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The Floating Casino

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

It was the kind of light rain you don't mind fishing in, even getting soaked by if it comes to that. No lightning, no high wind, no threat. And on the lake there were no big waves, and the air was cool because the sun was covered by clouds.

We've needed a break from strong sunshine; from mid-July to late August the heat and humidity in northeast Kansas has been oppressive to the point it killed any desire I had to fish. When overnight lows are in the 80s you don't even want to fish in the early morning hours because once that golden orb pops above the east horizon you know the pain will come quick, fast and in a hurry.

But not today; September has finally arrived and so far this seems like a "normal" September. I was back in my canoe again, out on a lake again, paddling through an intermittent light rain toward a fishing spot with expectations of success again. After nearly six weeks away it felt a bit strange to go fishing. Strange but very good. Cloudy sky let your raindrops fall and keep 'em comin'.

Four months ago at this lake I made a discovery, one I would try to exploit today. The discovery I refer to is the floating, solar-powered automatic fish feeders that you see anchored at many Kansas Wildlife and Parks-operated fishing lakes.

It was an accidental discovery. I was fishing in the general vicinity of one of these feeders and had caught and released a few bluegills along the cove's brushy periphery. While doing this I kept hearing sporadic splashing, fish noises coming from the general direction of a feeder that was anchored in the middle of the lake cove.

I was not alone on the lake that day. A number of bass boats had fished the cove and done so in a thorough, systematic manner - thorough, that is, until they reached the shallower water where I was fly rodding, at which point they sheered away back into the depths, in the process bypassing the automatic feeder. This I found curious, their dismissal of the feeder. Perhaps the feeders aren't working, or are empty of food pellets? Or maybe the species that get attracted to fish feeders are ones the bassboat crowd isn't interested in.

So as the swirls continued that day, I developed a theory that it was panfish making the racket, and the reason why the bassboat boys weren't homing in on that sound, and the feeder, is that they've been here before and they know that bass aren't making that sound, and the bassboaters who come to this lake care only about catching bass and they don't want to be bothered with bluegills, or with channel catfish (if that is the predominate species attracted to the feeders).

I'd never fished around a fish feeder before. I admit here to having maintained a certain reservation about fishing around automatic fish feeders. The idea of doing it has always struck me as akin to fishing in a small pond packed with hungry stocker trout which have nothing else to eat but what you throw to them. Which seems, well, damn unsporting - there, I said it.

But this fish feeder anchored in the cove I was in, it was not serving a small pond full of stocker trout but a 200-acre lake in Kansas. And nobody seemed to care about these swirling sounds emanating from the vicinity of this fish feeder. I therefore concluded that if bluegills are the species raising all this fuss and nobody around here cares about fishing for bluegills for fun and food...well, by God...I DO!

What followed that day will stick in my mind a long time. I eased in and double-anchored 25 feet south of that automatic feeder and threw a small yellow popper into an area of water just outside the floating PVC pipe ring that circles the feed hopper. Almost instantly my popper took a sledgehammer hit from a dark colored wide-body bluegill some 9 inches long. Then for the next five hours - repeat, five hours - the 'gills just would not stop. My popper wasn't a fly, it was a canvas mail sack hung from a train depot pole and the midnight express was flying by with a grab arm and snatching it in a blur of movement. The big 'gills were hitting so violently and pulling so hard after the hits that I heard myself giving involuntary, instinctive grunts at each new jolting impact. Hits like these, you honestly fear losing your grip and having the rod jerked overboard.

That morning, wouldn't you know, I'd gone brain dead and hadn't brought an ice chest in which to keep fish cold and fresh both in the boat and during the drive home. But that day at the feeder was an education, a real eye-opener of catch-and-release frenzy. Not the least reason being that in the months that have elapsed since then I've yet to see another boat come deliberately close to one of these automatic feeders.

It was not at that fish feeder but a different one anchored on another cove on this same lake that I was paddling toward now. I was coming back to it again because last Saturday my date, Gayle, sitting in the bow seat of my tandem canoe, had nailed four or five very big 'gills using ultralight spinning tackle and a 1/16-oz. Panther Martin spinner. Once I saw Gayle's luck with the spinner I figured the fish were hungry for large prey items, and I tied on a long-shanked orange and black centipede imitator with long, wiggly rubber legs. A few casts later, between the two of us we caught enough fish for a lakeshore supper of boneless bluegill fillets.

It was sprinkling last Saturday with Gayle, just like it was sprinkling this Saturday without her. But unlike the weekend before, today the fish were sluggish. Throwing the same centipede imitator as before, I fished the feeder and its vicinity for nearly an hour before connecting with a keeper 'gill. Not long after this there came a crunching strike from something much stronger, a fish that stayed down and fought stubbornly. This fish ran and was on the reel in no time flat. My guess was channel cat, and that's what it was, one that weighed about two pounds. Onto my stringer he went. The bluegill I'd put on the stringer minutes earlier was doubtless unhappy to be keeping such intimate company with his mortal enemy the channel cat.

After re-anchoring my canoe slightly, I threw to the north side of the feeder and the centipede while sinking took a hard hit from a big, greenish colored fish that swirled just under the surface when it felt the hook. This fish went down but came toward me, and not in the crash dive manner exhibited by the channel cat. I pointed my Sage 00-wt. rod almost directly at the fish as it tried to pass and within seconds turned to the surface, led alongside and lipped a 15-inch largemouth bass (a legal keeper at this lake).

My comeuppance is surely close at hand, I realize this, but I've had surprising luck whipping large mouths with my new 00-wt. Sage, a rod you wouldn't suspect capable of such combat. This fat 15-inch LMB was hooked, whipped and released in less than 30 seconds. It never jumped. Actually, apart from the natural excitement of fighting a fish having its length and body weight I've had more exciting fights with big bluegills and redears. Nothing against bass, mind you; maybe this one was just under the weather today, not his ordinary feisty self. He's back in the lake, so maybe I'll feel the hurt he can dish out next time I visit that feeder.

Across the lake in another cove were my friends Donnie and Khalila. They were shoreline fishing in the vicinity of another automatic feeder. I paddled over and donated my fish to them, as I had a band gig to play that evening and didn't have time to clean and cook my six big 'gills and the channel cat. Donnie, as it happened, had hooked a number of nice fish but each one had come off his hook during the retrieve. He was a little upset about it. So he was glad to get my fish. I enjoy giving fish to people, in his case especially because the day will come when I don't score but will eat well that evening thanks to Donnie and Khalila's good luck and their generosity. ~ Joe

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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