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Panfishing Under A Microscope

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas


People I'm around regularly, they know I'm something of a worrier. A bothersome trait to be sure, but one I hope irritates me more than my friends.

Rising at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning to make a nearby lake cove before dawn, one of my chronic fishing worries vanished when, after launching my canoe, I looked around and saw not another soul in sight. Nothing relaxes me more than knowing I'm the day's first person to reach a good spot. And this cove is a good spot. At least, it was good two weeks earlier when I'd caught a mixed dozen of keeper bluegill and black crappie.

Easing into the narrow cove, up ahead I heard splashing and could faintly make out scattered wave rings formed by fish of some sort that were feeding on who knows what. It was just getting light out. Times like this make me wish I knew a lot more about aquatic entomology and fish behavior.

Were these fish taking floating insects or attacking minnows they'd pinned against the surface, or grabbing nymphs that neared the surface to hatch? I didn't see any winged bugs rising off the lake surface, for what that's worth.

I opted to go with my money fly - a flashback Hare's Ear nymph. One was still tied to the leader from my last outing at a different lake - a #12 size I'd used for defensive purposes in a shallow cove with a stick-studded bottom. (I hate losing gear.) Now, at this morning's deeper cove, I gambled that these swirling fish were eating nymphs; if so, they might like my #12 due to its slow sink rate and shallow track on retrieve.

Proceeding eastward spot by spot, I worked the south shoreline by casting along the sides of moss clumps and into the open corridors between. For over an hour it was slow going - one borderline keeper bluegill and a pair of crappie fell prey, although I did lose two other good crappies just before getting them to the boat.

All week at work, I'd been worried that lake conditions might have changed in those secret ways that make fish hold in different places and feed differently? Northeast Kansas had just endured the typical springtime bounce - a steady warming trend abruptly backtracks for three days of chilly daytime 50s with overnight lows barely above freezing, and then the yo-yo reverses. Today's forecast was for a high of 90.

I tried muting this concern to focus on fishing, not easy with the action so slow. Should I switch to a dry fly and cast to these risers, or ignore the risers and stay with my nymph in hopes it would be the ticket once I doubled back and began working the north shoreline? I elected to stay with the Hare's Ear but switched to a #10 size because the fish didn't seem interested in anything running shallow. On the retrieve, a #10's heavier hook would let Isaac Newton take it for a slightly deeper trip through the water column.

Strange, how fish will favor one side of a cove when to our human eyes the underwater terrain and aquatic vegetation look identical on both sides. No doubt there are times when this cove's south side produces best. And south could yet be the best side today, in late afternoon maybe? I couldn't let myself dwell on that thought; I was handling the morning shift and my task was to figure out what's happening now.

Reaching the end of the cove, I pivoted my canoe 150 degrees to port, paddled west along the north weedline, anchored at a spot not 40 feet from where I'd abandoned the south side...and hit pay dirt. Don't ask me, folks, I just fish here.

First "northerner" into the boat was a bluegill. Thanks to a Kansas Dept. of Wildlife & Parks stocking program, this lake has a fair population of hybrid bluegill, some now grown to well over 1 lb. At first I thought a big hybrid had grabbed my Hare's Ear, judging from how bitterly the fish resisted. But the little horse turned out to be a beautifully colored Real McCoy bluegill 8-inches long. A few minutes later I boated another so large I froze in a reverie, trying to remember if I've ever caught one bigger.

Which suddenly seemed a waste of time, even disrespectful, pitting those wonderful memories against this beautiful new reality flopping around in the bottom of my canoe. All I could think was that landing a pair of hog bluegill like these is exactly why I decided last fall to give fly rod panfishing a serious try.

Next thing I knew, I was catching black crappie. What happened was, at each new spot I anchored in, after pulling one or two bluegill from the mossy shallows the hits stopped coming. At which point I began casting away from the weedline, but more or less parallel to it. The crappies were in this slightly deeper water, a little farther down.

I called it a day at 9 a.m. due to a rising wind. Result? 90 minutes on south side, three keepers; 90 minutes on north side, twelve keepers. (Not counting a 2-lb. largemouth bass I caught and released.)

This trip was curious because despite a sharp cold spell days earlier, the bluegill and crappie were shallower than they'd been two weeks prior, plus their size today averaged slightly bigger than what I'd caught on the first trip, plus the best action was again found on the north side of the cove.

I wonder if fish sometimes like their prey to move in a certain direction, preferring that orientation so strongly that they ignore identical prey items traveling in other directions? You wouldn't think so. Still, this was my second straight visit where more fish had attacked a nymph swimming east than one swimming west.

Something else I wonder about - no, make that "worry about" - is whether I've pulled the blanket off this spot. A paved county road wraps around the cove at close range; lots of people can, and do, look down and see me fishing. No bigger than the cove is, I'm not eager to invite competition. So it was nerve-racking, the times when a fish grabbed my nymph and I heard a car slowing to a crawl so its occupants could watch the fight. Seeing a fisherman hold a bouncing rod can give people ideas.

Ironically, what might save it for me here is that people up on the road are so close they can easily see I'm using a fly rod. Most Kansas anglers favor baitcast or spin tackle and wouldn't touch a fly rod if you handed them one. (I used to be like that myself.) Also, I suspect that passersbyers who watch me long enough will immediately lose interest once they see that I'm not catching "real" fish, just...you know...bluegills.

Seems nowadays the mere sight of little fish repels many anglers. Interested only in catching lunkers, they pull a big stick from the bat rack then step to the plate swinging for a home run on every pitch. Needless to say, little fish like bluegill are far more numerous than hawg bass, so our lunker-seekers frequently go home empty handed. But they have great fun pursuing Big Boy with the stout tackle they like best, and fun is what counts.

Me? Shoot, I'm just a Little Leaguer up there hacking away for dink singles. My motto is: Better small than not at all.

So I don't know, maybe in this high profile cove my modest success will continue due to "lack of public interest." I'll cross my fingers and keep a stash of Hare's Ear nymphs in easy reach. ~ Joe

About Joe:

From Lawrence, 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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