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
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
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
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
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
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
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