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Like I Had Any Choice
By Joe Hyde, Baldwin City, KS

April 2nd:

The scene would have qualified as déjà vu had not the weather been so much nicer than the first time around. There I was, a new fly rod in hand, throwing a Hare's Ear nymph to the exact same spot (next to a patch of submerged shrubs) that I'd thrown a nymph into last spring at this same lake arm. And just like last year, on my first cast I got a hit. You gotta be kidding me.

Well, there were a few differences worth mentioning besides the better weather. For one, this time the fish got off immediately after it hit the nymph. For another, this time I was not casting from the bank. No, no, boys and girls; I was out there on the lake, my solo canoe anchored bow and stern, held steady in the afternoon crosswind.

The lake arm I was fishing in tends to run fairly shallow; 200 yards from its upper end the depth is still only about 6 feet due to decades of sediment buildup. Not knowing where to begin, after launching my canoe I started casting to cover when I was barely 50 feet away from the upper end shoreline, where the depth isn't more than 18 inches at most.

For some reason it always feels so weird, fishing in extremely shallow water. But I opted to give it a try because conditions seemed to dictate it. The lake water still felt very cold to my hand, and the week prior had seen chilly daytime and overnight temperatures. If the fish in this cove were going to be active at all, chances were good they'd be active this afternoon, in this shallow water that had been warmed by an entire day's worth of direct sunlight.

Last year about this time, FAOL writer Rick Zieger had unknowingly compelled me to visit this lake. I'd read all his fishing stories and had gotten fired up to go panfishing with fly rod. Thanks to Rick's stories, plus a trip up to Iowa to actually fish with him, I was back at this lake again, fired up anew, using another new fly rod. But I wasn't just using a new rod; today for the first time I would be imitating one of Rick's standard procedures; namely, carrying two fly rods in my canoe.

15 minutes earlier, before launching my boat, having a second rod forced me to think hard about which fly or flies I wanted on my backup rig. My new rod (Cabela's 5-piece, 8-foot 3-weight pack rod) was equipped with Old Reliable - a #10 flashback Hare's Ear Nymph. After much guesswork, onto my other rod (a St. Croix 2-piece, 9-foot 3-weight) I tied a tandem rig consisting of a #16 mosquito larvae "tractor" with a #20 scud "trailer" linked by 18-inches of 6X tippet. If the bluegills don't want a big bug quite yet, maybe they'll grab one of these two light snacks?

Once on the lake and anchored, the Hare's Ear nymph went into battle first. No choice in the matter; last year, I had way too much success with this fly not to go with it initially. So after this year's first hit got loose, I shot more casts around the same stickup brush and a few throws later connected with a bluegill that ended up in hand. Little feller, thanks buddy, "There you go; see you later."

I wasn't anchored very far off the south shoreline. The water near shore lay in mottled shade cast by the still-bare branches of adjacent hillside trees. This water would have been warmer, but it had seen only partial sun all day long. That would make it a bit colder than where I was presently working. When it was time to move farther down the lake to a new spot, I almost dismissed this shaded water.

Then a thought came to me: perhaps some crappies were holding in that shaded water. Crappies prefer low-light conditions, so if any crappies had indeed moved into this shallow arm so early in the year, either to spawn or to make nests, this lower-light slightly warmed habitat is the sort of place where they could be hanging out.

So...I targeted an open pocket about 20 feet off the bank and sent my nymph into it. Bang! A bluegill snatched it, and this one was a keeper. I went back into the pocket again and the nymph absorbed a lightning bolt strike from some kind of fish - I couldn't tell what - but it was extremely irked at getting poked in the mouth with a hook so early in April. After lots of circling and surging about (the water was too shallow to offer diving depth) a big redear sunfish surfaced alongside and I horsed it into my boat. On the bottom of my canoe I've put a row of markers spaced 2-inches apart, and this redear was 10-inches long. The thing weighed 1-½ lb. if it weighed an ounce. One big, mean chunk of panfish tiger. Thinking of the damage he might do kicking open the door of my ice chest, I lost my nerve and released him back into the lake before he could get seriously mad at me.

I'd love to fool that redear again someday when he's even bigger and stronger. If it happens, I hope I'm holding this Cabela's 5-piece, 3-wt. pack rod that I got for Christmas. Its action is smooth and soft, yet with plenty enough spine to throw a #10 nymph 40 feet anytime I need to. Tangling with a 1-lb. redear on this fly rod is an experience so religious you won't need to go to church for six months.

One of the constants in fly fishing is how excess loops of line below your hands get tangled in objects like rocks, weeds, grass, twigs. Trust me, fishing from a boat does not eliminate this hassle. Soon after releasing the redear, and still in a state of excitement, I wrapped a coil of line around the handle of my canoe paddle. A mistake like this, if left uncorrected, can lead to an instant break-off should a big bass or channel catfish grab your fly and zoom off. So after the fly hit the water, I stopped my retrieve and busied myself unwrapping line from around my paddle. When I picked up my retrieve again I felt weight on the line, then the slow-frequency throb of resistance from a fish.

"Crappie!" this had to be a crappie. And so it was. Identifying it as it surfaced, I went immediately defensive, bringing the fish toward me slowly, leading it along gingerly to keep its mouth underwater. I learned my lesson last year, about not bringing crappie to the top so fast, because if they ever get their mouth up in the air they'll wiggle hard and throw the hook.

After putting this smallish crappie on ice, I began fan-casting through the pocket, working it all over again. Except now I was giving my nymph a few seconds longer to fall before working it slower, so that it would take a deeper route back to the boat. You can snag on the bottom a lot doing this, but it's a risk worth taking. Whatever the depth, once you discover the fish are deeper there's little choice; you have to go deeper to catch 'em.

But going deep in water that's shallow to start with is a bit hard on the nerves. Okay then, you can imagine what happened to my nerves when a few minutes later one of my slow retrieves stopped moving and I connected with a female white crappie that was 11-inches long and weighed probably 1 ¼-lb. Fat with eggs, she was spending time in this shaded, shallow water already. Not in mid-May, she was here now, in very early April.

Catching this beautiful crappie threw my bluegill-focused game plan into chaos. Were these two crappie loners, or was an entire hungry school of crappies lurking nearby? Should I stick with the Hare's Ear or switch to a crappie-specific fly? Problem was, my stash of crappie-specific flies was sitting in a storage unit in one of many unmarked boxes with other belongings I'd stacked there a couple months earlier. There's nothing like going through a divorce for getting your outdoor gear discombobulated. Did I say "gear?" I was lucky to have a train of thought roll far enough down the track without derailing that I'd made it to the lake today myself.

Joe in his solo canoe

About now is when the idea occurred to me that the mosquito larva/scud tandem rig might be the way to go here, if indeed a school of crappie was close by. The tandem rig with its two tiny flies would settle very slowly due to the extreme light weight of those hooks, and then I could crawl the rig back through this shallow water in super-slow motion. The result would be a longer target exposure, two flies offering the crappies better attack possibilities. However, the wind was gusting hard enough that I feared losing the rig to snags; wind-blown waves were already pushing my floating line into all the little stickups that poked above the lake surface. Besides, hadn't I just caught a great looking crappie using this nymph? Why switch dice when I'd just rolled a winner?

So I stuck with the Hare's Ear and proceeded to wear out my right arm catching…one more crappie over the next two hours. It was not until after sundown, when the lake surface was becalmed, that I finally brought the backup tandem rig into play. It caught just three bluegills, and I don't blame the flies for that. The tandem's slow action was caused by fading light, I think, coupled with a move I'd made to a new spot where the water is two feet deeper (and thus colder). I did catch a bluegill on the scud, though, and that was fun. After reading in FAOL's Bulletin Board last fall of the success many fly fishers have had using this tiny fly, I've been eager to try the pattern myself.

Spring is finally, finally here, at least in Kansas it is; an ice chest holding 11 bluegills and 3 crappies just told me so. For the next couple of months, though, my personal circumstances will make it harder to chase them properly. Luckily, back in my childhood I learned the art of finding time to go fishing. ~ Joe

About Joe:

From Baldwin City, 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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