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Out of Sync/Back in Sync
By Joe Hyde, Douglas County, KS


Feb. 25-27 was one of those 3-day weekends where I wanted to do many different things and the plans I tried to nail down changed almost hourly. I would go fishing; No, I'd go visit a friend; No, go watch a basketball game; No, go scout a new lake; No, go paddle the Kansas River.

Any plan change that involves using my canoe can cause problems because camp-on-the-river trips and fishing trips require specialized gear items and a fair number of items at that. If my music gear happens to be loaded from a recent gig (bass guitar and amp, guitar and music stands, song books, etc.) then my pickup truck looks like the heap Jed Clampett drove down Beverly Hills Blvd.

Quick mental shifts are frequently necessary to enable my various recreational activities. And, well...occasionally those shifts aren't executed very smoothly. Such became evident Sunday evening minutes after my buddy Sam and I dragged our solo canoes up onto a big Kansas River sandbar and started setting up our evening campsite. The twilight sky was clear; this would be a great night for star watching. The temperature was dropping into the upper 30s and I was excited about cooking supper because I was hungry and had brought some really tasty cookables. Life is good, I thought to myself after erecting my tent then laying my sleeping pad inside it to self-inflate. I began tossing accessory gear bags onto the tent floor.

Something was missing, though. Then it hit me: No sleeping bag! Five hours earlier in my haste to pack for this trip I'd somehow left my sleeping bag behind. Way to go, Dummy! After a brief panic attack, I remembered the goose down hooded jacket I'd stuffed into my river bag. I already had on wool long underwear and had brought fleece pants plus two blankets. Bringing that goose down jacket was blind luck; it's a new item, one I'd never before packed on a canoe camping trip.

Well, I wouldn't freeze to death now; and in fact, I slept snug and warm that night. Lucky, lucky, you big Dummy.

But the next morning loading my canoe while breaking camp, suddenly I couldn't find my keys! Major panic attack. Okay, Dummy, think back: Yes, my key carabiner was clipped to my pants belt and must have somehow dropped off the day before, when Sam and I were scouting a sandbar 2 miles upriver. I hadn't heard the keys fall because they landed on loose sand.

Oh, now this is just great: It's Monday morning, I have this whole day off, and after leaving the river what I'd planned on doing next was to go fishing. Not now! Now after reaching Lawrence, Sam would have to shuttle me back upstream to Perry and I'd have to paddle this 13-mile river section all over again just to hunt for my lost keys, and if I didn't find them there'd be hell to pay at work.

After 15 minutes griping and grieving about losing my keys, I patted myself down for about the 20th time and there they were, zipped inside the chest pocket of my fleece sweater. I NEVER put my keys there, but I'd done it yesterday right after we'd launched our canoes and then forgot I'd done it.

I was just out of sync, man. Out of sync. Which was bad. But at least I'd survived the cold night. Hey, I'd not only survived but now I could go fishing just as soon as I got off the river. Which was good!

Arriving at the lake at 3:30 p.m., Monday's unseasonable 70 degree high was still making the air feel marvelous. A light southerly breeze ruffled the water. Nobody was here but me.

On my previous visit to this lake arm I'd caught a few nice crappies in addition to some decent bluegills. February 27th being the cusp of spring, I felt it possible that a few more crappie had left deep water and infiltrated this shallow lake arm. So after assembling my rod I clipped off the Hare's Ear Nymph still on the leader from my last trip, and tied on a new yellow marabou fly.

This yellow fly had come into my possession two days earlier. Tim Yager, co-owner of Yager's Fly Shop in Lawrence, KS, had given it to me. Yager's just started carrying this fly and Tim was curious what it would do. He'd heard it was good on panfish. I guess not many other locals go panfishing in winter, so he gave me a test sample to try out.

I didn't think to ask him what its size hook is (guessing #8) but this yellow marabou fly is about 1 - inch long, has red bars on the thorax and two silver beadchain eyes. I told Tim that I'm gun shy about beadhead flies; for me they hang up in woody cover much easier than un-beaded versions. I was honestly reluctant to accept this test fly. But then I thought: "Well, why not? If I lose it on a snag I've got ten un-weighted #10 Hare's Ears and lots of other flies to fall back on."

After paddling out to a good looking spot and anchoring, prior to my first cast I dunked this yellow marabou in the lake to wet it, fully expecting it to drop to the bottom like a cannonball. Instead, it floated. Hmmm. I had to dabble it in the water repeatedly until the fibers finally saturated. Then I dunked it again, again expecting it to plummet out of sight. Instead, it began descending very, very slowly. Hmmm! This "suspension" behavior immediately reminded me of a synthetic yellow fly that Rick Zieger ties, a fly that he catches lots of crappies with up in Iowa. I began to warm up to this yellow fly, thinking it just might bring me some "Rick Luck" on crappies (assuming it wasn't so heavy when wet that it caused casting problems).

But I fished two different spots thoroughly over the next 15 minutes and never got a touch either place, and these were spots where just two weekends prior I'd ripped into 'em using a #14 Hare's Ear Nymph. Fifteen minutes was far too little test time to form a fair opinion of the yellow marabou, I knew that. Still, I couldn't help thinking hard about discontinuing this test and switching to my proven Hare's Ear killer.

Then at the third spot I anchored, first cast, 5 feet into a slow strip retrieve - BOOM - a big bluegill dropped a bomb on Yellow Mary and put a serious bend in my 1-wt. Clear Creek. Tim Yager had said this ought to be a good fly on bluegill, too, not just crappie. But there in his store, to me the fly had looked too big for even a big bluegill to cram into its mouth. Wrong.

After boating a half dozen 'gills and one bass I began hearing, vaguely and somewhere in the distance, what sounded like the splashing of surfacing fish. Feeding fish. Hidden by wave action, the waves being made by these splashes could not be seen. The sound continued, though, and as the afternoon wind died and the surface becalmed I spotted an area of open water 100 yards west of me that was getting ripped by feeding fish. What those fish were, I could only guess. (And my guess was: "Crappie!")

Time to move.

I glided in silently, gently lowered my stern anchor to the bottom, cam-cleated the anchor line then sent the yellow marabou into the middle of a cluster of fish splashes. Fish were rising constantly even as my false casts flew close above the spot. As near as I was to them the fish were zipping to the top, rolling and diving back down so fast I couldn't identify the species. I couldn't even see their bodies to gauge size, either; they were just too quick. To find out what they were I would have to actually catch one. Which never happened; they were not interested in the yellow marabou no matter what action I imparted.

I was seeing a few midges buzzing about now, so I suspected these fish were attacking midge nymphs, or hatching midges. Right here is where I could have clipped off the yellow marabou and tied on a Griffith's Gnat/Olive Soft Hackle tandem rig. Or better yet, reached behind me for a backup rod already rigged with said tandem flies - except that I hadn't brought my backup rod.

After a few moments agonizing over what to do, I decided to stick with the yellow marabou fly, leave this fish-packed "dry hole" and return to the brushy cover I'd been fishing. I felt like I was betraying my own chance for a good education by turning my back on what looked to be the ideal opportunity to experiment with a midge tandem. On the other hand, I'd been catching fish before this surface feeding commenced and catching fish is what I wanted to keep doing more than anything.

Minutes later back at the Brush Farm, Yager's yellow marabou rewarded my decision by provoking savage hits from lots more bluegills, plus four nice crappies and a few largemouth bass. One bass was 15-inches long, and catching that rascal on a 1-wt. rod gives hyperventilation a good name.

It's always fun catching fish, but what was so exciting today was the consistently large size of the bluegills. At this lake I've never had a day when I caught so many big bluegills; most were thick bodied 8-inchers, a couple were 10-inchers. I'd never seen the like. And the crappies - one was 13-inches long, another 12-inches, one 10-inches. It was catch and release fishing so back into the lake everything went. I wasn't counting, but conservatively I'd estimate 40 would-be keepers and close to 60 fish overall.

Back in sync, man, bigtime.

When I left the lake at 6:45 p.m. (dusk) the noisy surface feeding was still going strong. Reviewing the afternoon's sequence of events, it struck me that I hadn't caught a single fish prior to hearing this feeding noise. Then after it started, the fish I caught were all hooked underwater in places well away from that feeding area. This made me wonder if the mere sound of surface feeding by distant fish is enough to trigger underwater feeding by fish that are holding in adjacent areas?

Sound travels through water incredibly far and fast, and as quiet as those splashing sounds today were I'm sure the lateral lines on distant gamefish are sensitive enough to collect the signature frequencies generated by surface feeding and send those impulses to the fish's brain for correct analysis. Group surface feeding sounds may excite all fish, prodding every species within reception range to get busy hunting for whatever prey items they typically eat ...before something else gets there and eats it first.

Well, maybe so; and maybe not. All I know for certain is the next afternoon had identical beautiful warm weather. I was so excited and happy about the luck I'd had Monday - and so confident that I would enjoy more of the same - that Tuesday afternoon I took two hours of vacation time and ran back to the lake and fished the same spots I'd fished Monday. And Tuesday afternoon, sure enough, that surface feeding racket commenced at the same time. I stayed back away from it this time and used the yellow marabou fly again, throwing it into the same brushy cover and giving it the exact same running depth and action during retrieves. And what happened? The 'gills and crappie hardly gave it a look. In three hard hours I caught maybe 15 fish total and they were all smaller fish, some of the bluegill so small it's a wonder how they fit the hook in their mouths.

A lot of fishermen play bluegills cheap. Let me tell you something: anyone who can predict their behavior with absolute accuracy and catch a lot of them every time out is a better man than I, Gunga Din. ~ 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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