For me, this pleasant mid-September Sunday
afternoon is the tail end of a 3-day weekend.
I've returned to a lake cove that I fished two
weekends earlier, a cove that was badly mucked
up by suspended sediment and floating debris
washed in by a 6-inch rainfall.
I saw immediately that my chances this afternoon
would be better. The cove's surface was debris-free
and the water clarity looked really nice. However,
there was "company" present: two ultralight spin
fishermen had beaten me here. They'd split up
and were fishing the two feeder creeks I wanted
to hit. Oh well; the mobility of my canoe would
rescue me from this minor setback.
A white SUV parked on the road overlooking the
cove looked vaguely familiar. Then I remembered
an afternoon trip a month or so earlier, when a
white SUV had passed by twice, slowing to a crawl
both times. Its driver had watched me boat 'gill
after 'gill (I was having a good day). Were these
guys here for bluegills, too? Maybe we'd have
something in common to visit about.
No; turns out they were after largemouth bass, I
could tell by their lures and presentation methods.
While I was unracking my canoe, the guy closest to
me hooked into a nice juvenile bass about 16-inches
long. He did a great job fighting the fish,
repeatedly coaxing it out of dense aquatic weeds
growing along his shoreline. I was impressed,
and since he was within easy earshot I complimented
him on his skill.
A few minutes later I was out in the cove's main body,
anchored well beyond their casting range. I wasn't
trying to eavesdrop, but occasionally fragments of
conversation would waft across the open water. One
guy said to the other, "He's fly fishing" (referring
to me). About fifteen minutes later, I heard the other
guy say, "Yeah, I lots of hits over there, but they
were just bluegills."
"Just bluegills"; the remark was music to my
ears. It told me that at least one of those
guys would probably never come back here to
angle for my favorite fish family.
At sundown Lawrence time (kickoff time in Denver
for the Broncos/Chiefs NFL football game) this
ultralight duo zoomed away, leaving me to fish
the cove all by my lonesome. Had they glanced
back at the lake on their way out, they'd have
seen me boat my first bluegill, a very nice one.
This 'gill came on my fourth cast. My first
three casts each got nailed by a fish that yanked
my rod but got away before I could see what it was.
I was anchored in four feet of water at the edge
of a "recuperating weedbed" (for lack of a better
term). The low angle sunlight let me peer into
the lake and see the aquatic vegetation that had
been knocked down by the recent flood's inflow.
The submerged weeds now reached no higher than
about 2 feet below the surface - a significant
change from how this area's wall-to-wall weed
blanket two weeks ago. I was now presented with
considerable surface area and fishable upper zone
depth that was not available immediately prior to
Tied to my leader was a tandem rig, and both flies
were considerably larger than the tiny midges I'd
tandemed here two weeks prior. And once again,
both flies were Rick Zeiger creations. A #10
all-black wooly bugger variant with six wiggly
rubber legs was swimming point. The trailing fly
was a #14 red and yellow marabou affair with two
metal bead eyes. (These flies have names, I'm
sure, and I apologize for not knowing them.)
The black rubber-legged bugger is definitely a
winner; it had proven that to me in Iowa back
in August, when I'd visited Rick. The red and
yellow marabou fly, I selected it because Rick
told me that bluegills like flies in the colors
black, red and yellow. So this tandem meal
would offer the 'gills just about everything
they love to see short of live bait.
From my very first cast, the bluegills just
could not leave this tandem rig alone. For
the next hour and a half, almost every cast
brought either a short-strike ping or a violent
grab and hookup. Something besides the flies
was involved, though: possibly a type of
aqua-psychic force was at work here. Word
underwater must have got around that tonight
I was releasing every fish I hooked, because
minutes after releasing this first bluegill
I began catching the biggest, healthiest 'gills
I've ever seen this cove yield.
After liberating about the tenth keeper, I began
to question my own IQ. I'd come equipped to take
fish home for the table; behind me sat a 36-qt.
Coleman cooler with eight pounds of crushed ice
inside. I could start keeping these fish any
time I wanted. But it was weird: a
catch-and-release mood had taken hold of me and
the idea of changing my mind at this late time
somehow didn't seem fair to the fish I had not
With every fish getting a free ride, soon even
baby bluegills joined in the fun by practicing
their insect attack moves. One dinky 3-inch
'gill showed me an act he could take on the road.
He gobbled the black bugger fly tail first, taking
it so deep that only the hook eye was poking out
his mouth. This youngster must have learned his
table manners by watching water snakes engulf
leopard frogs. Miraculously, I was able to
remove the (relatively) huge fly using my curved
forceps without bleeding a single drop from this
A half hour past sundown when the wind eased to
a dead calm and the light began fading, things
got totally out of control. First the dragonfly
Combat Air Patrol returned to base. No bats
were airborne yet, so the mosquitoes began
migrating out from shore to swarm me. This
apparently was the cue the crappies were waiting
Three months had passed since I last caught a
crappie in this lake. So what happens tonight?
Right: crappies start grabbing Rick's flies when
I splash my tandem rig at the edge of a weedline.
Between swatting mosquitoes, releasing big
bluegills and now these keeper crappies, I begin
feeling more abused with every passing minute.
Here out of the kindness of my heart I was giving
the fish in this cove a break by not immediately
throwing them on ice and taking them home to eat
them. And how do they repay my kindness? By
wearing out my arm with non-stop hits. Tiny
'gills, big 'gills, crappies - they're all taking
turns thumbing their nose at Dummy Joe. But
wait...WHAM! Here's a 1/2-lb. largemouth bass
with something smart to say.
Finally I can take no more. "Okay, now, I want
to thank y'all panfish for being so nice tonight.
This has been fun, but I'm leaving now. Bye..."
Reaching my put-in spot in near-twilight with
mosquitoes whining in my ears the whole time,
I hurriedly racked my canoe then loaded gear
for the drive home. I felt like half an idiot
for just releasing, oh, maybe two trips worth
of keeper bluegills plus four excellent crappies
(the longest being an 11-inch slab).
At the same time, I felt oddly satisfied.
Those crappies I released didn't realize
it, but they were already beginning to ease
the pain of Panfish Appreciation Day. They
showed up at dusk tonight, prowling the
borders of these recovering weedbeds. Will
they continue creeping in here every day at
dusk for another month or more? And these
big 'gills: will they keep hitting larger
flies in the late afternoon/early evening
hours - and not just here, but in every one
of this lake's coves and arms?
I looked back at the cove on my way out and
smiled. I do sincerely love and appreciate
panfish for everything they do, not just
today but every day.
"Swim free and eat well, fellas. Me and Rick's
flies...we'll be back." ~ Joe firstname.lastname@example.org
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