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Thanksgiving, 2006

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

During my teens, 20s and 30s a large number of my Thanksgiving Days were celebrated not by congregating with family at a dining room table heaped with food but by being outdoors from dawn to sundown hunting quail, pheasants, prairie chicken or ducks. Grandpa Stu, Uncle Harold and their buddies, wow, they were into hunting and fishing like you wouldn't believe. Constant exposure to those great guys and their liberated attitudes led to a certain contamination, and if there's a doctor in the house please keep your distance because I've no desire to be cured.

Need proof? Okay: single guy Joe (yours truly) graciously declines four separate invitations for Thanksgiving dinner - one from his own mother - in favor of…going fly fishing. Now, if an early winter storm had been in the forecast I'd have gone along with the usual family social deal. But the forecast was for sunny clear skies and a 66-degree daytime high. What decided it more than anything, though, was a package of hand-tied flies that arrived in the mail three days before Thanksgiving - a package of panfishing flies tied by Florida's Robert McCorquodale.

So midnight Wednesday after playing music at an old-time country jam I drove straight to the lake and truck camped. After setting the parking brake I took my canoe off the roof rack, set it on the ground a few feet from shore and loaded it with my paddling saddle, ankle rolls, two paddles, fly rod (lined and rigged), fanny pack, PFD, ice chest and landing net.

Ready Rendezvous

The landing net is an item I seldom carry but should carry every trip. I stowed it now because I was anticipating catching crappie and for crappie I need a security blanket. Few things generate in me a darker sense of helpless shock than carefully working a good crappie alongside only to have it wiggle free an instant before being lipped and lifted.

It was 32 degrees and dead calm Thanksgiving Day when I came out of my truck at dawn, pushed my canoe into the lake and shoved off. The area I wanted to fish lay 200 yards down the lake arm. I was halfway there, paddling easily on mirror-smooth water, when the wind began to rise. By the time I eased up to my target area a 15-mph southeast breeze was sweeping the lake arm like an angry broom. Had I waited another 15 minutes before launching, odds are I'd have packed everything up and relocated to a protected location. But this was the lake arm I wanted to fish today and I was already committed so I stuck to the original plan.

Aggravating the usual casting difficulties when fishing in wind was a tactical problem: I wanted to fish the edge of a stand of submerged brush and casting to it necessitated throwing cross-wind in backhanded fashion. Not my favorite way of casting. And after fly splashdown the wind bellied my floating line and drastically complicated efforts to control the fly's presentation. Thanksgiving dinner with the family was starting to look better by the minute.

I started with a #10 Improved McGinty pulled the night before off a card holding some one dozen flies that Robert had sent me. After 30 minutes with no hits on the McGinty I considered calling it a day, but decided to give another of his flies a shot. Into the brush went an Improved Black Gnat built on a #10 hook. To help this fly resist snagging I left a considerable length of the knot's tag end intact to function as a hook guard. Before long the gnat began scoring and thoughts of leaving the lake went bye-bye.

Redear on Improved Black Gnat

Gill with Improved Black Gnat

An hour of Improved Black Gnat fishing with no crappie hits was making me antsy. I'd come here so early in the morning thinking that crappies would be present again (like during my last trip) but in greater numbers and they'd be eager to bite. Unwilling to give up my hope of catching crappie, I gambled by clipping off the gnat and tying on a bead-eye Crappie Candy fly that Robert included.

Rolling the dice by throwing this quicker-sinking fly into submerged brush made me nervous, but taking the risk seemed unavoidable. If crappies were indeed present here, they were refusing to rise and take upper-zone presentations. I would have to go deeper for them.

Crappie Candy, as it turned out, is also Bluegill Candy. Redear Candy, too.

Crappie Candy Thief

Not once did I think to lower Crappie Candy into the water and see whether its hook rides up or down. It seemed fairly resistant to snagging, though, which I determined by feel when it would bump against submerged brush stems and momentarily pause before rubbing free of the obstacle. Finally, though, after some twenty casts it went somewhere it shouldn't have. Grumbling, I leaned back on my rod to test whether I could force it loose. As my rod bowed down, suddenly something heavy pulled back while simultaneously rising and leisurely flashing a long, tall silvery profile. A crappie and a very big one! Overcome with excitement, I stupidly, foolishly horsed back even harder on my rod. The hook immediately pulled free. And that, folks, was not just the first but also the last crappie strike I had on Thanksgiving Day, 2006.

Not that I didn't keep trying. But now as I worked the brush ever deeper attempting to provoke another strike the Crappie Candy began repeatedly snagging. Naturally, the last thing I wanted to do was break off this fly, so each snag-up necessitated lifting both my anchors and moving in to dislodge the fly. In a canoe that's getting buffeted by a 15-mph wind this is no easy task. No quiet task, either. So after about an hour of Crappie Candy snagging and loud retrieving I switched back to the Improved Black Gnat fly. Being a lighter weight fly, I would try presenting it as deep as I'd sent Crappie Candy simply by using a much slower retrieve.

"Simply" until it began snagging the woody underwater stems, too. Then the IBG fell prey to a crosswind snag and got broken off. At this point my frustration with the hostile wind conditions and constant snagging began getting to me. I left the brush and paddled to the opposite shore of the lake arm, where I clipped off a #16 Hare's Ear Nymph I'd used at the tail end of the brush action. Onto the leader went my hero, Old Reliable, a #10 flashback Hare's Ear Nymph.

But even Old Reliable was having trouble bringing home the bacon in this wind. I was by now seriously thinking of leaving the lake. It was around 1:00 p.m. Then I looked far downwind and saw a patch of standing brush sitting in a shallow-arc lakeshore pocket that, although exposed to the wind, was not directly exposed. And the sun was shining on it, warming it probably. A shoulder of shoreline jutting out was deflecting just enough wind and waves to make this spot a natural place for panfish to congregate and ambush wind-delivered insects drifting past. I moved to its upwind sid and during the approach spotted below me a nice-sized panfish of some sort; bluegill or redear, I couldn't tell which. I excitedly anchored and began roll casting downwind into the brush and also off to the right in deeper water.

Bringing Old Reliable slow and deep through the area a few yards to the open water side of the brush resulted in the capture of two large redear sunfish, the first 11-inches long (released), the second a 10-incher (kept). Both these fish made me glad I'd brought my landing net, as they bitterly resisted to the end.

Old Reliable Strikes Again

I quit the lake at 2:30 p.m. with eighteen fish in my ice chest - ten bluegills and eight redears. In my teenager days, or my 20s or 30s, someone in our party might have pulled out a camera and taken a Thanksgiving Day shot of the rooster pheasants or mallard ducks we bagged. But Grandpa Stu and Uncle Harold are both gone now, as are nearly all their great hunting buddies. In fact, I might be the only one left from that group. So here's my photo of the fruits of this year's Thanksgiving Day "hunt." It was tough hunting, but I didn't come back empty handed.

Thanksgiving Feast to be

Thank you, Robert, for the flies. I only used three but I'll be trying each one. ~ 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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