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Lighten up, dude!

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas
Since making a strong move last fall into the sport of fly fishing, just one thing has made me consider quitting the fly rod and switching back to spinning tackle. What's that one thing? Losing crappie, that's what.

In decades of using spinning tackle to throw jigs, spinners, or jig and minnow rigs, I never had serious problems landing hooked crappies. So after going into action this spring with my new 9-foot 4-wt. fly rod as my one and only fishing tool, I was at first surprised then mystified and finally alarmed at how frequently hooked crappie were getting loose before I could net them or lip them.

Whatever was going wrong, it sure wasn't the flies. The hooks on my #12 and #10 Hare's Ear nymphs were clean and sharp, which in my mind ruled out incomplete hook penetration as the cause. Crappies definitely like those nymphs; I was getting lots of takers. Indeed, the eagerness they displayed in attacking this pattern made me determined to stick with fly rodding despite the ongoing loss of quality fish.

Still, the disappointment was getting to me bad. I tried being philosophical about it because, you know, everyone who picks up a fishing pole is going to have fish get away; losing fish at the last second is just part of the sport. But this was different. I appeared to be doing everything right - fly selection, quiet approach, accurate casts into fish-holding water, correct presentation, gentle hook set - yet on many outings, four out of every five crappie I hooked got loose just as I was about to lay a mint on their pillow.

Maybe the only saving grace in suffering a prolonged spell of bad luck is that you get lots of opportunities to watch things go haywire. Not that you're in any mood to appreciate it. But given enough repetitions, sometimes you can mentally isolate and identify that one troublesome piece of the puzzle.

I knew that one component of the problem was the shallow, weedy, brushy habitats I was working. My concerns about fish diving into this cover and breaking off made me aggressively haul back on my rod after a gentle hook set; I wanted to rapidly separate the fish from cover before it had time to get entangled.

Another component: I mostly fish out of a canoe, so my strikes and hookups took place at close range - usually inside twenty feet. Out of years of habit, I hold a rod tip high in the sky when I'm fighting fish. With a 9-foot fly rod this created a very steep pull angle that brought crappies to the surface almost immediately after hookup. Each fish was "green" - full tank of gas, tires aired up, ready to rock and roll.

Crappies, though, are not exactly famous for their rod-shattering fighting ability. This was the chink in their armor that I hoped to take advantage of by pulling them to the top so fast. But this spring, crappies began showing me an escape trick so cute it would have made Harry Houdini proud.

After hookup, I would pull the crappie directly to the surface to keep it away from cover. Whereupon it would roll onto one side and pretty much just wallow there passively. Over and over again, that puny response suckered me into thinking the fish was already beaten, and I'd better get it to the boat quickly before it recovers and dives into cover. I would begin strip-skidding the fish toward me with its head held up out of the water. Of course, at two or three points along the way I had to stop pulling long enough to reach up and grab another bite of line prior to the next strip-pull, right? Feeling the brief relaxation in line pressure, the fish would give a lightning-quick wiggle of its head. That one little wiggle made hardly a splash, but it was enough to eject my nymph and quick as a hiccup another crappie was gone.

These crappies were geniuses; I seemed powerless to counter their escape move. Granted, I was always excited and in a big hurry to boat each fish. Am I supposed to not be excited when my nymph is taking hit after hit from a species of fish that I dearly love to eat? Hey, if things ever get to where I'm hooking crappie after crappie and it doesn't excite me, it's time to quit. So I had to figure out a way to keep being happy and excited but still catch these fish.

Well, truth is I figured out what needed to be done a good two months before I made the correction. Two months being the period of time it took me to save up enough money to buy...another new fly rod. My newest rod is a 3-wt. 9-footer.

I've never mail-ordered a fishing rod and never will. Every rod I've bought, I based the selection on that magical combination of length and stiffness and how it felt in my hand. The various rods I own, each enables a different fishing style and I already knew how I wanted that rod to feel before I went looking for it.

But I had a devil of a time selecting this second new fly rod. The problem was that standing on the salesroom floor waving it around, the action of the 3-wt. felt dramatically softer and slower than my 4-wt. Same manufacturer, same model rod, but the 3-wt. felt way slower and softer. Was it too soft, to where I'd lose fish because of that?

Looking back at my decision to go 3-wt., here I think is where I fully committed to fly rodding for panfish. Two months earlier I'd purchased a 4-wt. rod because, although it was plenty supple, it still had that feel of stiffness I knew was necessary to consistently defeat the occasional big channel catfish or largemouth bass. Something inside me just could not let go of that big-fish option.

But once I began using that 4-wt. rod I began losing crappies left and right. Why did that happen? I think it's because the 4-wt. had enough stiffness that it let me pull crappies to the surface a little bit too fast. Then once the fish was wallowing on the surface at close range, the 4-wt. was not quite soft enough to dampen the hook-throwing flick imparted by that quick little head wiggle.

I couldn't very well change my fundamental fishing tactics, so what I needed to do was make some sort of equipment change that would slow down the sequence of events following hookup. If finally came down to a simple choice:

    A) Keep losing all those wonderful crappie by using a fly rod that is stiff enough to defeat the occasional big catfish and bass, or;

    B) Begin catching lots of crappies by using a softer fly rod that reduces the odds I'll defeat that occasional big catfish and bass.

Seeing as how I already own a half dozen spinning and baitcast rigs stout enough to battle big catfish and bass if I get that itch, I decided the only thing to do was bite the bullet AGAIN and seriously specialize my fly tackle for small panfish. Catch those great tasting 6-inch bluegills and 7-to-11 inch crappie. And the fact is, panfish in that size range were my bread and butter targets from the very beginning.

So it wasn't the 4-wt. rod's fault that half my panfish quarry was swimming off with a smirk. It was my fault, caused by inexperience at fly fishing. I did not select the correct rod the first time around, not for the job I had in mind.

And what happened to the 4-wt. rod I bought in March after I got a 3-wt. in May? Well, about that same time my buddy Donnie decided he'd try fly fishing (after watching me land 'gill after 'gill in a farm pond he took me to). I was pretty excited that he wanted to give fly fishing a try, and I thought he might have better luck if he started out with a 9-foot 4-wt. rod instead of his (unused) 8-ft. 5/6 wt. rod that was collecting dust in his garage. I gave him my virtually new 4-wt. so he could light that fire with the first match.

I wasn't trying to saddle Donnie with my own bad luck. Far from it; once he starts going after panfish in earnest he will need more rod stiffness than a 3-wt. offers. Ever since we were kids he's had a knack for catching bigger fish than me. Whatever we go out after, I'm generally the one who catches more fish but smaller ones; he catches fewer fish but bigger ones. Funny, but it's always been that way. ~ Joe riverat@sunflower.com

Publisher's Note: There are a couple of options Joe could have tried (which he faithfully promises he will pass on to his friend Donnie). First, get the fish on the reel. A spinfisher wouldn't consider stripping the line in by hand - neither should the fly anglers. Second, pick up a FrogHair leader and a spool of their leader material. (If you aren't familar with it, see the Sponsor page!) It has some stretch to it, which helps prevent pulling out hooks - or breaking off leaders with 'fast' rods. ~ dlb

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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