Sunday afternoon, January 1st, 2006. I'm canoeing the
Kansas River west of Lawrence, it's just before sundown
and suddenly a tiny object in the corner of my eye catches
my attention. I turn and look closer and there's a very
small fly or gnat buzzing along beside me, maintaining a
I've been in bald eagle-watching mode all day, and it takes
a few seconds for the reality of what I'm seeing to sink in.
But finally it does: "Hey, this bug has to be a midge! And
it must have just hatched, so maybe more of them are hatching!"
Looking around the river surface, I see lots more midges,
some floating on the surface tension, others buzzing about
inches above the surface, still others flying at higher
altitude. These really are tiny insects, but the sheer
numbers. And now it makes perfect sense, why a couple
of weeks ago I saw surface feeding activity on a partially
frozen lake at sundown. A midge hatch must have occurred
there, triggering a feeding frenzy. Surface feeding, in
This visual confirmation, that midge hatches occur in
northeast Kansas in the winter, was all the excuse I
needed to go fishing two days later at the same lake
where I witnessed the feeding activity happening earlier.
We'd had a warming trend for almost a week so I knew this
lake would now be ice-free shore-to-shore.
It's now Tuesday afternoon, January 3rd. I arrive at the
lake around noon. Feeling no need to rush into action, what
with no midge hatch anticipated until sundown, I pulled out
my cook kit and ice chest and whipped up a lakeshore lunch
of cooked pasta topped with a sauce made of sautéed Andouille
sausage, onion, poblano pepper, pesto and mushrooms, then
washed it all down with two cups of hot chocolate. By the
time meal cleanup was finished and my canoe loaded with gear,
it was about 2:30 p.m. Three hours of fishing was all I could
hope for given the time of year. But three hours of winter
fishing would beat nine hours of winter working.
As so often happens in the Midwest, though, fishing does become
like work if the wind is blowing hard. And today it was blowing
really hard out of the south. I was at the windward side of a
lake arm whose feeder creek enters from the south. The surrounding
hills and tall trees near shore created a modest fishable zone
of relatively calm water. With no place else to go I went for
that spot; anything's better than nothing. The low-angle sun
was behind me as I approached, forcing me to pry my way along
the lake bottom through clear water 6-inch shallows at a
sufficient distance so my shadow would not move across the
creek channel area I intended to fish.
Given the mid-afternoon time, I felt it would not be productive
to immediately go with a midge pattern. I had a few Griffith's
Gnats with me, plus some Olive Soft Hackles that would come into
play around sundown if and when the fish came up top. It was
tempting to try a GG/OSH tandem despite the early hour, and I
would have tried this rig at the outset except the wind was so
high that even in this "protected" spot I was still getting hit
by unpredictable gusts that came in from three directions.
Truth is, I'm one of those guys who's just about helpless as
a fisherman unless he can see his line and spot those telltale
twitches that indicate a take. And in this wind, a super
lightweight GG/OSH tandem at the terminal end would not give
me near enough "fly weight" to stabilize my floating line.
My line would be yawing rapidly over the surface; I'd be
The wind conditions called for a heavier fly, something that
would settle in the water column fairly quickly and during
retrieve create enough drag that my leader and line would
remain relatively taut, and thus readable. Looking through
my fly boxes, I found just what the doctor ordered: a #10
flashback Hare's Ear Nymph.
I was concerned, though, that such a "big" nymph would not
cast well on a 1-wt. rod. (Sorta like pairing a big, heavy
bass bug with a 3-wt. rod?) But there was no opportunity
just then to test fire this combo's cast-ability, due to
tall shore weeds behind me.
Maneuvering quietly, I positioned my boat 25 feet directly
upwind of a downed tree whose rotting trunk angles down the
bank into the water. With the wind at my back, instead of
false casting overhead I began roll casting the nymph toward
the submerged log, thereby exploiting the tailwind to my
advantage. It took a few tries to get the feel of my new
7-ft. 1-wt. rod (shorter by 18-inches and 24 inches,
respectively, than the two rods I used last year).
On about the sixth roll, I splatted the nymph two feet my
side of the log, let it sink about five seconds then began
the retrieve. I was just killing time here, not expecting
any luck so early in the season - honestly not expecting to
have any luck today at all - when to my great surprise and
delight there suddenly appeared that telltale twitch,
followed by the line tightening. I lifted the rod and was
into a fish with an attitude. My cabin fever blues vanished
that same instant.
This was a bass about 10-inches long, so the resistance it
displayed could arguably be called representative of what a
keeper bluegill might exhibit if similarly inconvenienced.
Which I took note of because my new 1-wt. rod handled this
bass just fine, thank you very much.
My excitement grew when on my next two casts two more small
bass grabbed the nymph from basically the same spot. Then
I ruined everything by getting too ambitious, trying to send
a cast beyond the submerged log. What happened, I put the
nymph only a few inches from where wood meets water and the
cast immediately snagged. Great.
Decision time: Do I rescue the nymph, or deliberately sacrifice
it by breaking off and tying on another. Answer: Rescue the
nymph; this lake has more bass in it than I've got nymphs.
After invading the submerged log area to retrieve my gear,
I knew this hotspot was toast. That was very irritating,
too, because now I'd moved my boat farther downwind of the
protective tree cover behind me; the south wind with its
random gusts now had a better shot at grabbing my boat.
Here is where my 2-anchor rig paid its way once more, by
holding my canoe steadily enough in position that I could
Once I moved down the channel another 25 feet, it wasn't
long before the bluegills made their presence known. In
no time flat, a contest began in my mind, one where I would
keep count and see which species - bass or bluegill - would
be the most-caught fish today. It started out 3-0 in favor
of bass and looked like a rout. Then the bluegills made it
3-2, then they tied it at 3-all. Then the 'gills put on a
little burst that made it 6-3 their favor. The scoring then
slowed, with the bass chipping away until they narrowed the
score to 6-5. (Needless to say, I was rooting for both sides.)
About then I reacted to a line twitch and found myself on the
receiving end of one very energetic little slugger. It turned
out to be exactly what I hoped: a redear sunfish. Carefully
hoisting this boy into my canoe, I was so impressed by his size
that I laid him lengthwise on my hull markers: nose to tail he
was 10-inches long. Back into the lake he went, and I hope to
meet him again someday soon.
Another nifty fight was put up by a surprise fish - a big shad
that grabbed the nymph. This was probably somebody's small bait
minnow three or four years ago, before it was dumped in the lake
prior to someone's drive home. I gave this fish the old heave-ho
but my toss didn't have enough juice to get it up on the bank.
It splashed into the lake and maybe I'll meet that shad again, too.
Around sundown it suddenly dawned on me that sitting inside
my pickup were not one but four LED lights, but not a single
one was on board my canoe. By now I'd lost three Hare's Ears,
plus a #10 Pheasant Tail Nymph that Rick Zieger had given me.
I was tying on flies of various sizes and weights and was
having increasing difficulty seeing the knots.
Rick's PTN had done real good on bluegills. So much so that
combined with my Hare's Ear successes the contest had become
a runaway with the bluegills beating the bass bad. It was
Bluegills-14, Bass-5, Redears-3, Shad-1. Up in the stands
on this January 3rd winter day - the earliest I've ever gone
fishing my whole life - a crowd of one was feeling real good.
Just when the wind died to a dead calm, creating perfect
conditions for slow-fishing a midge imitator, I had to
leave the lake. I just couldn't see clearly enough to
tie knots anymore, especially on a tiny Griffith's Gnat.
I was paying now for forgetting a key fact of insect biology;
namely, that once it gets dark enough to trigger a midge
hatch, it's also too dark to tie fishing knots without
And Murphy's Law: just when I couldn't see my line well
enough to tie a double-clinch knot, that's when fish began
surfacing near me, presumably chasing midges! I'd launched
my canoe loaded with everything needed to fish with midges...
everything, that is, except a light to tie knots with in dim light.
Paddling back to my pickup in near darkness, I hoped that
mistake would not be repeated. ~ Joe
From Douglas County, 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