Welcome to Warmwater Fishing!

Releasing Tomorrow's Lunkers Today
By Joe Hyde, Baldwin City, KS

Trying to get myself back into a fishing groove, I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. two days in a row in hopes of ripping into some panfish at a local lake.

Saturday morning I was the first person on the water at one of the lake's main arms. Strangely, there wasn't much surface feeding activity in evidence. Looking back at it now, I should have paid attention to that clue; instead, I impulsively tied on the last of my Yager's Flies poppers and tried forcing the action at the surface.

As I began working the edges of floating weed beds, a thought crossed my mind that the success and great fun I'd had the weekend before using a Yager's popping bug might have hooked me on surface fishing. And what might that portend? If a tiny popper is what I'm throwing today in the face of physical clues indicating that it probably won't produce any fish (instead of using a Hare's Ear nymph fished deep, which probably would) then maybe tomorrow I'll be throwing - gak! - a conventional dry fly?

I guess I'm just one of those "inertia fishermen:" a fly that catches fish for me is a fly I'll keep using until I'm utterly convinced that a change is needed. And it can take a lot of failure to make me change flies.

At any rate, the 'gills Saturday morning were only mildly enthused by the popper. I'm not sure it was the popper's fault, though. On three separate occasions I briefly spotted the massive dorsal fin of some kind of large fish that was slowly prowling the weed beds I was fishing. All I could glimpse was a huge fin connected to a seriously large fish. Not a carp; this water was far too deep for carp. It may have been a very big flathead catfish - definitely a super predator of panfish. If so, the presence of such a dangerous hunter (or a number of them if a school was hunting the weeds) was reason enough for every bluegill in the area to retreat deep within the weed bed mass where they could spend the morning checking their mascara.

A few 'gills did take my popper, though, but the fish were running very small. Then my popper took a soft, quiet, swirling hit from what I took for granted was another dinky bluegill. It even felt like a dinky 'gill at first, until suddenly my rod got yanked down so hard and quick that I was unable to relax my pinch hold on the line. Before I knew it the leader parted and…hasta la vista, Yager's popper.

Searching the box with trembling hands for a "surface type" to tie on next, I settled on a black foam spider and began giving it the old heave-ho. My reflexes were now on Red Alert after being sucker punched by yet another Big One That Got Away. A few minutes later, my spider suffered a vicious hit an instant after touchdown and the floating line began rushing away from me. My mind flashed "big fish!" and I yanked back hard on my 3-wt. rod. From out of the lake, flying my direction on a low trajectory course, came a bluegill no more than 3 inches long.

I ducked as the fish zipped past my head and splashed into the lake 15 feet behind me. As I began pulling in slack line, I noticed that my violent strike and resulting "air retrieve" had formed a nasty wind knot - and not in my leader, either, but the floating line. Undoing this knot involved backing first my first line then the leader and finally the tiny fish itself through the granny knot loop, which meant I had to pull this micro-'gill into the canoe hand-over-hand. This bit of drama would have made ESPN's daily sports highlight if anyone had filmed it.

I eventually gave up on the surface fly idea and switched back to my trusty nymph, with the idea that working the depths would produce some fish. It did, but not very many. Popper, spider, nymph…not much was happening this morning. Catch-and-release fishing is what I was doing, so after three hours of not catching very much I released myself and went home.

Next day, I returned to the same lake but a different lake arm and tried an area of standing brush that has served me well. This is shallower water than where I fished Saturday, probably 3 ft. shallower, in fact. I paddled to various patches of open water within the huge area of weed cover, and one after another anchored nearby and worked each patch using a new Yager's popper (I'd purchased replacements the day before after completing that morning trip). But there was not much action on the popper again.

I switched to a foam spider. Not much luck with it, either. So I abandoned my surface quest for a second straight day and went with a tandem rig - a Rick Zieger-tied #12 pheasant tail nymph up front with a black #20 midge trailer. Still not much action, except for one very small pocket of water where I hooked probably 15 small gills plus one big fish that took me into weeds and broke me off. But that little hot spot soon bottle-rocketed into oblivion and I was back to catching one fish about every 20 minutes.

By now I was getting thoroughly confused as to what the 'gills wanted. Whatever it was, I sure wasn't providing it. The frustrating thing was that fish of some sort were surfacing all around fairly regularly, eagerly attacking some type of prey item.

I'd been watching various fishing boats come into the lake arm; boats whose occupants would bass fish for a short while and then leave. Suddenly it dawned on me that one of them, which I thought was a small boat, was actually a float tube fisherman and the guy was a fly fisherman to boot!

An hour or so later we finally came close enough that we could commence visiting without shouting across the water. The guy told me that he'd caught some nice sized 'gills down at the tail end of the weeds and shrubs, where the water drops off into the deeper part of the arm. I'd been watching him for a long time as he slowly worked into shallower water, and had seen that he wasn't doing any better than me once he got into the same water. That is to say, the fish were politely handing us our hats and telling us it's okay we leave whenever.

The tube float fisherman turned out to be Dave Hildebrand of Lawrence, KS. Recently of Lawrence, I should say; he's formerly from Rapid City, South Dakota, and also from Wyoming before that. A slow morning spent fly rodding this pretty but slow-action Midwest lake had put Dave in the mood to rhapsodize about the beautiful trout streams he used to fish back in his former states of residence. He sounded like one homesick fisherman, and who could blame him? Not me, when I'd been fishing one of my home state's better panfish lakes for four hard hours and caught only two 'gills 6-inches long.

I told Dave that I've been planning a trout fishing/camping trip in the Medicine Bow National Forest west of Laramie. So it was cool meeting another fly fisher on this lake, but even cooler to meet one who's actually lived in Wyoming and caught lots of trout there. Dave put me in the mood to immediately leave for Wyoming last week.

Maybe in these dog days of summer, even Kansas panfish need to take a little vacation from the habitual things they do that result in them getting caught by eager fly fishers. Just like we Midwestern fly fishers who chase after those panfish, sometimes we need a little vacation from the things we do.

I've only seen pictures of the river I'll be going to up in Wyoming. A woman in one of the photos (my girlfriend, Janet) is standing in the middle of a wide stream holding a rainbow trout she just caught, and it's about 18-inches long. I will try not to obsess on that image, and stay focused on fooling some great-tasting 8-inch fry pan trout that Janet says live in the river in large numbers.

And the stars. I can't wait to camp out near that river and stay up late at night visiting quietly in the cool, higher elevation clear night air, counting satellites that pass overhead by picking them out from a brilliant background of stars. ~ Joe

About Joe:

From Baldwin City, 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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