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The Plan Changes

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

Turning off my pickup's ignition, I stepped out of the cab, got into the topper shell and pulled out my folding camp chair. The plan this evening was to not fish at all, just sit out by the lake and relax reading a fine book (River Town by Peter Hessler) and occasionally look up at the surface of this lake arm to monitor visible insect activity and mark the location and sequence of fish feeding. Knowledge thus gained from the lake would be applied during future fishing trips here.

I can't count the number of times I've intended to do exactly this, and then didn't. So often in the outdoor sports a person can acquire a tremendous amount of useful information simply by warming the bench and watching the flow of play instead of participating in the game.

Around 7 p.m. when the sun began angling lower in the sky the evening floor show began. I sighed upon hearing the third surging swirl - a sizeable something attacking a smaller something with intention of converting it to food - and once again my "observe only" resolve crumbled, as it has so crumbled many times before. Why do I even bother trying? I should know better. The dramatic swirling sounds that even small fish make when they attack a surface prey item turn me instantly into a young teenager racing down the street on my bicycle with two shiny quarters in my pocket, trying to catch or intercept the Ice Cream Man before his little truck moves out of the neighborhood.

Partly it was Ned's fault that I surrendered so quickly, put away the book and chair and hastily unstrapped my canoe from the roof rack. Two hours earlier on my way home from work I'd stopped by K&K Fly Fishers in Kansas City to thank Ned and the other staff guys for stocking the 00-wt. Sage fly rod that I bought recently. I hadn't been back to the shop since buying it. And of course, I couldn't help rhapsodizing about how great this ultra lightweight rod casts and how much fun it is to fight a panfish with. Next thing I knew, I ended up buying a new fly. Which I never would have done had Ned not shown me a fly that resembles an inch-long section of centipede with long flexible legs. The fly looked great to me. Now two hours later here at the lake, after rigging up my rod I knotted this fly to my 5X leader.

My first target location was a long, submerged log that lays prone in the upper middle part of the lake arm. I'm beginning to think I'm the only guy who knows about this log, or recognizes its value. The water surrounding it must be shallow enough that the bassboat boys who fish this lake arm seldom venture into its general area for fear of running aground or snarling their props. But black crappies certainly venture here, as do bluegill. As do I in my shallow-draft, dual-anchored solo canoe.

Anchoring 20 feet upwind of the log, I threw Ned's "centipede-whatever" fly five feet to the right and just beyond the tree's slowly decomposing but still substantial rootwad. This first cast did not go unnoticed; my leader halfway home displayed a soft twitch and when I lifted I was into a fish with good weight. Its resistance, although strong, was just sluggish enough to make me think this was a crappie, and I was right. Soon it surfaced to identification level then began that casual swim-around I've learned to dread, where the crappie carries its mouth barely out of the water, as if the fish is a synchronized swimmer sculling during a pattern move. But instead of suddenly rising up and giving its head a sharp wiggle (which so often throws the hook) this fish went deep and somehow self-released about ten feet from the canoe.

I'd seen during the swim-around that this crappie was easily a 12-incher. When you lose a crappie like this, it makes you want to smack yourself in the forehead for having done the sportsmanlike thing earlier by crushing down the fly's hook barb. Maybe if I'd left that microbarb intact I'd have landed the fish?

After the shock of failure wore off, I remembered that I wasn't fishing for the ice chest this evening; this was catch and release. Still, it would have been more fun to boat that fish and release it myself instead of it finagling a way to release itself. Hey, I don't need a big crappie's help; I'm perfectly capable of releasing it myself, you know? I guess a lot of keeper crappie just don't trust me.

I fished this log for about 30 minutes, throwing to both sides. This evening, bluegill hits were outnumbering crappie hits by roughly a 4-to-1 ratio, giving me more statistical evidence to chew on regarding my growing suspicion that the 2006 crappie spawn in this lake is over. Is it over, or almost over? Or has the spawn been merely interrupted, put on hold by a two-week cooling trend which saw this year's early April above-average temperatures in northeast Kansas return to historically normal, cooler late April/early May temperatures?

Only the crappies know the answer, and they ain't talkin.'

Takes on the centipede fly began falling off, telling me that I'd worn out my welcome here. About this same time I became aware of the increasing frequency of swirling noises originating from the surrounding lake surface. With about an hour of daylight left I decided to place my bet on surface feeding and switched to a small cork popping bug. After tying it on, I uncleated my anchor lines prior to moving to a new spot. Then I thought, "Why not see what this popper will do right here, even though I've probably used up all my luck at this spot?"

The top of this log's rootwad lies just beneath the surface. I took advantage by throwing my yellow rubber-legged popping bug upwind of the root tangle. The bug splatted into the lake and the light northwest wind began moving it into the kill zone. The bug was blown along very slowly. About a foot out from the roots there vaguely came into view a ghostly dark, slowly rising form of a wedge-shaped fish, its head tilted upward in the grab-prey position. Oh man, oh man, this was a very nice crappie! It cautiously examined the tail of my popper from a distance of less than an inch. About 10 seconds ticked by then the fish simply descended straight down fading from sight and was gone, leaving my hair-trigger right arm cocked in a state of tension.

When a big crappie does this to you and the water is clear enough that you see it happening, it would help to have a modest-sized bottle of oxygen on board so you can slap a breathing cup over your mouth and inhale deeply, like an emphysema sufferer.

From this log, I moved 100 yards farther down the lake arm to an area of standing and submerged brush. Yes, it's the same brushy area I've written about so many times already. For what it's worth, I'm probably just getting started writing about it; this is a marvelous fishing spot.

How much longer it'll be marvelous this spring is open to question. The problem is a new type of aquatic plant that is aggressively taking over this lake's two main arms. I'm as ignorant about aquatic botany as I am about aquatic entomology, so I can only hope this plant is a cool water species that'll die off soon and leave this lake arm in fish-able condition. For now the plant seems intent on carpeting the surface of this arm to the point where in a few more weeks any method of fishing here will be impossible.

Tonight, though, I could still operate by carefully throwing my popper into open lanes and holes found around and inside the standing portion of the brush. As my canoe approached the brush stand I was spooking fish in patch-carpeted deeper open water. This I logged for future reference, as the day may quickly come when throwing to such spots is the only game in town for panfish at this lake.

Reaching the brushy area, I slipped my boat through the stumps and stalks, deliberately penetrating into the dense, intimidating interior "where no bassboater has gone before" (as Captain Kirk might have said if he'd been a canoe fly fisher instead of a Federation starship captain). Not another soul was in sight; it was just me and the brush and whoever else was here.

And they were here. And they were hungry, and they were big. On almost every cast the popper would get mauled by a bluegill, small bass or crappie, or redear. More bluegills than anything.

It felt good to see so many really nice 'gills coming to hand. During the last two years, since I began fishing here, I've taken a fair number of 'gills home from this lake arm. Never very many taken per trip but perhaps the "Zieger Effect" is occuring anyway - where my modest panfish removal is properly balancing the extraction of keeper-length bass that get taken home by the powerboat crowd. Fewer 'gills in the lake = more bugs for each 'gill to eat = faster growth and larger sized 'gills.

Or not. Maybe tonight I'd simply blundered into a huge bluegill spawning bed where only the lake's richest 'gills held tickets. In a fleeting sense that question did come to mind. Mostly, though, I was kept busy hooking, landing and releasing fish, giggling like a lucky little kid whose nickel makes the machine drop all its gumballs down the chute at once.

Not that it was easy, because it wasn't. With the submerged brush stalks offering wrap-around possibilities, plus so many dense vegetation clumps crowding the open pockets and lanes, the pressure was on to get any hooked fish out of there as quickly as possible. The standard technique for doing this is to lean back and horse the fish out. But when you're using a 00-wt. ultralight fly rod, as I was, there's a certain reservation about trying this due to concerns about the rod's durability?

In such dense cover, probably no matter which rod weight gets used the fly fisher is bound to lose some fish. I know this to be true because in the past I've lost even small bluegills in heavy cover like this when using a 5/6-wt. rod, a 4-weights, a 3-weight and a 1-weight. I'm no stranger to losing fish. What I am a stranger to is shattering an expensive fly rod by forcing more bend into it that its shaft is designed to survive.

But even with the 00-weight, everything turned out Okay. I don't know if it's my years of experience fighting fish, or if it's this rod's durability, or both, but by exploiting every mistake made by a fish I succeeded in boating most of them. Here's how:

We all know how panfish will dive after taking a surface prey item. We also know that after the panfish feels the hook sting and line resistance, it often runs back to the top for just an instant. Hooked pannies hardly ever jump in the classic sense like a largemouth bass will do, but they will rush to the top for a brief bit of thrashing about. Sometimes they will do this while fleeing laterally. If you anticipate the behavior, the second that thrashing moment comes you lean back on the rod. This pulls the fish from only inches of water, then once its body gains some momentum you skid it across the surface toward you. Once it's lying flat on its side, skidding across the top, the fish's body and fins can't get any traction or leverage on the water.

In close quarters fishing like what I was doing, this method allows you to complete all or most of the initial retrieve phase, leaving the end-game fight and final grab and lift-out. Still leaves you with plenty of opportunities and time to lose the fish, but arguably the worst is over now. Sounds technical, but really it's just a common sense method every fisher uses instinctively sooner or later. To my great relief I was managing to skid out many thick bodied 8- and 9-inch bluegills, a 12-inch bass, a couple of 9-inch crappie and a 10-inch redear, without once perceiving undue stress on the double-ought Sage. The key, I think, is having your rod pointed more or less toward the fish at the moment it surfaces. This lets the strongest, butt section third of the rod do all the heavy work in safety during the lift, and after that's done it's a matter of maintaining inertia, keeping the fish moving your direction.

No matter the species you're after, catch and release fishing is always great fun. Sometimes though, the thought comes that we humans are the ones getting caught and released. At the end of the day when exiting areas of cover thick and menacing, it's a feeling you get, that some of those fish scared the living daylights out of you when taking you into impossible snags, but you've survived to fight another day with nothing seriously injured or broken. ~ Joe Hyde

About 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 'day job.'

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