Welcome to Panfish!

Only 18 more inches, but...

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas

My theory seemed bulletproof: For Kansas panfishing, all the fly rod a person really needs is a 3-wt. 7 -footer. Panfish are small, abundant and great fun on light tackle. Forget those classic long casts seen on TV shows, where people are fishing the big western rivers. Focus instead on sensible shoes deliveries into the near-shore habitat of farm ponds and small lakes. Don't buy any more rod length than is necessary.

Time and suffering revealed my theory's flaw. The 7 -ft. rod that I bought is a delightful tool for actually fighting a panfish, but the rest of the time it too often worked against me. The McCall (Idaho) Fly Shop owner who sold me the rod had patiently done his best to warn me off by mentioning that even in Kansas a shoreline fisherman will have a sloping bank rising behind him, and growing on that bank will be tall grass, or weeds, or cattails, shrubs, trees - you name it.

But I didn't listen and he was right: these ubiquitous botanical features proved a constant hindrance, if not an outright barrier, to the short-range casts I'd envisioned making. Yes, I caught fish and had fun, but it was stressful and many times a costly undertaking (in lost flies).

During backcasts, I would hang up if I delayed a spit second too long letting the loop behind me properly lay out. I then had to stop fishing, reel my way back from the water to find and untangle my fly, then creep back to the casting spot again. I always feared the fish would detect my footsteps and spook on my second approach. Or my third, or my fourth...

The books tell us that roll casting will compensate for the inability to backcast. True enough, but for me roll casting proved equally difficult. Why? Because when farm ponds warm up in the springtime, many will develop an unbroken fringe of aquatic grass, weeds or moss. This fringe extends from the shoreline to some 15 or 20 feet out. Successfully roll casting a fly into the open water beyond the fringe requires making a series of shorter roll casts first, and during each "prep cast" your floating line is laying across those weeds, right? Since roll casting involves lifting the floating line back toward you until a sag develops just behind you, many times my fly would get dragged into the weeds even before the "final roll" could be delivered. Result? A big wad of goop to haul in, and such surface disturbances can alert or spook nearby fish.

I'm a canoeist, so I tried to compensate again: "I will overcome these land-based difficulties by fishing from my canoe."

Dream on, pilgrim. Casting from my canoe, my rod tip extended at most only 8 or 9 feet above the water surface. For me it was not enough elevation; the smallest timing error resulted in a line splashdown loud enough that I feared it was spooking the fish.

Big Difference!

So after considerable gnashing of teeth, I bought a 9 ft. fly rod. A 4-weight rod, its balance feels a bit top heavy, but that's because for money reasons I transferred the small reel from my 7 -footer onto the 9-footer. The new 9-footer will feel quicker in the hand, I'm sure, once its forward weight gets counterbalanced by the larger, slightly heavier reel I intend to buy soon.

In any event, the day after acquiring this 9-footer I drove to a nearby lake for some casting practice. Well, maybe not practice exactly: out of general principle I did improve-clinch a #12 Hare's Ear nymph to my tippet because, you know, this lake has gamefish living in it, so why risk offending them by pulling a crude piece of hook-less yarn past their noses?

Now understand: In years past, I'd have postponed buying this rod until mid-May at the very earliest. However, during the preceding winter months I'd been hunting everywhere for advice on fly rod panfishing, and while noodling the Internet I'd stumbled onto the FAOL website. Between snowstorms I'd been reading Rick Zieger's articles over and over and over.

I was particularly intrigued by Rick's accounts of success on Iowa panfish in very early spring - like, ice-out early? I've fished for 51 years and never gone after panfish that early. Rick's trip reports had whipped me into a frenzy. Iowa, where Rick lives, is not that far north of Kansas, where I live. So driving to the lake that day with my new rod, I was nursing a small hope that I, too, might actually catch a fish on this miserably cold, drizzly, windy mid-March afternoon. If not for Rick Zeiger and FAOL, I wouldn't have been there at all.

Arriving at the lake - rats! - a family of four, bundled in cold weather clothing, had beaten me to my practice spot. Worse yet, they were fishing - bobber fishing with worms. They weren't catching a thing, no surprise given the miserable weather. I asked the parents if they would mind I stand a little ways off and practice cast a few minutes with my new fly rod, and they said sure, go ahead.

Looking into the shallow cove, the nearest clump of brush was maybe 40 feet out - reachable with my 7 -footer given many false casts and perfect timing. So...what was it gonna be like trying for this target with 18 more inches of rod length theoretically giving me more leverage and faster line acceleration?

Seemingly with no effort at all, I false cast four or five times and dropped my nymph within 5 feet of the brush. Cool! First cast of the year, too! I was so happy I almost jerked the line back so I could throw it again before it got wet. But my nymph was in the water now and the cardinal rule is: Never Waste A Viable Cast. I gave the nymph a few seconds to settle then began a slow left-handed line pickup, barely paying attention. Just habit.

A third of the way in, a hump-headed bluegill grabbed my nymph like it owed him money. My new rod began telling me a fish was on, yet I could hardly believe this was happening even as I released the fish. Following a couple of "ring rust" missed hits, I began casting right of the brush clump and there came another slight line twitch. I lifted the rod to test for a fish, and brought in an 8-inch crappie!

While recovering from this second shock, I glanced over and saw the little boy standing there staring at my fish. Feeling guilty for catching one in front of the family when Dad wasn't having any luck, I walked over and let the boy examine the fish up close. His sister ran over to look. I told them both to keep fishing and be sure to come back here again because crappie are real good to eat and maybe some will swim up to where they can catch a few themselves? I don't know if either kid comprehended my babbling, but it made me feel better.

Then two more crappie fell prey in roughly the same spot the first one had, and here is where my practice casting morphed into a serious fishing trip. First order of business, as always: separate myself from the crowd. I walked around to the other side of the cove, away from the family. Here, the deep side of a narrow feeder creek ran closer along my side. Following the shore until the cove widened, I began casting to open areas near stickup cover. Two more crappie found my Hare's Ear attractive, and I began kicking myself for not bringing my stringer and ice chest. Every bluegill and crappie I was catching had to be released.

Up ahead, a fallen tree lay on the shore. Nearly rotted away, its trunk and main beams angled down out of sight into the submerged creek channel - textbook ambush cover for most every freshwater gamefish. After creeping in as close as possible, I made a short cast that landed in open water out and away, right where I wanted it. This cast would have been impossible with my shorter rod, due to menacing tree branches hugging me on three sides. But this 9-footer gave me enough rod tip clearance beyond the limbs that I could make an accurate cast parallel to shore while facing the lake. Excellent.

On the third retrieve past this fallen tree, my nymph was sneaking home at a depth of maybe two feet when the line exhibited a vigorous twitch. I brought back the rod tip and uh oh, uh oh, UH OH! This was a good one, and whatever it was it was very upset at getting hooked. Hugging the bottom, it kept out of sight for almost the entire battle. But a couple of minutes later I lipped a bass of maybe 2 lbs. with a body clearly longer than the lake's 18-inch minimum. This was a legal keeper if I wanted to take it home. Which I did not: it was a bass, not a bluegill or a crappie.

All I could do was stand there and smile. It's early March, a cold windy drizzle is falling, very cold lake water, first time using this rod, and in one hour's time I ring up three species, the biggest fish being a keeper largemouth that falls for this tiny nymph. Wow! I released the bass with pleasure, wishing him good luck against the Bass Boat Armada I knew would invade this lake once the weather warmed.

It began getting dark, colder and windier, so I called it a day. On the drive home, I couldn't quiet the excitement I felt at finally owning what might be the ideal fly rod for my Kansas panfishing trips. I still wonder whether I should have bought a 3-wt. instead of a 4-wt. But for length, a 9-footer is what I'll be using the most for a long time to come.

Thank you, Rick Zeiger, for inspiring me to get out on the water so early this year. ~ Joe riverat@sunflower.com

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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