It's a mid-August Friday afternoon and I'm leaving
Liberty, MO northbound on I-35 enroute south Iowa.
Objective: meet up with my fly rod panfishing hero,
With me is June Newman of Missouri, one of my
wilderness-style river tripping partners. In the
bed of my pickup is camping gear and food. Inside
my truck cab there's fly fishing gear, canoe paddles,
tools, clothes...and a pair of nylon bag soft anchors
intended for Rick's canoe.
Racked above the cab is my Wenonah Rendezvous solo
canoe. Months earlier, I'd outfitted this boat with
the deck hardware needed to employ a 2-anchor system
that holds the canoe steady in good fishing spots.
Rick's Old Town Discovery 174 is just a few hours
away now from getting this same system.
I'd been psyched about this Iowa trip for, oh, a
little over a month. Psyched to the point I feared
Rick was burned out by all the emails I'd sent him
detailing various aspects of this anchoring system
and my trip preparations. (A friend once said I
should wear a T-shirt that warns, "Keep typewriters
and computers AWAY from this man!") I hadn't exactly
demonstrated to Rick that I'm a quiet person in person,
and in the field I go almost dead silent when hunting
or fishing or canoeing.
June and I arrived in Iowa hours earlier than I'd
estimated, even after poking along at 60 mph on a
70 mph Interstate. We scouted two campgrounds then
chose Nine Eagles State Park, about 10 miles east
of where Rick lives. Nine Eagles is a nice park,
outfitted right and beautifully maintained. After
setting up my tent in the "non-electric" campground,
I called Rick on my, ah, electric cell phone and
left a message about where we were at, and to come
on out and harass us a while if he could get loose.
Not expecting an ordinary person to drive 10 miles
to a remote campsite near dusk to visit somebody he'd
never met, I was surprised and pleased when Rick
rolled up to Site 50 just in time to sample the
channel catfish fillets June had fried up. Timing
is everything when you visit campsites where June
is cooking, and Rick scored a bull's-eye; as did
Ann, Rick's fine wife.
May I for a moment cut away from this fishing article
to say that Lamoni, IA is one of those small towns
that every American ought to live in, or live nearby,
for at least a year of their life. If this could
happen we'd have a better nation than we have now,
a nation better liked and better respected over all
Entering Lamoni Friday afternoon, I stopped at a
Casey's gas station/convenience store to buy some
beer. As I approached the front door, a beautiful
young woman carrying what looked to be a 6-month
old baby, reached the door ahead of me. But
instead of walking inside, she held the door open
for me - even though she was holding her little
baby and I was 20 feet from the door. I was almost
too stunned to accept the courtesy; with all the
important things young mothers have going through
their minds, she held open that heavy door a good
10 seconds for someone she didn't even know. This
sort of thing hasn't happened to me anywhere else.
Certainly not in Lawrence, KS, where aggressive,
often downright rude behavior by high school girls
and Kansas University women seems to be the norm.
Then the next morning at Sentry Hardware, Deb the
store operator without hesitating let Rick and me
carry out to the parking lot all sorts of bolts,
nuts, washers and U-bolts so that we could
custom-fit Rick's canoe with the deck hardware
needed to operate his 2-anchor system. Deb even
loaned me her cordless drill when my drill began
showing battery fatigue (caused, we suspect, by
me over-charging the battery pack).
Quite a nice town, is Lamoni.
Okay. After outfitting Rick's canoe we headed back
to the Ponderosa and Ann served us a feast of bluegill
fillets, potato salad, home-grown cherry tomatoes and...
cinnamon pickles. The cinnamon pickles were given to
her by some Amish friends. Whoever invented cinnamon
pickles, and everyone who's followed the recipe since,
should get automatic entry to Heaven when they die.
Certain foods just grab you, and those cinnamon pickles
seriously grabbed me.
Did I say we ate bluegill fillets for dinner? I have
no idea where they were caught, and if I did know I
wouldn't tell. What I can say is that when June and
I pulled into Rick's driveway that morning, he was
sitting on a chair next to an out building, engrossed
in some kind of manual activity, we couldn't tell what.
Walking up, I discovered he was cleaning fish! He'd
gone fishing early that morning, while I was still
sleeping out there at Nine Eagles!
I know that "cleaning fish" doesn't conjure an
impressive images in the reader's mind. Perhaps
I should say that when I spied all the bluegill
and bass he'd caught, it looked like somebody had
dragged a seine through Chicago's Shedd Aquarium
and Rick got stuck cleaning what they'd netted.
I've had some bluegill hauls in my day, but Rick's
fish basket contained two or three times as many
fish as my best-ever trip.
An hour after Ann's bluegill dinner, Rick and June
and I drove out to a privately-owned farm pond that
Rick has permission to fish. June was "designated
photographer," so she took the bow seat of Rick's
tandem canoe. I would fish alone in my solo boat.
June and Rick paddled north, heading for the pond's
shallow end. They got underway ahead of me, so
after launching I headed the opposite direction
toward the pond dam.
This pond's water clarity and shoreline cover
looked really good to me, so good that I paddled
barely 20 feet beyond our pickups when suddenly
I couldn't stand it anymore; I anchored so that
I could give the weedline a try right there.
Ground vibrations from our approaching pickups
and the shoreline ruckus of two canoe launches
had likely spooked every fish in this area. But
I was fired up and this shoreline couldn't be
dismissed. I lowered my anchors...
I'd come to Iowa pre-rigged for tandem fishing;
on my leader there was a #10 flashback Hares Ear
nymph with an empty tippet section tied to its
hook bend. After asking Rick which of the flies
he'd given me that morning might be good here,
I double-clinched to the tippet a Bitch Creek
pattern Rick had tweaked for bluegill. So my
first presentation would be a store bought nymph
I've caught many fish on, followed 12-inches later
by a nymph tied by Rick.
My first cast was a short throw parallel to the
weedline. I didn't seriously expect anything at
this particular spot, I was basically blowing off
some nervous energy. But a third of the way back
in, my line quit moving. Nothing dramatic, the
line just stopped. I lifted the rod tip and was
into a good fish. It did nothing spectacular, but
if this was a bluegill then it was staying underwater
a lot longer than normal. Finally coaxing the mystery
creature to the surface next to my canoe, I about had
a heart attack when I looked down at the biggest
bluegill I've ever hooked in my life. First cast,
a very big fish, and I'm going into shock.
The only bigger 'gill I've personally seen on
the hoof is one my neighbors, Doc Kunc, caught
last year in a Jefferson County, KS farm pond.
That sea monster bluegill pushed 1 ¾-lb. This
one I'd just caught was smaller, but still my
As one of its specie identifiers, bluegills have
that little tiny mouth, right? This 'gill, you
could drop a twenty-five cent piece into its mouth
and the coin wouldn't touch his lips. From thumb
tip to the end of my little finger my hand spans
8 ½-inches, and it was all I could do to grab this
fish before lifting it into the boat. The photo
doesn't do him justice because you can't see how
thick his body is. (Note: the triangle markings
on my boat are two inches apart.)
Luckily for June's prospects of getting home before
September, after Big Boy all the other fish I caught
were smaller. Some were not a whole lot smaller,
though. Working my way along this weedline, I reached
the southwest corner where the shore meets the dam.
Some good fish were in that corner, too.
But nothing matched the action I enjoyed after
anchoring off this southwest corner. I clipped
off the entire tandem rig I'd started with and
tied on another of Rick's creations - an all-black
nymph with six rubber legs and a marabou tail. When
I targeted a 30-ft. section of dam-face weedline,
about every cast there brought a strike.
By this time, Rick had fished his way back south
and was working the other end of the dam. I kept
trying to find a minute where I could sit back and
watch him in action, but the bluegill wouldn't cut
me any slack. Rick noticed this and commented
across the water that it looked like I'd found a
Hot? The only Union break I got was a 10-minute
lull after a 2-lb. largemouth bass bulled its way
through the Hot Zone twice, then went ballistic
and shucked my fly. That commotion spooked those
trusting bluegills, but soon they were their old
selves again. All I had to do was lay Rick's nymph
within two feet of this weedline and a bluegill would
drop the hammer on it.
I began the afternoon trying to count how many fish
I caught on each fly that I tried. Somewhere before
ten fish, certain pole throbbing distractions wearing
fins caused me to totally lose track. This was
catch-and-release fishing for me, so I finally
asked myself, "Do I need this count?" Answer: No...
but it was a LOT of fish.
Kansas surely has many private ponds as good as this
Iowa pond. In the months to come, maybe I can locate
some whose owners will let me rope up my 3-wt. St.
Croix and give their bluegills the old cowboy try.
Rick's flies will be there if it happens; I can tell
you that. ~ Joe