It won't last much longer - word of the crappie spawn will
see to it - but if the overnight temperatures in northeast
Kansas remain even seasonally cool over the next few weekends
I should be able to camp overnight in solitude very close
to any water I decide to fish.
It's Saturday, March 11th. I'm camped 10 feet from a lake shore.
Friday night after arriving here a little before midnight, prior
to hitting the sack I unstrapped my canoe, took it off the roof
rack, laid it on the ground next to my truck then completely set
it up for the next day's fishing. Anchors, paddling saddle, ankle
rolls, landing net, fly rod (with fly at the ready in the keeper
ring), ice chest, fly boxes, PFD, two paddles. Illuminated by
the soft light of a half moon overhead, my canoe looked vaguely
like a combat vessel armed and quietly waiting to enter battle.
At 6:30 a.m. the pre-dawn light was dim but still much brighter
than last night's half moon had been; I could see all around me
easily. It was still only me at this campsite, and no other
anglers were on the lake in boats yet, or could be seen standing
along the shoreline. The lake's surface was utterly smooth.
This lake's water is still very cold, but it felt right being
Johnny-on-the-spot today: I could try for crappie before the
morning sun climbed too high in the sky.
I've always read that crappies are a light-sensitive fish;
when prowling the shallows they prefer to feed during low
light morning and evening hours. When they feed in the
shallows at mid-day it's only because there's enough wave
action above to scatter and diffuse the sunlight and not
allow any direct, harsh penetration. Or else the water
is turbid enough to subdue the sunlight penetration.
Crappie and walleye are alike in this low light preference,
or so I've always read.
And maybe that's just my excuse to camp beside lakes
overnight so that I can get a super-early start and be
boating fish when most other anglers are still in bed
getting entertained by dreams brought on by the rapid
eye movement sleep phase. Well, those anglers have
their dreams and I have mine. My wide awake dream
this morning is coming true: I'm out here in low light
conditions and will attempt to catch crappie. Bass
and bluegill need not apply.
After lowering the tailgate and crawling out of my truck
shell "micro-apartment" I straighten up, take three steps
to my canoe, reach down and pivot it 90-degrees to the
right, slide the boat into the water, step inside and
lower myself onto my paddling saddle, push off and
silently I'm gone. I've slept fully dressed, so the
elapsed time from sleeping bag to the first spot I
anchor at is maybe two minutes.
For about fifteen minutes, I probe a weed-fringed
shoreline pocket where a couple of weeks prior I fooled
two large fish but both came off the hook almost
immediately after the strike. With both strikes, there
appeared an underwater greenish silver reflection the
size of a running shoe sole, and that told me they were
crappie. Both fish might still be here.
Okay, no big deal. Prime Time should run another hour
at least, and there's so much cover in this lake arm it
would take me a week's worth of 24/7 casting to properly
fish half of it. I moved on down the arm, same side,
and tried a small innocent-looking group of brush branches.
This spot doesn't pay off every time, but when it does
you'll be staying here a while. This morning I didn't
stay five minutes because no matter which angle I swam
my chartreuse marabou fly through the lanes between those
sticks, nobody below was interested.
Next I moved north more into the center of this lake arm's
shallow end, where I worked an isolated circle of brush
stalks. Many times last year I caught bluegills, crappie
and bass here, all three species in one stop. But today
throwing into it, beyond it and swimming Charlie Marabou
back through it, throwing barely outside it and way outside
it, no fish were interested.
Time to exit these side shows and buy a ticket for the main
event. I lifted anchors and paddled for the large brushy
area in this lake's arm. My plan was to work it's the end
nearest me first and then fish toward the northwest, moving
into ever deepening water as I progressed.
I anchored near the south end of an oval-shaped stand of
brush and began casting into it and around it. I was being
careful with my casts and retrieves; no sense losing this
important fly to a snag when I could so easily move my boat
close enough to dislodge it by sticking my rod tip down into
Around 7 a.m. I was still exploring this first brush clump,
and with no luck. I twisted my torso to the left, intending
to shoot a cast well off to the side of the clump. On the
final backcast my left hand lost control of the fly line and
Charlie Marabou splashed into the lake behind me. Twisting
back to the right to see where the errant cast landed, my
attention was drawn to an adjacent brush clump standing to
my right about 30 feet across a patch of open water. I
hadn't caught anything at this first brush clump yet, so
the notion of trying the second clump was instantly appealing.
But could I reach it from here?
For stealth reasons, I wanted to stay anchored right where
I was and cast to both brush clumps. One way I could do
that was to pivot my canoe in place by lifting the bow anchor
only and then use sculling strokes to pull the canoe around
45-degrees to the right and then re-set the bow anchor.
This maneuver would leave me facing the open water between
the clumps; I could then cast to both clumps without
twisting my torso quite so much while casting. As a result,
there wouldn't be any back pain twinges or boat balancing
But before going to this much trouble I wanted to see if
a "backward cast" might do the job. So I twisted hard
left and looked left, as if I wanted to cast to the left...
but instead of delivering the fly to the canoe's left side,
I made my final backcast be the actual forward cast toward
the boat's right side, and during this final "backcast." I
twisted my torso back hard to the right so that I could see
where the fly touched down. I apologize if this description
is confusing, but out on the lake the technique actually
works pretty good. Here this morning, the technique dropped
Charlie about 5 feet my side of the distant brush clump.
Close enough for government work. Of course, I now had
to keep my torso twisted hard to the right in order to
monitor what if anything happened during the retrieve.
A miserable, thankless task but someone had to do it.
Charlie's marabou fibers, I should mention here, had much
earlier become thoroughly saturated with lake water. There
would be no "floating Charlie" offered to the crappies today
(like happened accidentally in last week's story). At the
first sign that the crappies were interested in hitting up
top I would immediately switch to a true surface fly.
There's always a few collecting dust in my fly box.
Submerged brush stalks and stumps are thick in this
deceptively "open water" area between the two brush clumps.
Nevertheless, when Charlie touched down I let him sink five
seconds before starting him creeping back toward me. Risky
business, but in the fishing I'd done so far this morning
Rick Zieger's marabou fly had impressed me with its resistance
to snagging. Perhaps some little tying trick Rick uses when
assembling the pattern? Whatever, I felt more confident than
I normally feel about working Charlie deeper through this type
Five feet into the retrieve, the thicker part of my tapered
leader, the part that had been riding on surface tension,
began to slide underwater a tiny bit too quickly - a subtle
but tell-tale sign that the fly had either encountered a
snag or been gently seized by a fish. Raising my rod tip
gingerly, I felt that first slight movement that confirms
it's a fish, and did a quick lift to put the hook home.
Of all the sensory delights gifted to us by the sport of
fishing, to me one of the most electrifying is seeing the
initial reflective flash as a large fish turns its body
full sideways to fight you after it first feels the hook.
This fish I'd just connected with was not only showing me
that reflection, but the reflection was a greenish-silver
color combined with sluggish, deliberate pulls against my
1-wt. rod. This had to be a crappie, and not some 8-incher
like yesterday's keepers had all been. No, this fellow on
my line now had been living in this lake a while longer
and hadn't missed many meals.
Last year, all too many crappies taught me the hard
lesson that a landing net reduces the number of last-second
shake-offs. These fish can throw a fly slicker than any
largemouth bass I've ever seen. My landing net was in the
canoe today so there would be no frantic, fumbled thumb
grabs at the lower jaw; after coaxing this fish to the
boat slowly, being careful to keep its head underwater,
I gently led it over my submerged net and lifted up,
bringing the 11-inch slab on board. Its next stop was
the Old Four Walls of my ice chest.
Once I could breathe again and my heart rate slowed, I
sent more backward casts into that same area. About
every fifth or sixth retrieve brought a strike - a take,
I probably should say. Your leader begins to sink
unnaturally and the retrieved line stops moving toward
you. As the line tightens you ready yourself for whatever
happens next because something's about to. Often it's a
snag, and if you're lucky a bit of increased line pressure
will gently pop the fly's head off the object it has butted
up against. This is where repetition and muscle memory
gained over many fishing trips helps you relax and ease
off your line pressure slightly. If you can resist that
initial urge to rare back with a strike during these
retrieve delays, the fly often comes free and you can
resume your slow retrieve with the fly remaining in
that immediate area.
But sometimes it's a fish that makes your line stop,
and then you deal with that however best you can.
From this one spot, I boated six very nice crappies. And
despite having a landing net, an almost equal number of
nice ones got free. Sometimes their escape happened
underwater, sometimes up top facilitated by a head
wiggle that my rod pressure and lift angle had not
After exhausting this honey hole, I moved northwest 40
yards to the border of the densest brush clump, and here
I got into some nice bluegills. I hadn't meant to keep
bluegills today, not if I started catching crappie first.
But when the bluegills are going 8-inches with thick bodies
it's time to junk a ridiculous plan like that. Also in
this thicker brush I caught two more keeper crappies.
I left the lake at 11 a.m. with 8 crappies and 5
bluegills - a good little two-meal haul.
The hottest action was between 7 and 8 a.m. and then it
tapered off sharply. It wasn't lost on me that this
one-hour action slot (and smoothest lake surface) confirmed
the convention wisdom that crappies prowling the shallows
prefer low-light conditions. But these creatures are fish
and therefore immutable in their ways. No doubt there are
many times when crappies turn human conventional wisdom
upside down and dump the rocks out of our heads. One
did exactly that to me yesterday in a creek channel, when
it took a fly off the surface at mid-day. So people can
expect to hear that rattling sound coming from my skull
again someday, I suppose just about any time. ~ 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