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How To Grind The Gears When Shifting

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas
The good thing about taking a weeklong vacation is that you can forget what it's like to be at work. The bad thing is when an avalanche of work buries you up to your eyeballs the second you come back home.

I had just returned from a 41-mile wilderness style canoe camping trip on Minnesota's Root River. Michelle, one of the secretaries in my office, said "Hi" as I walked in the door. What she should have done instead was offer me a blindfold and a cigarette; for the next nine work days I don't think I've ever been busier or under more stress. It got so hairy that for two straight weekends I lacked the physical energy or even the will to go fishing - I basically crawled out of bed Saturday and Sunday mornings, made my way downstairs to the recliner chair and laid there like a puppy hit by a truck.

On the third Saturday of this avalanche, instinct told me that I had to either force myself back into recreation mode or I'd become yet another white collar burnout. I racked my canoe and began loading my pickup with fishing gear. The exercise felt like one of those out-of-body experiences, like I was watching somebody going through the motions of preparing for a fishing trip. I was distracted anyway, because I had a band gig to play that evening and I wasn't really psyched for it, either.

But what was messing with my mind more than anything was I'd been loading and unloading canoe and camping gear after the Root River trip, shifting equipment around in my garage, putting some stuff back into my truck, taking other stuff out, sorta like an old dog circling around figuring out where to lay down. Eventually I corralled my fly tackle, backed out of the driveway, bought some ice for my cooler and headed for the lake. Free at last.

The lake was devoid of fishermen, illustrating once again the primary social value of the game of football: come Saturdays and Sundays in the fall, the majority of today's outdoorsmen stay home or go into stadiums to watch NCAA or NFL games. Bless their hearts! It was now almost 11 a.m. and I had the entire lake to myself - 195 acres, mine, all mine. The very sight of it brought the strength surging back into my bones.

I unracked my canoe, set it down by the water's edge then took my two anchors out of the bed of my pickup. Next out were my foam paddling saddle and ankle blocks, then my fly tackle bag. I clipped my curved forceps onto a shirt pocket flap, put my line clipper lanyard around my neck, assembled my 2-piece fly rod, grabbed my PFD and walked around the back of my pickup toward the canoe.

Looking down at my canoe and the various gear arrayed before me, I froze; something didn't look quite right. Then it hit me: I would definitely have better luck propelling myself across the surface of the lake if I had a canoe paddle? There was no need to turn around and look inside my truck for it; I knew I'd left it in my garage. Well, isn't this just great? What do I do now?

Driving back for the paddle was out; the band gig I was scheduled to play starts in just five hours. The time I would blow on a trip home, then back to the lake, then back home again would knock out my fishing time for today. The choice was brutally simple: either fish from the bank (gag me with a spoon) or go home without wetting a line, then try to survive another whole week of work hell before another chance comes to go fishing.

You'd have to see this lake to appreciate the depth of my unhappiness. Where the lakeshore is open enough for classic fly casting the water tends to be too shallow, too weed-choked, or too windswept. The places where good water lays close against the shore, the adjacent bank is densely grown with trees, shrubs, tall weeds and...poison ivy. Fly fishers afoot here are hard against it, I kid you not.

The only shred of good luck still in my corner was that I'd come to a spot in a main cove where a narrow feeder creek enters the lake. This creek flows underneath a county road bridge that was sitting only 150 feet from where I'd parked. A nice hole lies under the bridge, one that's deep enough and long enough to harbor fish. (This is the same bridge mentioned in one of my earlier stories, "What shouldn't have happened, did".)

Tippy-toeing to the brink of the vertical creek bank, I could look almost straight down into tail end of the hole. I didn't see anything moving in the water, not even a minnow. Probably the recent cold front had sent the fish deep. The creek surface was heavily coated with Sycamore leaves. To my immediate right stood a metal road sign pole stout enough to shatter my graphite rod if I lost track of my backcast. And to my immediate left, tree branches would snag my fly and/or fracture my rod tip if I made a clumsy move that direction. So...straight ahead we go.

Into the hole went "Old Reliable," a #10 flashback Hare's Ear nymph. Fifteen minutes later a tiny bluegill, first fish of the day, grabbed the nymph. I wondered if my lack of action was due to difficulties getting my nymph down through the water column. After all, I was standing very high above the water surface and this elevated position caused my heavy floating line to sag immediately following each cast, which had the effect of jerking the fly rapidly toward me the instant it hit the water. Not necessarily a bad thing, except that the fly was getting pulled through a flotilla of Sycamore leaves. Ah, Sycamore leaves. If you've never had the pleasure, please allow me to describe.

Picture a swimming pool whose surface is covered almost entirely with Styrofoam salad plates. 75% of your casts drop your fly directly onto one of these salad plates, or barely miss it. This means your fly either snags the leaf (forcing you to reel it in, wasting the cast and spooking fish) or else the huge leaf fails to flip over and release your tippet that is laying across it (not allowing the fly to settle into the water column). Under these circumstances, one can only hope that any panfish lurking below possesses an extremely well-developed sense of humor, because after just a few casts yours will resemble burnt toast.

Well, there's always more than one way to suffer when fly fishing from the bank, right? After 30 minutes of futility at my feeder creek overlook, I quit that spot and walked to the upstream side of the road bridge. Sneaking down the bank, I inspected the leading edge of the under-bridge hole. The water here looked pretty good except for the leaf cover directly under the bridge; the counter-current wind made the leaf blanket denser here than at the tail end of the pool. Equally annoying, this new spot offered precious little room for backcasts, either vertically or horizontally. Also, the bank slope forced me to stand very close to the bridge. Great care had to be taken not to actually strike the concrete structure with my rod tip. And last but not least, the air space close behind was menaced by low-hanging tree branches that could easily whack my rod tip and/or snag my line.

My kingdom for a canoe paddle...

A thought suddenly came to me: my cell phone was in my truck, plugged into its cigarette lighter power adaptor. If I walked back there right now and called Mike, my Field Office Director, he might take pity and order me to report to the Federal Building for some kind of Sunday emergency overtime task that would spring me from this bank fishing torture chamber.

"Oh, just shut up and make a roll cast, will ya?" I scolded my whining self.

"Okay," I answered myself, "but if I break my rod tip on this bridge, it's YOUR FAULT!"

"Agreed; I'll pay for any damages," I replied to myself. And then with great clumsiness I made a rod-horizontal backhand sidearm roll cast that transported my Hare's Ear about halfway back into the bridge's deep shadow. Miraculously, the nymph landed between two massive Sycamore leaves, and the leader even settled onto the surface in a narrow open lane between some other leaves. The nymph began drifting toward the bottom and...WHAM!...a bluegill hammered it like this was the first prey item he'd seen in six weeks. It wasn't a big bluegill, barely 5 inches long, and that was fine by me. Better small than not at all.

In the next hour I pulled four more 'gills out from under the bridge, the biggest packing so little body weight that Rick Zieger himself would have proudly taken it home to photograph it for a visual counterbalance to all the monster 'gills he normally catches.

After the bridge hole played out (which happened long before I quit fishing it), I decided to try one last spot -- another cove that offers limited shore casting possibilities. Fortunately for me, I selected a little-used lake perimeter road to reach the spot. I say fortunate, because while rolling down that old road at low speed I began hearing strange rattling noises in my truck. Curious as to what was causing it, I stopped to see if something was rolling around loose in the bed. Nothing. Then I glanced up and discovered that - gasp! -- I'd forgotten to put the tiedown straps around my canoe after I'd racked it. Had I chosen the smoother, faster road instead of this bumpy slow one, by now wind resistance would have torn my canoe clean off my rack, possibly flipping it through the windshield of an oncoming vehicle.

Hyperventilating only slightly despite my pounding heart and trembling hands, I strapped down my canoe and proceeded to the next cove, where after 45 minutes of flailing away I caught not a single fish and attracted nary a touch. Time now, finally, to raise my hands and surrender.

This trip only goes to show that fly fishing can turn ugly real fast when your body is in Kansas, your short-term memory is trapped in Minnesota, and your forward vision is focused more on an imminent music gig. I like to think my luck would have been different had I been able to paddle out to the brush filled, 5-ft deep water I intended to work. I'll never know the answer, because instead of fishing open water I sent myself up a creek without a paddle. ~ 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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