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Mistakes Were Made

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

Sunday, March 25th: From 5PM until 8PM the racket was unrelenting at the lake arm I was fishing. Two vehicles pulled up behind me and multiple car doors slammed. Assuming a party of fishers had arrived, I didn't bother turning to look. As I soon learned – soon heard, I should say – that it was not fishermen but a party of late teen/early twenties ground-speed bubbas. For the next three hours they took turns driving a poorly-muffled dirt bike and an all-terrain vehicles around and around the lake arm perimeter road, filling the air with reverberating thunder.

Just one thing made this sonic bombardment endurable: during those three hours I was catching nice bluegills and crappie to the tune of a fish almost every other cast. This hot fly fishing action soothed the savage beast percolating inside me. That, plus a poetic justice flashback of how, back in 1968 when I was in the Navy, three buddies and I were in a San Diego diner and while eating breakfast we played the Rolling Stones hit song "Jumping Jack Flash" about 20 times on the jukebox until the manager shot us a look that expressed homicidal tendencies.

There just ain't no justice like poetic justice.

The next afternoon I returned to the same lake arm hoping to rip into those crappies again. Because this time, unlike on Sunday, I brought my small ice chest. Leaving that cooler at home Sunday had been a huge mistake.

Surely, I thought, because it's a Monday afternoon the racers won't be there. This assumption was a mistake. Two young men were there, one of them from the day before; this time they'd beaten me to the spot. They had a different ATV today, a slightly quieter model than the one they'd taken turns driving Sunday. Still, it was loud, its noise beyond intrusive.

Spotting them across the lake arm, I voiced a sailor's epithet but proceeded to the parking area anyway. There was crappie business to be conducted. Bubba #1 mounted the ATV as I pulled up. Bubba #2 walked down to the water's edge carrying a spinning outfit and began casting a Shyster-type spinner. Bubba #2 reached the water's edge just ahead of me, so I deferred to whichever direction he wanted to move up and down the bank. Naturally, he wanted to move in my direction. Well, that's cool; maybe we'll have a chance to, you know, visit a bit?

"Doin' any good?" I asked him once he got close enough.

"Not yet," he answered. I could see why: a big gob of filament algae trailed off his lure's treble hook. No fish on the planet wants to chase down and grab a mouthful of that nasty-looking stuff.

"Say," I began, "you fellas aren't by any chance planning to drive around out here, over and over, like you did all afternoon yesterday?"

"No, we won't, there isn't very much gas left in that tank," he answered.

"Glad to hear it," I said, "It's gotta be fun driving those things, but for us fishermen it's like having a chain saw engine running inside your skull. You know, because of how these surrounding hills contain the noise? Oh, and by the way, I'm pretty sure that "off road" driving is not allowed at this lake."

"We never drive off road," said Bubba #2.

"Well, I guess you were busy casting back there a minute ago, but I just watched your buddy go off-road through that stand of trees over there? (I pointed across the lake.) And as I drove around the road coming over here I saw tracks in the park turf where somebody on an ATV did a short-cut across that end curve. I'm pretty sure the county commission hasn't made this an off-road ATV park. You know, just giving you a heads-up in case you see a Sheriff's Department cruiser coming through here?"

Mumble, mumble, and he walked off.

A couple of hot laps later, Bubba #1 roared to a stop at their parking spot. After he shut down I heard a bit more mumbling then they left. Hasta la vista, Thunder-bubbas. Hopefully the pair circulates word through their pack that at least one lake user – nobody, just some old guy fisherman – objected to their noise with a pointed but polite complaint.

With the sonic offenders gone I had the shoreline all to myself, and was happy because this is the same shoreline where the day before I'd caught and released maybe 20 nice crappies. Released them because, as I said, I hadn't brought my little ice chest. Today the ice chest was sitting on the ground beside me and I eagerly anticipated putting at least a dozen crappies in it.

I was facing north. A south wind was blowing very hard, gusts to 30 mph. Although the shoreline I was standing on was protected (being on the leeward side of a tall east-west point of land) still the wind was strong enough that longitudinal eddies of wind would curl down over the point and without warning sweep across the water in front of me. Due to the unpredictability of these gusts, I gambled on a heavier fly that would go deep but not sink too fast, and swim to shore promptly but not too fast. Sick 'em, Old Reliable!

Well, Old Reliable did pretty fair, fooling a number of big bluegills and one very nice green sunfish. No crappie, though. Thinking the crappie might be out a bit farther, I pulled more line off the spool and loaded up for some Hollywood Casts. That was a mistake. Old Reliable did not end up farther out in the lake but instead got snagged in the low-hanging limb of a tree behind me. I couldn't reach the offending limb, and could not un-weave the wrapped tippet using my rod.

I'd been working this shoreline for 45 minutes with zero crappies caught. Not good. Then it began raining. I walked back to my truck, donned a lightweight anorak rated for wind and rain protection and resumed fishing. That was a mistake. The anorak proved to be an excellent rain filter: it kept blown leaves and bits of tree bark off my epidermis, but it let cold rainwater pass through and moisturize my arms, head and neck. No one was listening but I was quite vocal in my gratitude.

I decided to quit this spot, get out of the rain and do a tour around the lake to see if other semi-protected spots might offer decent casting conditions. Two spots I found were places where I've fished from the bank before, and with good luck. However, both spots were still overgrown with last year's tall vegetation mixed with new green growth. Not that I'm fussy about where I stand to cast, but this time of year you must respect ticks. People in my Kansas home county have contracted Lyme Disease, and even Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever from springtime tick bites. Had I brought my spray can of insect repellent I'd have tucked my pants legs inside my socks, sprayed my clothing and been invulnerable. But I'd forgotten the repellent can, which was a mistake and one I was too cautious to ignore.

So I continued until I found a spot with very little standing vegetation. This was a small cove that offered reasonably open casting from both sides. The first side, I got no hits at all in about 20 minutes, which motivated me to drive around to the other side and take a crack at it. There, three or four keeper-sized bluegills and one red ear sunfish got fooled by Old Reliable. I released all these fish. Then, just before leaving, I loaded up and sent out a Hollywood Cast. On the fall, Old Reliable got picked off by…it's a crappie, and...it's a female crappie! First female of the year, she measured around 12-inches. Into the ice chest she went, and out went another and then another Hollywood Cast. All for nothing; in fifteen minutes I caught not one more fish of any kind.

Feeling badly about icing just this one crappie, I opened the cooler lid and there she was flopping around energetically as ever. My experience with putting different species of fish on ice has convinced me that crappies are extremely hardy when it comes to enduring cold. I can come home from trips with a mixed creel of bluegills, red ears and crappie – all caught more or less at the same time – and it's always the crappies that are still alive; the others have expired.

And so I gently lowered this female into the lake and stayed with her until she rested up, righted herself to vertical, finned a few times and moved steadily back into the depths.

Next spot I hit was a shoreline zone adjacent to one of the lake's two boat ramps. Here I was protected from the wind, but not from the relentless high-pitched barking of a tiny black dog that chased my truck and then stood on the perimeter road giving me "what for" the whole time. Poochie did not appreciate that I calmly endured his harassment by employing an ancient Zen relaxation technique – visualizing his writhing body hauled aloft at dusk in the talons of a Great Horned Owl with babies to feed.

Before leaving I did catch one crappie at this barky dog spot, but released it because I'd made the mistake of leaving my ice chest back in the truck thinking the action today was just too slow. This made it two crappies I could have had, but didn't. Oh well.

Just as I pulled up to the fourth spot a light rain began falling. Leaving the anorak in the truck, I donned a fleece jacket, walked down and began fan-casting my way along a curving shoreline where a few days earlier big bluegills had tattooed Old Reliable something fierce. Good 'gills were still here but their mood was far less energetic. I caught one male crappie and let it go. Maybe it was the weather front slowing down these crappie, I wondered…and as if on cue it began raining harder. Raindrops started dripping off the edge of my ballcap visor. After a period of time passed with no hits on short and mid-range casts, I glanced over my shoulder checking for obstacles that might interfere with a Hollywood Cast. Seeing nothing but tree trunks way behind, I stripped two more pulls of line and began loading up. That was a mistake.

On my final forward motion the fly was snagged. Huh? Snagged on what? I hadn't seen anything back there! Looking higher up through the rainwater sheeting off my visor, there sat Old Reliable wrapped around the tip of a limb. I'd have seen this limb if it hadn't been raining so hard, because without the rain I'd have tilted my inspection a few degrees higher. I walked back up the bank and tried every trick in the book to free the fly, but without success. Finally, there was nothing to do but break off.

Not one but two Old Reliables lost to snags. Two lost in the same day. This was not good.

By now I was resigned to the fact that this just wasn't my day. But on my drive out, I stopped at a fifth spot. This is the spot where recently I caught a big red ear sunfish and eight crappies. My clothes were soaked now from standing in the rain, and this is probably a waste of time anyway so I'll leave the ice chest in the truck again. Just give this place a few throws and then go.

Sure enough, one small 'gill is all that showed interest in my THIRD Old Reliable. About this time, though, I became aware of a few scattered surface swirls, all of them located farther off shore than my casts were reaching.

As good a fly as Old Reliable is, you eventually get into situations where the greater weight and wind resistance of a #10 Hare's Ear Nymph will combine to limit your casting range. The paradox is that by going with a smaller but equally compact fly you can cast farther, and easier.

So, rummaging through my nymph box as the light began quickly fading I spotted a very small gold-ribbed nymph. No bead head, just your plain-Jane dinky nymph. Size 16 or 18 – looked like an Old Reliable that had got shrunk by a jungle witch doctor.

With such a small nymph you confirm the text book teaching that in fly fishing you're casting the weight of the floating line and the fly just goes along for the ride? There's almost no hand awareness that anything is connected to the tippet. You'd need to ask the designers, but I suspect that tiny nymphs are the sort of fly that ultralight rods are developed to deliver.

In any event, I could barely feel the little nymph during casts. But once those casts rolled out and laid the nymph 15 feet farther into the lake, big bluegills and crappies knew immediately that something very nice was tied on that tippet. They lit into the little nymph like it had insulted their mamas.

After beaching and releasing the fourth crappie, it hit me with a jolt: "Idiot, what are you doing?" I hastily walked back to the truck, grabbed my little ice cooler and returned. By now I could have had seven nice crappies if I'd kept each one I caught today. This nonsense of letting them go is gonna stop right now!

During the next 20 minutes I caught one more crappie then it got too dark to control my casting. I'm not the world's best fly caster anyhow, so once it gets dark the show is over real quick. Pushing the switch button on my LED headlamp, there laid that last and only crappie in my ice chest, still flopping around.

"Sorry I bothered you, buddy," and I eased him back into the lake to swim another day.

Not just fly fishing but every angling method has its own way, over time, of revealing fish to be incredible animals with behaviors we never could have guessed, and would not have learned about or even thought possible if we weren't out there trying to catch them.

Little tiny nymphs at dusk, huh? I'm sure this doesn't work every day but, hey, I'll remember it. Forgetting would be a mistake. ~ 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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