Monday morning, January 30th and it's my day off. Last
night's radio forecast had promised a high today of 50
degrees with sunshine. Hearing that, I hurriedly cancelled
my charter boat marlin fishing trip off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico,
opting instead to stay in northeast Kansas and attempt to catch
panfish from a canoe using fly tackle. Hey, wouldn't anybody?
I even went so far as to camp overnight right beside the
spot I intended to fish, so I could wake up and get after
those 'gills bright and early Monday morning. The radio
forecaster I'd listened to, though, as usual had not said
anything about wind direction or wind speed. Overnight
the air was calm, which was good, but when dawn arrived
Monday - you guessed it - here came a northwest wind
blowing about 25 mph. Making for one of those deals
where you lay in your sleeping bag like a condemned prisoner,
your "cell" rocks back and forth hit by gusts, and an icy
wind is moaning through bare-branch trees up on the ridge
like the far-away sound of approaching doom.
Mornings like this, it makes me proud to be a dues-paying
member of a species blessed with higher reasoning powers.
Forced unexpectedly to pick between A) adapting to this
hostile environment by seeking a protected place to grab
emotional sustenance, or; B) seeking comfort inside a
heated building to catch up on a week's worth of stinky
laundry, my genetic code pre-selected me to choose fly
fishing in the dead of winter wearing dirty clothes.
Evolution is "on duty" in Kansas, folks; I don't care
what my state's Board of Education says.
I simply left my chilly campsite and drove to a different
lake arm, one I'd fished a couple weeks earlier with
Lawrence surgeon Cap Gray. This arm has more of a
northeast/southwest orientation, which is what had made
Cap and I choose it earlier, as the adjacent hills that
day kept the worst of a strong northwest wind off of us.
Those hills would deliver the same protection today.
Cap recently took up canoe fly fishing and had bought
himself a Wenonah Vagabond solo canoe. His beautiful,
lightweight 45-lb. boat is constructed using durable
Royalex. Immediately after buying this boat, Cap
outfitted its ends with his own personal variation of
my soft bag/cam cleat 2-anchor system. Because like me,
once the spring days get longer Cap plans to hit this lake
and other nearby waters for weekday after-work trips and
The photo above shows "Dr. Panfish" performing exploratory
surgery on a shoreline zone during that earlier visit.
Neither of us caught many fish, possibly due to the
temperature being much colder (the high got to only
35 degrees). Cap and I split up that day, he fishing
the west side of the arm, I the east side. He caught
a number of fish by nymphing a stand of cattails so
today I paddled straight to those same cattails and
gave them the old cowboy try. The memory of "not many
fish" was nevertheless enough impetus to make me try
Cap's spot given the almost identical weather conditions
Whatever Cap did to fool his fish, I wasn't doing a
good enough job duplicating it because I never got a
touch. So I lifted my anchors and paddled across the
lake arm to the east side and went to work there, even
though moving east pulled me away from the tall west
hillside and exposed me to more wind. Thank goodness
for fleece clothing and nylon wind suits.
I'd just begun fishing when a truck with two men inside
pulled up beside my parked pickup. Turning off the engine,
they sat there watching me. I was anchored in the middle
of the arm, in water about 3 feet deep. A submerged
gnarly branch is out here somewhere because I'd seen it
weeks earlier, but today I couldn't find it and didn't
want to move about very much looking for it for fear my
boat's shadow would move across holding fish and spook
them. So I quickly gave up the search, anchored and began
Before long came a hit and this turned out to be a 10-inch
crappie. Nice fish. Hooked deep in the mouth, it had to
be lifted from the water and brought on board before I could
unhook and release it. A troublesome thing, as this business
exposed the fish's beautiful silvery profile to the two guys
watching me from that pickup over there. (I make it a practice
to try concealing or camouflaging crappies if that's what
I'm catching, but it didn't work this time.)
After catching a couple of bluegills in this open water,
I decided to work my way up a nearby narrow feeder creek
and try a hole that I knew was there from previous visits.
My approach had to be silent and cute because there's been
very little rain or snow runoff this winter, making the
lake water very clear. Reaching the downstream border
of this creek hole, I began probing the left bank then
swinging my casts farther out front into gradually deeper
water. Right away I began catching fish, and after each
hookup I sent my next cast 15 to 20 feet off to the side
of that spot, so's not to wear out my welcome.
Let me stop here for a moment and introduce all of you
to my new best friend: the #14 flashback Hare's Ear Nymph.
Barely more than half the size of the #10 HEN I use (and
write about) so often, I've recently been using the #14
because of a peculiarity it exhibits when teamed with a
7 ½-ft. 6X leader.
The water I've been fishing the most this winter runs from
1-to-4 ft. deep and features underwater snags of various
types. I've observed that where a #10 HEN will operate
in these areas quite well, the #14 gives me two extra
tactical advantages I did not previously consider.
First, the #14's narrower hook gap is easier to "weed
guard" by not clipping off the tag end of my double-clinch
knot. This, combined with the #14's lighter weight overall,
lets me slowly crawl a #14 over submerged stick cover with
far fewer snag-ups. I love that!
Second, the #14's lighter weight lets it sink slower.
This would not be particularly noteworthy if not for
the fact that a 6X tapered leader is extremely thin
at its terminal end before abruptly thickening to a
wider diameter starting about one-third the way back
to the connector loop. The offshoot is that during
slow retrieves the #14 settles to an operating depth
of around 18 inches but then sinks no deeper. It can't
sink deeper: once the thinnest part of the leader gets
dragged underwater the #14 lacks enough weight to pull
the thicker part of the leader through the lake's
In other words, combining a #14 HEN with a 6X tapered
leader forces the leader to serve triple duty - connector,
running depth governor and ultra-sensitive strike indicator.
If a bluegill so much as looks at that #14, those 4 feet
of floating leader flinch like a virgin on prom night.
None of this occurred to me beforehand; the benefits
revealed themselves after I tied on a #14 HEN out of
concern that I was losing too many #10s. But in the
shallows where I've been having success, it didn't take
me long to appreciate that the same size panfish I was
catching on a #10 HEN will grab the smaller #14 just as
readily. (And for all I know, the #14 may imitate the
true body size of this lake's living nymphs more accurately
than the #10 does.)
At any rate, once I sneaked within casting range of the
feeder creek hole, all hell broke loose and I began
ripping into 'em left and right. A day earlier, nobody
could have possibly convinced me that I would catch 40
fish today, but that's what I did. The breakdown was:
9 largemouth bass, 24 bluegills, 7 crappie.
The last crappie I caught was 12-inches long when laid
on my canoe hull markers. This measurement was taken
moments after a mini-disaster occurred. What happened
was, a truck driver was making a service call to one of
the cabins, and he'd seen me fishing and unbeknownst to
me he'd parked his truck up on the access road and walked
down to the creek to watch me fish.
Murphy's Law came into play with a vengeance. Just as
I brought this heavy 12-inch crappie to hand, I heard a
voice from up on the creek bank:
"Catching anything today?"
There I am, thumb stuck in this crappie's mouth, the fish
is flipping about throwing water all over me? Does this
guy think I didn't CATCH this fish, like maybe it was
swimming past my canoe and real quick I reached in and
grabbed its jaw barehanded?
"Oh, I've caught a few," I sighed.
"Are they biting today?" came Question #2.
"Well...THIS ONE JUST DID," I explained wearily, turning the
crappie to show him my #14 Hare's Ear Nymph lodged in the
After commenting that he didn't know this feeder creek
had such a deep hole, the man turned and walked back
to his truck. And that 12-inch crappie, ladies and
gentlemen, was the last fish I caught that morning.
Before this guy's visit, wild action; after his visit,
my luck crashes the wall. Proof to my mind that what
my Grandpa Stu drilled into my head from the time I
was 5-years old is the truth: fish are easily spooked
and you NEVER, EVER just stroll up to a fishing hole.
No, you slowly creep up on tippy-toes, careful to put
your shoes to earth very gently so's not to generate
unnatural ground vibrations.
This man's surprise appearance and especially his
uninvited discovery of my productive spot severely
bummed me out initially. Then I calmed down once
I began thinking about what he'll do with the
information he'd just acquired. Odds are good he'll
come back here again, maybe bring some friends, and
he'll fish this spot hard because it's easy to reach
on foot and he knows fish are here. But if his impact
on my action today is any indication, following his
next heavy-footed approach he'll be lucky if he gets
a chigger bite for his trouble.
It might be bluegill and crappie he'll come here for,
too, but to catch 'em you gotta show constant respect
for their eternal wariness, their lightning reactions
to avoid predators. I wish him luck on that. ~ 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