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Harder Than It Looks

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas

Ned at K&K Flyfishers in Overland Park, KS, gave me a tip about a lake that's located relatively close to where I live. I first heard about this lake three years ago and had tried once, but failed, to find it. So, on the drive home from K&K I decided to try again. This time I found it and the sight of it almost put me into shock, it looks so pretty.

Thank you, Ned!

It seems that more private landowners and government agencies are really "getting it" when it comes to constructing new ponds and lakes that can hit the ground running with respect to providing excellent fish habitat. This lake is an example of how it's done.

In decades past the standard procedure throughout our nation was to clear-cut all timber growing inside a proposed lakebed's footprint. Today's enlightened construction method for new lakes deliberately leaves all or most footprint timber intact. Why? Because thanks to the dedication of fisheries biologists it is now widely understood that, once flooded, standing trees immediately provide hard core aquatic habitat for creatures ranging from microscopic plankton to large game fish. And above the lake surface, flooded trees as they decay provide excellent hunting and nesting habitat for insects and birds. In the Midwest one tree in particular the Osage Orange (or "hedge") has wood so dense and rot resistant that once submerged the underwater structure it creates will often remain intact for well over a half century.

To the county department that purchased the acreage this lake is built on, it was not enough to simply create a beautiful body of water that will likely guarantee a quality public fishery for many decades to come. The county imposed a regulation that is seldom seen: a prohibition on the use of boats powered by internal combustion engines. The only mechanical propulsion device allowed on this lake is the electric trolling motor.

Also, as I discovered later, this lake is patrolled frequently by law enforcement that is always looking for power engine violators, loud parties, littering, etc. Consequently, the outdoor recreation experience is marked by the sounds of wind, water and wildlife; there is a near-total absence of human noise. No high-speed bass boats, no powerboat wakes to contend with. Most appealing. I immediately set about buying the required non-resident boat sticker and fishing permit.

Hearing my glowing comments abut how nice this lake looks, my friend, Paula, wanted to see it for herself and fish it with me. Since I'd just finished outfitting my Bell tandem canoe with the deck fittings needed to operate my 2-anchor system, I had the means to get another person out on the water with me. (Impossible if I'd used my solo canoe.)

We hit the lake on a Saturday shortly after 1PM, and it quickly became evident that the day's west wind was going to be a problem. The lake's orientation is East/West; this let the west wind get compressed and funneled between the adjacent hills, creating a wind tunnel effect.

Something else quickly became evident: the fish in this lake have a mighty low opinion of my sweetheart Old Reliable fly (a #10 flashback Hare's Ear Nymph). In two hours of hard fishing at four different spots I caught exactly two small bluegills, with not many more light taps indicating half-hearted short strikes.

Slightly embarrassed that "Mr. Fly Anglers On Line Contributing Writer" (yours truly) was catching little more than moss clumps for his efforts, I explained to Paula that my lack of success was actually the outcome one should expect, given this lake's clear water combined with the high mid-day sun.

"Fish get very spooky and cautious in water this clear," I explained. "I don't look for the fish to start feeding until maybe the last hour of daylight."

Paula smiled and replied happily how nice it is just being out on the water on a quiet, beautiful lake on such a pretty day. Bless her heart. I could only hope she wasn't sitting up there on the bow seat silently wondering if she'd been sold a bill of goods by a fly rod-waving dummy who doesn't have a clue.

Tired of banging my head against a brick wall and with the wind speed increasing, we paddled back to the put-in point, beached the canoe and ate lunch. Using my camping cook gear I fried a bag of bluegill fillets fish I'd caught on an earlier trip at another lake. We ate bluegill fillets along with pasta salad and mixed fruit. "Failure" never tasted so good; still, the meal and good company didn't ease the sting of shooting blanks at so many excellent-looking spots.

Paula was agreeable to indulging my desire to stay at the lake until dusk so that I could evaluate its evening activity. Perhaps there would be a mayfly hatch? The wind kept blowing hard as the hours passed by, convincing me that it would blow like this overnight as well. So for safety reasons I junked the idea of fishing from the canoe. We racked my boat then walked the lake's perimeter sidewalk to get a look at some areas we'd not been to earlier while afloat. The shoreline cover that we discovered during this walk looked very encouraging so we doubled back to my truck, picked up my fly tackle then retraced the sidewalk route.

This lake has something I've never seen anywhere, a paved sidewalk that runs the full length of the face of a dam. A paved sidewalk with park benches installed every 40 yards. Fancy, indeed. We sat on one of these benches and waited for whatever would happen as sundown approached.

Murphy's Law: the wind laid down to a near dead calm and it was now too late to walk back to the truck, rig the canoe for action and try to reach a good spot (wherever the good spots were as yet I had no idea).

Suddenly Paula spotted heavy waves being generated by a fish about thirty yards to the south of us, a fish that was swimming very close to the rocky face of the dam. I came off the bench and began casting to it, and might have earned one brief take but wasn't sure; the hit wasn't quite solid enough. This fish kept working along the dam's face, but never got close enough that I could get a clear look. I suspect it was a big channel catfish that was sheep-dogging little bluegills into the wedge of shallow water then biting them.

I tried four of five different flies, first for this unknown big fish and then for panfish, all with no success. Through the clear water I could see that the dam extends out into the lake at a very shallow angle.

As sundown neared I kept searching hopefully for signs of an insect hatch along the dam, but saw none. By the process of elimination my attention was finally drawn to some cattails growing along the south shoreline adjacent to the dam. Here at least was the kind of standing vegetation favored by aquatic insects like damselflies. So that is where I moved to next. Finding a gap in the cattail line, I began fishing.

Joe at Kill Creek Lake

And once again, to my disbelief, even here in this high probability habitat Old Reliable failed me.

My faith in Old Reliable runs so deep that I was beginning to have serious doubts whether this lake is any good for panfish. Maybe all we have here is a pretty face? Maybe I'd thrown away good money getting permitted to fish and boat this place?

Just then a surface swirl about fifteen feet out from the cattails gave away the position of a fish. The characteristics of the swirl suggested a panfish had attacked a prey item just below the surface. Because Old Reliable functions best at greater depth, I clipped him off and in the fading light tied on a lighter weight nymph one of Rick Zieger's #14 flashback Pheasant Tail Nymphs. I sent a cast beyond the swirl, swam it back through the zone and the PTN got hammered by a thick-bodied bull bluegill the size of my hand. Hello!

For the next twenty minutes, before the western sky became so dim that I couldn't see my line twitch on their takes, large bluegills prowling the cattail line grabbed the slow-moving, shallow-running PTN like coyotes fighting over a crippled cottontail. Those twenty minutes imprinted this lake as a place I need to visit again for bluegills, and confirmed Ned's tip that it's a lake I should check out. Nevertheless, the hours of frustration and failure I'd experienced earlier in the day while fishing cover that looked red hot left me wondering.

This suburban lake is located near the Kansas City Metro Area. The fish here have doubtless been tempted by hundreds of kinds of lures and artificial flies. So these bluegills didn't just fall off the turnip truck; they've been around. It's possible that many days of fishing will be needed, and many tactics employed, before I can begin to crack this lake's code. ~ Joe

About Joe:

From Douglas County, Kansas, Joe is a former municipal and federal police officer, now retired. 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 recently retired from 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 former 'day job.'

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