Welcome to Warmwater Fishing!

One Fish, Two Fish
By Joe Hyde, Douglas County, KS

It's nerve-racking due to the ever-present risk of snagging, but I prefer fishing in or near cover rather than open water. The cover can be anything - weed line, submerged weed bed, submerged brush or trees, stumps, rocks. Two sticks. Anything is better than nothing.

Especially in water I'm fishing for the first time, I need to see some kind of physical cover to feel like I've got half a chance. This affinity stems from the fact that nearly all my 54 years of angling has involved casting baits or lures from the banks of creeks and rivers or the shores of ponds and lakes. For a foot fisherman this is where cover is found, the only place you can access it. And as a beginner, I discovered that fish hang out in near-shore cover. Over time I learned many ways to work cover and tease the fish hiding there into striking.

With open water I can never decide where the best place is to start. Estimating the depth of open water and guessing its underwater features by studying the surrounding landscape is somewhat helpful in identifying potentially good spots, but it offers no certainties.

I like to tell myself that any water displaying visible cover harbors a few fish and I've got a decent shot at catching some. Whereas in open water that displays no visible cover, there's probably fish out there but I can't shake the gut feeling that nobody's home. Casting into open water I never get the sense that anything I'm doing is right.

Nowadays I fish almost exclusively from a canoe. The casual passerby might assume that because I'm in a canoe I prefer open water, that I'm in league with the high-tech bass boaters and pattern my activities after their methods.

No way, Jose: I'm a bank fisherman through and through, I'm just a bank fisherman who sits in a canoe. That weed line, submerged log or brush I'm fishing, that's stuff I've found while paddling around fairly close to shore. So for me there's nothing new going on here; I work that cover the same way I always worked it from shore - same angles and casting lanes, except now I'm coming at it from the opposite side.

Does fly fishing from a canoe (or a kayak, float tube, etc.) offer special advantages? I'd say yes, absolutely. Do those advantages guarantee lots of fish every trip? Let's take a look and see.

It's 3:30 p.m., Sunday, March 5th. I've returned to the lake arm where on Feb. 27th I caught lots of really big bluegills. But unlike Feb. 27th, today a strong northwest wind is coming into the lake arm like a garbage truck charging down a narrow alley. The tall hills bordering this arm collect and focus the wind, compressing it to 20 mph with gusts to 25. Faced with a hostile lake surface, common sense dictates I forgo this arm and try another.

But another kind of common sense urges me to try this arm, and do it right now. Here in Kansas we're coming out of winter; today's high was almost 65 degrees and this wind is moving surface water that's been sun-warmed during a long ride across the lake's open area. I'm thinking this current pushing into the arm will set up a warm surface inflow/cold bottom outflow "conveyor" that might raise the overall water temperature of this shallow arm by a few degrees. Possibly insignificant, but what if a tiny temperature rise rouses the bluegills and crappies to an orgy of insect-eating lust and violence? Do I want to miss out on that? No, I don't.

I'm well aware that by opting to try this lake arm today I'll sacrifice two important tactical advantages near and dear to my heart (canoe control and line reading) but I may reap two important rewards (more big bluegills and early season crappies).

Paddling hard against the strong headwind, I finally reach my first mark - a submerged log where last May I caught many, many crappies. Passing on its north side then turning south and anchoring west of the log, I lower only my stern anchor. The wind immediately pushes my canoe's bow around to the east and the boat weathervanes on tether, putting me facing straight downwind, the submerged log lying just 20 feet away. With a bit of rod lean to the right or left I can roll cast a #14 beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph 40 feet with ease then crawl it back in slowly close beside whichever side of the log I choose.

After leaving this submerged log, I decide to make the rest of the day be about fishing a long stand of flooded brush that sits in this lake arm. My strategy will be to move to the upwind end of the brush, set my stern anchor and begin roll casting downwind just like at the log. Once the action at each individual spot plays out, I'll simply weigh anchor and let my boat get blown downwind a short ways to the next brushy spot with a minimum of paddling effort.

Arriving at the upper end of this brushy area I spot a couple of downed trees lying close to shore. One offers a root wad whose upper half sticks out of the water, the tangled underwater half providing excellent concealment for panfish. This looks nice. As it happens, I misjudge my speed and lower the stern anchor too soon, ending up tethered 20 feet to the right of the logs instead of directly upwind of them. But this isn't so bad; during sideways casts the wind from behind keeps my hook safely out in front and thus away from my face. Also, once my line is on the water the crosswind bellies it out. Normally this is a nuisance but today because of how these logs are oriented I can exploit the crosswind by swinging my nymph past the cover in an arc, like a baseball pitcher tantalizes over-eager batters by throwing lazy curveballs outside just off the plate.

Next, I lift anchor and use sculling strokes to pull my canoe to the right, into deeper water. This maneuver puts me at the head of the brushy area. Dropping the stern anchor, I can tell the water depth here is about 4 feet. This is a good spot as it's the first part of the brushy area getting warmed by the incoming surface water. Newly arriving crappies swimming in from deep water will encounter this brush first, and some will loiter here prowling the wilderness of submerged stems looking for nymphs and minnows.

After leaving the head of this brushy area I move downwind and left, back into shallower water, and here I'm casting so close to the north shore that my nymph is almost coming down on dry land. The sun has been shining on these shallows all day so this is likely the warmest water of all; if so, there may be more fish holding here than anywhere else. Also, due to the minimal depth I can better see any submerged logs and branches ahead. It still isn't easy spotting them because the incessant wave action prevents good looks through the surface glare even with polarized lenses.

I next ferry back to the right, re-entering the brushy area a bit farther down the line at a spot where the brush trunks are really dense - not just dense above water but below it, too. So far I've lost two beadhead PTNs to snags, no surprise because for me beadhead nymphs are just more easily lost.

By now the alert reader has noticed that I haven't said one word about strikes or catching fish? There's a reason for that: I've fished hard for an hour and a half without a single hit. I haven't caught a fish.

It greatly startled me, then, when at exactly 5:15 p.m. during a brief lull in the wind my line got yanked by what turned out to be a keeper-size bluegill. Whew! Thank you, Mr. 'Gillie! Until this moment I'd had nothing to show for my mental and physical efforts but the occasional algae clump on my hook bend.

I had my ice chest on board but elected to release this first 'gill; before putting any fish on ice and killing them for food I needed reassurance, more evidence, that this 'gill would not be the day's last fish. Fourteen minutes later 'gill #2, another strong keeper-size fish, grabbed my PTN and this boosted my spirits a bit more. But man, was that a long fourteen minutes between fish!

The hour and the time interval suggested two possibilities: A) the fish were finally beginning to bite, but; B) they preferred calmer surface conditions before biting. As fortune would have it, after I released this second fish the wind not only picked up again but it increased in speed. My hope at the outset had been that as sundown neared the wind would lay down, like it so often does. Today it wasn't doing that.

At 6:15 p.m. dimming light and the continued high wind made me say "uncle." I raised anchor and with help from the tailwind began paddling through the thickest part of the brush, headed straight for my pickup truck. Suddenly right beside me a stump of decaying willow vibrated so violently that a spray of water droplets was thrown into the air, like a wet dog shaking its fur. My canoe had not hit this stump. A fleeing fish - a big one - had collided with it underwater, hitting it so hard it vibrated as if whacked by a baseball bat. Seconds after I drifted past this stump there was a big swirling splash 15 feet in front of me as a fish with size rose to the surface porpoise-fashion. I got only a glance, but it was a largemouth bass of around 3 lbs. The way it surfaced made me think it was not fleeing my approach but instead was attacking a prey item. As fast as I could grab my stern line and release it, I anchored and shifted my brain back into Fishing Gear.

Could I have been going at this all wrong, right from the git-go? Maybe I should have been targeting bass today. Oops, I'm sorry: not targeting bass exactly but at least using a fly big enough to appeal to the larger panfish that inhabit this brushy area? Not some dinky #14 PTN like I'd selected but a real "meat and potatoes" fly that only big 'gills and crappie would dare attack…along with the odd largemouth like this 3-pounder up ahead?

I was in a position to go big quickly. After three weekends of tying on and clipping off (or breaking off) so many smaller flies, my 6X tapered leader had lost its skinny 3-lb. test tippet. The remaining 4 feet of leader was thick, probably 8 or 10-lb. test. I felt that my 1-wt. rod was no limitation; so long as this leader was stout enough the rod was stout enough. Anything big hits me in this brush tangle, I yield line then pump it in when opportunities present themselves. Just go for it and trust to luck.

Looking through my two small fly boxes, I spotted a Rick Zieger-tied synthetic yarn chartreuse #6 minnow. I double-clinched it, manually dunked it in the lake and squeezed the air out of the fibers. The fly began sinking at a slow steady pace, pulled down by only the weight of the hook. This little puppy creeping through the brush a foot below the surface would be just the ticket to provoke strikes from lurking crappies and bass. Why hadn't I thought of using this fly two hours earlier?

Why? Because two hours earlier I'd only wanted to catch bluegills, and maybe some crappie if I got lucky. Bass? Gag me with a spoon! But now...well..giving a 3-lb. largemouth bass a 5-minute hydrorobic workout would be more fun than not catching any more bluegills. And I wish I could relate the thrilling details of that battle, but I can't because for 30 minutes Rick's chartreuse minnow swam everywhere I could throw it without snagging, and it never got a touch. Sure would have been nice to catch that bass, or any bass, even a dinky one.

It's funny how the mind works. Good fishing trips can bring back memories of earlier good trips. Same goes for trips you get skunked, or almost skunked. What this March 5th trip reminded me of was all those trips in my youth when my first outings of the year would happen around this time. I'd go out in early March all fired up because I had cabin fever real bad. Trip after trip I never caught anything and after a month of constant failure I'd get frustrated and quit, and wouldn't resume fishing until mid-summer. I was quitting right about the time the crappie spawn starts, but by then I didn't care, I'd been skunked so many times I was angry and bummed out.

In short, I was a moron.

Today then, the unprecedented luck I've enjoyed this year commencing the first week of January allowed me the luxury of being philosophically analytical about how miserably rotten and disgustingly poor this day had been. It may have been the wind, or the waves; perhaps the barometer, or the wrong choice of flies. Whatever, in my last three trips to this lake arm I haven't fared nearly as well as I did when the water was actually colder. Which doesn't make sense, at least to me it doesn't.

Could it be that annually in early March there's a natural lull in fish activity even in the presence of ideal weather? I suppose I'll find out soon enough because this spring I'm not quitting even if I suffer a long run of bad luck. Besides, the fishing I did here today was a deliberate experiment conducted to discover whether a combination of northwest wind, wave action and a warm water conveyor energizes the fish in this lake arm. Before the first cast I knew that failure was a distinct possibility.

I don't like getting skunked, though, and today I came oh, so close. But in my youth, one of the first lessons fish taught me is that they don't exist for the purpose of sacrificing themselves to make me happy or to boost my ego. Fish are always teaching us things, and while paddling off the lake today I felt they had again taught me something of value. I just didn't know what, and still don't.

One thing though: while strapping my canoe to the roof rack at 7:15 p.m. I looked up and stars were glittering like diamonds in the cloud-free twilight. Somewhere away to my east a pack of coyotes was singing to our sky. Barred owls were hooting and cackling to the south and north of me, in the trees up on those hills. If nothing else, this experiment was a 2-fish success that proved again it's still a beautiful world we live in. ~ 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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