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On The Bayou

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

I caught eight hefty bluegills so fast that I almost reeled in and left Melvern Lake Pond to hunt for a hilltop of sufficient elevation that my cell phone signal would reach my buddy Donnie, 60 miles away back in Lawrence. I wanted to give him a panfishing situation report; he'd be interested in what had just happened.

But dirty rat that I am, I let it go, opting to stay put and keep casting to these hog 'gills until their self-preservation instincts kicked in. Besides, Donnie was busy housebreaking a new 8-week old puppy he'd just bought, and who was I to interfere with the fun he was having cleaning up puppy puddles and piles?

Still, who wouldn't want to put a bluegill report like this one on the cell phone airwaves to a buddy? I mean, there's bluegills and then there's BLUEGILLS. Anyone who panfishes long enough eventually connects with old male 'gills whose trademark pumpkin-colored bellies are non-evident; the bold orange hue has been crowded out by the color black? The eight heavyweight dark-bodies I'd just caught and released, bad boys like these during their lifetimes have racked up more insect kills than an Ace Hardware bug zapper.

It's important that I give due credit here. Catching these fish from the spot I was standing would not have happened if not for another angler, a spin fisherman, who beat me to the rip-rapped face of a Corps of Engineers interior park road bridge that crosses the old Marias des Cygnes River channel at Melvern Lake Pond. He'd arrived at the east end of this bridge minutes before me. After walking down to the water at the west end to inspect the place as a possible canoe put-in point, my peripheral vision caught his arm moving in a pendulum motion. When I looked over, he was giving the old heave-ho to a largemouth bass that looked to be 15-inches, easy. Just a beautiful bass. As the big fish's body arced high through the air, three thoughts came to me: 1) that's an unnecessary and damn disrespectful way to release a nice bass; 2) this guy might know how to catch fish, and; 3) there are good-sized fish at this bridge and maybe I can catch some!

I walked over to where he was, careful to stay up on the road so's not to impart foot vibrations, and complimented him on the nice bass he'd just caught. Then I asked if he was planning to fish the entire length of the bridge's rip-rap. If he was (pointing back at "my" west end of the bridge) I told him of a submerged log there that slopes down into the water. That log is a logical place for more good bass to be holding, and if he wants to go over and try that log then please do, because he got here first. I would hold my horses until he fished this entire bridge, if he wanted to do that. "Besides," I explained, "I'm here after bluegills, not bass - and I've been told there's some really good 'gills in here."

"You were told right," the man said, "See that bend where the channel turns? There's a spot around there they really like. And thanks, but I'll keep fishing this spot right here. You go ahead and fish that other end; I'm just messin' around waiting for a buddy to show up. Once he gets here we're gonna put my little 2-seater on the Pond." This pleasant conversation freed me up to work the west half of the bridge, the idea of which had suddenly become exciting.

I'd come here today with no more interest in this bridge than it offered a convenient spot to launch my canoe, after which I would immediately paddle up the old Marias des Cygnes channel to do some "recon panfishing." The thought had not occurred to me to fish the water AT the bridge. In hindsight this was pretty stupid of me given the incredible action I'd enjoyed just two Fridays earlier in Iowa, where the 100+ crappie I caught that day were holding tight against limestone rip-rap.

Well, no time for self-recrimination. This fellow throwing a Rapala minnow to my east had just caught a 15-inch LMB here. There could be some serious action to be enjoyed here, so I better let the canoe fishing wait and get my butt in gear right now.

I quickly rigged up, tippy-toed down the bridge footing's grassy slope and "stepped up to the plate" at the extreme west end of the bridge where the limestone rip-rap begins. The submerged log referred to earlier laid to my right slightly out of casting range - just the way I wanted it. Anytime you must walk across rip-rap to reach a favorable-looking fishing spot, my thinking is it's better to approach the spot laterally with your feet at near-water level rather than take the obvious shortcut of walking straight down the rip-rapped slope. Call it a stealth issue because it is, but it's also a safety issue. I've seen men take terrible and painful falls when walking straight down rip-rapped inclines; a rock they stepped onto appeared stable but tipped once the man's full body weight suddenly came to bear. It's safer and sneakier, I think, to slowly zig-zag your way down to the water and once you're there creep along laterally, gingerly testing each rock you step on, using one foot to gradually add some of your weight but not all of it at once before finally committing your entire body weight (and your breakable bones) to the advance.

A 20-mph wind was zipping across the bridge from behind, and it promised to mess with my backcast. If this wind wasn't bad enough, there also was a speed limit sign and guard rail directly behind me, too. Ordinarily the difficulties of this wind and these obstacles would seem insurmountable, but doggone it, that guy over at the east end had caught a 15-inch bass.

Old Reliable (#10 flashback Hare's Ear Nymph) dimpled the water midway between the left riverbank and the submerged log. I let him settle to good depth then began creeping him in using a left-hand alternating pickup. Nothing. "Okay, that's cool," I thought, "But just wait until I reach that submerged log, Mr. Rapala-throwing Spinfisherman. You're gonna see something you've seldom witnessed."

I was antsy to fish that submerged log, but before stepping onto the rip-rap to approach it I threw my second cast into a spot that hugs the left riverbank. It was just a short 3/4 sidearm flip of 20 feet that shot my nymph back underneath a small tree's overhanging branches. Five feet in, something dropped a bomb on Old Reliable. Lucky for me the water at this bridge corner is obstacle-free, because whatever took my nymph was all over the place before I finally worked it high enough to ID a dark-sided, black-belly male 'gill of some 9 inches. As I hoisted the fish from the water, I turned to give Mr. Spinfisherman a holler so I could show him this excellent 'gill. I wanted to thank him for helping me confirm the favorable recommendations I'd received about this river channel some two months ago. But he'd left; there he was walking down the road toward a row of fifth-wheeler campers spotted along Melvern Pond's shore. I yelled anyway but he didn't hear me in the wind.

After Old Reliable fooled six more hefty 'gills in the small zone under that left bank tree, I eased over to the submerged log. Needless to say, by now I was foaming at the mouth anticipating the action I would enjoy there - and not just on big bluegills but likely I would also connect with some largemouth bass as well. But it was not to be. I caught just one big 'gill at the log, and that was that. Ten minutes followed with no more hits so I returned to my original plan and launched the canoe to do some recon fishing.

Technically, this old river channel segment is a man-made bayou. Not surprising, then, that the water in the near-bridge zone is pretty deep. In a cut off channel like this, you don't have much sediment building up from stormwater inflow. After government purchase, most Corps-bought land rapidly becomes thickly vegetated where farming operations are curtailed. (Whereas prior to Melvern Lake's construction this whole area was tilled farmland that contributed large amounts of unsecured sediment to the channel following heavy rains. Indeed, historical accounts I've read say that in what is now Kansas not just the Marias des Cygnes but ALL of our streams ran virtually clear year-round before European settlers tilled the land and over-grazed the prairie.)

Consequently the water lying in this old channel segment is thus clearer than the Marias des Cygnes River had been immediately before lake construction. But so deep is the channel now that the first half dozen times I anchored I almost ran out of anchor line before my soft bags touched bottom. Even areas close to the banks were quite deep. This discouraged me because over the last two years of fly rodding I've come to believe that panfish are primarily shallow water dwellers - 6 ft. deep or less. I realize this isn't the case under all circumstances, but it's become my basic operational assumption anytime I go fishing.

After going hitless in some 200 at-bats in this deep water, I paddled away from the bridge area. Up around the first bend, on my left was an inside arc of the old river channel. On a living river the inside arcs are where you almost always find gentler bank slope angles, the shallowest water and the slowest current speed. Maneuvering in to where my canoe was situated midway between the left bank's weedline and a series of rotting tree stumps standing 15 feet off the bank, I lowered anchors and was encouraged to discover the depth here was only about 3 feet. Off to my right some 80 feet away, at the outside arc of the old channel lay, I knew the depth over there would be much deeper - which meant I was anchored in shallow water that would progressively deepen as my casts fanned to the right. This place would do.

Out flew Old Reliable, landing midway between the rotting tree stumps and the left bank. About halfway back to the boat he got dry gulched by a strong fish that felt like a bluegill, and that's what it was. Over the next 45 minutes I caught and released maybe 20 big gills from this spot. The largest were holding in a weedline pocket. Apparently these bluegills had commandeered this inside arc for use as a nesting area, and they were congregated making (or guarding) nests in depth anywhere from one to five feet. The biggest and strongest of these 'gills hammered Old Reliable when I dropped him an inch away from an isolated standing weed, in water no more than a foot deep.

If only we could photograph every fish we catch, wouldn't that be nice? Of course, it isn't possible and attempting it risks subjecting expensive cameras to water damage. Nevertheless, I had a camera along and shot one photo of a 'gill that represents the average size of what I was catching at this inside river arc.

When this spot played out I worked my way up-channel then back down-channel without finding another bluegill hotspot. This got me to thinking there could be a serious problem in this bayou because of too much channel depth. So when I came upon a tributary creek, I headed up it in hopes of finding shallower water. After rounding an S-curve, I was so intent on looking down into the water that I almost ran aground before realizing the creek stops here.

At this moment a powerful swirl appeared 15 feet to my left, next to a submerged limb. I quickly lowered my stern anchor (to brake the canoe's forward motion) then the bow bag (to nail the front of the canoe in place) and threw a cast into the general area where the swirl appeared. Whatever made that swirl approved of Old Reliable and grabbed him two seconds after splashdown. This was a strong fish that fought bitterly until the last. Surprise, surprise: a red ear sunfish, a thick-bodied 10-incher that while being measured fixed me in a cold stare, like I owed him money.

A few casts later came a hit from a fish even stronger yet. Its rocket runs and bottom-hugging fight made me think channel cat, freshwater drum or carp. Channel cat it was, a 16-incher that fought so hard and so long that exasperation finally made me reach down and pull in the leader barehanded so I could net him and end the fight.

With water depth only 18-inches and wind-blown leaves and grass stems snagging my fly for a piggyback ride almost every cast, I retreated back down the creek channel to deeper, open water next to a log that lays perpendicular to the channel midline. Anchored here, throwing downstream and working my nymph toward me slowly and deep, I hooked something that in very leisurely fashion swam upstream past my canoe then self-released before tasting the mustard on the hotdog.

As it was approaching 8 p.m. now and I needed to find an Eisenhower State Park campsite to spend the night, I left this feeder creek and made my way back down the old Marias des Cygnes channel to the put-in spot. I'd had good success today, but felt I'd been more lucky than good. If not for my chance meeting with Mr. Spinfisherman, odds are this trip would have been a total bust. Without him I'd have not have fished the bridge put-in spot, and after paddling up the bayou I almost certainly would have gone right past that first inside arc where the 'gills were.

Sure wish I could have thanked that guy, but after he walked into the crowded campground I never saw him again. ~ 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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