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The PTN Cruiser

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

In early February I happened to catch this tidbit of radio news: in northeast Kansas the January, 2007 monthly temperature averaged seventeen degrees colder than January of 2006. Prior to hearing this I hadn't consciously thought about how cold this winter has been. All I knew is that it felt so cold every day that instinctively I didn't want to be outdoors doing river-sport and lake-sport things. Just as well, since almost all bodies of water in my home area were iced for almost three months.

During this past winter I kept up with FAOL, albeit somewhat istlessly. Due to prolonged bitter weather plus seven months of work pressures that were even more bitter, beginning soon after Thanksgiving Day my fishing spirit lapsed into a kind of psychic hibernation.

It's a good thing for us Northern Hemispherians that our planet spins on an axis that annually tilts back and forth "forth" giving us fly fisher-types more hours of daylight and warmer weather. A combination of things snapped me out of my winter funk: more daylight minutes (helped especially by the switch to Daylight Savings Time); Florida's Robert McCorquodale posting photos in the FAOL Bulletin Board of crappies he'd recently caught; Iowa's Rick Zieger writing stories about NOT getting a chance to fish due to ice (making me feel not so alone in my misery).

All things considered, memories of Dixieangler's crappie photos are what finally lit a fire under me. It's hard seeing photos of somebody else's 13-inch crappie when the only thing I'm catching is hell at work.

It's Friday, March 16: I get home from Kansas City, grab my tackle, head out of town and reach the lake at 5:30 p.m. Conditions? Pretty nice light wind, almost no waves, warm sunshine, only one other fisherman in sight and he's over across the lake arm heaving crankbaits off a boat dock. Poor guy, using such heavy tackle; clinical evidence of mental deterioration caused by a winter spent cooped indoors watching bass tournaments on TV.

Me, I'm not exactly knee deep in self-confidence, please understand. After all, today is my first time out in four months. Yet in my bones I know I'm the only guy on the lake this afternoon who has a chance of catching anything at all. Why? Well, because unlike the fellow across the lake who's trying to entice his quarry by whacking their lateral lines with the noise equivalent of Ringo Starr's drum kit, yours truly will employ a tiny, slow-moving, imitation of an immature phase aquatic insect what we fly fishers call a nymph.

Not that using a nymph was foreordained; actually, on the drive out I was giving a midge serious consideration. But when I got to the lake and looked around on its surface nowhere could I see those wave ring disturbances that indicate insect hatches, or egg depositing by flying insects. This tipped the scales in favor of a nymph.

And using my all-time favorite fly a #10 flashback Hare's Ear Nymph was not foreordained, either. The reason being I was concerned that "Old Reliable," due to his rather speedy descent rate following splashdown, would sink too fast. I planned to start out fishing deep water adjacent to the lake dam and saw no benefit in having Old Reliable zip downward through the water column past the noses of sluggish fish that might well be in the mood to engulf a nymph if only a slower-moving one would come along.

The wind speed was just enough that I couldn't go super tiny with whatever offering I selected, due to wind drag on my floating line keeping a tiny fly from sinking at all. A compromise fly was needed, something that would sink slowly yet offer enough body mass that it would visually appeal as a meal worth grabbing.

Looking through my nymph box, I plucked out a Rick Zieger-tied #12 Pheasant Tail Nymph. Although the meat end of this fly is wrapped in a bit of wire the overall design is slender. With its pheasant tail the overall length is around one inch. The slender, semi-soft pheasant tail comprises half the fly's length. That would be useful here, as underwater the tail would function as a "brake" slowing the nymph's descent anytime I paused or slowed my retrieve.

To my unhappy surprise, the casting zone along shore was covered by hundreds of clumps of floating vegetation that ranged in size from softball to dinner platter. The trick became spotting open lanes and pockets to cast to, then hitting those openings with an accurate cast. Very distracting, but I'm here now so what's a guy to do but try?

On my fourth cast the line began tightening during the retrieve, I lifted and was into a bluegill. A little one, but that's cool. My motto is: "Better small than not at all." Hey, maybe there's hope! But for the next 20 minutes "not at all" is the only thing that followed "small." Okay, time to move: I loaded my gear back into the pickup and relocated about halfway up the lake arm to an area offering shallower water.

After parking, I carried to the water just my rod, curved-nose forceps and line clipper, a pocket-size digital camera and a can of soda pop. The fanny bag with fly boxes and other gear, it stayed in the truck bed. Not much is happening today so I'll just give this spot a few minutes out of general principle then head home to watch Kansas play Niagara in the NCAA Tournament (opening tipoff in 10 minutes). This lake water is still too cold. And besides, where I'm standing right now there's even more of this floating green stuff. Just look: 30 feet out is a 5-ft. wide band of this crap and the water current is slowly moving it along parallel to shore, like a miniaturized row of battleships. Gotta stay away from that stuff, otherwise Rick's PTN gets completely gooped.

I worked the open water between shore and the goop line with no luck. Almost time to leave, but Okay, I'll try one last cast closer to shore; what the heck. I sent the PTN down the shoreline for a parallel retrieve through water maybe 3 feet deep. The water was clear enough I could see submerged green stuff on the bottom. Allowing a long drop was unwise so I gave the PTN a two-second countdown then began...WHACK!...a mid-size 'gill grabbed the nymph. Hello!

Going back into this shoreline area, I caught and released four or five more bluegills before the action faded. Well, if they're shallow I'll just move on down the shoreline and hit a fresh spot. But first, another cast into the deeper water on my side of the goop line. The PTN touched down and this time, due to a casting screwup that snarled my line I had to bring the nymph toward me without allowing it to sink as deep. Promptly the line came tight, I lifted the rod tip and felt that unmistakable sluggish struggle so typical of... yes...it's a crappie! First of the year!


Right around this time I began hearing fish surfacing here and there around the lake arm. Occasionally I would look up from my business to search for where they were rising. This unconsciously became one of those things like a post-game analysis of a basketball game where they show an overhead diagram of the spots on the court where such-and-such a player took all his shots?

Suddenly it clicked in my mind that the fish swirls were happening mostly in or very near the long line of floating goop passing in front of me the goop that up to this point I'd been staying away from because I found it threatening and disgusting.

My brain finally connected the dots. Whatever these swirling fish are, they are rising for prey items located amidst this floating goop! No clue what the prey items are, but my best bet now is to acknowledge what's happening and begin working my PTN shallower, not deeper, so that my nymph is available to fish that must be holding quite close to the surface.

This is where my initial choice of Rick's slower-sinking PTN, followed by leaving it on the tippet for lack of fly-switching enthusiasm, both proved to be lucky decisions. I began deliberately throwing the PTN as close as possible to my side of the goop line, sometimes casting through the line to the other side if gaps appeared in its left-to-right moving train car profile. After splashdown, I'd swim the nymph toward me immediately. Not quick retrieves, but immediate retrieves to put the PTN in motion and keep it poking along no more than a foot under the surface. This was the ticket: shallow-holding 'gills and crappie quickly spotted the nymph and grabbed it.

Goop line taker

Still a mystery is the identity of the prey these fish were hunting. I stayed until after 8 p.m. and at no time spotted flying insects emerge from the lake or fly above it. Had I kept some fish and examined their stomach contents the answer might have come, but I was releasing everything I caught. These crappies especially, I was so glad to see 'em that I hurriedly released each one after shooting quick photos to show Rick's PTN in its favorite spot (stuck in a panfish's jaw).

After a while I quit counting but this two hour trip resulted in probably thirty fish caught, split about evenly between bluegills and crappie. Many more fish took the PTN but got off. The crappies were around 8-to-10 inches long each, the bluegills smaller. This lake has no length limit on crappie; still, it'll be good to control their population. Always a miserable, thankless task but I'll volunteer. ~ 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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