Welcome to Warmwater Fishing!

Off Season? What Off-Season?
By Joe Hyde, Douglas County, KS

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 parallel course.

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 wintertime.

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 fishing blind.

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 still fish.

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 artificial light.

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

About 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 'day job.'

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