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Two New Unknowns

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

Listening closely as I received permission to fish not one but two (new to me) farm ponds, the surprise factor had me at a loss for words. I'm just not used to hearing someone I've never met before invite me to fish a couple of ponds he owns. My mind was awkwardly trying to process this lightning bolt of good fortune when the landowner let slip the magic word "crappie" and I heard myself say,"Thank you! I'll try them both today!"

Fishing any body of water for the first time is fun, but sometimes it can be a little nerve-racking? The excitement I felt at having this opportunity was balanced by worries that I wouldn't catch anything; maybe I wouldn't even get a hit. The end of October had come. Northeast Kansas had just been visited by the fall season's first serious cold spell. Overnight lows in the upper 20s and, of course, wind. But this morning the sky was sunny and clear and the wind wasn't too bad, a combination that gave the day a decent chance at warming up.

Both of his ponds, the owner told me, are smaller and shallower than the Watershed District retention pond he knew I'd been fishing recently. Hearing this made me think his ponds would probably have colder water in them after surrendering much of their warmth to the clear night skies, as a thin aluminum oven sheet cools fresh-baked cookies quicker than a cast iron Dutch oven will cool a pot of beef stew. How active will the fish in these two ponds be? Not very active, was my guess.

So I could draw a certain comfort from thinking that no matter what I did as a fisherman I would likely not be seeing these ponds at their best. Not today; the overnight lows had been too chilly for too many nights in a row. Perhaps this fatalistic assumption was a mind game I was playing on myself; whatever, it helped reduce the pressure I felt to succeed. I mean, out of the blue somebody invites me to fish their pond? Hey, I want to show them some results, like I know what I'm doing?. Otherwise they might think I'm some sort of fly fishing dummy…which I often am, but try constantly to conceal it.

Driving onto his property, the first pond came into view and I could tell right away that I was in trouble. The kind of trouble I like. Everywhere along the shoreline were submerged limbs with branch tips poking above water, and whole submerged trees, too, all of these objects looking like they'd been dropped at their exact spot by the owner himself specifically to provide fish cover. And surrounding the pond were standing trees in sufficient density that casting a fly rod anywhere from shore would be tricky business indeed. In short, the place looked really good.

Working this pond thoroughly and suffering as little pain as possible meant using my canoe so that I could cast from open water toward the snag-infested shore. The only reason I didn't do this is because the owner had told me his second pond was the biggest. I hadn't yet seen that second pond and thought it prudent to spend the bulk of my time there today, on the theory that the bigger pond might also be deeper and thus a few degrees warmer? So although this smaller, tree-shaded first pond looked good I decided to sample it only briefly by means of casting into it from shore, trusting to luck that I wouldn't lose much tackle.

It was mid-morning, making it harder to evaluate the probability of success; there were certainly no surface disturbances to indicate fish activity. But then, even in summertime the fish usually cease surface feeding around this same time of day. Wonder what this pond looks and sounds like on a mid-summer evening with June bugs falling into the water? Looks pretty sleepy right now, that's for sure.

Sleepy and asleep are two different states. My third cast came down close to a poking branch top and on the drop my nymph got clobbered by a bluegill. A few casts later during a deep retrieve, a relative of that same branch took Old Reliable into custody and he'll never see the light of day again.

Tiptoeing to the pond's south side, the best place to operate there was amidst a stand of trees whose lower limbs were oriented such that I could safely backcast so long as I used a sidearm delivery. But this took care of only half the problem; the other half involved landing the four or five fish that I hooked there.

Into the cover

Hooked bluegills exhibit a genius IQ in how fast they half-hitch your leader around solid objects they come near? A couple of the fish zoomed into submerged shoreline branches and forced me to play that old waiting game…will they, or will they not, unwrap themselves if I cease all rod pressure?

Even with these difficulties it was becoming obvious that if I committed serious time to this first pond I would likely have some good bluegills to show for it. Maybe some crappies, too– and this smaller pond is the one stocked with crappies. Ah, but that second, bigger pond was waiting just over the hill and it was calling to me.

Two fence gates later I reached the big pond. Near its upper end I parked my pickup, unracked my canoe, rigged it with anchors, loaded it with gear and launched.

Launching at big pond

Of immediate interest was a long slot in the shoreline weedbed. If I positioned my canoe correctly two or three times during my slow approach to it, then again once I got there, I could work perhaps two hundred linear feet of weedline cover. This place had Bluegill written all over it. But I discovered on my first anchor drops that the water here is quite shallow, most of it no more than two feet deep. Initially this shallowness didn't concern me; my very first cast caught a bluegill! But after that fish, no dice, even though I switched patterns three times looking for a winner.

Surrounded by vegetation

The above photo illustrates a challenge faced by everyone who fishes farm ponds: a dense weedbed that extends well beyond the shoreline. Rare is the Kansas farm pond absent a similar green border. In most cases this growth decays during the winter months, leaving the pond's border clear and open as the winter season moves into early spring.

For your typical aquatic pond plant; the spring transition unleashes unbelievably rapid growth. This makes cabin fever overrated as the presumed motive for why thousands every year rush to go fishing at the first hint of spring weather. Farm ponds are the #1 destination for Kansas anglers, and statistically most farm ponds are shallow. People experienced with ponds will fish them as soon as possible after ice-out, when the shallows are warming up, when fish are in those shallows becoming active…and before the pond's weeds go berserk and bloom into a wrap-around barrier to shoreline casting and retrieving.

I quit the shallows, moved to the dam and tried it there for a while, using a couple of patterns without any noteworthy success. My fish finder was in the boat today so I took the opportunity to examine the depth along the dam.

Working the dam

The structure of this dam is such that the bottom falls away very steeply, almost a 1/1 drop. I graphed a number of large fish below me, but couldn't entice any of them to hit. And in places along the dam and the adjacent north bank, medium-sized trees and large shrubs have branches and limbs that lean out over the water, creating excellent cover for panfish and bass. Meal-producing cover, actually, just like those pesky weed beds. This, too, looks like a good pond. Time will tell whether I'm skilled enough to do anything here; I sure didn't put any dents in it today.

On the way out, I drove across the small pond's dam. Halfway over I glanced down into the water and saw, lined up like grocery shoppers at the checkout counter, some one dozen bluegills and small bass suspended just below the surface, their noses facing into the wind-ruffled waves. The sun had reached its mid-day high point, the water along the dam was warming up and these fish knew it. With my polarized lenses I could see them moving around looking, pausing, hunting. Any insect unfortunate enough to fall into this pond and get blown to the dam would be a pork chop thrown into a kennel of Rottweilers.

But I had to go; things to do back home.

I hope to hit these ponds again, next spring especially. You know, if a person had permission to fish enough farm ponds and developed a fair knowledge of their design and structure, this would allow sequencing your springtime fishing trips to match the prevailing weather conditions, so as to catch each pond during its individual best window of opportunity. Kind of like Rick Zieger does. I'll think about that this winter. ~ 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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