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PST (Panfish Standard Time)


By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

It's 3 p.m. Nov. 5th: At the lake a surprising number of people are fishing this afternoon, both from the bank and from boats. "Surprising" because it's Sunday and lots of good NFL football games are on TV. I was happy to find nobody fishing the spot I had in mind when I drove out here.

Well, no wonder they weren't fishing it: At my shoreline spot a 20-mph south wind was blowing straight in. It had been blowing this hard all day. This being the fall season, since morning, leaves had been getting dislodged from trees that border the opposite shore. The result, along my downwind shoreline, was a foot-high windrow of leaves piled high and dry. More incoming leaves were lying dense on the lake surface ten feet out, waiting to get pushed in then flipped up onto the windrow by wave and wind action.

At the water's edge this pretty windrow of leaves made footing tricky because along this shoreline a fisherman must walk on loose rocks. With those rocks covered by leaves, I couldn't tell where to place my feet for stability and stealth. Sneaking along from spot to spot became an exercise in caution, no amount of which kept loud noises from getting generated when concealed rocks clattered against one another upon receiving my blindly applied body weight.

I hoped this unnatural racket would be ignored by the fish once they spotted my shrewd choice of flies. Today was windy but I wanted to fish this exposed location regardless; its depth might encourage visits by crappie. Before driving to the lake I'd prepared for these hostile conditions by stopping at K&K Flyfishers in Kansas City and purchasing four tungsten beadhead Hare's Ear Nymphs, size #12. These heavier, fast-sinking nymphs would let me throw into the wind and explore the deep water before me.

On the fourth cast, my long-countdown exploration found hard bottom. After breaking off I was down to three tungsten HENs. Knotting another to my leader, for over an hour I fished from my starting point 100 feet east then an equal distance back west along the curving shoreline. For my trouble I caught exactly one keeper-sized bluegill. And wouldn't you know it, that fish took the tungsten HEN near the end of a deep-water retrieve, in shallowing water only three feet deep.

As my hitless casts accumulated, I realized I was doing my usual hard-headed thing: trying to make fish bite on a fly I wanted them to take, in water where I wanted them to bite, and when I wanted them to bite. Sometimes this stubbornness pays off, but today it wasn't. So I made two tactical moves: I changed locations to a spot with approximately half the wind speed and much smaller waves, then switched from the #12 tungsten HEN to a brass beadhead #16 HEN.

At this new spot, the bottom slopes gradually to around 6 feet deep at 40 feet out. I began picking up bluegill, nothing spectacular action-wise but steady enough to satisfy. I also, at this "easier spot" began having some of the worst casting problems I've ever suffered.

Glancing east, I spotted another fly fisher operating along the same shoreline. I never saw him land any fish, but I wasn't watching him that close, either. Around 4:45 p.m. he quit, got in his truck and was driving past me when he suddenly slowed and stopped. It was Larry McGuire, a guy I've run into at this lake a number of times. He got out of his truck and walked down to visit.

One morning this spring I watched Larry casting a spey rod - first spey I'd seen on the hoof. Very impressive rods, are speys. Larry was throwing casts that morning that reached out at least 100 feet, maybe 120 feet. Damnest thing I ever saw.

"I couldn't tell because you were too far off, but was that your spey rod you were using back there?" I asked him.

"No; I don't use that spey much anymore," Larry replied.

"Ever tried throwing one of these?" I asked, extending my 7'10" 00-wt. Sage his direction as an invitation to try it out.

He took it, looked it over, worked out a bit of false cast line, then a bit more line…then more line...and before I knew what was happening Larry was throwing my #16 bead head nymph at least 30 feet farther than I've ever thrown it, and seemingly doing so with no effort at all. What was weird is that his backcasts looked too quick, too short. He wasn't letting the loop lay out behind him in classic textbook fashion; nevertheless, on his final forward casts the line would shoot out over the water like it was fired from a gun.

"I don't know," Larry offered cautiously, "this thing would take some getting used to. It doesn't feel right."

That remark took me by surprise. Like, if he ever got use to a 00-Sage ultralight rod to where it "felt right" could he send a #16 beadhead nymph flying 100 yards clear across this lake arm? I couldn't believe how far he was casting...and with MY ROD, too!

He handed my rod back and I resumed my expert demonstration of how not to cast. In two minutes Larry saw some seriously skunky stuff. Line piling against my chest, fly snagging on weeds during backcasts, line piling on the water after forward casts, leader wrapping the rod tip on pickup. A cornucopia of screwups. My mechanics felt okay but the results were a disgrace.

"Just keep working at it, keep practicing," Larry suggested as he turned to leave.

Oh, and lest I forget, there was one last little suggestion he offered before getting into his pickup: "You should clip off that nymph and go with a dry fly."

Right. And don't people who drive Fords think Fords are better?

The only thing I ended up practicing after Larry left was how to clip off one nymph and tie on a different one. Ever since switching to that #16 beadhead I'd been bothered by the sharp tug that even a little #16 wire-wrapped beadhead puts on your leader during false casts. Larry's casting prowess aside, I decided the beadhead's weight might be contributing to my casting difficulties. Not the main cause to be sure, but a contributing cause. Maybe changing nymphs would help somehow.

More to the point, by now I'd detected a trend in how the fish were hitting. The 'gillies would attack my little nymph in the first few seconds after touchdown, but the longer I counted down the deeper the beadhead sank and the fewer hits I got. I tried compensating by commencing my retrieve almost immediately after splashdown, stripping the beadhead in quicker and keeping the rod tip high (to make the nymph run shallower) but the bluegills were having none of that.

These two bits of behavioral evidence added up to one conclusion: this evening the 'gills were occupying a narrow zone near the surface and they preferred slow-moving prey. They were not exhibiting much eagerness in surface feeding, else I'd have been seeing and hearing lots of swirling activity. So a dry fly didn't seem the right thing to use.

Solution? I changed to a no-bead unweighted #12 gold-ribbed Hare's Ear Nymph, one built around a light-gauge hook. I knotted it on and sent it out into the lake. Slowly, slow... sink...CRUNCH! A 9-inch bluegill buck grabbed the gently descending nymph, put me in his rear-view mirror and hit the gas pedal. Thus began a 45-minute frenzy of panfish catching that involved big bluegills, red ears and a couple of crappie. Everything I landed was unhooked and released.

This action commenced close to 5:00 p.m. I quit the lake at 5:45 p.m. after catching perhaps 30 very good panfish in 45-minutes of nymphing. There was a thin overcast this evening that was making the sky go dark quicker than usual. The darkening sky coincided with the strikes becoming less frequent. The question in my mind was whether the action slowdown was the result of dimming light or if the ruckus stirred up by all the fish I'd hooked had warned off the remaining unhooked ones.

Let me pause here to voice a gripe. I'm not a big fan of how Daylight Savings Time gets used in the United States. Seems to me DST ought to happen in the winter, not the summer. Hunters and fishers who work day jobs could make good use of an extra hour of daylight in the late fall and winter months.

Look, the days are naturally longer in late spring, summer and early fall, right? Okay, so why do we overload these naturally longer days with another hour of sunlight, making it where the evening sky is still brightly lit when we're trying to go to sleep at 9:30 p.m.? How stupid is that?

Wouldn't it be better to spread the sun's wealth across the board? Stay on Standard Time until late fall. Wait until the planet's axis tilts us into fewer hours of sunlight per day and THEN switch to Daylight Savings Time. Come the official first day of Fall everybody wakes up an hour earlier, we go to work and school an hour earlier, thereby getting an extra hour of late afternoon outdoors play time. Instead of "Spring-forward, Fall-back" the new drill would be: "Spring-back, Fall-forward".

How come we fishers and hunters never get put in charge of making society's truly important policy decisions?

At any rate, the wonderful action I enjoyed nymph - repeat, nymph - fishing Sunday evening kept me distracted all day Monday at work. Could my spirit survive without catching another bluegill until the next weekend? No, it could not.

Monday after work I drove as fast as KC Metro Area rush hour traffic and speed limit signs allowed, arriving at Sunday evening's hot spot at 5:20 p.m. A dense cloud bank from the northwest had arrived 30 minutes before me and covered the lake in gloom. At least tonight the lake surface was a mirror; not a breath of wind was blowing. Before rigging up, I put on my Petzl 3-LED headlamp; its beam was needed to illuminate my leader so that I could tie on a no-bead #16 unweighted gold ribbed Hares Ear.

It quickly became clear that my choice of a small lightweight nymph wasn't tickling the panfish pectorals pink. In the rapidly dimming light I could tell the tiny nymph was barely sinking. Indeed, it was leaving a v-shaped wake behind itself during retrieves. This wasn't the nymph's fault; I was using a leader with a 5-lb. test tippet: surface tension was keeping the leader afloat. Before I could think about changing flies, I broke off this #16 GRHEN when I snagged something on a backcast. Another fly bites the dust.

Okay, time for a slightly heavier (but unweighted) #12 GRHEN - the same nymph I'd enjoyed 45 Minutes of Paradise with just 24 hours ago. With expectations of a strike on every cast, I threw the #12 HEN for an hour and caught just 3 bluegills. Wow! What a difference a day makes!

Night Bluegill

I've heard and read that bluegills are almost exclusively daytime feeders; they won't hit in the dark. Well, I had maybe six hits after it got dark, which confirms that some 'gills do remain active after lights out.

Was there another reason for this slow action tonight, another reason besides darkness? Perhaps not having any wind blowing had altered the underwater insect prey distribution; the 'gills may have simply been someplace else looking for their evening din-din. Or maybe they were actually out there in strength but were giving me the cold shoulder, recalling all those nymphs they'd grabbed the evening before - nymphs with a hook.

This was my longest effort yet night angling with fly tackle. I didn't feel very comfortable doing it. Part of the reason being I was fishing from the bank and this provoked worries of snagging my back cast.

On the plus side: Here it's an early November night and my LED headlamp is attracting a swarm of flying insects. This was totally unexpected. Bugs were landing on my face, crawling down my neck, running around the inside surface of my eyeglass lenses, generally making a nuisance of themselves. But they weren't biting insects. I'm embarrassed to say that I'm ignorant enough about insects and can't report what species they were. More than one species, though.

What impressed me most is that winged insects were present in abundance, actively flying about on a dark, cold Kansas November night, making themselves available as food item targets for every hungry panfish in this lake. This definitely made an impact.

If I ever make the leap of faith into regular night-time fly angling, the effort surely will require a fair number of tactical adjustments. One thing: if winged insects aflight on cold fall and winter nights is a common occurrence, Larry McGuire's advice to go with a dry fly around sundown starts to make a lot of sense. (Very likely many of the insects I saw tonight hatched tonight.)

The problem: how do you fish a dry fly once it gets so dark out that you can't see where the fly lands, when you can't see the take if the dry gets grabbed? Fly angling at night - it's got to be a different and far more difficult world. ~ Joe

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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