I've been more than satisfied with the strategy
I settled on last year after I determined to
seriously involve myself in warm water fly
fishing: Don't try to catch anything but
bluegills; that way anytime something other
than a bluegill grabs the fly it comes as a
pleasant and educational surprise.
Bluegills would be my bread and butter gamefish.
But a secret ambition lurked in my heart from
the very beginning: If I could learn enough
fly rodding skills to catch bluegills on a
fairly regular basis, I'd be preparing myself
to catch spawning crappies with fly tackle if
that opportunity ever arose. During their
spawn, crappies in large numbers temporarily
invade the places that bluegills inhabit more
or less all the time. So if I just keep fishing
for bluegills and have a ball doing it, my shot
at catching spawning crappies will someday come.
For all I know, the random crappies I caught
recently could be in their pre-spawn phase;
the actual spawn not begun yet? So maybe it's
possible to access these fish in the shallows
for a few more weeks? Beats me. But really,
I don't care whether a slab crappie is spawning
or going cove-to-cove selling magazine
subscriptions without a permit; if one knocks
on my door, I'm buying.
It's April 15th. After stumbling by accident
into a shallow-water crappie hotbed on my last
regular Monday off, four excruciatingly long
days pass before Friday afternoon quitting time
arrives. I head straight to the lake after work.
Would those slabs still be out there?
I'd had four days to devise a game plan. I
would start out throwing deep, going with the
Pheasant Tail nymph tandem rig that scored so
well during first contact with these fish. My
backup rod would carry a minnow tandem rig, both
flies hand-tied by Rick Zieger.
About these two minnows of Rick's: I don't recall
their names, sorry. The front fly had a white
yarn body, short chartreuse marabou tail and a
much longer chartreuse marabou upper section
that trails back over the body? This fly sinks
very slowly; perhaps it's a "neutral buoyancy"
fly? Whatever it is, you better hold it underwater
and squeeze every bit of air out of those marabou
fibers and the body yarn, too, prior to your first
cast else the fly floats like a cork. But once
saturated this fly limps pitifully through the
water, breathing harder than an out-of-shape rookie
in his first week of NFL training camp.
In case any crappies with enough willpower to
resist this fly wouldn't' get the message that
somebody was after them tonight, I ran 18-inches
of 5X tippet off the bend of the marabou fly and
tied on a spooky-looking minnow imitator - a
tan-colored job with sparse glitter fibers
running its length. In low-light conditions
the overall effect is the fly becomes virtually
transparent. This might be a Clouser pattern;
if so, it is a very subtle one indeed, no
resemblance to those commercial cannonball-heavy
Clousers with thick hooks and two bead eyes.
This little baby was going to trail its gaudy
marabou brother through the water like The Ghost
of Minnows Past.
Still fresh in my mind's eye from Monday night's
trip was the image of that big crappie I saw
suspended about a foot under the surface, its
head tilted upward like it was waiting for a
passing bug or minnow to ambush from below?
I'd selected these two minnow imitations for
my backup rig specifically because both flies
are very lightweight. They would sink just
below the surface and swim along slowly, ducks
in a shooting gallery for any shallow water
crappie with an appetite for raw meat.
These minnow imitators are one-of-a-kind gifts;
no replacements are available at local stores,
so I was nervous about bringing them into play
in brushy cover. The quadzillion nymphs in my
fly box are expendable; these minnow flies are
not. The way I'd planned it, I wouldn't deploy
these minnows until dusk and then only if fish
began surfacing around me like they'd done Monday
night. (I'd suspected that those rising fish
Daily, lots of people drive past this cove I was
fishing. Others will ride bicycles past it, and
you also get people taking evening walks. People
who themselves enjoy fishing will often pause for
a short while to watch boat fishermen below,
curious to see whether anybody is having any
luck. I can certainly understand how interesting
it would be to spot a guy fly fishing from a canoe.
You don't see many fly fishers or canoeists in
Kansas. Combine these two curiosities and you're
showing people something that many have never seen.
The presence of these passersby always makes me
uneasy, but especially so tonight. You see, one
of the really nasty tricks played by the crappies
in this lake is they love to grab my fly at the
exact moment when spectators are looking. Feeling
the hit, reflex always suckers me into setting the
hook. Then when I begin cursing myself as my limber
3-wt. rod bends impressively under the fish's initial
run; the crappie bolts to the surface for an
eye-catching "Hollywood Splash" and immediately all
observers up on the road lurch to a stop. This,
needless to say, causes me to wonder how long it'll
be before my hard-found hotspot becomes a bottle of
cheap muscatel that gets uncorked and passed around
by a cluster of thirsty winos, if you get my drift.
So with weeks of undisturbed crappie fishing at
risk tonight, I was alive to any possibility that
I might be spotted having fun. I would try hard
not to let the fish trick me into cluing John Q.
Public about the location of my hotspot. I added
to this concealment plan by approaching the hotspot
indirectly, moving randomly, closing the distance
ever so discretely.
A good 200 feet away, I began working alternate
cover, stuff that looked decent enough
structure-wise compared to where I really
wanted to be. And thanks to my tandem PTN's
these spots surrendered some nice fish. I even
went on a roll, boating the first five crappie I
hooked, each weighing at least a pound. Hey, now
THIS is more like it!
Word got out underwater that tonight was 'All
Bluegills Get Released Night,' and the big 'gills
started coming out of the woodwork to flex on me.
Nice hit, punkin-belly! You bad!
Close to dusk, unknown fish with some size to
them began swirling at the surface almost
everywhere. Slab crappie, I hoped. I peered
all around and nobody was in sight; no boats,
no vehicle noises, no distant human voices.
I was alone. Reaching behind me, I stowed
the nymph rod and pulled out the minnow rod.
A few minutes earlier I'd reached my target
area; it was right in front of me now. Although
I had trouble making out where each stickup
brush stem was exactly, well, that was Okay.
You are mine, Sweet Spot...all mine.
Imagine my 100 square foot target zone being
the pivot pin of a wall clock. Monday night,
I had anchored 15-feet away at the 2 o'clock
position relative to the "pin." Tonight I was
the same distance out but anchored at the 5
o'clock position, the sun's dimming light
coming from the left side. Using my longer
rod (9-ft. St. Croix 3-wt.) to propel the
two heavier flies, I sent Rick's minnows
into the center of the target zone and the
tandem took a very hard hit almost at the
same instant of touchdown.
"Meet Rick Zieger," I said to the fish as
I brought my line tight.
After two short, strong runs the fish surfaced,
wallowing loudly. This had to be a crappie,
nd it was. I worked it in and boated a fine
black crappie, its profile the size of a
hunting boot sole. With those wide top and
bottom fins the creature resembled one of
those wood-handled paddle fans that preachers
used to hand out to women at church in the days
before central air.
It was getting dark fast. A couple of fish
later the only evidence I had that each cast
had indeed landed were faint reflections off
two tiny parallel waves spreading apart from
where the line splashed down. Fish were
surfacing everywhere around me now, even right
beside me. I felt like a leopard with a herd
of unsuspecting gazelle browsing directly under
his lookout tree. One cast I made into the
darkness, I never had a chance to begin the
retrieve before a good-sized fish yanked my
line tight, bent my pole down and got off
without me touching the line. This hotspot
was boiling with hungry fish. At dusk.
In mid-April. Who'd a-thunk it?
Seven crappies after switching to Rick's
minnows, I called it a night. An even
dozen slabs was all I needed. I might
have stayed out longer but my supervisor
had assigned me to work overtime the next
morning, and these fish had to be cleaned
before I hit the sack.
Ever wonder what it's like paddling across
a lake under starlight after a trip like
this, after you did some things right and
enjoyed some great luck? It feels pretty
good, is what it's like. ~ 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