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Lunch with Rick


By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

Thinking that the lake FAOL Panfish writer Rick Zeiger fishes during his lunch hours sits five miles east of town, I didn't start paying attention to the road signs soon enough and wound up overshooting the lake turnoff by ten miles. At a rural house I stopped at for directions, a helpful farmer pointed me back the same way I'd come. Thanks to his help I arrived lakeside barely ten minutes before Rick showed up. Whew! That was too close; I hate being late when meeting someone to go fishing, hunting, canoe tripping, etc.

Four days earlier in an email, Rick had told me the crappies at this lake are in shallow water and I don't need my canoe. Well, I could try it that way. It's been three weeks since I last fished using the technique of standing on the bank, but I still remembered some of the motor skills required.

At this lake the spot Rick fishes during lunch hour is a public boating access that's been tricked out even a bit more nicely by the installation of rip-rapped fishing jetties, each jetty extending into the lake about 100 feet. Probably every state's natural resources department builds these jetties the same way, and at lakes around the country you can find people fishing from them a lot. They're very handy. I've never had much luck at them, though, which I attribute to the intense public pressure they receive.

The jetty Rick made a beeline for would be no different: it was already occupied. Another angler - bait & bobber type - was set up on its point. So halfway down we split up, Rick taking the south side, me the north side. My side had shallower water and the bottom quickly transitioned from rip-rap to mud, whereas Rick's side had deeper water and the limestone rip-rap extended underwater out of sight. What impact these different bottom types would have on our luck would become apparent soon enough, I figured. You never know which one will be best until you try.

Once we began casting, the chaired man sitting on the point began watching us out of the corner of his eye. The thought flashed to mind that maybe this guy had not enjoyed any luck this morning? If so, then if Rick or I was to have a run of luck this fellow might decide to muscle in and seize said hot spot from we two "fly rod wimps". . .like a modest number of Iowa fishermen have done to Rick in the past, and for their efforts found themselves forcibly enrolled in a "Sink or Swim" lesson upon being bodily thrown into the lake. Also, in addition to this one guy sitting on the jetty point another 10 or 15 minnow-dunkers were sitting on adjacent jetties and rip-rapped shoreline. Not a one of them was presently seeing any action.

I haven't been fly fishing that long, but one thing I've learned is that we fly rodders will often be catching fish one after another while non-fly rodders nearby are burning incense, chanting incantations and attaching prayer strips to tree branches in an effort to enlist the help of the Great Fish Biting Spirit. If Rick or I started ripping into fish, could these boys stand the strain?

Okay, here we go.

I'd made maybe ten consecutive casts with no hits when Rick called to me across the jetty top, "Hey Joe, isn't this what you're supposed to be doing over there, too?" I turned and there he stood, holding aloft a wiggling 9-inch crappie. Alright!

Partly out of stubbornness (to keep trying my side of the jetty until absolutely convinced it wasn't any good) and partly out of a desire to demonstrate proper restraint (and thereby not encourage watching anglers to bum rush Rick's position) I stayed with my north side of the jetty and flailed away. Rick on his side began tearing into 'em pretty good; about once per minute I heard fish thrashing about on the surface as he pulled them in, then came a splash when he released them and they hit the water.

After some fifteen minutes of this, the guy sitting on the point of our jetty decided he'd had enough and exited, stage east. Whether he'd had enough of seeing Rick's luck or whether he'd simply caught enough fish of his own to make a good meal, I didn't ask him as he walked past. But now Rick and I had the jetty to ourselves. I moved over by him to see what was happening on his side and why. It confused me, why he was catching fish and I wasn't.

This lake presently has an algae bloom going on. My north side of the jetty had clearer water, and that's because the jetty was intercepting the algae blown across the surface. The wind was pushing the algae against Rick's south side only, in the process creating a 10-ft wide band of algae scum. He could cast across this scum and his line would move through it freely and his fly and leader would sink down through it normally, without picking up any muck. The crappie favored this algae band zone, I think because the surface film muted sunlight penetration while providing cooling shade and concealment.

Rick had been standing there long enough that he'd noticed something very interesting: many crappies were in the shallowest possible water, water barely deep enough to cover their dorsal fins. It took some doing, but if we looked closely through the algae scum we could see crappies swimming around practically at our feet, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

We did catch crappies by casting out 20 feet at a 45-degree angle into deeper water, but by far the most fish were caught from water no more than two feet deep. It surprised me when on one cast I dropped my fly uselessly close (I thought) to the rocks, but before I could pick it up for another throw it got hammered by a crappie that zoomed out attacked from the bank side of where the fly had touched down. I've heard fishermen talk many times about crappies moving in tight against the bank, but until today I'd never personally witnessed the event.

This was catch and release fishing and by the time Rick had to go back to work I estimate we caught and let go 75 fish between us. Quite the action. A few minutes before we left the jetty, two men in a bass boat trolled in and anchored off its point at a distance of maybe 75 feet away. Doubtless they'd seen us unhooking fish one after another and had moved over to share in the action. I was impressed that they anchored a discrete distance away; during the frenzy of the crappie spawn many powerboat fishermen will rudely invade the water other people are fishing. These two guys were polite gentlemen.

While Rick and I were standing at the road saying our goodbyes, I looked and the bass boat pair had pulled their boat against the point of the jetty. One man had disembarked and was standing on the exact spot Rick had occupied; he was throwing his minnow/bobber rig into the same water Rick and I had fished. This water, we knew, was thick with crappie but the minnow/bobber guy couldn't buy a bite. In fact, for almost ten minutes after Rick left he still wasn't having any luck. Evidence that today, in the crappie's opinion, Rick's flies fresh off his tying vice were trumping live minnows fresh from the bait shop. This made an impression on me.

Before Rick left, he pointed out for me a couple of spots in this general area that might be good today and had been good for him many times in the past. The closest being the rip-rapped shoulder of the elevated roadway our trucks were parked beside. Looks like a dam, but it's a road? I eased down across the tippy rip-rap as quietly as possible and threw a cast into the north end corner where the shoreline leaves the rip-rap and curves back to the west. Wham! An 8-inch bull bluegill clobbered my fly. Next cast, same result.

My third cast went to the south and landed about ten feet out from the rocks so that I could execute a parallel retrieve along the road shoulder. A nine-inch white crappie promptly gobbled the fly, and on the next cast into that area another crappie took.

Hmmm. . .bluegills to the right, crappies to the left. The ensuing mental coin toss was won by the crappies and I began slowly working my way south along the rip-rap. I say "slowly" because it's very hard getting motivated to move when you're catching so many fish standing in one spot.

I'd started out the morning using Rick's flies - he'd handed me a small box containing eight or ten he'd tied. The first I used was (I think) a flash-a-bou minnow imitator. Although the crappie liked it, the one they LOVED was the fly Rick started off with - a white boa yarn leech. This was the fly I began throwing parallel to the roadway rip-rap.

It was 1:30 p.m. now and I didn't need to leave the lake until late afternoon. With the morning's action spurring me, I decided to skip lunch altogether and keep fishing just to see how many crappie I could catch. The only fish counted would be the ones landed, lipped and physically unhooked.

By the time I worked down the rocks near to where a steel culvert enters the lake after passing underneath the roadway, I'd caught 65 crappies. (Again, this count doesn't include fish that self-released.) It was just astonishing action. At one point I looked up and across the way were six minnow/bobber anglers sitting on the opposite bank, silently watching me from a distance of about 150 feet. Sitting, but not moving, because they weren't getting any bites, whereas I was getting hits on virtually every cast and when I did land a fish I unhooked and released it. They all had wire baskets and coolers and were fishing for the table.

Times like this, when I'm really smokin', part of me loves putting on a show for the crowd. Let people see how it's done, all that good stuff. But it can be kind of embarrassing if you're catching - and throwing back - good fish after good fish when other people nearby are not having any luck and they're obviously trying to catch and keep fish for food. I love eating crappie myself, so I was hoping those six fellows parked on their butts opposite me weren't taking offense at what they might view as showboating on my part. (Rick wasn't around to give them swimming lessons if they "objected".)

Still, the thought came to mind that as frequently as Rick fishes this place, as many hundreds (if not thousands) of people who've see him do well here, you'd think all these worm and minnow drowners would possess enough mental capacity to connect the dots and conclude that fly fishing is the fastest route to a meal of crappie fillets. Speaking for myself, during my decades of minnow dunking in Kansas I never once saw anyone fly fish for crappie, so I didn't know what was going on. But here at Rick's "lunch hour lake" he routinely gives the general public the opportunity to study fly-rodding in person and compare the effectiveness of different fishing methods.

A natural question therefore arises: what in the cornbread hell are these guys waiting for? If they drive out here with the intention of catching a mess of these prolific and delicious panfish for the dinner table, then why don't they take up fly fishing, too? I mean, how many thousands of 9-inch crappie does Rick Zieger have to unhook and throw back into the lake in full view of the static-positioned masses before these folks admit to themselves that over yonder stands a better way?

As the day's 90-degree plus hot afternoon sun began cooling down, I went back to the truck for another drink of water then looked over at the jetty we'd fished hours earlier. In the time since Rick left I'd now caught and released 85 crappies. Were the jetty fish still hanging out at the water's edge?

Creeping along the jetty top, I noticed that the changing wind had blown the algae band away from the spot where Rick had stood that morning. Probably because the sun was lower in the sky now and its rays not as intense, the crappies were still very shallow in this now-clear water despite the absence of overhead cover. It was most interesting watching them swim slowly side by side, paired up male/female. Some crappie couples were rubbing against one another so intimately and nose-bumping so energetically that if I'd had more cash in my wallet I'd have offered it to them so they could go someplace and get a room.

I racked up ten more crappies at the jetty then moved down the lakeshore back to the roadway rocks to my original starting point there, in hopes of hitting the "crappie century" mark. A few casts later it was done. Then I thought, "Well, it's only 5:30; why not try for 125?" But after Crappie #101 was dropped back into the water I was done. The day's cloudless sky sun had fried my exposed arms and face real good, plus I was hungry from not having eaten anything but a bagel at 6:30 a.m. Time to quit.

A day like this, action that burns white hot for hours, when it's over it can leave you feeling not buzzed but dazed. Rick told me later that we probably hit the lake just as the fish were making their final push into the shallows to spawn. He thinks the fish were actually arriving at our feet immediately after we got there. Certainly possible. All I know is I've never enjoyed a day remotely close to this one, not on crappie. ~ 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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