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What Shouldn't Have Happened, Did

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas
Mid-September, 2004. It's my day off, so I slept in a little later than usual but luckily awoke just before sunrise. All week at work, I'd been curious what the conditions were like at a flooded lake that I'd fished two weeks earlier. Time to go back and check it out.

First place I went to was a lake arm that I've caught lots of fish out of, but I didn't fish it two weeks ago because it was blanketed with an absolutely impenetrable layer of floating debris. Today, though, it looked normal. No, it looked better than normal, given how this lake arm usually looks at this time of year. That 6-inch rainstorm had sent a torrent of runoff blasting down this arm's feeder creek. That current had knocked down the dense carpet of aquatic vegetation that from mid-July on seals the surface shut across an area the size of six football fields. This arm was now open again; I could cast almost anywhere I wanted to. Yippee!

Creature of habit that I am, after launching my canoe I paddled straight for the spots where I'd had success during springtime trips. Anchoring at the first one, I outfitted my leader with a #10 Hare's Ear nymph/#18 black gnat tandem rig. This morning I would go with proven winners, all the way around. I proceeded to fish these spots thoroughly, one by one. Two hours later, I had caught exactly two borderline keeper 'gills - a bizarre outcome given the water clarity.

To make matters worse, a stiff breeze kicked up. It blew hard enough that accurate casting became impossible, and I kept losing control of my slow retrieves. I decided to abandon the arm and check another arm about a mile away. Paddling back to where my truck was parked, I finally reached the arm's upwind end. Here, because of surrounding hills and tall trees, very little wind was blowing and the lake surface was glassy smooth. A pretty sight but the water is only a foot deep.

I glanced at the north side of the arm, where the feeder creek channel comes in. The flood had stripped the channel clean of its former vegetation cover. Without aquatic growth providing cover, no bluegills would be holding over there. I kept paddling toward my truck.

Fifty feet from shore, a thought occurred to me: "They weren't hitting in the places with good cover and depth, where they normally hang out. Maybe they're hitting in areas with no cover, in places they would not ordinarily be."

Hmmm...theoretically possible, but I dismissed it: "No, that's stupid; and they won't be in that channel, it's too shallow. Let's get out of here." But then I thought: "Why not go over there? You're here, you can reach it easy by canoe, and it's not very far away. Why not give it a couple of casts?" I gave this idea a few more paddle strokes worth of consideration, then grudgingly caved in: "Okay, okay, but just a couple of casts."

(I seem to be having conversations like this with myself a lot since I took up fly fishing.)

I steered left, and to reach the channel bend where the deeper water was I had to ease my canoe across a mudflat delta through water only inches deep. Reaching the edge of the 15-ft. wide creek channel, I was heartened somewhat to see that it was still in deep shade thanks to the adjacent trees. But aside from that habitat advantage, this channel looked about as fishy as a shopping mall fire lane. A shaft of sunlight illuminated a tiny patch of water in front of me, revealing a baby bluegill swimming aimlessly. My #18 black gnat's hook would be a tight fit, but only if he held his mouth right.

I almost cast to him, but across the way a rotted blowdown lay slumped in the channel. Just a couple small branches were visible underwater. All right, let's get this over with...

My tandem rig double-dimpled the surface above the old tree's submerged branches and didn't travel two feet before suffering a violent strike. In came a very irritated 7-inch bull 'gill that had chosen a Hare's Ear nymph for brunch. Well, hello! I removed the hook from his jaw, booked him a room at the Ice Cube Motel, then whipped another cast into the blowdown. Boom! Another 'gill almost the same size. Alternating my casts away from the blowdown then back to it, away then back, I caught six keeper 'gills from that one small spot before it played out.

Fifty feet downstream from this blowdown, the feeder channel curves sharply and here it also deepens slightly. Still, the depth couldn't be but three feet, max. But hey, the 'gillies were hitting in just a foot and a half of water back at that blowdown, so maybe there's some in this slightly deeper water, too? It seemed unlikely; the channel bottom everywhere I could see was clean as a whistle and looked incapable of supporting the former spectrum of insect life.

Next time I need to stick my head underwater and look, because the 'gills were in here, too, and boy were they tickled to see my tandem rig. I boated another four or five keepers, including a half-pound red ear that showed just how stubborn a panfish can be when fighting inside a restricted space.

As it got along toward noon the action began fading and I decided once again to quit the arm (but with a happier mood). After lifting anchors and pivoting the canoe toward my truck, I looked way back up the creek channel to where a county road bridge crosses it. I knew that a nice hole lays just below this bridge, but I'd never tried it because the channel is guarded by tall shrubs on both banks.

Out of curiosity more than anything, I paddled up the creek toward a shallow riffle that separated me from the hole. As luck would have it, there was barely enough depth that by pushing on my main paddle with one hand and my backup paddle with the other hand, in the fashion of a cross country skier I scraped through the riffle.

At the downstream end of the hole the bottom angled away out of sight, the water becoming a dark blue-green that reminded me of holes you see in Missouri Ozark streams? Very pretty water. I carefully sent a cast to the far side of the hole, where the water looked a couple of feet deep over some rocks. A keeper 'gill grabbed my gnat trailer. With no further hits there, I began working the deep water at the hole's center. No luck.

The underside of the bridge spans the hole's biggest area. The span forms an opening about 6 feet tall and 30 feet wide. The only way to fish this part of the hole would be to come forward 20 feet, anchor my boat hard against the left bank and shoot sidearm casts back underneath the bridge (this would keep my backcasts safely in the channel's open center behind me). This was going to be something a little bit different.

I'm real fussy about my flies collecting stray vegetation during the retrieve, so I was worried about the accumulation of floating leaves under the bridge. No other area was left to cast to, though. So holding my breath, I side-armed my tandem rig into the deeply shaded water under the bridge. Ka-boom! A big bluegill hammered my Hare's Ear nymph almost the instant it touched the water. Adding him to the ice chest, I began working the hole from one bridge abutment to the other, back and forth, and succeeded in boating another four or five good keepers.

Turned out the floating leaves were no hindrance. Apparently they were new-fallen leaves, stiff enough they tipped over if my flies landed on them. And the times when my cast would lay the leader across one, if I made my retrieve superslow then the leaf would drift along naturally while holding my flies at a shallower depth, thereby functioning like an extremely sensitive strike indicator. That was pretty cool.

I left the lake with 18 keepers, which two hours later converted to 36 boneless bluegill fillets inside a 1-qt. Ziploc bag with some lemon juice. Putting this bag on ice, I took it to band practice later that afternoon along with my river trip cook kit. This, in hopes that after band practice was over our lead guitarist, Dalton, would again want to visit our buddy Mike again, like we'd done the week before. If we did, I would deep fry those fillets and we'd snack on them while sipping beer in Mike's garage.

But wouldn't you know it: after band practice Dalton wanted to go grab a beer at a local bar and grill instead? Guess he's not yet heard the music that's created by a skillet full of sizzling bluegill fillets. ~ 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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