Welcome to Panfish!

Thank you, California!

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas

It had been almost two years since I'd seen Keith, my oldest son. I'd just bought a new pickup that I knew could survive the drive from northeast Kansas to northern California and back. So I decided to take a little vacation and go visit him.

After college, Keith landed a Corps of Engineers Park Ranger job at a northern California lake. About a year later, he transferred to another federal lake, one farther north up above San Francisco.

Being I'm from Kansas and don't travel out of state much, I'm ignorant of northern California's outdoor recreation opportunities. So I was all ears when during a call home, Keith began describing the fishing options that anglers in his area enjoy - both in number of species and fishing styles. He then deftly mentioned that once he saved a little more money he was going to take up the sport of fly fishing. This, he said, would let him go after trout up in the mountain streams and lakes, plus he could try for migrating salmon and steelhead in the Sacramento, Feather and other big-fish rivers.

Keith was single, a new-hire on the bottom of the Ranger pay scale. I knew his house rent and basic living expenses kept him tight on money. My vacation would be the same month of his birthday. So after his call home ended, I told my wife that for Keith's birthday I'd like to shop around out there and buy him a good quality fly fishing outfit. She agreed.

My vacation thoughts had always included taking along my own fly tackle. So now I figured that after outfitting Keith, he and I would get licensed up and then for a week we'd try to catch whatever fish got in our way.

On the drive west, cased in the back of my pickup cab was a 7 -ft. 3-wt. IM-6 fly rod. A nifty little rig I'd bought specifically for panfishing four years earlier during a family vacation in McCall, Idaho. "Bought" but hardly ever used, because after returning home from that Idaho trip I'd gotten sidetracked by other pursuits and had not followed through on my panfishing ambition. So apart from being able to cast it half-way decent - plus having 40 plus years of general fishing experience on spin tackle, I wasn't much of a vacationing flyfisher.

Indeed, in many respects my trip to visit Keith would be a shakedown cruise for both of us. For him, practically a basic training situation, whereas I hoped to meet some experienced California fly fishers and learn about good flies and the tactics employed to fish them.

Turned out Keith's house sits a half-mile from Chico Fly Shop, the place Powell fly rods were made. After two or three visits with new co-owners Brian and John, we got Keith outfitted with a 9-ft. 5/6 wt. rod. He'd been hoping for just a fly rod for his birthday present, but he quickly got over the shock of receiving not just a rod but also a reel, backing line, floating line, leaders, tippets, a fly box and some flies.

We immediately headed to a city park pond, where Keith began casting practice using a piece of yarn as a dummy fly so he wouldn't hook himself. As expected, his first casts were atrocious. I gave him some pointers that elevated him to the Ugly level.

"Okay, what we need to do TOMORROW," I told Keith "is go fishing. I haven't fly fished very much and I don't know the waters out here. But in my Kansas experience, the classic style long casts you practiced today aren't used much. You use the rod to put a fly where you think the fish are, and you get that fly out there by doing whatever it takes. Fly fishing is just another method, and the best way to learn it is to catch fish."

Which I hoped like hell would be true for Keith. I wanted to see this birthday present put some fish slime on his hands. I knew it was helping him, but watching him cast a little fluffy piece of harmless yarn was getting on my nerves.

On the drive home from the park, Keith recalled a small pond he knew of out in the country, in the Sierra foothills. According to his fellow Rangers, this pond had dried up a few years earlier. It had water in it now but likely no fish. Still, nobody really knew. Keith had to work the next morning, but he asked if I wanted to try it, to scout it as a possible "practice pond"?

Well...does a duck go barefoot?

Next morning, Keith drops me off at this pond, promising to pick me up in three hours. I tippy-toe down the bank and cast out a foam hopper recommended by Brian at the fly shop. First cast, and twenty seconds later I'm unhooking and releasing a largemouth bass about 10-inches long, then another, then another. This goes on for 10 or 15 minutes, then I move farther down the shoreline. Same thing: soft grasshopper splash, big bang, little bass. Fly Fishing 101 is now in session. Only problem: the designated student is absent.

But that afternoon Keith and I return. I suggest that he slowly work his way along the same shoreline I'd fished that morning. "And watch your back cast. That hill behind you rises real steep. I broke off four flies in that dry grass." Off he went.

It's a small pond, but looked deep judging from the slope angle of the surrounding terrain. And very clear, almost tap water clear. I'd warned Keith about how the bass that morning had quickly learned to rise within striking distance of my hopper then pause for a careful inspection - and once they'd started doing that, my luck tapered off to nothing.

I was hoping that in the fading late afternoon light the fish would return to their aggressive ways and Keith could tear into 'em. That's what happened, too. He tied on a #8 foam cricket, and in no time flat those juvenile bass were pounding it like Sugar Ray Leonard works a speed bag.

Best of all, Keith wasn't losing any crickets on his back cast. He was playing it shrewd, slowly sneaking the bank and using short range casts. Not pretty casts, but his cricket was getting out there with effect.

Meanwhile, I eased around the north side of the pond to explore an area I hadn't touched that morning. It was difficult footing due to the very steep bank slope; luckily, I found a narrow, lateral deer trail near the water and exploited it for safe footing.

It was along that steep slope that I came to a line of weeds and moss that extended from the bank to about six feet out. The day before, I'd been visiting with Brian at the fly shop about panfishing nymphs for use in ponds, and he suggested the damselfly nymph. So I tied on one I'd bought from him, cast it straight out twenty feet past the weed line, let it sink about ten seconds then began a very slow retrieve.

When the nymph got ten feet from the weeds my line gave a tiny twitch and I lifted the rod. Up came... shock!...a very nice black crappie, well fed, thick body. At which point in my mind, all thoughts of catching bass utterly vanished.

I had not brought a stringer because that morning all I'd caught was bass, so I'd assumed that bass were the only fish in the pond. I had to release this beautiful crappie, and it hurts me even now just remembering it.

I worked the weed line a few more minutes and caught a half dozen good crappie before forcing myself to stop. It was torture to stop, but this weed line was HOT with crappie and I wanted them relaxed during my next visit - with stringer, for meal purposes. I was now on a mission. One far from home, but I knew Keith owned a skillet just like mine back in Kansas.

Next afternoon, I used that damselfly nymph again and landed ten good crappie, a couple 12-inches long, the rest over 9 inches. I quit after the tenth fish; I wanted lots of 'em left in the pond for Keith to enjoy and learn on.

Until this vacation, it'd been 40 years since I last enjoyed cast and retrieve crappie action like this. That was with spinning tackle, bobbers and lead head jigs. Now, finally, I was again catching crappie one after another, and doing it with tackle I never envisioned myself ever using. At least, not until about 4 years ago when I decided to go back to "roots" fishing, but with a fly rod for something new and different.

Well, for me, fly rodding for panfish is something different, all right. In the months since last August, I've started learning bit-by-bit, one trip at a time, just how deadly it is. I'm 56 years old, and since high school have pretty much succeeded in maintaining a teenager's outlook on life. But now? Someone says "fishing" and I feel like a little kid. ~ Joe

About Joe:

From Lawrence, Kansas, Joe is a former municipal and federal police officer. In addition to fishing, he hunts upland birds and waterfowl, and for the last 15 years has pursued the sport of solo canoeing. On the nearby Kansas River he has now logged nearly 5,000 river miles while doing some 400 wilderness style canoe camping trips. A musician/singer/songwriter as well, Joe's 'day job' is with the U.S. General Services Adminstration.

Joe at one time was a freelance photojournalist who wrote the Sunday Outdoors column for his city newspaper. Outdoor sports, writing and music have never earned him any money, but remain priceless activities essential to surviving the 'day job.'

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