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New Waters, New Techniques

Fritz Fratz
By Randy Fratzke, Iowa
Most of us have moved from our "home waters" to a new area. We no longer have the intimate knowledge of every tree root, sandbar, rock, fallen log, and "hidey hole" of your favorite fish. But, fish are fish, and fishing is fishing, no matter where the location, right?

A couple of years ago I lived on a great fishing river in north eastern Iowa. The river, about 100 feet from my front door, was pretty typical for the Midwest. Dark, clouded water, slow moving and shallow in the wide areas and deep and full of currents in the narrows. It was home to crappie, blue gills, walleye, northern and the full assortment of bottom feeders. For the most part, fishing it was easy; find the cover or forage and you found fish. Couple that with watching the local insects, selecting a good look-alike from your fly box, and you were on your way to a heaping platter of fish.

Then I moved to northwest Iowa, an area known as "The Iowa Great Lakes." I soon found out just how little I knew about fishing. The lakes here are all natural, left over from the glacial age. West Okoboji is almost entirely spring fed and, according to National Geographic, one of only three "Blue Water Lakes" in the world. It's deep, up to 120 feet, cold, and clear, year round. West Okoboji feeds into East Okoboji, which feeds into Upper Gar, which feeds to Minnewashta, then into Lower Gar, which empties into what becomes the Little Sioux River. All of the lakes are interconnected and navigable. I'm able to fish all of them from a boat without ever having to leave the water. Also, each lake gets shallower and more turbid and each one has its own characteristics, environmental and biological cycles. Now throw in the fact that I'm talking about a couple of thousand acres of water which hold several types of blue gill, black and white crappie, large and small mouth bass (plus that incongruent thing called a "Wiper - a hybrid cross between a white bass and a striper), perch, walleye, northern, and musky and you can start to see my dilemma. You also have to toss in a few other factors, such as: these lakes have little or no current, the temperatures between the lakes vary up to 10 degrees because of the varying depths and turbidity of the water, and, because of those factors, the insect hatches on each of the lakes is different. Then there's one last factor to figure in, almost a coup de grace: almost no one in the area fly fishes. There's every other type of fisherman on earth here from down rigging trolling behind 20' deep hulled boats powered with 220 horse motors to the cane pole, bobber and worm angler of yesteryear, but the fly fisher is almost never seen.

So, how do you convert a river angler to a lake angler on waters that normally see bait casters loaded with 20 pound test line and enough professional tournament fishing to make Babe Winkleman slobber? You may be surprised to learn that for the first season I put away my fly tackle and long rods and "fished with the crowds." I trolled, I jigged, and I even learned what a bottom bouncer was and how to rig one. I kept telling myself that "what the heck, it's still fishing..." But I was also making a lot of mental notes, like where the fish were, what type of structure they were relating to, what lures, rigs and jigs they were attracted to and what colors worked or didn't work. I kept a fishing log and marked up the lake maps I'd bought with dates of catches, weather data, and dates of insect hatches.

Over the winter, while working on a walleye or bass rod for one of the locals someone would notice my collection fly rods or my fly tying gear and ask what they were for. I'd just tell them that I'd rather show them some day. They'd usually snicker and tell me that the nearest trout stream was about 150 miles in either direction and they weren't "into trout." I'd just smile and nod my head, finish their rod and hand them the bill. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy fishing by what ever means and own about 45 rod and reel set ups for everything from salt water to creek water. But I love fly fishing. The feel of the reel against your palm while the fish is making its run and the bend in the rod while it tests its strength against the fish is so much more exciting than tightening the drag and cranking it in.

By spring I was ready. I'd tied a bunch of new flies, cleaned my lines, rods and reels. Checked all my gear over too many times and waited for the snow to melt and the ice to clear. The phone rang one Saturday morning with a fishing buddy on the other end. "The gills are biting over in Emerson Bay, want to come along?" he questioned. I supplied an excuse about needing to get something done around the house and thanked him for the offer. As soon as I hung up I grabbed my fly gear, vest, waders and hat and headed for Emerson Bay. I had a blast! I released a bunch of fish that day, keeping only enough to refresh my taste buds of what fresh fish tasted like instead of the frozen ones from last fall we'd been getting out of the freezer for the last couple of months.

As different areas of the lake system became more active and different species started into their pre-spawn routine of "beefing up" I started ranging out farther and using my pontoon as a casting platform. I was catching a larger variety of fish then I ever had on the river and having a lot of fun doing it.

Then one Saturday morning, as I was taking a 1-pound crappie off a bright colored "mini-popper" a boat pulled along side mine. In it were three of my fishing buddies...Busted...big time! "So, uh, how's it going guys?" I asked sheepishly. "So-so" was the cool reply. "How 'bout you?" they parried. "Can't complain," I said cautiously. "Want to tie on and have some coffee and a doughnut?" I asked. They all looked at each other as if they were afraid that one would call the other a sissy if they said yes. I calmly poured another cup of hot coffee from my thermos, looked over at them and said, "Got plenty of it and I think I have a couple of extra cups..." One finally said that they thought they should get going, another said he thought a cup of hot coffee sounded pretty good and the third agreed with him. They tied their 18 foot, "V" bottom to the side of my pontoon and came on board. I divided up the last of the coffee and sat down at the table and opened the box of doughnuts and passed them around.

"So, you're fly fishing, huh?" the first one said as if it were a dirty word. I simply nodded and bit into a doughnut. He indicated with his head towards the live well where he'd seen me drop the big crappie into and said, "Mind if I take a look?" I shrugged, indicating that I didn't care. He opened the well, his eyes got as big as the doughnut in his hand. He turned back to the others and announced, "He ain't fishin', he's catchin'! Take a look!" The other two darn near jumped towards the live well, forgetting to act nonchalant. "So, what kind of bait are you using?" one asked. I showed them the little popper on the end of my tippet, its feathers looking pretty bedraggled after taking nearly 20 fish. "Just how does this long stick operate?" one of them asked. I gave him a quick demonstration and handed the rod to him. I immediately knew that I had at least one convert on my boat, within the next hour there'd be two more.

Sometimes adjusting to a new area and learning new techniques takes some time. Other times you can find a local that can teach you the ropes and cut down on the learning curve. In my case, I had to go "backwards" in order to go forwards. I still go fishing with the guys using the "other rigs" but I still go back to my first love, fly fishing, as often as I can, and I have to admit, I'm starting to see more and more fly anglers around the lakes. ~ Randy Fratzke fritzfratz@mchsi.com

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