Welcome to Warmwater Fishing!

Strictly For Scientific Purposes
By Joe Hyde, Baldwin City, KS

It's April 17th. I'd proceeded this spring on the assumption that panfish are more active (and thus more willing to grab my fly offerings) in very shallow water during late afternoon. My reasoning being that by late afternoon the shallows have been sun-warmed a few degrees more, and during the early spring warmer water equals more active fish.

But two days ago, at dusk yet, I'd pulled big bluegills and crappie one after another out of water I thought too deep and getting too cold to encourage aggressive feeding. Realizing humbly that I have much to learn about what fish prefer in the way of springtime water, I decided to conduct a little experiment that would let them further my education. The subject of inquiry being: Do panfish in mid-April northeast Kansas bite during early morning hours when lake shallows are typically at each day's coldest?

Luckily for me, I normally rise for work at 4:45 AM. Well…okay, so I lay there 15 minutes hitting the snooze button again and again while contemplating shooting a bullet into the alarm clock. I really don't get up until 5:00 AM (plus or minus ten minutes, depending). So I decided to approach this fishing experiment the same way I approach a normal workday: drag myself out of bed and show up, do what I can then go home.

At 6:30 AM - same time I report to work - I arrived at the lake instead. In the pre-dawn light I faintly made out a number of environmental differences. Rather than parking beside a 300-foot tall, 2 block-long Federal Building where I spend each workday morning with some 4,000 other federal workers, today I'd parked beside a 200-acre lake and not another soul was in sight. No boats, no people, no other parked cars, no security guards, just me and the critters. Fish were swirling on the lake surface, making me feel a combination of anxiety and embarrassment, like when I show up for work late?

All things considered, it still felt better arriving at the lake compared to arriving at work. I lifted my canoe off the rack, stashed my modest assortment of paddling gear and fly tackle into it and shoved off. Someone needed to get out there right away and try to catch a fish before they started feeling neglected. Here was my big chance to be "pro-active," like the seven whip-cracking management types in my office are forever preaching.

This morning I was again carrying two fly rods in my canoe, like Rick Zieger up in Iowa does almost every trip. I would start out throwing Rick's hand-tied minnows (described in my last article, both of which had miraculously survived 30 minutes of blind casting into submerged brush just 36 hours earlier). My backup rod carried a tandem nymph rig - two #14 Pheasant Tails spaced a foot apart.

My strategy this morning would be to reverse the way I'd fished this lake two days ago. The crappies had already established that they enjoy grabbing Rick's minnows in low-light conditions at dusk. Would they chase these same flies in pre-dawn low light? You'd think so; I mean, the same amount of light would be entering the water only from a different direction and time of day, and the light would be getting gradually brighter instead of gradually dimmer. But you never know for sure until you ask.

The crappies quickly told me that yes, they love Rick's minnow flies in dim early morning northeast Kansas mid-April light. This finding came as a relief, as it doubled the amount of time I have the option of using flies of that type.

As usual I'd begun fishing close to shore, gradually working my way into deeper water. The whole time, of course, that crappie hotspot I'd found two days earlier was sitting farther out whispering my name. I wanted so bad to learn whether those slabs were still hanging out there during this pre-dawn period. But before I could fish myself even halfway to the hotspot another boat appeared, coming around the point up ahead. Three fishermen troll-motoring a bass boat were coming into the same cove I was in.

There's a drop-off where this cove joins the lake's main body. The drop-off is where most incoming powerboat fishermen turn around and head back to deeper water after a few minutes flailing the transition zone with artificial lures. But these guys were proceeding across the zone, entering the shallows where I was operating. Their course was taking them arrow-straight toward my crappie hotspot, which I interpreted as evidence they were crappie fishermen knowledgeable about this lake.

My canoe, although slower, was closer to the hotspot. For an instant I had an urge to paddle quickly to it and establish position ahead of them. Then I realized that doing something so overt could tip them off to how valuable I consider the spot, if they themselves weren't already aware. So I lowered my anchors and began fan-casting aimlessly into an open water area that lacked any fish holding cover. I resolved to sit there waving my rod like a clueless neophyte in hopes this incoming trio would dismiss...

...but the powerboat was steaming along, moving steadily in that tunnel-vision fashion so many bass fishermen favor - relentlessly trolling, cast-cast-casting, never pausing to thoroughly probe any one spot. Yes, and now I could see that they were throwing large spinners and spinnerbaits. These guys were after bass, bless their hearts.

A few moments later they cruised right past my hotspot with no outward indication they appreciated its worth, and then they came past me. We visited a bit, them joking how they'd caught just one dinky bass all morning. Friendly guys. They asked if I'd done any good. I reported catching a few bluegills (which I had) and told them the bluegill action was slow (which it was). I didn't dare utter the word "crappie" out loud, much less mention that five 1-pounders had assumed the prone position inside my ice chest, and a dozen others had got loose before I could boat them, and fellas, that spot you just zipped past back there might be knee-deep with big crappie. It was clear these guys were here for bass; why waste their valuable time with boring talk of slab crappies?

The Three Bassketeers trolled farther up into the shallows then curled around and hummed past me on their return to deep water. Halfway out, one of the guys fooled a nice largemouth that looked to go two pounds. It was great seeing these fellas having fun, especially when the bass in question seized their attention at the same time a slab crappie seized one of Rick's minnows and I had a fight of my own to deal with. The bass boys were so absorbed they didn't notice the struggles (or identify the species) of my fish. Whew! That was close!

Twenty minutes later the boat was gone, out of sight back around the point. I promptly relocated into my hotspot and resumed fishing with serious intent. Nobody else was around still, and here it was getting along toward 8:00 AM. Well, who am I to complain if most folks elect to sleep in on a pretty Sunday morning like this?

About the only drawback to using minnow fly tandems is the problems you can have casting them. The flies are fairly big, and though lightweight each is considerably heavier than smaller flies such as the nymphs I use. For me, the result is that during false casting my timing breaks down. Once put into that back and forth motion, the two heavier flies cause a sharp double tug at the end of each false cast. If nothing else, those tugs are very distracting.

But things got worse. My trailing fly kept wrapping its tippet around the marabou minnow in such a way that the hogtied marabou fly got pulled through the water sideways with its hook held in a weird position? I finally clipped off the whole shooting match, boxed both flies and switched to my backup nymph rod.

Retiring Rick's minnows for the morning was not due to any fault of theirs; they were catching fish just fine. No, there was more to it than that: with the morning light shining into the water I began seeing just how much submerged brush was REALLY down there below, and the sight of it spooked me. I hate losing gear, and putting those minnows at risk suddenly felt unwarranted. Besides, I'd now confirmed that crappies will grab the minnows during first light. What I needed to do now was complete the experiment by throwing nymphs for a while to see whether they attract crappie hits during later early morning hours. (Again, the reverse of how I'd fished the lake two days earlier.)

The crappies liked my #14 PTN tandem, too. But I soon broke off the trailing nymph on a snag and lost heart for throwing tandems of any kind. In this dense underwater tangle, smart money said to go with a lone nymph. Crappies have larger mouths than bluegills, so I decided to use a larger nymph. My choice was a no-brainer - the #10 flashback Hare's Ear, a nymph I would pat on the head like a bird dog if I only could.

Fetch 'em up, Old Reliable! I double clinched him to my leader and off into the submerged brush he went. Five keeper crappies bit him, not realizing that Old Reliable bites back.

By around 9:00 AM enough other fishermen began arriving at the lake that it was high time I went. I could have stayed longer and possibly with good effect, but the sun was up. If I stayed longer, every crappie I lifted out of the lake would be as visible as a highway flare. I'd caught ten nice crappies and eight keeper bluegills, most of them laid on ice before these newbies had sipped their day's first cup of coffee.

One late-arriving fisherman parked near my truck and hiked to a shoreline spot. He'd been fishing off the bank there maybe 45 minutes. I'd glanced at him from time to time and seen he wasn't having any luck with his live bait and bobber rig. If he'd walked another 200 feet down the shoreline he might have scored. But I'm sure he saw that the longer hike would involve a slow, painful march through dense thorn vines.

Watching him sitting alone and silent, I couldn't help but reflect on the years I fished that way back when I was a kid worm fishing on the banks of the Marias des Cynes and Neosho rivers down at Reading and Emporia, KS. Then sometime around age sixteen I began watching a Kansas City TV show called "The Sportsman's Friend," and its host Harold Ensley inspired me to try ultralight spin fishing with artificial lures. Tossing a size zero Mepps spinner and catching scads of bluegills, small crappie and bass on 2-lb. and 4-lb. test line became my big fishing passion. The attraction was the action, which on many trips was simply unbelievable, virtually non-stop.

Going back to stationary bank fishing with bait and bobber...it's a style I don't have the personality for anymore. Yet I have the highest respect for the relaxation a person can enjoy doing that kind of fishing - just sitting on the bank thinking about life, listening to the birds sing, watching the clouds drift slowly overhead, waiting for your bobber to dunk under. I've done it so many times. And when you stop and think about it, what finer way to pass a few hours time than that?

I guess it's because I also grew up hunting upland birds that explains why ultralight spin tackle and now fly tackle hold such strong appeal. Both methods offer non-stop action, demand constant thinking and adapting, physical and tactical things you must do to succeed. When I'm fly rodding for panfish it's more like hunting than fishing, like I'm gunning bobwhite quail or cock pheasants in the red-hottest weedy draw of all time.

Most Kansans probably view fly fishing as an overly complex but nearly static form favored by people who have gone tragically astray in their thinking and are doomed to suffer rotten luck because they're throwing a ridiculously small fly into the water with a pitifully fragile rod, losing fish after fish from breaking that super-thin line out there at the end. Speaking for myself, I'm one Kansan who definitely used to think that.

But now as my canoe glided past this guy sitting on the shoreline, I felt...I don't know...sad for him. Surely he'd seen me hook and fight a number of fish while he wasn't doing anything at all. Yet he must be as happy a person as me, and have faith that his fishing method would start paying off any second. It would be rude to paddle over, strike up a conversation and start expounding on why I'm convinced that when it comes to catching panfish, fly rodding is the most effective and exciting form of angling ever invented, and I wish I'd tried it just once forty years ago, but that can't be changed now.

The night before, had he woke up three or four times before his alarm clock went off, like I'd done, and laid there wondering what sort of luck he'd have this morning? I don't doubt it, and that would be kinship enough on this dangerous, badly abused but still beautiful planet we temporarily live on. ~ 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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