Welcome to Warmwater Fishing!

Late Beats Never

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

As a rule, the fly fishing I do from my canoe is a shallow water affair. To me this is only practical: with the lone exception of the white crappie, the panfish group that resides in Kansas inhabits water less than 10 feet deep for more hours of the day, more days of the year, than it occupies water deeper than 10 feet.

I own an electronic fish finder (a portable unit) whose transducer shoots an ultrasonic beam that measures 15-degrees in angular width. Not every buyer of fish finders considers the real-world implications of transducer search beam width; I didn't before buying my unit.

One day I wanted to see a concrete representation of my unit's search cone. Grabbing a protractor, pencil, blank sheet of graph paper and straight edge I lined out the maximum underwater area that my fish finder "sees" at various water depths. The result was startling: my unit's 15-degree search cone looks at a circle of water so small in circumference that the image appearing on my unit's LCD screen is largely useless as a means of seeing fish in the water beneath and around my canoe.

Electronic fish finders are fascinating instruments nevertheless, and my drawing did nothing to diminish my appreciation for the unit's ability to perform three important and useful tasks: 1) Tell me how deep the water is; 2) Show me the changes in water depth as my canoe moves about from spot to spot, and; 3) Show me underwater objects around which fish often spend time.

I therefore rigged my canoe with my fish finder and launched on the same 4-acre pond where recently I caught a 13-inch black crappie – a slab that set my heart a-racing. My fish finder quickly revealed a large area of impressive but uniform depth – the excavation zone where enough cubic yards of soil mass had been bulldozed to construct the pond's massive dam? But nowhere in this flat, deepwater zone did I spot any of the classic structures you hope for: drop-offs along creek channels, submerged brush piles, etc. And numerous crossings of the pond's main body detected just one cluster of "vertically stacked" fish that may have been a school of crappies. (The fish icons moving slowly across my display screen were so tiny they suggested a pod of bluegills, not suspended crappies.)

After five hours I stopped trying to find fish in deep water. Either I was missing them or they simply weren't there. That I could tell, the deep water area was virtually deserted. According to the landowner, white and black crappies were stocked here initially. But I wonder if this pond no longer supports a meaningful population of whites. It does have plenty of blacks, though. I have a theory to explain this.

Black crappies, I've read, instinctively pursue a solitary, stay-at-home, shallow water lifestyle that lets them thrive in the weedy shoreline habitats typical of this and most other Kansas farm ponds. Whereas a white crappie thrives when it can operate as part of a school that roams large open water areas such as those found in state and federal lakes.

It didn't dawn on me until two days after this trip that the only crappies I've ever caught in this pond are blacks that took my fly fairly close to shore. I had used my fish finder, then, in a manner better suited to locating white crappie schools occupying deep water. My failure to find any schools of suspended fish was not the pond's fault, nor an indication of my fish finder's technological failings. Rather, I was wrong in examining this pond without taking into account the lifestyle differences between black and white crappies. My sonar investigation looked at water almost 20-feet deep – excellent habitat for a kind of crappie unlike the kind I know for a fact lives in this pond.

So my entire day was wasted pursuing a lost cause, right? Well, not exactly. For one thing, not finding any schools of fish in deep water lets me abandon an idea I've harbored for quite some time; namely, that I should outfit both my anchors with longer lines so that I can fish this pond's main area. No more am I interested in the pond's deep water; my future crappie-catching efforts will now target the shoreline zone. There'll be no more nagging thoughts that I'm missing out on something wonderful by not trying the deep water. This is where purchasing even the least expensive electronic fish finder is money well spent.

For another thing, while looking for suspended deep water crappies I caught three nice bluegills that were occupying water less than 10 feet deep. How that happened was I repeatedly paddled or drifted across the pond's deep main area conducting sonar passes, and upon reaching shallower water I would anchor and fish the weedline for fifteen or twenty minutes before searching deep water again by crossing the pond on a different compass heading.

But during my first five hours on the pond even those weedline areas were slow going – just three bluegills were caught. Again this was my fault, not the pond's: I'd arrived that morning grimly determined to find and then catch suspended deep water crappies and I didn't care if it took me all day to do it. With that stubborn mindset, I stuck with fly patterns more attractive to minnow-eating crappies than insect-eating bluegills.

So really, this trip came close to getting written up as an object lesson in, "How empty your fish basket can be on afternoon drives home if your brain leaves town that morning filled with pre-conceived ideas about how the day will turn out." Only a combination of failure, curiosity and the generosity of an FAOL member spared me from that sad reporting task.

Five hours of steady casting and my minnow and large insect imitators were being ignored. Even my oldest and most reliable #10 nymph was attracting scant attention. The time finally came to make a radical change. Okay, fine, but change to what? I'd spotted no surface feeding action all day, so while cabbaging anew through my fly box I bypassed the dry flies and poppers and looked at a row of small furry jobs for something, anything, that might produce.

Here is where I recalled some stories I've read in the past, stories that told how fish inhabiting relatively clear water will sometimes prefer small, dark-colored subsurface patterns? Using my forceps to move aside the fluffy feathers of a marabou pattern, Renewed Hope arrived in the guise of an olive/copper-bodied, black-tailed #12 bead-head Woolly Bugger, a fly given to me (if memory serves) by Texas angler Stew Denton.

Dunking the bugger underwater so that I could massage its components to squeeze out trapped air bubbles, I next conducted a drop test to gauge how slowly the saturated version falls. Ahh…perfect! What I would do now is revisit some shoreline areas hit earlier, this time using much longer countdowns so this lightweight bugger could sink very slowly before bringing it in with ultra-slow retrieves. Maybe the bluegills weren't hitting today, either, but there was still a ways to go yet before they could make me believe it.

Sitting thirty feet out in 8 feet of water with my canoe anchored so that its long axis lay parallel to the shoreline, I threw the WB ahead and to the left into shallower water, gave the bugger a 15-second countdown and had just begun the retrieve when a hard hit came. Many happy seconds of bent rod action later, a thick 9-inch bluegill was unhooked and slipped into my floating fish basket. The next two casts brought into possession two more keeper-size 'gills.

The tide had turned. Better yet, during the ensuing flurry I saved my 00-wt. Sage rod. Following one of my casts, I looked away from the leader and floating line during the long countdown. My returning gaze spotted the floating line racing away at high speed just as the tightline shock impulse hit – perhaps the only thing that kept that hard-running bluegill from jerking the rod out of my light grasp. That was a little scary.

After giving up on crappie and switching to bluegills, after quitting large patterns worked through deep water in favor of a tiny insect imitator worked slowly through shallower water, in one hour the little Woolly Bugger captured twelve keeper bluegills – four times the number of fish I'd caught during the preceding five hours.

Even now, three days later, not a single thing bugs me about that sudden late burst of good luck. ~ Joe

About 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.'

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