't notice the boat pulling up behind us until Dale's voice yelled about Darrels' backcast almost hitting him. I laughed and said something about the wildman of the lakes. Darrel turned around and all in one run-on sentence/paragraph said, "Hey Dale, what are you doing here already, your early aren't you, we're fly fishing for these gillies, god it's a riot, you gotta try it, Randy's even got a rod for you, don't you Randy?"

I just looked over at Dale and said, "The poor guy's been like this since 5:30 this morning! I've taken calmer six year olds to the carnival than this guy!"

Dale took a stern look at me and said, "You know Randy, your going to ruin my walleye partner if this keeps up." I wasn't sure for a few seconds if he was kidding or actually concerned. Then he anchored a couple of feet from us and walked forward in his boat and got out a fly rod and lined it. "What are you using, nymphs or streamers?" he asked with a smile. I smiled back and handed him a pheasant tail brassie. He tied it on and performed a very nice single haul, placing the fly right in the center of a newly formed ring. Darrel just watched, his mouth was moving but nothing was coming out. It was like he'd been hit with a baseball bat and was waiting for the pain to set in.

"Nice cast" I said, a little bit in awe myself, as he set the hook and started reeling the fish in.

He just winked, smiled and said, "Yup, great minds think alike they say!" For the next three days we fly fished for gillies. Hundreds of them, literally. We kept a lot but believe me, we threw a lot more back than we kept. We all had a great time, we even caught a couple of keeper walleyes that wandered in to feed on the bluegills. We all laughed about Darrel not knowing about Dales fly fishing abilities and Darrels antics whenever he slipped back into "bait casting mode." We had fun and we caught fish! ~ Randy Fratzke

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