Welcome to Warmwater Fishing!

When The Shoe Drops
By Joe Hyde, Douglas County, KS


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 weekend outings.

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 today.

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 fan casting.

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 -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 surface tension.

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 creature's jaw.

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

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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