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Duel At Dusk

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

There's a lot they don't tell you when you buy your first fly rod. I suppose the retail salespeople – those in the know, anyway – don't want the truth scaring you off.

Well, I'm here to tell anybody who can read that fly fishing is a sport that can get downright strange. It's because the fish we attempt to catch with our new fly tackle so often behave in unpredictable and downright strange ways. Their behavior compels us to behave strangely right along with 'em; if we don't, the train pulls out and we get left at the station.

First-time fly rod buyers aren't strange, then, it's the fish they intend to go after. You just have to be open to doing strange and unexpected things with your new fly tackle, and doing those things at strange times. This is what the sales people never tell us.

That old stand-up-straight "Mr. Normal" broad daylight fly fishing you see folks doing on Saturday morning TV shows and store bought DVDs? I suspect it's just a portion of the real deal, and anymore I'm questioning how big a portion it represents. Seems the more about this sport I learn through experience, the more ignorant I learn that I was (and still am). But that's no embarrassment because it's been some time since anybody accused me of being smart.

After banging your head against the wall of futility enough times, you learn it's pointless to blame fish for behaving strangely. Hungry fish searching for food instinctively behave how they need to, when they need to, in order to grab and swallow a prey item.

Which leads us to ask: What is the #1 prey item sought most of the time by hungry fresh water fish? Bugs, that's what (at least, I think so). Bugs, though, are a prey group composed of many species and if you look close enough at each of those species it will exhibit some seriously weird behavior. Bugs, then, are the real culprits behind why a fly fishing pilgrim ends up doing bizarre things – if not immediately then eventually. Blame it on bugs; blame it on flies, all those flies with their strange ways.

There: I feel better now.

It's 3:30 p.m. April 15th when I shove off from the lake shore in my canoe. Over a quarter of this year is history and today's outing is my first fishing-from-the-canoe trip this year. Hard to believe but that's how cold, stormy and windy it's been in northeast Kansas this spring.

Judging by how the water looks today, this trip could be a lost cause. It rained hard two days earlier and the lake is still murky from the runoff inflow. I've seen it murkier; today I suppose it's only 50% murky, to put a number on it. Making matters worse, though, is the algae bloom I've been monitoring for weeks; it has intensified, generating countless floating, closely-spaced filament algae goop clumps that travel about the lake surface pushed by wind and water currents.

Still, since this goop tends to accumulate along the shoreline more than anywhere else it was great being out on the lake. Better than standing beside it, that's for sure And today the sky was clear, air temp in the mid-60s, light wind. I felt like a basking lizard, all warm and cozy. And because I'd come here planning on staying out late I was dressed for the occasion. Polypro sock liners, wool socks, long underwear top and bottom, this was the base layer uniform of the day. Stowed behind my paddling saddle inside a nylon stuff bag was a fleece vest, stocking cap, insulated jacket and fleece fingerless gloves. With this clear sky and the lake's frigid water, where I'd be fishing the air temperature would surely drop fast come sundown.

During previous trips this spring I'd observed surface feeding that commenced fairly late, around 6:30 or 7:00 p.m., and continued until…well, I really don't know how long it continued because I always headed home once it got dark. Always the surface feeding was going strong as night fell, and the bulk of the feeding action always happened tantalizingly beyond my shore-bound casting range.

This afternoon with the help of my canoe I would move about more freely and bide my time with a few hours of daylight fishing, during which if I caught some fish, fine; if I didn't, fine. I came here today specifically to try my luck on the evening feeding action. Around sundown I would begin watching and listening for a localized concentration of surface disturbances then sneak in close, lower my anchors and cast to rising fish without spraining my wrist and dislocating my shoulder doing it.

As mentioned above, my intention was to fish casually until around sundown and during that time if I didn't catch any fish, fine. Well, that carefree notion got old fast. I was fishing hotspot after hotspot that I'd hit last year, places where I could bet the farm that something would grab Old Reliable. But this afternoon for three hours I swam Old Reliable through every good place I could think of and never got a touch.

I was nymphing deep, which seemed the right thing to do for two reasons: 1) it was broad daylight so no fish would be inhabiting the water column's top zone due to fear of aerial predation, and; 2) the water was so cold the fish would be holding near the bottom. If they were holding near the bottom they might grab Old Reliable as a pre-evening appetizer.

But three hours of this deep nymphing strategy brought not a single hit. When two hours ticked off the clock my resolve to stay on the water 'til sundown began weakening. All I'd had to eat today was a late breakfast, so I was getting hungry. And as my warmly dressed body began overheating in the sunshine I remembered I'd left my water bottle back in the truck. All the other fishermen this afternoon – a picnic area shoreline fishing crowd plus four bass boats – these people had all left.

I was now alone with this whole lake arm to myself. An ideal situation usually, but there I sat hitless and fishless and on the razor's edge of giving up. I guess you could say my confidence had been bruised. Fact is I've developed so much faith in the effectiveness of fly rodding as a panfish-catching system that nowadays I consciously go afield with every expectation of enjoying at least modest success. However, this business of not getting a single hit in...

Crunch! Something violently grabbed Old Reliable. It pulled hard as it swam back and forth laterally very fast, and then it ran out of gas. Quite a little battle was put up for its size.

Considering the time of day it was now (6:45 p.m.) I interpreted this baby largemouth's attack as a message from the lake inhabitants below that I better not go home just yet. Stick with this enterprise a little longer, see if something happens.

Confused about what to do next, I remembered that this 5-inch largemouth had taken Old Reliable near the end of a quicker retrieve through submerged brush, when my nymph was higher in the column prior to being lifted out. Which meant – possibly it meant – that the fish were now starting to drift upward into a mid-depth staging zone in anticipation of tonight's surface action. The time of day and lower sun angle certainly supported this theory.

But if this was true, I should better my odds of working the mid zone. So I clipped off Old Reliable (a #10 Hare's Ear Nymph), stowed him in the box and selected a lighter weight #14 Pheasant Tail Nymph, one that had been mailed to me a few weeks earlier by a guy up in Iowa who doesn't wear glasses but sells a lot of them.

Speaking of this Pheasant Tail Nymph, my choice of it was not random; no, sir. Two afternoons earlier, I'd used this nymph while casting off the bank at one of the lake's feeder creeks and enjoyed the good fortune pictured below:

Twenty-two bluegill fillets are now sitting in my freezer thanks to this PTN. By the way, the PTN that caught those eleven 'gills can be seen in the photo with the baby bass. The nymph in question is sitting second row from the top, fourth nymph from the left. Take a bow, Mr. PTN.

Okay, back to today's trip...

With this smaller, lighter nymph I began working the submerged brush anew. It was relaxing business, using the PTN here; anytime a pause in the retrieve occurred all I had to do was wait a bit (don't pull back) and soon enough the nymph would slide free of the submerged branch it had swam up against. As for how the fish liked it, one of my first customers was this guy:

Some of the best bluegills I began catching appeared to be big females, but I wasn't sure. I think they were females; despite their impressive size they lacked that classic pumpkin-orange belly the bulls normally display. Their bellies were fat, making me suspect even more strongly that they were females full of eggs. Whether females or just poorly dressed bulls, these 'gills got released back into the lake.

Around 7:30, maybe 7:45 p.m., I began hearing surface rises. Spotting an area where some rises were happening, I relocated within the large stand of submerged brush. The casting isn't easy here; what brush stalks are still standing retard the migration of the algae clumps, resulting in a much denser concentration of algae clumps within the brushy area. Frustrating casting, and not very productive despite the presence of feeding fish.

Finally, I began seeing and hearing what I was hoping for: surface feeding swirls of fish that were out in the center of the lake arm, in open water. I relocated into a new spot twenty feet outside the edge of the standing brush, where I could cast either way, left or right, depending on which side of the canoe a rise happened.

After about 20 minutes of no hits – with swirling fish all around me – it dawned on me that even the lightweight PTN might be sinking too deep to attract attention. I should maybe use a fly that is much lighter and thus stay nearer the surface. But did I have anything with me that would fit this bill?

Looking west across the water toward the low-angle setting sun, I saw the silhouette of a panfish that was holding barely six inches below the surface. Its head was tilted upward; clearly it was searching for surface prey to ambush. Suddenly recalling a conversation I had last year with Cabela's Fly Shop employee Tim Giger, I opened my fly box hoping I would find an Olive Soft Hackle wet fly that Tim had talked me into buying that day. Yep, there it was; maybe I was in business. Okay, here we go with a traditional wet fly.

In no time at all I was into fish – and I mean lots of fish. Most of which, I'm grieved to report, got off the hook before I ever saw them. It's painful, having so many long line releases. Maybe I was too excited and hauled back on the rod too hard upon detecting strikes. Or maybe the fish were barely lipping the Olive Soft Hackle and would never have remained hooked no matter how gently I fought them. I did, though, manage to land a few of these escape artists.

This thick bodied 11-inch black crappie grabbed an Olive Soft Hackle in the center of a big lake arm. It took a wet fly pattern that was swimming along no more than six inches below the surface in frigid cold water, in near-darkness. And this wasn't the only crappie that grabbed the OSH, either; I was getting lots of good, solid hits from fish that quickly got off. But in the short time they were on the hook, I could tell from their "fight feel" that they were crappies. It was very exciting action.

When you grow up in a place like Kansas and learn most of what you know about fishing from the traditional old school, you feel pretty strange being out on a lake in a canoe in near-darkness. What's stranger yet is when you confirm by using your own senses that panfish are aggressive feeders at such late hours in very cold water.

I grew up thinking of trout as being not the only but certainly the premier cold water fish. Of course I also read about cold-water species such as the grayling, salmon, and steelhead. These are what I consider classic cold-water fish; we expect them to eat bugs on lake surfaces in bitter cold water. But panfish? Isn't a panfish's traditional role to remain down deep and unavailable, to stay hibernated until the water warms up?

And bugs – what's up with these bugs that must be hatching somewhere near my canoe? There go some of 'em right now, flying low and dipping onto the surface (laying eggs?), just zooming around through this chilly night air like it's no big deal! Hasn't anybody told them this is a lake in Kansas, for crying out loud, not some ice cold mountain stream in the Rockies? What are all these bugs doing being out and about in a cold air/cold water environment in the Midwest at dusk?

Well, doing "bug things," I guess. ~ Joe

About Joe:

From Douglas County, Kansas, Joe is a former municipal and federal police officer, now retired. 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 recently retired from 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 former 'day job.'

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