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
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
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
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