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Welcome Wagon Wipers

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence KS

After two hard days that covered 1,500 miles of Interstate highway driving, I returned to Lawrence around midnight. It'd been almost five months since I last saw Lawrence; beginning the first week of May I'd been living in Boise, Idaho with my #1 son, Keith.

Among it's many attributes Idaho has the reputation of being one of America's finest states for fly angling. But for me Idaho was an almost total bust. Certainly that wasn't the state's fault. $4.00+ per gallon gasoline kept me from conducting much more than short-range forays to inspect a few fishing spots around Boise. Not owning a powerboat was another handicap; fuel costs prevented me from fishing two big south Idaho lakes that are well known for their excellent crappie fishery (Lake Lowell near Caldwell, and C.J. Strike near Mountain Home).

Besides, for most of the summer I was occupied doing park volunteer work for the Army Corps of Engineers at Lucky Peak Lake, located east of Boise.

And what about river fishing, you ask? I'll confess that long before I went swimming in the Lochsa River during the 2007 Idaho Fish-In, I've been intimidated by fast-moving rivers. And let me tell you, Idaho is loaded with fast-moving streams.

Unknown to me until I actually moved there, the Boise River (which flows through the state's capitol city bearing the same name) is one such fast stream. I didn't fish the Boise the whole time I was there. I boated it just once, using my open solo canoe, through the city's 9-mile Greenbelt Park section. The violent currents and big waves below those three irrigation diversion dams was enough to crush my ambition to drift fish for trout out of my canoe. One does not "slowly drift" the Boise River; the stream is more rocket ship than river.

There was one morning when I caught five rainbow trout out of Mores Creek, a tributary of Lucky Peak Lake. But even this modest feat came with a high fear factor: Mores Creek is fed by melt water from mountain snowpack. In late spring when the snow is melting fast Mores Creek runs fast - so fast that twice that morning while standing in shin-deep water my feet almost got kicked out from under me. By the following week the snowpack had apparently finished melting, as the creek dropped so low that trying for more trout in the same shallow spot seemed like a lost cause.

With these frustrations and restrictions I was increasingly antsy to get home and hit the northeast Kansas fishing spots I'm familiar with, where I don't need to drive 50 or more miles one way just to get there.

How happy was I to get back to Lawrence? For starters, I didn't even go straight home the night I arrived. Instead, I drove 12 miles out of town to one of my favorite spots on an old WPA/CCC lake that was built back in the 1930s. Just pulling up next to this lake, shutting down my engine and sitting there in the dark filled me with a sense of comfort and confidence that's hard to describe. I caught a few hours sleep lying on the reclined passenger seat of my truck, then awoke at daybreak to the sound of Canada geese honking. Fog was thick over the water and the low-angle rising sun made the lake look like one of those postcards mailed from Minnesota or Canada.

So many months had passed since I caught a bluegill, red ear sunfish or crappie that all I could think of now was how good it was going to feel simply casting into water where I knew panfish lived. On my feet was a pair of old, grubby running shoes but if they'd been red-jeweled high heels I'd have closed my eyes, clicked my heels together and said out loud, like Dorothy did, "There's no place like home."

Before tiptoeing to the water's edge, I rigged my 9-ft. 3-wt. St. Croix Avid. Looking through my fly box, I plucked off one of its foam strips a #10 nymph pattern that I've used a few times in the past with some success. It's a Hare's Ear pattern that is quite Old but extremely Reliable. This was no time to conduct esoteric pattern tests in the name of academic inquiry. There would be no tantalizing curve balls nicking the corners; no, I would go with my fastball right down the middle of the plate. Sic 'em, Old Reliable!

What happened next was a firestorm of action that burned white hot for two hours before it stopped. It was a type of action so unusual and unexpected that it's doubtful I'll ever see its likes again.

On my first throw Old Reliable got hit twice early in the retrieve, both times I missed the fish. Second cast, the nymph was grabbed on the drop and this time the fish was on. Yippee! It felt like a large bluegill or red ear sunfish, maybe even a largemouth bass, judging by the fish's power and stubborn fight. But the creature that eventually rose into view was neither bluegill nor red ear sunfish. It was a…huh?

I slid the mystery fish out of the water onto the shoreline grass. It had shiny white sides marked by a pattern of broken black lateral stripes. A white bass? Highly unlikely; to my knowledge this lake has never been populated by white bass. In fact, I'm certain whites aren't here; I'd have caught some of them long ago and would have heard of other people catching them.

Suddenly I recalled a day almost four years ago, when I first began fly fishing this lake. Two members of the Free State Fly Fishers club stopped that morning and told me the lake was stocked with wipers and I should always anticipate the possibility of hooking one. (Note: A "wiper" is a hybrid created by crossing white bass with striped bass.) But in four years I'd never caught a wiper here, nor had I heard of anyone else catching one. Still, while inspecting this first fish I did find the telltale physical features that confirmed its identity as a wiper. What surprised me now was that this fish was such a young, small wiper. It was no more than 9-inches long.

Not wanting the fish to become unnecessarily stressed while I sorted through my confusion over how it got into this lake, I released it and made another cast. Bingo! A male bluegill was brought to hand. Being the first keeper-size bluegill of the year, I happily released it. Thank you, Mr. Bluegill; it is so good to see you again! The young wiper was rapidly becoming a faded novelty when, on my third cast, there came another hard hit and at the end of the fight I discovered on the end of my tippet another irritated young wiper.

Two little wipers? What's going on here?

One hour and forty - repeat, forty -- wipers later, I felt I'd caught and released enough evidence to theorize that a truckload of young hatchery-raised wipers had been dumped into this lake by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. No other explanation made sense. Wipers are incapable of reproducing in the wild, or anywhere else for that matter. Crowd ten thousand adult wipers into a confined space and they might flirt with one another like teenagers at a Senior Prom, but they will never make a baby wiper. They can't breed; wipers are a sterile hybrid, or so I've been told.

Another question arose. The spot where I was standing offered a left-to-right casting arc of some 120-degrees. Curiously, the wipers were occupying only a narrow 60-degree arc of water in front of me. Moreover, the wipers kept grabbing Old Reliable only in a narrow band of water beginning 10-feet out from shore and extending to approximately 40-feet out. A cast landing anywhere short, beyond, or to the left or right of this 60-degree arc resulted in no hits; inside the arc, a hit came on every cast.

Obviously, I was dealing with a group of juvenile wipers that were tightly schooled. Equally obvious, they were not moving away to a safer location despite the constant disruption of seeing their buddies one by one forcibly extracted from their midst by yours truly. This, too, struck me as strange. Wipers are known to be pelagic hunters; that is, they typically roam all over a lake searching for prey. But these representative youngsters were dug in at this shoreline spot like ticks on a hound.

Three possibilities came to mind: 1) They were schooled here because they'd just herded a swarm of minnows against this bank and were intent on feeding, or; 2) A heavy but extremely localized insect hatch was underway directly in front of me and that hatch had lured the wipers here, or; 3) Hundreds of young wipers had been stocked into this lake very recently, the fish had actually been dumped at this very spot and they hadn't scattered because the urge to explore this strange new environment had not yet kicked in.

In Kansas, a wiper must reach 19-inches to 21-inches in length (depending on the lake involved) before it may be legally kept. So all these little wipers I was catching were definitely off-limits. I could not determine how many were schooled out there in front of me, but any of them lucky enough to reach keeper length will start dishing out nasty surprises to careless anglers who arrive here with even the slightest weakness in their gear- a poorly tied hook knot, abraded spot on their line, loose reel seat, etc.

Not that a wiper needs to reach legal length before it can beat you up. The juveniles I was hooking fought bitterly and each one thrashed about so violently once brought to shore that over the course of the morning they broke off two Old Reliables, one Mickey Finn streamer and a #16 bead-head nymph. I pride myself on tying durable double-clinch knots, plus I was using 6-lb. test tippet. Sounds like overkill, right? Wrong: I lost four good flies to these tiny Titans.

At 10:00 a.m. the action finally slowed enough that I could tear myself away from this small lake. Five months of virtually fishless residency in south Idaho were over. Kansas had welcomed me home in a most exuberant way- with 71 wipers. I doubt I'll ever see another day like it, not in the wiper department anyway. ~ Joe

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