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Testing - One, Two, Three


By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

17.9-inches. The mathematical figure does not by itself conjure images of anything dramatic or fearful. It's just a number. But when you learn that the number represents how many inches of rain fell on a Franklin County, Kansas farm in just two days on a farm whose soil was still wet from earlier rains the number 17.9 has a way of paralyzing you in wonder, and dread.

This two-day storm, by the way, made national news recently when it flooded parts of Ottawa, Osawatomie, and other Kansas towns along the Marias des Cygnes River. More and even worse flooding happened to the southeast in other watersheds. Lawrence, where I live, was at the north edge of this storm system and escaped its wrath.

It so happens that on the Franklin County farm where this horrendous amount of rain fell there sits a 4-acre pond. While in casual conversation with its owner, I learned that during the height of the deluge surface runoff from the surrounding hills was so intense that the outflow capacity of the pond's drawdown tube was overwhelmed. The impoundment rose to its emergency capacity of 24-acres so rapidly and kept filling that for the first time stormwater passed around the west end of the dam, flowed across the emergency spillway and swept down into the exit creek, helping send that creek out of its banks.

"I know I lost fish," the owner told me, "because after the creek crested my neighbors who live 1/4-mile downstream telephoned me and said they found a really big crappie flopping in their back yard."

They don't even go fishing and catch a big crappie. Some people have all the luck.

"You think I lost all the fish in my pond?" asked the owner.

"I doubt it," I answered, "Remember, freshwater fish evolved in rivers. There would have been strong currents circulating in your pond with that much inflow. My guess is you lost a few, sure, but most of the fish found places to hide. Like they do in rivers to keep themselves out of the most powerful areas of current? It's an energy-saving instinct fish have. Plus, from such protected spots they could also zip out and ambush passing prey items like worms and terrestrial insects. But if you're really worried about this, you could test it by...Say, has anyone fished your pond since it dropped back to normal level?"

"No. Hey, if you'd care to come down and give it "

"Okay! Does Tuesday work for you?"

It did, and at 6:30 a.m. there sat yours truly in his solo canoe, sneaking across the pond's mirrored surface in the morning calm.

View from Dam

To my visitor's eye neither the shoreline fringe nor the adjacent terrain showed evidence of recent high water. No flattened and discolored grass on the bank, no row of driftwood marooned high on the face of the dam, no deadwood dangling from the branches of bordering trees. The water clarity looked good; testimony to how quickly a pond clears up when its watershed is mostly timbered hills and tall, healthy pasture.

The owner had told me the pond has (or had) large bluegills, channel catfish, largemouth bass and crappie. So as usual I focused on catching bluegill. Indeed, I'd promised the owner a meal of bluegill fillets if bluegill were still here.

But once on the water, after barely a half dozen throws with Old Reliable (a #10 flashback Hare's Ear Nymph) I had an out-of-body experience. As if watching another fisherman doing it, I looked down and saw my own two hands clipping off Old Reliable and replacing him with a chartreuse #10 Marabou Miss. It was my subconscious mind at work recalling the neighbor's backyard crappie, making me try for a big crappie of my own. And if no crappie cooperated there might be some early morning fun to be had with bass before getting down to the serious business of bluegills.

The Marabou Miss had come in the mail from Texas fly fisher Stew Denton (aka Gandolf) who tied it using a pattern he learned from reading "Rick's Favorite Flies" in FAOL. Anybody who's not seen one of these flies in action is missing out. Before the first cast it must be dunked underwater and all the air squeezed out of the puffy fibers. Thus prepped the fly sashays through a Kansas farm pond like a Las Vegas showgirl strutting through a church bingo game.

Lest anyone think this provocative minnow imitator appeals only to crappie and bass, be advised the first fish that nailed Miss Mary was a big bluegill that attacked from behind and struck so hard that the hook eye was way down inside the fish's dime-sized mouth. After this 'gill, though, the bass asserted their right to first turn at the all-you-can-eat marabou buffet. It was one juvenile bass after another on the line until I threw into just the right spot and the fly got picked up by a fish with serious muscle.

BIG ONE ESCAPES

A large surface swirl, one hard burst toward open water and the fish was off. Gone with it was Marabou Miss: the pig-tailed end of my 8-lb. test tippet told me the double clinch knot had failed. Great: ten minutes into the trip and already I've lost this red hot fly. It made me feel a little sick because the whole reason for using an 8-lb. test tippet in the first place was to avoid this very thing.

I was reluctant to put the remaining chartreuse MM at risk, but did anyway. Surely, there would not be two knot failures on an 8-lb. test tippet. And I'm in a boat, too, so the next strong fish that hits I'll let it have its head and then fight it in open water where I probably have the advantage.

Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately I didn't hook up with another big bass. But the juveniles that were prowling the weedline along the face of the dam, wow, those boys were in attack mode from the git-go.

Bass along Dam

As the sun rose higher and hotter finally I snapped out of the bass trance and began looking about for spots where bluegills might congregate. Poking along the northwest shoreline so I could throw back under overhanging willow branches into cooler shaded water seemed a good first strategy. So I tried that and didn't catch a thing.

Farther ahead was a shallow-looking pocket where the shoreline makes a 120-degree right-hand turn to the north. Paddling toward the pocket a bit too fast, I nearly glided into a swarm of nice-looking fish before spotting them. I jerked my stern anchor line free of its cam cleat and dropped the rear anchor rudely in an emergency braking maneuver. The little pocket was absolutely alive with fish; you could see twenty, thirty at a time swimming about just below the surface, like goldfish at a city park fountain. And though it's always tricky estimating the size of objects through refraction and other distortions, these fish looked to be the same size as the juvenile bass I'd been catching along the dam.

The Marabou Miss stayed on and the bass trance returned. Into the pocket went the minnow imitator, where it was promptly grabbed by...a juvenile bass. Cool, man! The next four or five fish pulled from the pocket were big bluegills, which I immediately released. Then it hit me that the big bluegill males I'd just let go were roughly the same length as that juvenile bass. Maybe it's mostly bluegills I'm seeing here, not bass? Bluegill males occupying a spawning bed, and the little bass was here trying to cash in on their fry?

Off came Miss Mary, on went Old Reliable, and into my floating fish basket began going some nice 'gills. The plan was to stop fishing after I caught a dozen enough for a good meal. But doing that required catching four dozen keeper-size bluegills. Keepers if all you looked at was their profile. Most of these fish, though large in frame, were little more than skin and bones.

I haven't yet found any literature on bluegills that explains why an otherwise keeper-size specimen becomes emaciated. But to this layman's thinking, fish in this condition confirm the rigors of nest-building, followed by spawning, followed by those hair-trigger assaults the male launches when defending his saucer-shaped nest from any and all intruders. Bluegill bulls don't play at life, they work hard at it.

With eight or nine keepers in possession and another just boated, I absent mindedly reached out for the cord to my fish basket. In my peripheral vision something very large moved. I glanced left and jerked my hand back in a thrill of fear. There, not two feet away, was perhaps the biggest snapping turtle I've ever seen. It glided in, seized the thin-gauge mesh in its jaws, planted its large clawed front feet and began tearing the fish basket apart. The basket's lower hoop is 18-inches across; the snapper's shell was longer.

SNAPPER APPROACH

BREAK-IN

Grabbing my paddle, I jammed it down hard against the turtle's shell. The sharp impact instantly spooked it off and I thought the incident concluded. But a couple minutes later it returned. Again I whacked its shell, again it left, then again it came back. This was not looking good. Waving my arms, hitting it with the paddle, soon nothing that I did fazed it. I wasn't fishing now; I couldn't take my attention off protecting my catch and equipment from this relentless, fearless snapper.

"Do Canada geese and ducks ever nest on this pond?" I asked the owner, who was standing nearby watching from shore.

"Yes, every year."

"Have you ever seen goslings or ducklings on this pond?"

"No."

"I think I know why not," I volunteered. "Snappers will take baby waterfowl in a heartbeat. And when one grows as heavy and powerful as this guy here, it can throttle even an adult Canada. They just grab hold, hang on, wear down the goose and then drown it."

The owner (who long before my visit had been controlling turtles and muskrats in the pond) left and returned a few minutes later carrying a cordless drill. It and my camera were transferred from shore onto the canoe. I paddled back to the bluegill pocket, anchored and resumed fishing. The huge snapper soon appeared and renewed its assault on my fish basket. I tried more times to make it leave. Still nothing worked, so I switched on the cordless drill a model that puts nine .22 caliber holes wherever you want 'em.

By lunch time thirteen good 'gills were in the stressed fish basket. (The last four being caught up top using a Dave Rosser-tied foam popper.) Twenty-six boneless bluegill fillets went into a zip-lock bag with lemon juice concentrate. Our evening meal was now secured.

I hit the pond again that afternoon. In open water the heat and humidity were most oppressive so I paddled into a narrow inlet partially shaded by adjacent trees. This inlet has a 3-tree deadwood cluster standing center-channel. Near those dead trees the fly I was throwing took a hard hit from what at first felt like a bass, but...no, it was a big crappie! Excited though I was, it still seemed downright bizarre having a 14-inch crappie grab a fly presented just below the surface on a mid-July day in miserable hot weather.

Let's look this gift horse in the mouth:

CRAPPIE MOUTH

The fly is one of Stew Denton's #10 chartreuse Marabou Miss streamers a fly so beautiful that when I saw it new and fluffy and green in the box, with those little sparkle strands running its length, for two weeks I considered never fishing it, ever. I'm serious: just open the box now and then, admire it or a little while, close the box and dream.

But now...I think it looks better this way, don't you? ~ 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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