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Surprise, Surprise
By Joe Hyde, Douglas County, KS


It's noon Friday, March 10th. I have the day off and before the TV basketball games get underway I'll wile away a few hours by fly rodding for panfish. My last fishing trip netted just two bluegills (both released) while using primarily a #14 Pheasant Tail Nymph. Gambling that a larger fly will avert a repeat at the same lake arm, today I will go with Old Reliable - a #10 flashback Hare's Ear Nymph.

Thirty minutes after launching my solo canoe, Old Reliable has triggered a déjà vu moment: I've fished two spots hard and caught two bluegills from cover where many times previously I've enjoyed red hot action on fish with size. Well, that's all right, I'll just move... (but wasn't I continually moving on the last trip, too?).

The gray sky's wind is blowing hard from the southeast, and it's a cold wind. I'm wearing a stocking cap, plus a fleece vest under a thick Polarguard-filled jacket and not feeling a degree too warm. Looking over at a nearby feeder creek, I notice its surface is being ruffled despite being at the most protected upwind part of the lake. This creek has a channel slot with depth around three feet, and a dead tree lies in that slot. I've caught many fish there in the past. As close as this channel slot is to where I'm presently anchored, going there seems the most energy-efficient position change.

Put another way, I was too lazy to paddle 150 yards down the lake arm and fish that big brushy area. Because if I did that, then eventually I'd have to make a long, hard paddle back to my truck heading directly into this wind. Most days I have plenty of paddling enthusiasm. Not today. Part of my fatigue is mental from getting almost shut out by this lake's lock-jawed finny residents on my last visit. My fisherman's spirit is treading lightly today and won't be asking Lady Luck for much.

Short-cutting across a shallow mudflat to reach the upper end of this creek channel, after anchoring I begin roll casting my #10 HEN into the channel slot. Getting braver and braver, I keep nibbling away until I'm consistently dropping the HEN just inches on my side of the submerged log. I'm slowly swimming Old Reliable through the slot's narrow open area. Working right and left, shallow and deep, fast and slow, and I'm catching nothing.

Let's see: two really good spots, one very good fly, cold gray windy weather, two tiny 'gills, zero keepers. Doing the math, today's outing is adding up to a lost cause. But that's okay; I'm just passing the time here before the basketball game. So with nothing to lose I clip off Old Reliable and search my fly box for something different to try, just for a drill.

Opening the fly box reminds me I'm still irked at myself for losing, on my previous visit to this lake arm, Rick Zieger's chartreuse synthetic fiber minnow to a submerged snag just minutes before quitting. I can't try that fly in this channel slot. But lucky for me, Rick also had given me another fly that closely resembles the one I'd lost. This second fly is a slightly shorter version with chartreuse marabou; the hook size is #10, I'm guessing. It didn't look so big and fluffy that a bluegill would be deterred, so I forceped it off the fly box's foam and tied it on.

In order to correctly present this fly as a minnow or a nymph, I needed to saturate those marabou feathers. Into the lake it went and I reached down and squeezed it a few times to press out air and sponge in lake water. I wasn't thorough enough because during false casts the marabou fibers shed most of the water, and when the fly finally touched down, landing five feet to the left of the log, it laid on the surface floating like a cork.

Again, I was feeling lazy, and the way things were going today I was feeling sorta defeated. So why get excited and execute a quick lift that picks up this fly and brings it back to hand when I can just give it a few twitches and maybe pull it down through the surface tension and those fluffy marabou fibers will become saturated that way? You know, because by the time it gets back to the boat it ought to be completely soaked, ready for the correct presentation on my second cast? Yes, that's what I'll do. I gave my rod tip a couple of twitches and this scooted the fly across the surface about a foot.

The fly promptly went underwater, exactly as hoped. The startling thing was the manner in which it went underwater: a sharp swirl appeared in the spot the fly was occupying and at that instant the fly vanished. I wasn't so lazy and feeling so defeated that I didn't lift my rod; I did lift it, immediately felt a throbbing resistance and after a modest tussle boated a fish.

The next startling thing was the species of fish this was. During its fight the fish stayed down stubbornly, not showing itself. Okay, I thought, this will be a bass or a bluegill given the shallow depth of this channel slot, and also because those are the two species I mainly catch here. Or it might be a good redear. Instead, what came up beside my canoe was a white crappie.

In my stunned brain, little teeth on tiny cogs began breaking off. Whoa, wait a minute, let me get this right: a white crappie has just grabbed a fly off the surface of this lake on a cold, cloudy, windy day in March? Grabbed it at mid-day? This was something I definitely had not anticipated and would never have considered possible. I sat there wondering what to do. Well, that's not exactly true; I dropped this crappie into my ice chest and then I sat there for a minute trying to figure out what to do.

The chartreuse marabou fly had spent enough time underwater in the crappie's mouth that its fibers were totally soaked. It was now ready for the type of presentation Rick surely designed it for. So I threw it back into the same spot but it wasn't until the instant of touchdown that I decided to work it toward me immediately in order to keep it up high, as close to the surface as possible, as opposed to giving it four or five seconds to sink through the water column and reach standard nymph operating depth.

But immediately, before little Charlie could sink an inch, another crappie rose in a flash and hammered him, sending a spray of water into the air. On the third cast a small largemouth bass clobbered Charlie, the strike happening just beneath the surface. Next a bluegill took it, followed by more white crappies, and more small bass. The crappies were running around eight-inches, and friends, for me on legal waters that's a keeper when you haven't dined on boneless crappie fillets for almost a year.

This was all very confusing because before tying on Rick's chartreuse fly I'd worked this water thoroughly and caught absolutely nothing using Old Reliable. What gives? Is it this pattern that the fish like better? Or the depth I'm working it? Or the slower sink rate? These questions were on my mind the whole time I was boating and ice-chesting fish.

Another thing I don't understand: almost every time I hear a car rolling down the gravel road that wraps this lake arm, this is when a fish decides to hit. I just hate it when this happens. So many motorists will slow or pause to watch me, and they do it even when my rod isn't bent over by a fish's struggle. Today, even though it was mid-day on a Friday these intrusions were frequent. One SUV full of people stopped on the road directly behind me and the driver shut the engine off so they could watch me in silence. I couldn't twist around far enough to see, but maybe one of them was filming me with a camcorder and didn't want an idling engine messing up the audio? Or maybe they were Audubon birders; if so, there was one on my right hand that I wanted to flip 'em.

Five minutes of their silent presence so close on my 6 started bugging me. I finally ran them off. What happened was, while false casting that wet, heavy marabou fly I brought my rod forward to deliver the final stroke and suddenly felt a surprising sensation of lightness in my right hand - a lightness, I soon discovered, caused by the top half of my rod flying off during my final backcast and splashing into the creek channel behind me. Apparently witnessing this, the SUV driver fired up his engine and roared away as I began lining my tackle into the canoe hand over hand.

Welcome to the real world of fly fishing, Walter Mitty; park and watch me again when you can't stay so long.

Once I reassembled my rod, this hot spot adjacent to the log eventually played out although it took a while. This must have been a small school of foraging crappie I'd lucked into here because after I relocated down-channel to work the slot beyond the log, the action promptly fizzled. Disappointing, but I figured the bang-bang takes and ruckus up-channel had spooked the school.

Sometimes there's a little voice in my head that will say, "You're catching fish and doing real good. While they're biting like this try a different fly and see if they like it as good or better." That little voice was driving me nuts in this creek channel, and it was that first crappie's fault for hitting Rick's fly up top.

And even while relishing the fun of catching these crappies I couldn't stop asking myself why they were energetically hitting a fly presented virtually on the surface. I mean, the second the fly touched down I could barely move it and WHAM. It was like all these fish were lying mere inches below, waiting for fallen insects to get pushed by the wind down the creek channel into their field of vision so they could rise and seize the hapless bugs. Like trout, for crying out loud.

I haven't fly fished all that long, I really haven't. And I haven't fly fished very often where I've gone out after crappie specifically, due to what I see as their limited springtime availability (at least in the shallow water I prefer fishing). The bulk of my personal history catching crappies has involved using spinners, jigs and live minnows with everything presented well below the surface. So as a fly fisher I'm still having conceptual problems imaging crappies as opportunistic gamefish that will take surface prey. I was dumbfounded that they would actually grab a fly - my fly - off a lake surface in early March, in cold water in the daytime around noon.

The little voice in my head kept whispering, "That first crappie took Rick's marabou fly when it was floating. Floating. Clip off Charlie and give them a genuine dry fly, something like a Parachute Adams. DO IT NOW."

"No, No!" I pleaded, "Leave me alone! Charlie's catching fish one after another and that's the kind of action I live for!"

What finally sent the little voice scurrying for cover was a muscular ten-inch redear sunfish that viciously jolted the chartreuse marabou as it was getting two-inch stripped through the channel slot 18-inches below the surface. That redear put the deepest bend yet in my 1-wt. Clear Creek. I couldn't wait to release this fish immediately to protect his health so that someday, if I'm lucky, I'll connect with him again. Or he'll connect with me as the case may be. Boy, was he upset at getting hooked.

I now had eight keepers in my small ice chest. Their fillets would make a good side dish for my buddies Sam and Angie. Tip-off for a Big 12 post-season tournament basketball game was only hours away, and I would be watching that game at their house. So I needed to leave. But after what had happened here, I promised myself that when the ballgame was over I'd drive back and camp here overnight.

Unlike this windy chilly Friday, the forecast for Saturday was 70 degrees, light winds and sunshine all day. First thing tomorrow morning, Charlie Marabou and I would venture farther out into the lake. We would go into that standing brush way out there and see what the bigger boys have to say. ~ 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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