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Young Reliable Saves the Day

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

It's a terrible thing when one of your best friends and his family are hungry for a meal of panfish but they've exhausted their freezer supply of bluegill fillets. Just terrible. But it's a wonderful thing when this same buddy has permission to fish a farm pond that's full of big bluegills and he telephones you in the morning seeking more firepower for a replenishment mission that afternoon.

The crossbars on my truck's roof rack are 66 inches long. I was a bit surprised it worked, but Donnie's Coleman tandem canoe and my Wenonah Rendezvous solo canoe both fit on my rack (although it was a close call because Colemans are so wide). If my boat were a wider tandem instead of a narrow solo, there's no way I could have hauled both our canoes to the pond.

Once we got there, Donnie and his wife, Khalila, launched first, paddled out into the pond heading around a point on the south bank and disappeared from my sight. A few minutes later I launched and was following their course. Then I looked left and became attracted to a large pocket in the shoreline where a stand of cattails gave way to a shelf of shallow open water.

Although it was mid-June now and the day was quite warm, curiously a north wind was blowing and it was a strong wind, around 15 mph. The thought occurred to me that any winged insects flying or jumping off the heavily vegetated pond dam north of me would likely get caught in a wind eddy rolling off the leeward side of the dam, an eddy that might force them onto the pond surface involuntarily, after which they would get blown across the pond into this pocket. If that was happening, this cattail stand would function like an underwater woodlot where a few bass and bluegills might position themselves at its edge, concealed just inside the cattail stalks like deer hunters on stand, where they could rush out and pick off a doomed insect if one slowly floated past.

Using a few braking strokes with my paddle I slowed the canoe, un-cammed my stern anchor and lowered it to the bottom. Since I'd been paddling across the wind when the idea of fishing this pocket hit me, the north wind was pushing against my canoe on the right side. I waited for the stern-anchored boat to weathervane around to the left until its bow was pointed south, then I quietly lowered the bow anchor and cam-locked that line. I was now positioned stationary in open water 25 feet northwest of the cattail stand's corner, in a spot where I could cast crosswind to the east and drift a popping bug directly into the north face of the cattail stand (with the false casts happening in front of me, which would prevent snagging my own body). Or, I could throw shorter and at an easier downwind angle and let my popper drift parallel close along the west face of the cattails.

Boy, if you think being anchored at a setup like this doesn't beat steering a 4-banger Japanese pickup through a swarm of sociopath Johnson County, KS drivers in bloated SUVs on Interstate 35 during the KC Metro Area's morning and afternoon commutes, then you need a vacation worse than I and I need one pretty bad. Well, I could relax now but it was going to be tough: fishing in general, and fly fishing in particular, can get me a little wound up, and no more so than when I'm fishing good water.

The relaxation began coming, too, although not quite the type of relaxation I was after, when after about ten minutes I'd caught just one small largemouth bass (released) and one 6-inch 'gill (dropped in the floating fish basket that Donnie had loaned me). I kept fishing this spot for another five minutes, as much as anything for the purpose of sitting there wondering why I wasn't lighting up this cattail stand like it was a pinball machine.

Maybe it was the wave action? Possible: it stands to reason that short, choppy waves will conceal insects on the surface. Conceal them in the sense that fish can't spot them at longer distances due to the surface scatter. Still, in ten minutes I'd made enough casts, and the water was clear enough here, that surely my popper had passed directly over more than just two hungry fish.

I lifted anchors and moved, going back to my initial idea of following Donnie and Khalila. Just as I rounded the point ahead I saw them making their last few casts from a shoreline area that, had it not been for the cattails, is where I would have fished myself as my first stop. But they'd gotten there first, had already fished it and were leaving.

What interested me is that despite using spinning tackle (small spinners and fliptail jigs) they were fishing this spot exactly as I'd have done if I'd nymphed it. They'd anchored five feet off the shoreline and were casting out into deeper, cooler water. Watching them paddle away, headed toward the pond dam, I felt I'd just received a free education that this spot won't produce fish for me today. In two years I've acquired great faith in fly rodding as a panfishing method; nevertheless, Donnie and I have fished together since we were junior high school kids and when he isn't having success at any given spot my chances there won't be very good, either.

I reversed course and headed for the dam, too. Specifically, I went to the east end of the dam where I could anchor in a corner and fan-cast in a 90-degree arc, with every cast landing close to fish-concealing vegetation. Again this looked like a perfect setup. Maybe the 'gills weren't waiting for bugs at the downwind side of the pond; maybe they were here, Johnny-on-the-spot for a surface attack the instant an insect got blown down onto the water.

After a few minutes of no takes on the popping bug, I clipped it off and went with a wiggly-legged fly I'd bought a month earlier at K&K Fly Fishers in Kansas City. Ned there had showed it to me, commenting on its long, flexible legs. I tried it here in the pond corner but didn't have any luck with it, and clipped it off knowing that its day would certainly come. That fly looks good enough to eat and I'm not even a fish.

What I went with next was Young Reliable, a flashback Hare's Ear Nymph. But unlike Old Reliable (who has a #10 hook) Young Reliable is a #14 nymph. Into a little weedy pocket he flew, where he got grabbed by a fish that fought with sharp, high-frequency pulses of power. I'd felt this type of struggle before at the lake I fished all winter, so I hoped I was wrong but I was right: it was a golden shiner, one about 10-inches long. A very nice fish, actually, if you happen to be a soaring vulture sniffing thermals for something stinky to eat.

Three of these big shiners - some fisherman's minnow bucket baitfish at one time - fell prey to Young Reliable. I tossed all three shiners into the bow of my canoe and paddled over to show them to Donnie and Khalila. At first glance Donnie didn't know what he was looking at, then the reality hit him with considerable surprise. I could relate; the first time I ever got into a school of shiners as big as these (at the lake I previously mentioned) I was surprised not only that shiners would take a nymph but that they could grow so big. Surprised and concerned. The way so many hook and sinker fishermen (including myself in the past) habitually dump leftover baitfish into the water they're leaving, it's inevitable that populations of shiners arise in habitats otherwise inaccessible to their natural expansion. Leading me to speculate as to their insect food needs as they grow larger, which in turn leads to pondering the impact these one-time "medium minnows" have on the growth rate of the panfish I want to catch.

Alongside Donnie's canoe, which was anchored near the center of the dam, I learned that minutes before Khalila had gone on a roll, catching a half dozen 'gills, each one some 10-inches long, while throwing a 1/16-oz. fliptail jig. Donnie had scored, too, and together they'd now caught about 15 nice bluegills. Whereas Mr. FAOL Warmwater contributor had just two medium/small bluegills swimming inside his fish basket. But, by golly, I had three reeking golden shiners lying dead inside my canoe, and flinging their oily carcasses onto the pond dam for scavengers to find that evening was one fishing triumph Donnie and Khalila couldn't boast.

Okay, so if the east end of the pond isn't any good right now. I'll try the west end, then. It wasn't any good, either.

For the next hour I spot-worked my way southwest, following the shoreline into areas where on previous visits I'd scored well on bass and bluegill. As the water got progressively shallower two things became apparent: 1) not many fish here were interested in what I was presenting, and; 2) this west end of the pond is becoming increasingly clogged with the type of algae I hate most - the kind that forms stringy, goopy clumps that totally clog the hook gap of any fly or lure that encounters it. These algae clumps were scattered about not just on the surface but underwater at various depths like moored mines.

The duration of this trip was at Donnie and Khalila's discretion, so with what I guessed to be an hour of fishing time left I paddled over to the first spot they'd fished. Enough time had elapsed that maybe the fish would be active there now? I approached from the northwest and this is when the wind decided to swing around to the northeast. I lowered my stern anchor first and was irritated to see that I'd misjudged my distance from a fallen tree laying on the south shore with its trunk leading into the water. My proximity alone would easily spook any fish there. Compounding this boat handling error, my first cast snagged Young Reliable on that tree trunk. Fighting to maintain control of the boat in the wind, I made enough loud paddle strokes moving in to save him that after retrieving my nymph there wasn't much point in continuing at this spot.

About halfway between this spot and the cattail stand I anchored correctly and began throwing parallel to the shoreline. I anchored about twenty feet out so my nymph could work through water about five feet deep. Still no luck, and I was now at that point where you write off a trip as one of those days when your experience and skill are getting you nowhere.

I still don't know why I did it, and the physical doing of it felt stupid even as my arms went in motion, but I pulled a couple more rotations worth of line off the reel and threw the nymph farther, threw it right up against the shoreline into water that maybe was a foot deep, no more. Young Reliable moved maybe a foot and got creamed by a strong fish that headed directly out into the pond. (Which I always like to see a strong fish do when I'm already out there myself.) This fish turned out to be a 9-inch orange-belly bluegill, and into the floating basket he went.

Throwing the next cast into the same spot, another good 'gill attacked and after a stout fight was boated. Then another. And another. They just kept coming.

basket of bluegills

Well, well, well...so that's where "my fish" were hiding all along - not around the cattails, not in the pond dam corners, and not along the west end shoreline but right here on this south shoreline, in tight against the bank. Were they spawning here, protecting nest depressions, or were they lined up waiting for deliveries of windblown prey items?

The funny thing was realizing that if I'd come here first, if I'd reached this spot ahead of or instead of Donnie and Khalila, I would not have caught even one fish. Why? Because I'd have done exactly as they'd done - I'd have anchored close to the bank and thrown out into deeper water. I'd have anchored right on top of these big 'gills and not only spooked them but actually thrown away from where they were holding.

Guess it goes to show that you can't take anything for granted when fishing a body of water you've been to before. The unexpected will very often happen. ~ 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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