Welcome to Warmwater Fishing!

Something I Never Expected

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

Late Wednesday night I drove to the lake and truck-camped at the head of one of its three main arms. The plan was to rise Thursday morning shortly after dawn, cook a quick breakfast then relocate (if necessary) to a spot that would let me fish an area mostly free of wind and waves. My solo canoe was on the roof rack; there would be no bank fishing tomorrow.

Either I read the National Weather Service forecast wrong, or forgot what I'd read, or else the weather seriously improved. Instead of high wind, what materialized Thursday was a gentle southerly breeze with air temperature that climbed steadily from the lower 50s to a daytime high approaching 80. Clear sky, warm sunshine, light wind ruled this day. But I didn't completely trust what was happening until around noon.

This lake - it's the one I fish most often - is now two feet below normal pool due to drought. Let me tell you, for a slow moving canoeist low water offers a golden opportunity to study a lake's normally-concealed underwater furniture arrangement. Better yet, you can conduct the examination while fishing for the table, which doubles the enlightenment.

It's a weird feeling, though, paddling through spots that six months earlier were deep enough that you didn't know how deep the water really was because your paddle never hit bottom, and now with each paddle stroke your blade touches bottom easily? One of the things you hear yourself saying over and over (assuming the water is clear enough) is: "Ah! So THAT'S what I kept snagging my nymphs on!"

Unless you are blessed with a photographic memory and an inborn ability to perceive your exact position on the planet surface with absolute accuracy, there is no use trying to remember the location of each lakebed object of interest that you discover during these low water outings. Some you will remember forever but most you won't; there are just too many interesting finds to recall. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be. For me, there's much about this modest-sized lake that I'm ignorant of despite my many visits here, and I'm okay with things staying that way. Who wants to know everything anyway?

During about half my trips to this lake arm I've fished its south shoreline first, and that's what I did today. A few days earlier in the mail I received a shipment of #10 flashback Hare's Ear Nymph "Old Reliables," so I'd come to the lake eager to send them into battle. But the low water look of this entire lake arm persuaded me to use prudence and go with a lighter, slightly smaller and therefore shallower-running nymph - an unweighted #12 gold ribbed Hare's Ear. This nymph I connected to a fresh 7 1/2 -ft. 5X tapered leader.

Moving along the lake arm's south shoreline, I was casting generally in fan fashion but mostly my throws were sent close to shore in the shallowest water. Habit, I guess, because the lightweight, slowly sinking #12 nymph allowed this. What was revealed is that the tree-shaded shallows close to shore were where many keeper-sized bluegills were holding. They weren't just occupying space, either: the bad boys were hungry.

This was not where I expected the 'gillies to be; with the cool days and nights we'd had lately I assumed they'd be holding farther off shore in deeper water. It sure is a lot of fun being so wrong.

A large area of dead, partly submerged brush sits in this lake arm. So far today I hadn't come anywhere near it. At 11 a.m. the day was warming up nicely and still there was no high wind, so I decided to hit this brush just for a drill. I knew from earlier trips here that the depth within the brush stand runs shallow here and there. Once I reached the area, I found I could make out the bottom reasonably well while peering down through the rotting wood stems.

Low water conditions

Suddenly I began noticing underwater dust clouds - lakebed silt. I was spooking small schools of fish judging from the size of the underwater "dust storms" appearing around me.

Going slow already, I dropped to a super-slow crawl and crept into the heart of the brush stand. After making a left pivot, dead ahead I spotted a spot of reddish orange moving slowly along the bottom - a goldfish, big one, well over a foot long. Doubtless a once-small bait minnow brought to the lake years earlier by someone trying for catfish.

That was the only fish whose body I saw. I waited for him to flee like the others had, but Goldie was actually quite relaxed as I glided almost directly above him. Hmmm…if he's relaxed and the fish creating these big clouds of silt are afraid, are those mystery fish another species? Gamefish maybe?

You never know unless you throw.

When my #12 GRHEN plopped down in a small open pocket amidst the brush it didn't sink six inches before it was gobbled by a fat 8-inch bluegill. Into my ice chest went another pair of soon-to-be boneless, delicious, pan-fried bluegill fillets and thank you very much!

I'd already caught and kept some ten good bluegills from along the south shore. My little ice chest now began filling up more as I moved about in the brush. One reason I moved about so much is because I kept hanging up, which forced me to lift anchors and move in to retrieve the nymph. This brushy area is a wilderness of woody stems. I've always suspected it was far worse than it looks above surface, and what I saw in the shallow clear water confirmed it.

It's irksome getting hung up every three or four casts, you know? So I looked through my nymph box for something lighter that would swim a bit higher in the water column. If it didn't catch as many fish as the larger #12 GRHEN had already done, well, that would be okay; I'd already caught enough fish for meal purposes. The nymph I knotted on next was a #14 Pheasant Tail tied by Rick Zeiger. A narrower hook gap combined with shallower running depth (if I did my part right) might reduce snagging.

Time now, around noon. I was ready to leave; a few more casts and that'd be it for me today. And then...

About five feet into a retrieve that was easing its way through an open lane at the edge of the brushy area there came a polite pickup followed by that telltale sluggish pull and wide silvery flash of light reflecting from speckled scales.

Leaving? Somebody say I'm leaving? You see this 11-inch black crappie flopping in the bottom of my canoe? Homie ain't goin' nowhere.

A few casts after icing this first extremely exciting crappie, I brought another retrieve through virtually the same spot and a crappie rose up through the woody tangle. In full view of me it swam along inches below the surface with its tail wagging back and forth like a happy puppy chasing a rubber ball, and chased my nymph nose-to-pheasant tail for a good ten feet before quitting, turning around and descending out of sight. The dirty little rat brought my nerves to bowstring tension.

"Oh, you like chasing your food, huh?" I said to the fish (and any others nearby that might be eavesdropping), "Let me give you something you can catch."

Clipping off the PTN, I snapped open my nymph box again and extracted a larger fly, one of a matched pair that Rick gave me this spring. He claims they're deadly on crappie. I'd been hoarding them for a special occasion and today was it. This fly is built on what looks like a #10 hook. The dominant feature is a snarl of light brown wooly-looking fibers - very long fibers that are so loosely wrapped they create a bulky appearance from every angle. Picture a #10 Hare's Ear Nymph that overdosed on Rogaine.

Due to this fly's portly, flow-through composition it's a good one for slow presentations. With the sun now almost directly overhead and lighting up this clear shallow water, tracking a fly like this should be easy; I could let it descend to almost out of sight depth then as needed swim it back up over any submerged wood stems I spotted.

As for catching more crappies, over the next two hours I sure did: exactly one more. Three or four I hooked but they got off. One likely problem (and a nice problem) was big bluegills kept getting to the fly first. That brown hairball is not just a crappie killer, it's a big bluegill killer as well.

Looking back on this trip (17 bluegills, 2 crappie), I think what happened crappie-wise is I was late trying that brushy area. In my own defense, if I'd expected any crappie to be hanging out in water that shallow in mid-November you can bet the farm I'd have paddled there straightaway. Instead, I found them by accident just as the bright mid-day sun was illuminating this shallow, clear water and sending the light-sensitive stragglers to the girl's room to check their mascara.

Well, give me another late fall weekday off with such a fine morning and I'll be after these black crappies when the school bell rings. Keeper crappies look as good to me first thing in the morning as they do around noon. ~ 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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