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When I'd Never Gone Before
By Joe Hyde, Douglas County, KS

Sunday morning, Nov. 13th. No way would I be going fishing with Rick Zieger today. No way at all.

It was dawn and I was camped at Nine Eagles State Park, east of Lamoni, IA. Thick forest surrounded my non-electric campsite and even the largest tree limbs above me were high-kicking in the wind like those Irish babes in "Michael Flatley's River Dance." This fishing trip to Iowa was a lost cause.

At 1PM I telephoned Rick per our pre-arranged plan; he'd told me earlier that Sunday afternoon was his only fishing option. When he answered the phone, I opened the conversation by saying I wasn't all that disappointed about not being able to fish (the wind was blowing even harder now, at 1PM, than it was at dawn). We could instead, I suggested, pass the afternoon doing something equally valuable (to me at least) if Rick could maybe show me a trick or two on how I could use an old tying vise I own to outfit my factory-tied nymphs with mono weedguards? Rick, I knew, ties his own flies.

I was making this phone call sitting in my truck in the parking lot where he works, hoping the wind wouldn't roll my truck like a tumbleweed. Rick listened, but didn't respond to my grievances about the day's gale force wind ruining our fishing plans. All he said was, "Stay put, I'll be right over."

A few minutes later Rick arrived and we entered his optometry shop, an ingenious bit of public deception as it is located in the same building housing his actual workplace - the fly-tying closet. For the next 45 minutes he demonstrated a few basic tools and skills, including how he ties his version of my personal favorite, the #10 Hare's Ear nymph. Then, suddenly it seemed, he backed away from his fly tying bench, stood up and said, "Okay, let's go."

"Go? Go...where?"

"Fishing. I know a pond that should be protected from the worst of this wind."

I kid you not, dear reader: the lowest velocity gusts of this day's wind impressed me as capable of capsizing my canoe if I got caught broadside. And we would definitely be canoe fishing; Rich had pulled into the parking lot with his Old Town tandem racked. He was ready for battle. Was I?

One of my life ambitions is to live to a disgusting old age; I want to be one of those shriveled up, smelly old men who nurses avoid in the rest home. I quickly had to consider, then, that the terrain surrounding Lamoni, Iowa is composed of tall, steeply rolling hills deposited by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. It's an impressive topography that doubtless offers many narrow valleys and draws where deep ponds can be built that are largely shielded from high wind. And that sort of pond, it turned out, is exactly where Rick took us, him leading, me following.

And did I fail to mention how cold it was? Sorry, but I didn't think to check my thermometer to get the exact reading. It couldn't have been any warmer than 35 degrees. I was frantically pulling on fleece pants, gloves, a stocking hat, then covering everything with a lightweight nylon wind suit. Looking at the pond, I could see this fishing trip would involve no more than 100 yards of total paddling distance, but even with a diminished wind the pond was still getting swept hard. I was about to be subjected to as much wind-chill as if I were canoe tripping the big, open Kansas River channel in January.

Rick had brought a pair of 2-piece rods that were both already lined and "flied," so he was first on the water. I was delayed by having to extract my 5-piece pack rod from of its carry case, assemble it, line it and tie on a fly. Just as I shoved my doubled-over floating line through the tip-top guide, I glanced across the pond and noticed Rick's rod bent down sharply from resistance by a good fish. Soon, I saw a large area of flash reflecting off a fish's body as he hoisted it from the water. A bit too far off to tell what he'd caught. I assumed it was a bass judging from the size, and that thought gave me comfort. No pond is perfect; better it be a big bass than one of those big crappie he's always writing about.

"Joe, come over here; they're along this line of stumps," Rick called from across the water.

I finally launched my Wenonah Rendezvous solo and made it halfway to Rick when it suddenly hit me that I'd forgotten to put my camera in the boat. I hurriedly paddled back and got it, then moved to a spot about 50 feet north of Rick and anchored. I no sooner got on station and began casting than he connected again, eventually boating…a very large, beautiful crappie! Wow!

"Nice crappie!" I told him. "So this pond's got bass and crappie in it, huh? That was a good bass I saw you boat earlier. Boy, it sure didn't take you long to catch two good fish!"

"That first fish you saw me catch was a crappie, a bigger one than this one," Rick said. "And this fish here is the fourth one I've caught since we got here. I had a fifth one hooked, but it got off."

That comment made me want to throw my camera overboard.

So I finally got down to the business of fishing, casting perpendicular into a shoreline area of submerged tree stumps where the depth stairsteps from 3 feet down to around 12 feet. My very first cast, a fat, beautiful crappie 10 inches long grabs my #10 HEN and won't let go. Which is good, because I don't want him to. Then the bluegills take over, and they're running around 8-inches long apiece. It's still very cold and windy, but I'm not especially noticing that at the moment.

Rick in his canoe looks to be dressed much lighter than I. Then it occurred to me: well, why wouldn't he be dressed lighter? The guy's home state is Alaska, where summertime highs are probably much like today's chilly Iowa fall weather. No wonder this guy catches so many fish - he never quits, while most of us Midwest weenies spend our cold weather days comfortably indoors sitting at our computer monitors reading his trip stories in FAOL. We ain't dumb?

After I boated my crappie and three of four bluegills, the group of fish in front of me now heard this: "The Biting Lamp Is Out." Rick's hot hand went cold, too. I re-anchored my canoe to the north of the stumps and closer to shore, so that I could cast beyond the stumps and bring my nymph back parallel to the underwater breakline. Seemed like an excellent tactic, but it didn't produce no matter how deep or shallow I ran the nymph. Well, just before quitting that spot I did fool one bluegill that was lurking almost cheek-to-jowl against one of the stumps. But none of his buddies duplicated his mistake.

Rick and I now split up and ranged independently, him moving to the pond's north end where he worked the shallows without success, I moved toward the dam to probe the deeper breaks he said were there. I didn't do any good, either. It was 30 minutes till sundown now; maybe our initial flurry was as good as it was gonna get today.

Once I abandoned the deep water area, I headed north toward Rick's position not knowing what else to do: figured I'd float around aimlessly nearby and just visit. As I approached, though, he suggested I try an indented shoreline area that lies in front of a "little tree" he kept pointing to on the west bank. A number of short trees were growing there and I was confused as to which one he meant. So not wanting to appear clueless, I anchored off the general center of the tree line and fan-cast into the area. No hits.

Rick eventually moved behind and past me then began working the center of the pond. As he eased by, he suggested I relocate closer to shore and cast parallel to the weed line. "Try it about two feet out from those weeds." I did, and first cast, bingo! a really nice bluegill pounced on my nymph without realizing he'd bought himself a ticket for a one-way trip to Lamoni, IA. Then the bluegills just kept coming. Some were huge; huge to my way of thinking. The only one I took time to measure, nose-to-tail was 10 inches long and the width across its shoulders must have gone 2 inches - just a marvelous bluegill specimen.

It's now clear that I need to drive around the northeast Kansas countryside on bitter cold, windy days and if I spot a good-looking pond, stop and ask the landowner if I can fish it that same day. The surprise factor alone might be enough that I'll get permission. ("Why Ma, that boy's crazy; I let him in because he'll never catch a damn thing!")

But let me tell y'all one thing: if it'd been you and not me who caught that nice crappie followed by all those big bluegills while fishing with Rick that miserable day, right now you'd be going a little bit crazy yourself. ~ 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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