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Panfish Appreciation Day

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas
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 the flood.

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 hooked yet.

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 micro'gill.

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 for.

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 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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