Welcome to Panfish!

Part Two hundred-twenty

Christmas in Summer

Jason Tinling

By Jason Tinling, Lancaster, PA


We got on the river around 6 PM. The summer sun still hung well up in the sky, and a wind riffled across the normally still waters. It didn't bode well for a good hatch if the wind kept up this pace. After wading out to the end of the innermost island, it became apparent, rather quickly, that damselflies were the current food of choice.

I tied on a blue foam and yarn creation that splayed out across the surface in its best representation of a worn, exhausted damsel. I couldn't seem to buy a strike, and managed to miss most of the ones that I did get. A couple of small fish took the fly as I skated it back towards me across the top of the water. My fishing partner was doing much better, taking a half dozen bass or more in the 10 - 14" range.

7 PM, and the damsels were disappearing from the sky. As if on cue, the Light Cahills began to come off, not in large quantities, but consistently enough to get the attention of the fish. I switched over to a white foam Comparadun, while a #14 parachute Cahill was the fly of choice for my compatriot. The low riding parachute was definitely the ticket, as she took 6 or 7 good fish to my two in a half hour period.

Frustrated, I snipped the fly free and switched over to an Arctic Fox and Flex-o minnow pattern. The first cast took an aggressive 9" bass. A couple more casts, another small fish. An attempted long cast collapsed about 2/3 of the way to it's target, and the fly swung with the current as I stripped in the line. I finally caught up with the fly, and on the second strip, just inches below the surface, a slab of olive and bronze appeared, and the fly disappeared. Cutting and bulldogging in the current, the fish refused to come up and display the aerobatics that I so love in river smallies. After several minutes of spirited give and take, a 16" fish slides across the top of the water to my side. I quickly unhook the thick fish, and after a few moments in the current, watch it swim off strongly towards the bottom. This fly has used up its dose of fish attraction, as no more bass showed an interest in the bulky streamer, content to sip mayflies from the surface.

8 PM. As the sun lowered in the sky, the horizon and the river began to turn vibrant shades of pink and orange. And then it started.

There's an audible popping sound when a whitefly breaks through the surface of the water, shooting off towards the heavens. The whitefly, Ephoron Leukon for the Latin inclined, is the whole reason that we're out here fishing tonight. Pop, pop. Every fly fisher on this stretch of river is changing flies. Some fish the classic hatch matcher, the White Wulff. Some, emergers or wets, some fish dry and dropper tandems. Whatever the rig of choice, the reason is the same. These large white mayflies are a readily visible source of protein, and a good hatch is the equivalent of ringing the dinner bell on the Susquehanna. Pop, pop. The rings of rise forms spread across the river in ever increasing circles.

The hatch of whiteflies in my usual haunts on the river has been rather poor this year. I'm up in a new stretch of water, hoping for a strong hatch to bring the fish up. Be careful what you wish for.

I lay the #12 White Wulff out on the water, and almost as it touches down, it disappears in the middle of a rise form. I tighten up on the line, and a 12" bass comes bursting from the water, leaping and turning. Pop, pop. Fish rise, almost within arm's reach, as I play the fish to hand and release it. I turn up river to cast into the current above me. I have to pause, as the last pinks and oranges reflect off the river's surface, there seems to be an uncountable mass of mayflies moving across this back lit frame. A quick glance down shows that my vest is layered in flies, as they arrange themselves across every piece of available space, giving the appearance of squadrons of planes, staging on the deck of an aircraft carrier. It doesn't do any good to wipe them off, they're immediately replaced with new insects. I really wish I had remembered my hat, though.

Another cast, and I miss the strike on a splashy rise. Probably a rock bass, but I've got to know. I cast ahead of the rise, and again, a splashy take. A quick struggle followed by the "wet dishrag" defense. I slide the fat rock bass to hand, and unhook the fly, seeing another half dozen real flies down in the fish's mouth. You don't breathe through your nose right now, and breathing through the mouth is often done from behind a protective hand. Eyes are held in perpetual squint, to limit the amount of available space that a fly can crash into.

The term "blizzard hatch" can be the only applicable description at times, and with the whiteflies it is doubly apropos. From a hundred yards out in the river, a glance back towards shore shows that from five feet up the tree line down to the surface of the water, there is nothing but white. Even the water itself runs past like a flowing white carpet, the surface strewn with nymphal shucks, the first few spinners, and a plethora of flies that, for a variety of reasons, never completed their transformation. This is what they were waiting for.

From the depths they rise up, on some silent trigger. Their aggressive, voracious feeding puts the bass down, and they dominate this dual orgy of procreation and consumption. We're suddenly surrounded, as pods of 5 - 10 channel cats prowl the surface. They raise their heads part way out of the water, skimming open mouthed across the vast field of remnants of the hatch. Like prehistoric vacuum cleaners, they swim serpentine paths across the water, leaving a trail of darkness in the white of the surface. They get so intent on feeding they seem oblivious to the world surrounding them, often heading on seeming collision courses with each other, or people crazy enough to stand out in the midst of this chaos. It's easy to get their attention, though. Shift a rock underfoot, or slap the surface of the water with a rod tip. The catfish disappears in a splash of water and spinners. This can set off a chain reaction, as every catfish within 15 or 20 feet reacts to the very loud vanishing act of one of their brethren. Enough catfish feeding in one area, and it sounds as though someone has lobbed a cinder block into the river.

The channel cats are catchable in this feeding frenzy. Find a feeding fish, try and anticipate the travel path. Lay a spinner or dun in front and wait until the fish is in the area of the cast. A gentle lift will tell you if the fish took the fly or not. Readiness is required, tough, as your gentle lift of the rod may be followed by a reel chattering run, as a couple feet worth of channel cat decides to head down river.

I try to "break the hatch" and find a bass or two in this mass of open mouths and barbels. A soft hackle and a white popper both go untouched, each retrieve brings back a fly with its hook point obscured by a mass of accumulated whitefly detritus. I hear the song of a catfish on the reel from below.

"Need a hand?"

"Might!"

I head down river, trying to avoid spooking to many catfish, or myself. I arrive as my fishing partner is turning slowly in the current, as the fish on the end of her line heads upriver. More upstream struggles, and this fish has been on for a while. The fish turns downstream, and is going to be heading right between us. As I see the line inbound, I take a step back, making sure there's adequate space. The catfish panics, diving to the right, which happens to run it right between my partner's legs. There's a panicked look on her face, and then she drops into the water, trying to work the rod under her foot before the fish turns and wraps around her leg. As she gets clear of the line, I take the rod, holding it to the side as I help her get to her feet. Now running on adrenaline, she works the rod and the fish to the limit, bringing a 15-16" channel cat up to the surface. It comes up tail first, having snagged the fly just in front of the tail fin. That explains the long, drawn out fight.

Soaking wet, it's definitely time to head in. The bulk of the spinner fall is over, and the bass have ceded almost fully to the marauding channels. A few flies still fill the air with a gentle hum. We'll both be picking flies out of our vests and clothes when we get to shore. Even on a hot, steamy, drought-perpetuating day, you can still be lucky enough to get caught in a blizzard. ~ Jason

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