My theory seemed bulletproof: For Kansas panfishing,
all the fly rod a person really needs is a 3-wt.
7 ½-footer. Panfish are small, abundant and great
fun on light tackle. Forget those classic long
casts seen on TV shows, where people are fishing
the big western rivers. Focus instead on sensible
shoes deliveries into the near-shore habitat of
farm ponds and small lakes. Don't buy any more
rod length than is necessary.
Time and suffering revealed my theory's flaw. The
7 ½-ft. rod that I bought is a delightful tool for
actually fighting a panfish, but the rest of the time
it too often worked against me. The McCall (Idaho)
Fly Shop owner who sold me the rod had patiently done
his best to warn me off by mentioning that even in
Kansas a shoreline fisherman will have a sloping bank
rising behind him, and growing on that bank will be
tall grass, or weeds, or cattails, shrubs, trees - you
But I didn't listen and he was right: these ubiquitous
botanical features proved a constant hindrance, if not
an outright barrier, to the short-range casts I'd
envisioned making. Yes, I caught fish and had fun,
but it was stressful and many times a costly undertaking
(in lost flies).
During backcasts, I would hang up if I delayed a spit
second too long letting the loop behind me properly
lay out. I then had to stop fishing, reel my way back
from the water to find and untangle my fly, then creep
back to the casting spot again. I always feared the
fish would detect my footsteps and spook on my second
approach. Or my third, or my fourth...
The books tell us that roll casting will compensate
for the inability to backcast. True enough, but for
me roll casting proved equally difficult. Why?
Because when farm ponds warm up in the springtime,
many will develop an unbroken fringe of aquatic grass,
weeds or moss. This fringe extends from the shoreline
to some 15 or 20 feet out. Successfully roll casting
a fly into the open water beyond the fringe requires
making a series of shorter roll casts first, and
during each "prep cast" your floating line is laying
across those weeds, right? Since roll casting involves
lifting the floating line back toward you until a sag
develops just behind you, many times my fly would get
dragged into the weeds even before the "final roll"
could be delivered. Result? A big wad of goop to haul
in, and such surface disturbances can alert or spook
I'm a canoeist, so I tried to compensate again: "I will
overcome these land-based difficulties by fishing from
Dream on, pilgrim. Casting from my canoe, my rod tip
extended at most only 8 or 9 feet above the water surface.
For me it was not enough elevation; the smallest timing
error resulted in a line splashdown loud enough that
I feared it was spooking the fish.
So after considerable gnashing of teeth, I bought a
9 ft. fly rod. A 4-weight rod, its balance feels a
bit top heavy, but that's because for money reasons
I transferred the small reel from my 7 ½-footer onto
the 9-footer. The new 9-footer will feel quicker in
the hand, I'm sure, once its forward weight gets
counterbalanced by the larger, slightly heavier reel
I intend to buy soon.
In any event, the day after acquiring this 9-footer
I drove to a nearby lake for some casting practice.
Well, maybe not practice exactly: out of general
principle I did improve-clinch a #12 Hare's Ear
nymph to my tippet because, you know, this lake
has gamefish living in it, so why risk offending
them by pulling a crude piece of hook-less yarn
past their noses?
Now understand: In years past, I'd have postponed
buying this rod until mid-May at the very earliest.
However, during the preceding winter months I'd
been hunting everywhere for advice on fly rod
panfishing, and while noodling the Internet I'd
stumbled onto the FAOL website. Between snowstorms
I'd been reading Rick Zieger's articles over and
over and over.
I was particularly intrigued by Rick's accounts of
success on Iowa panfish in very early spring - like,
ice-out early? I've fished for 51 years and never
gone after panfish that early. Rick's trip reports
had whipped me into a frenzy. Iowa, where Rick lives,
is not that far north of Kansas, where I live. So
driving to the lake that day with my new rod, I was
nursing a small hope that I, too, might actually
catch a fish on this miserably cold, drizzly, windy
mid-March afternoon. If not for Rick Zeiger and
FAOL, I wouldn't have been there at all.
Arriving at the lake - rats! - a family of four,
bundled in cold weather clothing, had beaten me
to my practice spot. Worse yet, they were
fishing - bobber fishing with worms. They weren't
catching a thing, no surprise given the miserable
weather. I asked the parents if they would mind
I stand a little ways off and practice cast a few
minutes with my new fly rod, and they said sure,
Looking into the shallow cove, the nearest clump
of brush was maybe 40 feet out - reachable with my
7 ½-footer given many false casts and perfect timing.
So...what was it gonna be like trying for this target
with 18 more inches of rod length theoretically giving
me more leverage and faster line acceleration?
Seemingly with no effort at all, I false cast four or
five times and dropped my nymph within 5 feet of the
brush. Cool! First cast of the year, too! I was
so happy I almost jerked the line back so I could
throw it again before it got wet. But my nymph was
in the water now and the cardinal rule is: Never Waste
A Viable Cast. I gave the nymph a few seconds to
settle then began a slow left-handed line pickup,
barely paying attention. Just habit.
A third of the way in, a hump-headed bluegill grabbed
my nymph like it owed him money. My new rod began
telling me a fish was on, yet I could hardly believe
this was happening even as I released the fish.
Following a couple of "ring rust" missed hits, I
began casting right of the brush clump and there
came another slight line twitch. I lifted the rod
to test for a fish, and brought in an 8-inch crappie!
While recovering from this second shock, I glanced
over and saw the little boy standing there staring
at my fish. Feeling guilty for catching one in front
of the family when Dad wasn't having any luck, I walked
over and let the boy examine the fish up close. His
sister ran over to look. I told them both to keep
fishing and be sure to come back here again because
crappie are real good to eat and maybe some will swim
up to where they can catch a few themselves? I don't
know if either kid comprehended my babbling, but it
made me feel better.
Then two more crappie fell prey in roughly the same
spot the first one had, and here is where my practice
casting morphed into a serious fishing trip. First
order of business, as always: separate myself from
the crowd. I walked around to the other side of
the cove, away from the family. Here, the deep
side of a narrow feeder creek ran closer along my
side. Following the shore until the cove widened,
I began casting to open areas near stickup cover.
Two more crappie found my Hare's Ear attractive,
and I began kicking myself for not bringing my
stringer and ice chest. Every bluegill and crappie
I was catching had to be released.
Up ahead, a fallen tree lay on the shore. Nearly
rotted away, its trunk and main beams angled down
out of sight into the submerged creek
channel - textbook ambush cover for most every
freshwater gamefish. After creeping in as close
as possible, I made a short cast that landed in
open water out and away, right where I wanted it.
This cast would have been impossible with my shorter
rod, due to menacing tree branches hugging me on
three sides. But this 9-footer gave me enough rod
tip clearance beyond the limbs that I could make
an accurate cast parallel to shore while facing
the lake. Excellent.
On the third retrieve past this fallen tree, my
nymph was sneaking home at a depth of maybe two
feet when the line exhibited a vigorous twitch.
I brought back the rod tip and uh oh, uh oh, UH OH!
This was a good one, and whatever it was it was very
upset at getting hooked. Hugging the bottom, it
kept out of sight for almost the entire battle.
But a couple of minutes later I lipped a bass of
maybe 2 lbs. with a body clearly longer than the
lake's 18-inch minimum. This was a legal keeper
if I wanted to take it home. Which I did not:
it was a bass, not a bluegill or a crappie.
All I could do was stand there and smile. It's
early March, a cold windy drizzle is falling,
very cold lake water, first time using this rod,
and in one hour's time I ring up three species,
the biggest fish being a keeper largemouth that
falls for this tiny nymph. Wow! I released the
bass with pleasure, wishing him good luck against
the Bass Boat Armada I knew would invade this
lake once the weather warmed.
It began getting dark, colder and windier, so I
called it a day. On the drive home, I couldn't
quiet the excitement I felt at finally owning
what might be the ideal fly rod for my Kansas
panfishing trips. I still wonder whether I
should have bought a 3-wt. instead of a 4-wt.
But for length, a 9-footer is what I'll be using
the most for a long time to come.
Thank you, Rick Zeiger, for inspiring me to get
out on the water so early this year. ~ Joe firstname.lastname@example.org
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