The lake I go to the most is maintained in such a way that
citizens enjoy a democratic mix of spots where they can fish.
You've got large public access shoreline areas with limbed-up
trees and nicely mowed lawn turf, where a person can fish for
a while then spread out a blanket and enjoy a picnic lunch, with
perhaps a little sunbathing thrown in for good measure. You've
got private access shorelines where cabin owners and their guests
fish from shore or from a private boat dock.
You have public boat ramps used primarily by the powerboat
crowd, giving those folks easy access to virtually the entire lake.
(I've used these ramps a few times but generally prefer not to.)
Last and most appreciated by a shallow-water angler
like me the lake offers a small number of areas where
the shoreline vegetation is thin enough, the bank slope gentle
enough and the footing solid enough that I can carry my canoe
a short distance to the water's edge, launch and not have to
paddle far to find spots where the fish are biting.
In today's world where high-end powerboats roar across federal
reservoirs so huge they boast fifty or more miles of fishable shoreline,
a lake that offers barely 200 surface acres attracts little interest.
On lakes this small your typical big horsepower bass boat doesn't
have enough acceleration distance to reach Warp Factor 8 before
its pilot must throttle back to sub-light speed and sound the collision
alarm before running aground. But one fisherman's frustration can be
another's satisfaction; I am more than happy to live close to such a
small but productive lake.
Even though I've fished this lake for four years, fished it from my
canoe and from the bank, I've explored barely one-fourth of its
total shoreline. Intellectually, I acknowledge that I'm missing out
on enjoying many new and excellent panfishing spots by not
undertaking long-range explorations of the shoreline in my solo
canoe. It still surprises me that I haven't tried more of this lake,
given all the canoe trips I've done there.
It's because I'm a dawdler once I get in a canoe. First, I don't like
paddling fast; "fast" requires so much concentration on power strokes
and steering that I miss seeing things of interest to a fisherman. Things
like fish swirls, insect activity, etc. Second, I don't like fishing fast;
on a lake or pond I poke along, anchoring and fishing a spot for
maybe ten or twenty minutes, then I lift my anchors, move a short
ways, re-anchor and fish there for ten or twenty minutes, and so
on. Funny, how an entire morning or long afternoon will evaporate
while I cover spots of water that cumulatively add up to no more
square footage than a basketball court.
Canoe fishing, then, is a means to enjoy mobility, to get myself free
from the shoreline with all its backcast-snagging obstacles. However,
I use my canoe in a fashion that duplicates the generally static nature
of shoreline fishing. I just enjoy going slow, creeping along very
quietly, pausing at likely-looking spots and giving each a fair try.
Horribly boring stuff to watch, no doubt about it, but for me this s
trategy succeeds more often than it fails.
After spending five months in Boise, Idaho I am greeted back to
Kansas by what, so far, has been a warm, humid Indian Summer
fall. The thought occurred to me last week that I might have enough
time before the weather turns bitter cold to explore more of the lake's
(to me) unknown and mysterious shoreline areas. The lake will still
be here whenever I get around to snooping the rest of its shoreline,
so I've been on a "re-acquaintance tour," visiting canoe fishing spots
I've hit in the past. I'm fishing those spots first, just to say Hi to all
the pannies and let 'em know I'm back. After this, if weather permits,
I'll explore the more distant, unknown spots.
So last Tuesday I hit the upper end of one of the lake's three main
arms. From shore to around 300 feet out the water runs one-to-four
feet deep before falling away to depth. The shallows here are more
or less a broad mudflat, and in various spots within this submerged
plain I've caught many good fish. Today, one of the first I caught
was this 9-inch red ear sunfish that mistook Old Reliable for a
helpless prey item.
A few bluegills later, word apparently got out that a large nymph
pattern is too dangerous to touch. I switched to a smaller nymph
and caught a few more fish. About thirty minutes before sundown,
fish began rising to grab surface prey (or prey barely below the
surface, I couldn't tell which). Seeing and hearing all this splashing
around the canoe told me that by sticking with nymphs I was fighting
City Hall and losing.
Looking through my fly box, I picked out a foam spider. (If
memory serves, a spider tied by Stew Denton. Or maybe Robin
Rhyne or Robert McCorquodale? Later in this story you'll see
this spider in action, after which would its creator please stand
and take a well-deserved bow?)
For the next forty-five minutes the long-legged foam spider
murdered 'em. Bluegills and red ears just couldn't leave it
alone. And then abruptly they shunned it, which made no
sense because fish were still rising all around me. Maybe
the fish wanted something noisy?
I changed to a tiny cork popping bug. The puny popper
promptly popped plenty more pannies into my fish basket
before the sky became too dark to see the lake surface
clearly. Time to head home and clean eighteen fish.
Friday evening I launched my canoe on a different lake
arm, intending to fish the opposite shoreline. My hope
was to find red ear sunfish holding against the far shoreline,
like happened one afternoon a couple of years ago around
this same time.
Upon drawing close enough to the opposite shoreline, it
came time to lower my rear anchor and slow the boat's
progress. With my left hand I reached around to grab
the aft anchor line and pop it out of the cam cleat. I felt
around, kept missing it. Huh? I glanced behind me and
no anchor line! I looked forward: no anchor line there, either!
I'd been in such great haste to go fishing that I forgot to rig my
canoe with its two anchors.
Grumble, grumble, turn around and paddle back for the anchors.
A guy/girl couple was fishing from the bank very near to where I'd
launched minutes earlier. Mercifully, neither said a word as I
beached my canoe and stepped ashore. They were probably
wondering, "Why did this idiot paddle all the way to the other
side of the lake only to immediately turn around and come back?"
After dragging my canoe onto land and outfitting it with the anchors,
I re-launched. Now I was too embarrassed to paddle back across
the lake arm, so I stuck to my side and began working westward
along the weedy edge. The first two places I stopped at, almost
every foot of anchor line was needed to reach bottom. The lake
gets deep quick once you leave this shoreline. Whether the
structural arrangement was a good fit for the tiny cork popping
bug still on my leader, I wasn't sure. Time was getting late, the
light dim enough that a popping bug seemed a reasonable first choice.
And it was, too. However, for some reason the bluegills were
in a mood to devour the little popper, not just hit it. They took
the popper so deep inside their mouths that even using curved
forceps the fit was so tight that I killed two fish I wanted to release,
just trying to extract the hook. After ruining the second fish, I
reluctantly clipped off the popper and went with Old Reliable,
my #10 flashback Hare's Ear Nymph.
Fifteen minutes of nothing told me the fish weren't interested in
Old Reliable tonight, no way, no how. Here is where I decided
that my best chance for success was to become a bird-brain.
I'd come to this lake four times since getting home from Idaho,
and each time I saw a pair of osprey hunting it. Ospreys are
really fun birds to watch, how they fly above a lake then suddenly
pull in their wings and plummet into the water with a big, loud splash
and then fly away carrying a small fish they've caught, shaking their
feathers like a black Lab holding a mallard he's just retrieved.
Now, finally, it hit me: Ospreys catch only those fish that are
swimming at or very near the surface. And from the minute I
arrived here tonight these two ospreys were repeatedly dive-bombing
the same shoreline where I'm fishing. No surprise, then, why Old
Reliable didn't catch anything. Old Reliable works best at depth,
but in this lake arm tonight even the fish occupying deep water are
holding near the lake surface, inhabiting an area not far away from
the shoreline. These two ospreys are telling me where the fish are
that I want to catch.
Off came Old Reliable, back on went Tuesday evening's long-legged
foam spider. I began fan-casting in front of my anchored canoe,
working from the weed edge out to some forty feet off shore. I
wasn't ignoring the weedline just because the ospreys weren't
attacking anything there. Ospreys play their game; I play mine.
Up ahead, about ten feet off shore was an old tree stump whose
top poked two feet above the water. This looked like a good
spot to throw the spider in such a way that it would splash down
close to the stump, mimicking the fall of a large, careless spider.
My presentation must have mimicked this real-life scenario pretty
accurately because the bass pictured below took predatory notice
and responded violently. This bass is still in the lake; I lifted him
out only long enough to photograph him, unhook and release him.
Fifteen bluegills later my Friday night was done (except for cleaning the fish).
Saturday evening I hit the lake again, third time that week. The
highlight of this trip happened on the drive home.
Not far from the spot where I'd launched my canoe (a spot where
I've fished from the bank many times) the gravel access road turns
to asphalt blacktop. Pulling away from the lake in the dark, in my
headlights I spotted a long, shiny object on the blacktop and
recognized instantly what it was. I stopped, set my parking
brake and stepped out to shoo the creature out of harm's way.
I don't understand why so many drivers take pleasure in running
over snakes they see on the road. Snakes have an important place
in nature. This snake was an Osage copperhead, a species found
around the lake in good numbers due to the surrounding area's rocky,
upland forest habitat and wealth of small mammal, amphibian and
large insect prey items. True, the Osage copperhead is a venomous
pit viper. That's no reason to deliberately crush one to death with
your tires just because you see it warming itself on the roadway. I
could have driven around him, but the next vehicle that came along
My headlights may have been blinding him, because when I waved
my hand over his head the snake didn't budge. With open sandals
on bare feet, no way was I going to risk a painful bite trying to coax
Mr. Osage off the road with a nudge of my toe against his tail. Into
my truck shell I went, out came my trusty Nifty Nabber trash
picker-upper. A gentle squeeze with its cushioned tongs grasped
the snake firmly enough that I could lift/drag him a couple feet onto
the road shoulder grass, where he promptly took off.
It wasn't lost on me that this copperhead was crawling away from
the lake shore when I first spotted him. Here's hoping he returns
the favor should I accidentally come too close to him while we're
both sneaking through those tall shoreline weeds, him hunting frogs,
me fishing from the bank. Next time I do that here. Sometime
or other; I can't say exactly when. ~ Joe
From Douglas County, Kansas, Joe is a former municipal and
federal police officer, now retired. 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 recently
retired from 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
former 'day job.'