Welcome to Warmwater Fishing!

Night School
By Joe Hyde, Baldwin City, KS

April 11th was a warm, blue sky day. Even better, it was my day off. The only bad thing about it was the wind, which was blowing 25 mph.

I don't like fishing in high wind; never have, never will. So although I'd enjoyed two exciting fishing trips over the previous seven days, and was psyched to enjoy another, I ruled out fishing today. I assured my girlfriend that I would stay home and help her with domestic chores, later we'd eat supper and watch the evening news together, relax, chill out. In short, I sincerely intended to spend an entire beautiful spring day doing domestic home things, stuff a normal guy in a committed relationship might do - a guy who isn't a fisherman, I mean.

Around noon, after we'd finished the most strenuous chores, the wind began behaving differently, fading to a light breeze then a few minutes later picking back up. This change from straight high wind to intermittent high wind was the only noteworthy sensory signals getting processed by my brainstem's autonomic pan fishing function. And I'll be the first to admit that a meteorological change like this is scarcely worthy of note, especially when it happens in Kansas. I only mention it here because gradually, and through absolutely no act of will on my part, my earlier good intentions began to unravel and I found myself daydreaming about what kind of mood the fish might be in later in the day - say, around sundown if the wind actually did lay down? I wasn't aware that I was giving off body language indicating that such a thought was being contemplated. But in hindsight, perhaps I did lean across the kitchen sink, look out the window and check the movement of the back yard tree limbs one too many times.

"Going fishing this afternoon after all?" Janet, who apparently had been watching me, asked.

"You know," I replied after giving this unexpected inquiry the serious consideration it deserved, "that might not be a half bad idea? Since you mentioned fishing, even if this high wind continues there could be one or two small areas along the lake's windward shoreline, protected places I could reach, and the fish might be there. Of course, that's no guarantee it would be easy; sometimes a nasty eddy wind rolls back over the treetops or the nearby hills and..."

...an hour later the lake came into view. First windward cove I drove past looked nice at first, no big waves, but then I saw the surface was getting swept by southerly gusts whose force was increased by the surrounding valley hills. The second cove I checked was windswept, too, and three guys in a bass boat were fishing it. The third cove looked good, but high wind blowing across the adjacent access road would make it very hard to hold onto my canoe during the long carry down to the water.

At the fourth cove, the water looked good and there were no big waves. The put-in spot was directly exposed to high wind and waves both, but I knew I could control my canoe through the modest 100 feet or so of waves before entering the protected, calm water.

After reaching the fishing station I quickly caught two smallish 'gills and put them on ice, confident that others would soon be volunteering to drop in and keep them company. But an hour passed and no more hits came. Last year this cove yielded some great action, but that was summertime and the lake water was warmer. Today this place seemed lifeless. I was casting a Pheasant Tail nymph tandem rig into the same good spots where I'd caught fish last year.

I finally had enough of nothing happening and decided to go home where I should have stayed in the first place. Cove #4's problem was obvious: it is a short cove, narrow and deep. Its proximity to the lake's main body guaranteed a circulating coldwater environment that, for the time being at least, prevented the cove's marginal shallows from reaching proper panfish operating temperature. (This seemed a perfect excuse for why I hadn't done much good, in case anyone asked.)

After starting my engine, I had two ways to go home: turn left and drive across the dam, or turn right and retrace the route I'd come in on. Both were appealing, driving across the dam more so because I could inspect a fifth cove that I haven't looked at yet this year. But I opted to retrace my entry route to see if conditions had improved in the coves I'd passed by on my way in.

Cove #3, nope. Cove #2, Bingo! Those three guys in the bass boat were gone, no other people were in sight, and maybe the wind direction had shifted a few degrees because the surface was much calmer now, definitely canoe-able. (Cove #2, by the way, is where the Picnickers From Hell…oh, never mind.)

I hurriedly launched, and out of habit worked the same hotspots I'd hit two days earlier, when I'd racked up 25 keepers. For an hour I fished these places hard, but boated just one 'gill. This absence of action was not only unexpected and disappointing, it was also guilt-provoking. Had I eradicated the springtime panfish population here? The possibility seemed remote in a 200-acre lake, still...

After putting the hook of my trailer fly in the rod's keeper ring and reeling in my line, I weighed anchors and pivoted the canoe toward my truck. Time to go home. Then I looked down the lake arm. 200 feet away sat a small patch of submerged woody stem brush; nothing special, just a modest patch of cover. The depth there, I knew, was around 3 feet instead of the 18-inches where I'd been fishing.

"Either the fish are not biting now," I told myself, "or they're hanging out someplace you didn't think they'd be. You've tried three places where you thought they'd be and they weren't there. Why not give that spot a try? Just that one spot."

"Look, the sun has already set," I whined, "It'll be dark soon, this water is cold already and it's gonna start getting colder. If there's any fish down there, common sense says they'll be going inactive any minute now. But Okay, if you insist..."

Irritated at myself for approving of this total waste of time, I paddled quickly toward the brushy cover. 50 feet from its perimeter I executed the standard approach - discontinuing my power strokes and dragging my paddle behind, using a silent braking stroke to slow my canoe's forward glide. 15 feet from the cover edge, I lowered my stern anchor until it touched bottom, feathered the anchor line between my thumb and forefinger as it paid out, and my canoe eased to dead stop. I lowered the bow anchor quietly, cam-cleated both anchor lines and was ready to cast.

Eager to get this nonsense over with, I scanned the pattern of stickups for the easiest, widest opening it offered, then sent my PTN tandem flying into the heart of it. After double-dimpling the surface, the nymphs didn't move five feet before my line stopped. I raised the rod tip and something heavy began pulling back sluggishly. Could this...?

It was a crappie, a good one almost a foot long and it looked to weigh 1 1/4-lb., maybe a bit more. Putting the fish on ice, I sent my next cast to the left about 30-degrees, had another quick take and boated another equally big crappie. A couple of casts later, off to the right of where I'd caught the first crappie, my tandem rig took a vicious hit. The assailant was an orange-belly bluegill the size of my hand.

Time to call home. "Sweetie, I know it's after sundown but don't wait up for me, and please don't worry. I just now finally found the fish and they're biting like crazy. I'm catching good crappies and big bluegills. I'll fish until dark if they keep biting that long. See you, Bye!"

I stowed the cell phone in my life jacket's vest pocket, took a deep breath to calm my trembling hands and went to work. The wind was laying down, dropping to almost a dead calm. The 'gills and crappie were here, and they were definitely in a good mood. Every second or third cast brought an aggressive strike.

The crappies in this lake need to be tested scientifically because, I swear, they have IQ's of 120 or better. Casting a 4X leader (and 6X tandem tippet) into this brushy cover had me at a disadvantage, and every crappie exploited my tactical weakness by running straight for the nearest stickup to wrap around it, or else snag whichever nymph was the "out nymph". And really, all it takes to cause problems in such cover is for a fish to bend your line across a stickup, thereby creating a friction point "anchor" to pull against.

After hookup, I began letting my line go slack to encourage each crappie to submerge and relax? But they would rise to the surface anyway and wallow about, more often than not ejecting the fly before I could get the fish near my canoe. I wish I wasn't so intense when it comes to crappie. When one is on, I'm so happy I want to hug my fly rod and kiss the nymphs. Every crappie that gets off, I want to snap the rod over my knee and throw the broken pieces into the lake.

When this inside-the-perimeter action faded, I remained anchored but began throwing farther out, into the open water beyond the other side of the brush. Risky, but fish were out there, too. The lake water was clear enough, in fact, that in the fading light I briefly saw the ghostly silhouette of a big crappie about 20 feet away. It was suspended a foot beneath the surface with its head tilted at an upward angle, and then it slowly drifted down out of sight. I can still see that fish in my mind. These crappies and the bluegills, too, were all of them doing this - suspending, looking for bugs or minnows to waylay? Whatever they were up to tonight, 15 of them won't be doing it again.

In my wildest daydreams I never imagined two different panfish species congregating in the same cold water shallows in early April for a feeding binge, much less a feeding binge that commences after sundown so early in the year. Big crappie, too...

Well, my daydreams are now a bit wilder, and the newly-installed thoughts keep intruding on my regular workday and home life. I'm trying the best I can, staying focused, keeping my mind right. It's been so hard, fooling them at work. ~ 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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