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Graduation Day

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas
Sunday, May 16th: High School Graduation Day for my youngest son, Eric. The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. The day before, I got to thinking: Why not get up before sunrise Sunday morning, hit a local lake for a few hours of fly rodding before the wind picks up, then come home and (hopefully) clean some fish, and THEN go to the graduation ceremony? Made perfect sense to me!

I had no way of knowing at the time, but May 16th would be Graduation Day for me, too.

My pickup rolled over the gravel driveway into a picnic area that sits twenty feet from the lakeshore, and I couldn't believe my eyes. Nobody was there. All around me, all above me was a laboratory specimen beautiful mid-May Kansas morning, 60 degrees with light wind, partly cloudy sun-glowed dawn sky, great-looking water...and nobody but me was here. Sometimes an adjustment period of seven nanoseconds is required before I feel completely comfortable having a large body of water all to myself. Not today: I instantly became happy and relaxed.

During an earlier trip to this lake arm, I employed my canoe and a portable fish finder to scout for submerged creek channels, drop-offs and other things of fisherman-type interest. In the limited area I'd searched, one interesting spot I'd found was a lakebed hole roughly the size of two parking lot stalls laid end-to-end. Lying close against the shore, this may once have been a channel bend scour hole on the original feeder creek. Whatever created it, the hole gave fish a 7-ft. deep loitering area to harbor in between feeding forays into the adjacent 4-ft. deep weedy flat.

The day I'd found this hole a month earlier, my sonar had detected many fish suspended at mid-depth. Of course, the fact that my sonar spotted them meant I had paddled directly over them. Sonar is great for locating fish, and supposedly the ultrasonic beam doesn't spook fish, but I always worry that even a canoe passing silently overhead will cast a shadow into the water that triggers panic amongst the residents below.

Not wishing to test this theory Sunday morning, I quietly anchored at the edge of the hole once my sonar revealed the drop-off break. Even if I suspect that fish are near and eager to bite, I never know if they're holding in deep water or shallow water. So I tried having it both ways, by throwing a #10 Hare's Ear nymph across the hole into the lakeshore shallows. The object being, work the nymph out of the shallows fairly quickly, then slow my retrieve and let it settle into the 7-ft. water.

My tactic's only flaw is that it didn't produce. If any fish were suspended in this hole now, they weren't interested in eating a poor, lost insect nymph.

At the far end of the hole, an overhanging tree sends half its branches down into the lake. For fish, this creates a great spot to pounce on crawling bugs that lose their grip and fall into the water. For me, the tree created an opportunity to mimic that bug fall - if I could avoid hanging my cast in those tree branches above and below the lake surface.

Tentatively probing a ten-foot wide band of water around the branches, I fooled a couple of good bluegill and one black crappie before the action died and I had to move on. As I eased my canoe over the length of the hole, my sonar detected no suspended groups like before, just one large fish lying barely above the bottom. Probably a channel cat sleeping off a bellyful of crappie eggs.

Before lifting anchor, my plan had been to give this hole a quick sonar look before turning 45 degrees to starboard and paddling out into the arm's middle zone. But near the end of the hole, up ahead I spotted a C-shaped pocket of weed-free shoreline. "Weed-free" is the operative word, because the shoreline here was generally heavy with algae, and to my immediate right the open water's fishable depth had been shrunk to maybe one foot by rising aquatic growth - foxtail, I think it's called?

So I decided to give this open pocket a brief try before committing to the lake's main arm. Something about that grassy shoreline fringe was calling to me. I anchored 30 feet away, my sonar showing the bottom at 4 feet down and relatively clear of vegetation.

Into the pocket went my trusty Hare's Ear nymph. Splat, and bingo! Fish on! A good one, too, from the struggle it put up. I unhooked the bull bluegill and eased it into my ice chest for a little flavor-preserving siesta. Then back into the pocket I went with another cast. Splat, bingo, fish on!

This continued for maybe 45 minutes before it occurred to me that I'd lost track of how many fish I'd put in my cooler. It had to be a fair number, and I needed to clean those fish before getting ready for Eric's graduation. So I decided to call it a day - and it was only 7:15 a.m.

The long throws and roll casts I was using to reach this spot meant that any bluegill that grabbed my nymph could put up a terrific fight. The distance between us gave each 'gill the dual advantage of lateral maneuvering room plus time. Many found a submerged weed tower and wrapped around it or dove headlong into it. Each time this happened I was grateful that my tapered leader had a 6-lb. test tippet. Anything lighter and some of those 'gills would have broken off.

A concentration of red hot action like this could mean but one thing: I'd stumbled onto a bluegill spawning bed. The last time I'd done so was near 40 years ago, in a private church lake. Back then I didn't appreciate bluegill spawning beds; too me, bluegills were nuisance fish that interfered with catching largemouth bass. The more large bluegill there were around, the worse the nuisance. Convinced I was doing the world a gigantic favor, back in those days every time I unhooked a bluegill, no matter its size I would fling it hard over my shoulder to suffocate up on the bank.

It wasn't until my early 40s that I first read (or paid attention to) magazine articles about how bluegills are extremely good eating. Those stories persuaded me to re-examine my prejudice, after which I abandoned it. Well, you know how Murphy's Law works: once I tried catching bluegills on purpose, I couldn't get them to hit anymore. This frustration went on for years, proving that there's no justice quite as horrible as poetic justice.

Now here I was, once again catching large bluegills one after another from a spawning bed. I must say that despite the thrill of this non-stop action, I began feeling a bit guilty at how easy it was. Even more than guilty: "future greed" came into play as I found myself releasing the biggest bluegill, a 10-incher.

So truth be told, there were three reasons I stopped fishing as early as I did:

    1) I needed time to clean the fish I'd caught;

    2) nowadays I'm satisfied bringing home only eight or ten keepers per trip;

    3) I don't want to over-harvest the gene pool superstars, because I want to be catching intermediate-size 'gills in this lake for years to come.

It felt great, though, to again be ripping into a hotbed of good-size bluegills. And especially to be doing it with fly tackle. I think I've made a commitment now both to panfish and fly rodding, and I'm happy with that. No doubt this is an indication that I'm a natural born action junkie when it comes to fishing.

Ignorance and prejudice put 40 years between my bluegill spawning beds. Since graduating from that place to where I now fully recognize the value of bluegills as quality game fish, I've benefited from the assistance given me by many fine people who make and sell fly rods and equipment, who tie the wonderful flies I use, and who write such good panfishing stories.

Eric received his high school diploma that afternoon wearing the traditional mortar board headgear. Parked above my head all too often is something more akin to a 2x10 pine board. But at least where fishing is concerned, maybe I'm not banging my head against it quite so hard anymore. ~ 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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