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Red (ear) States, Blue (gill) States

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

An offhand comment by a buddy, about how nice it would be to enjoy a kitchen-fried meal of panfish, spurred me to action. "You're hungry for panfish?" I said, "Hey, you got 'em!"

Boasts like that can get you into trouble.

Yours truly heads for the lake next day on a fishin' mission. Fly rod in hand, I'm after meat for the table. I enjoy catch-and-release fishing as much as anyone, but there's something about a mission that brings out the Paleolithic hunter in me. With the wonderful luck I've enjoyed since taking up the use of fly tackle, I figured this mission would be over very quickly.

At the lake, I launched my canoe on a cove I haven't fish since May - a long time ago. I hadn't fished it because an aquatic herbicide had been applied by the state, and the impact of the chemicals was still evident: no vegetation visible on the surface and very little could be seen underwater. I'm worried about this; for this cove to go the entire summer with no underwater vegetation, you'd think this loss of habitat will negatively impact the aquatic insect populations, with an inevitable chain-reaction negative impact on gamefish populations.

It didn't take long to dispel the darkest of my concerns. The pannies were still here, although their size today at least was running markedly smaller than in the earlier, two pre-chemical years I've fished this place. Most of the 'gills I began catching were smaller than five-inches.

Another worrisome thing about this lake arm is that its water level is at least 18-inches lower than normal due to the hot, rainless summer we've had this year in Kansas. Therefore, the fish in this arm have got not only less weed cover but also less vertical space in which to roam and hunt for food. Couple this shallower water with sun-warmed temperatures and the stage seemed set for only the little guys to inhabit these shallows.

Maybe that's why the juvenile bass were here tonight - so many small little bluegills to pick on? The bigger 'gills must have been holding deeper. Everything I've read about bluegills says that during hot weather they move into water as deep as 15-to-20 feet. I can't blame them for wanting to keep cool. But my problem today was I don't have that much anchor line to pay out and I don't want to start carrying that much line because I prefer shallow water even though it sometimes means catching smaller fish.

I've been up and down the street enough times to know that when you're scaling and filleting bluegills, even small fillets from five-inch fish will add up fast, and then you have a good meal so long as you adjust your creel number to compensate for the smaller fillet size.

Put another way: Better small than not at all.

I started out that Monday afternoon throwing Cousin of Old Reliable - a #12 Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear Nymph. Looking at these nymphs tucked in their little cubby on the Kansas City, Kansas Cabela's store fly rack, they looked close enough size-wise to my favorite nymph (Old Reliable - a #10 flashback Hare's Ear). So I bought six of 'em.

It wasn't until I was on the lake throwing them that I noticed a problem: these #12 GRHENs have much lighter hooks than does Old Reliable. Because of the lighter hook, they are not as heavy and don't want to sink. Combined with my larger diameter 4X tapered leader - itself resistant to sinking -- Old Reliable's cousins didn't want to settle to the depth I wanted them operating at. Indeed, on most casts they floated on the surface. Which, although it irritated me no end, I wouldn't have minded if the Cousin had been attracting hits.

Back into my nymph box I dove, extracting the Last of the Mohican Old Reliables. I clipped off poor Cousin and sent the real McCoy flying into the shallows. Sic em' Old Reliable!

In no time I started catching fish. Unfortunately, little bass were the most eager takers. There's a 16-inch minimum at this lake, so these juveniles were safe. Finally, just around dusk, I managed to land the tenth keeper-size 'gill. Not a big haul, but possibly twenty little fillets would be enough to satisfy my buddy's appetite.

Before turning in that night I scaled these 'gills, filleted the meat off their spines and ribs, put their fillets into a zip-loc bag, doused them with fresh lemon juice and put the bag on ice. It didn't seem like near enough fish for a meal. I would have to go fishing again.

Next night I was back at the lake attempting to complete my mission. Only now the previous day's shallow lake arm was unfishable due to a stiff northwest wind. I decided to hit the east end of the lake dam, where a corner of water protected by the dam offered fairly quiet casting conditions. When I arrived at this spot around 6:30 p.m. the evening air was full of mayflies, thousands of 'em, which had apparently just hatched. The sight of their delicate bodies in a major swarm would have made a beautiful photo; I was looking through this mayfly cloud toward a golden setting sun, casting through the insects. Very pretty sight.

Very pretty sounds were happening here, too. Fish were feeding aggressively, rising for mayflies I assumed, creating loud swirls all around me but mostly in the corner area of the dam where the water was calmest. I still had Old Reliable tied on my leader, and guessed that he might score big since his generic body shape closely imitates a mayfly nymph. I was confident there'd be some serious bluegill action.

What happened instead was I tore into red ear sunfish. Or they tore into me, which is what it feels like when a red ear hits. For the next hour red ears were running rampant, attacking Old Reliable viciously on almost every cast. One fish was the biggest red ear I've ever caught, a 13-incher that fought like a Madrid bull and had a mouth so large that when I landed the fish I actually lipped it, like you'd do with a largemouth bass?

The bluegills I'd hoped for were nowhere to be found. Only red ears were interested in this mayfly hatch. And this seemed strange; surely bluegills love waylaying mayfly nymphs, surface emergers and spinners as much as do red ears. Why weren't any bluegills hitting? Is it because red ears are so aggressive that when they congregate in numbers they intimidate bluegills then out-compete them for food?

Here is where my two-season program of increasing the size of red ears in this lake backfired on me. I was here tonight to catch fish for the table, but out of months of habit I released every red ear I landed. I just couldn't make myself put them into the ice chest sitting at my feet. Not until I went to bed that night did I lie awake kicking myself.

"You DUMMY!" I said to myself in the dark, "That's a 200 acre lake. Do you really think taking out five or ten red ears will hurt the fishery? Are you nuts?"

"Okay, okay, lay off," myself answered me, "Look, you're right; I'll go back out there tomorrow evening and fish specifically for red ears. Satisfied?"

"I won't believe it until you put half a dozen of them on ice, you dummy!" I retorted.

Next afternoon I'm back at the corner of the dam just before sunset. No mayfly hatch happening, but still I'm confident. This time I'm going deeper and faster for these red ears, by using a #14 bead-head Pheasant Tail Nymph on a 6X leader. This is gonna be like target practice.

Thirty minutes later I hadn't caught one fish. This provoked a flurry of fly switches. I finally caught a keeper bluegill using one of Rick Zieger's white inchworm grub imitations. But just one fish. Next I went with a small minnow imitator, again tied by Rick, and as usual I can't remember its name. (Too many names to remember in flies!) I even went back to my last Old Reliable again. He fooled a few, but not enough to indicate any favoritism by the bluegills. I finally settled on a rubber-legged centipede imitator and finished up the evening using it.

What was really weird about this evening was that I caught just one red ear. Just 24 hours earlier I'd caught scads of red ears and just one bluegill. A complete reversal of fortune.

I'm developing a theory that red ears are like the old saying about cops: when you really want 'em they're never around? I've never ripped into red ears like I did the night before, and I released each one I caught. Now I'm back out here to catch only red ears, and bluegills are the only panfish hitting.

The fifteen 'gills I took home eased the sting of defeat that I was feeling in my red ear state. Their 30 fillets, plus the 20 fillets from two days earlier, ended up being enough for two good meals.

As has happened to me on so many happy trips, it was a blue (gill) state that saved the day. ~ Joe Hyde

About Joe:

From Douglas County, 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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