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Mission Possible

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas
The night before, I'd been up until midnight cleaning 18 bluegill and one channel cat (all caught on fly tackle). During Daylight Savings Time, if good fishing luck keeps you on a lake until dusk the ol' midnight hour can sneak up on you.

I was scaling the second bluegill when the phone rang. It was my buddy Donnie. Would I, he inquired, care to tag along tomorrow when he and his girlfriend, Kahlilah, go out to a 6-acre farm pond they have permission to fish?

My mouth said "Yes" like your knee jerks when a doctor whacks it with that rubber mallet. This pond holds a population of very nice bluegill and lots of bass. For me it also holds a personal significance - a month earlier Donnie and Kahlilah invited me along and this was the first farm pond I ever panfished in using my new 9-ft. 4-wt fly rod. That afternoon, the fly rod action I had with big bluegill had been so intense it was a religious experience.

So the next day, the three of us arrived at this pond geared for boat fishing - the best way to fish a pond this size. Donnie and Kahlilah launched first and rowed off in his small johnboat to work the deeper water along the face of the pond dam, both of them using ultralight spinning tackle with 1/32-oz. fliptail jigs. I launched my solo canoe and opted to stay in the shallows along the opposite shore. Two boats, two depth strategies, two equipment approaches. Somebody was bound to get lucky today.

Earlier, the pond owner had told Donnie to keep alive all the bass we caught - they'd be donated to an upcoming Kid's Fishing Day event sponsored by an outdoor equipment company. We were to put the bass into a screened cage the owner had installed along the pond's shoreline. To outfit me for this collection task, Donnie loaned me a floating trap door fish basket. Both our boats had one.

No sooner had we left the shore than the owner drove up, climbed out of his truck and reminded us to save all the bass we caught. I mentioned that with my lightweight fly tackle I would be catching bluegills mostly. Hearing this, he thought for a moment then asked me to keep any really big 'gills; he would add them to the bass so the kids could catch some bluegills, too. That idea sounded pretty cool.

His request was a bit perplexing, though. My first visit to his pond, all the bluegill I caught were as big or bigger than any I've ever seen my whole life. Which was wonderful, except today I had brought my ice chest and it was sitting in my canoe. When canoe fishing, I unhook the keepers and immediately throw them on ice; the intense cold keeps their meat fresh from pond to scaling board to skillet. I knew from experience that after a bluegill spends even a short time on ice, it either dies or falls into deep shock and cannot be revived. Once inside the ice chest, they're pretty much history.

But this pond owner had promoted me to Traffic Cop Panfisher. I was instructed to send all Huge bluegills to Ice Chest Parking, but any Bass and Humongous bluegills who showed up were to be waived into Fish Cage Parking. Sorting each bluegill I landed was going to be a distraction, I knew. But as fishing distractions go, it sure beats swatting mosquitoes.

Moving away from shore, I paddled west toward the pond's primary feeder creek when it dawned on me that I was zipping past a stand of cattails bordered by 4-ft. deep water. Damselfly Territory. Best hit this place first. On my second cast, thrown parallel to the cat'line edge, a juvenile bass snatched my flashback Hare's Ear nymph. His next hangout became the interior of my floating fish basket, and thank you very much!

Water quality in this pond is good, and today the water clarity was excellent thanks to two days of light wind holding down the shoreline wave breaks. Studying a flat adjacent to these cattails, I could faintly make out the pond bottom in water maybe 3 feet deep. Question: were any bluegill there, or had they already drifted to deeper water what with the late morning sun now arcing high in the sky? Answer: Some were still shallow, as my nymph discovered when I began fan casting it across the flat. But I rang up only three keeper 'gills before the flat played out and I had to move on.

Approaching a shoreline point formed by the confluence of two feeder creeks, I was uncertain how to proceed. Both creek coves looked good, but I remembered from my first trip here that both were fairly shallow. The flat I'd just left hadn't produced many fish, so maybe these coves wouldn't, either. Should I double back to the pond's main body and try to mimic what Donnie and Khalilah were doing, by working a weighted nymph slow and deep?

Just then a few feet out from the point, two surface swirls appeared beside a tiny half-submerged grassy island. I eased in closer and my polarized lenses let me see from a discreet distance that this point was very shallow water indeed, 2 feet deep max. It seemed too late in the morning for fish with size to be loitering in such clear shallows, due to the risk of predation from above? But something was active here, something hungry, a small bass or bluegill likely. Perhaps it would agree to taste-testing my #10 Hare's Ear?

Splat, TWITCH, fish on! In came a Huge, which after being unhooked found itself tucked in for a little ice cube nap. Back into the same spot I went with another cast, and another 'gill immediately pounced on my nymph. Then another, then another: I began getting a strike and landing a fish with almost every cast, in an area of water about the size of a pickup truck's shadow.

Roughly every third 'gill was a paid-up member of the Humongous Club, and those I put into the fish basket. One of these monsters put up an extraordinary fight. I've never had a bluegill battle hard every inch of the way across 25 feet of water then swim past my boat 15 more feet toward deeper water, forcing me give line, all without once coming close enough to the surface to show itself. Until the very end I'd have bet cash money it was a bass or channel cat. The Kid's Day tykes who hang a worm in front of this 'gill better have 6 lb. test line or they'll be running to Mommy with stinky shorts and tears in their eyes.

In no time at all, twelve more Huge category 'gills were snoozing in my ice chest. Then I took a juvenile bass out of the hot spot, and this finally snapped me out of my bluegill trance. I clipped off the Hare's Ear and tied on a chartreuse and white Clouser's minnow.

Being new to fly fishing, over the winter I'd studied Rick Zeiger's FAOL stories and learned that Clousers are real good for crappie and bass. I had not yet tried a Clouser on bass, because I don't fish for bass anymore. But today I would take a crack at 'em due to the pond owner's request. With enough bluegill on ice for a family meal, it was time for some big game fly fishing. It seemed fitting that my first venture into this new area was going to happen at this wonderful pond.

I left the point and began moving parallel to shore, inching my canoe into the smaller of the two coves, attracted there by earlier distant swirling noises generated by what sounded like a big fish. On my second cast to the weedline, I was watching with fascination as the Clouser swam toward me through clear water when it…disappeared. I felt resistance, and in a minute or so I boated a nice juvenile bass about 14-inches long. A few casts later, the Clouser was swimming back to my canoe again, out of sight in slightly deeper water, when something attacked it with such violence that it broke my 4X leader.

This month-old tapered leader had been living on borrowed time anyway. But instead of putting on a fresh leader, I left the old one on and tied the replacement Clouser directly to its broken end. My leader was now only 4 feet long, but I guessed the line strength at its "new" terminal end to be at least 12 lb. test. Store bought Clousers aren't cheap, I didn't want to lose another one, and if bigger fish were hitting it I needed a much stronger tippet.

Unfortunately, no more heavy bass grabbed my second Clouser, but lots of smaller ones sure did. And not just bass, either; two Humongous 'gills did not simply mouth the Clouser to move it out of their spawning bed. No, they took it deep in the mouth, obviously thinking it to be a desirable food item.

We left the pond around 2 p.m. after putting 22 juvenile bass and 6 Humongous bluegills into the owner's fish cage. The rest of our catch was Huge bluegills that we kept for meal purposes. The exception was a marvelous white crappie Donnie caught that looked to be in the 2-lb. range - one of those sea monster slabs that keep people awake the night before a spawning season trip, wondering if they'll catch one just like it.

This trip marked the second time that Donnie personally witnessed me having steady action using fly tackle. He's never fly fished before, despite having at home in his stash of fishing rigs a decent 8-ft. graphite fly rod he bought someplace years ago on a whim.

Two days after this trip, Donnie and Khalilah and I drove 30 miles to a fly tackle shop where he got himself pretty well geared for an initial leap into the Great Midwest Mystery called fly fishing. With the advantage of a stable little johnboat to operate from, plus an outstanding farm pond in which to learn casting techniques and presentation tactics while catching fish, it won't be long before Donnie's as lethal with a fly rod as he is with everything else he uses. That guy can catch fish out of a bathtub. ~ Joe riverat@sunflower.com

About Joe:

From Lawrence, 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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