September 13th, 2004

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The Contest

Self Takes Maine's Grand Slam of Panfishing to New Highs...Or Lows, Depending On How You Look At It
By Gerald E. Wolfe, So. Casco, ME

It was sultry, summer day in late August. I'd been working hard in the garden. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck and off the end of my nose. The hammock caught a wisp of hot summer breeze and swayed gently under the big white pines in the back yard. It looked inviting in the cool shade. A cold iced tea and a little nap seemed more appropriate than slaving away in the mid-day sun.

"Why not?" I thought. Besides, the wife was tucked away in the air-conditioned family room watching a movie. I wouldn't be disturbed for at least a couple of hours. The lawn needed mowing but it could wait until tomorrow. Even my big, lazy cat sensed the need for a little siesta as he jumped in the hammock with me and curled up next too my feet. Ah...peace and quiet.

No sooner had I closed my eyes than "Bam!", I heard the screen door slam shut on the back porch and saw my old friend, Self, striding across the yard toward me.

"Whatcha been up to good buddy?" he yelled out.

"Well, I was up to a little nap before you came barging up", I said, rather annoyed. "What have you been doing?"

"Nothing. I'm bored", he shot back. "Let's go fishing."

"No can do," I replied, rather despairingly. " I've got too much yard work to do."

"Yep, it looks like it," he answered sarcastically. A lot of weeds need pulling in that hammock...hee, hee, hee!" I think your wife has got you working too hard around here. You need more fishing time."

"Look, nobody asked for your opinion, Self," I said, in a grumpy tone. "Besides, she takes care of the housework, I take care of the yard work. We've done it that way for years. It works for us, and we still have plenty of fishing time."

"You two have been fishing a lot together lately, haven't you?" Self said, with a sly little twinkle in his eye.

"Yep, couple of times a week," I said with a smile. "Janice is really into it. She likes panfishing the best and that little 5-foot, ultra-light spin stick she's using, with the tiny Quantum reel really brings out the fight in those big perch and crappies. I've been having a blast with my little 1-weight, too," I added. "It's the ultimate in panfishing with a fly rod, and the little Hardy fly-weight reel sings like a bird when a big one hits."

All the while I could sense that Self was getting ready to hatch another one of his crazy schemes. When they involve me I usually wind up holding the short straw.

"A contest!" he finally blurted out. You two should have a panfish contest.....mano-a-mano, fly fishing against spinning, man against woman, husband against wife, yard work versus housework!" Self was on a familiar roll, just another in a long line of "can't-win-schemes" he's always cooking up.

"Winner does the other's chores for a couple weeks. You'd have more time to go fishing with me. It's foolproof. You always out-fish her anyway," he said excitedly.

"Not always," I said, even though that was usually the case. "Calm down will you! She's gonna hear us. Besides, she'll never go for it," I added.

"Sure she will," Self said. "I was just talking to her earlier and she said it sounded like it might be fun."

"So, you've already said something to her about a contest, and the chores part of it?" I questioned.

"I might have mentioned it," he said slyly. "She said she wouldn't mind a little help with the housework."

"She did, eh? She said that? She thinks she can out-fish me?" I felt my testosterone level shoot up a couple points.

"Sure she does old buddy," he went on. "Women are just as competitive as men. They just hide it better is all. You give them a chance, though, and they'll go for the jugular every time. I think what we have here is the age old example of the student thinking she can beat the teacher, and we know that ain't true here, right good buddy?"

Self was reeling me in again. His sly grin was plastered all over his face, like it always is when he thinks one of his plans is coming together.

"I'll talk to her tonight at dinner and see what she says," I told him.

Self was lickin his lips and rubbing his hands together. "Can I come for dinner?" he shot back. "I don't wanna miss nothin."

"No!" I said emphatically. "This isn't a stage show. I'll get it all worked out and call you tomorrow. Now git!"

As it turned out, Self was right. Janice loved the idea of a contest between us, a "friendly little competition" she called it. She said it would add a little excitement to our fishing. I told her I'd reserve judgment on that until after the contest.

The rules would be simple, four days of fishing, Monday through Thursday, for each of the major panfish species in Maine. The first day we would fish for white perch, second day yellow perch, third day sunfish and the final day crappie. Our big lake, Sebago, holds them all in size and numbers. A minimum size would be placed on each species with a total of ten fish between us. Once ten legal fish were caught the day's contest would be over. Points would be scored as follows: One point for first fish, 3-points for most and 5-points for largest. A tie for most would be a wash with no points awarded. Catch-and-release, artificial-lures-only would be the rule.

Winner would take over the other's chores for two weeks. If Janice won I would vacuum, dust, do dishes, laundry, the usual housework. If I won she would mow the lawn, weed the garden and flower beds and do the trimming. She agreed.

"That was simple," I thought. "I can put a lock on this the first couple of days and when it's over, Self and I will have two chore-free weeks of fishing to look forward to. The game was afoot.

******
FIRST DAY
******

Monday dawned with a thick haze hanging over the big lake. The air was damp and still. A heavy dew covered everything and it would be a couple of hours before the sun burned it off...ideal conditions for top-feeding white perch. The schools would be easy to spot as they splashed and foraged on the calm surface.

We quickly loaded our gear aboard. I started the motor and headed slowly out of the marina. When we cleared the breakwater, I opened the big Lund Sportfisher full throttle for the 3-mile run across the bay to Turtle Cove. It would be our fishing destination for the next four days.

On the way across, Janice decided on a 2-inch, 1/16 ounce Youzuri pin's minnow as her lure of choice. The holographic eyes and pearl finish looked as much like a small shiner or smelt as the real thing. Earlier, I had tied on a tiny, inch-long black ghost streamer, one of my long time favorites for panfish and brook trout.

When we reached the entrance to the cove I stopped the boat, turned off the motor and we moved the bow and stern pedestal seats into place. The cove has a narrow opening off the big lake into about 60 acres of what could only be described as panfish heaven. I lowered the electric motor, picked up my fly rod and slowly eased the boat through the small entrance. Only the hum of the trolling motor broke the silence.

"Look there!" Self whispered excitedly. "It's a school working over by that rock wall about 50 yards to the right in 15-feet of water, and another one way down there off that big bed of lily pads in 10-feet."

"Calm down Self. I can see them. We'll head for the closest school first," I said. "Janice, you all set? These fish can be real spooky. They'll sound at the slightest thing, so cast to the edge of the school, not right into them."

"I know...I know," she answered. "I'm all set."

Self was having a fit. "Whaddya helping her for?" he hissed in my ear.

"Habit", I hissed back. "It's just a habit of mine."

I looked over to see if my wife had heard. She was staring straight ahead with a little smile on her face.

I slowed the boat and brought it broadside to within 30 feet of the splashing school. So far so good. We would make the first casts together. After that it would be "every man for himself."

I stripped about 15 feet of line off the reel, made a couple of false casts to get it out, one to lengthen it and laid the little ghost right at the edge of the feeding fish. The line tightened and the rod bucked almost immediately as a foot long perch took the little streamer right off the top and bore deep in a wide arc.


A 1-weight fly rod, Hardy fly-reel and a foot long white perch combine to make a panfish anglers day. This was the first fish - first point of the wife's and my little contest.

I heard the little Quantum's drag singing and knew that my wife was into a good fish too. I put extra pressure on my fish and had him inHft boat in less than a minute...first blood...first point. My wife's fish was a little bigger at 13-inches. Self frowned when he measured it and the frown got bigger when she ripped off two more foot-long perch in rapid succession, while I lost one and then couldn't buy a hit.

A sloppy cast that overshot the mark finally got me a solid strike, but the line spooked the school. I felt the line go slack at the same time the fish sounded. The hook had pulled free again. I stared at the quiet water where the school had been. Janice had 3 perch, I had one and so far she had the biggest. It was time for a break.

Selfs jaw was clenched tight. "It ain't suppose to happen this way!" he hissed through his teeth in my ear.


The white perch isn't really a perch at all, but a member of the sea bass family and a close relative of the hard-fighting striper. This 16-inch, 2-pounder put a splendid arc in my little 1-weight and gave me the lead on day one.

"It ain't over til it's over," I staunchly whispered back.

I stole a glance at Janice. She was tying a new knot on her lure and her smile was a little broader.

By the time we finished our coffee the school had re-surfaced and was working about 40 yards off the bow over deeper water. I set the trolling motor on its lowest setting, picked up my rod and we headed for the fish at a crawl.

The perch stayed just out of casting range in a series of moves that I'm sure were designed to taunt frustrated anglers. I've chased schools for half-a-mile out on the open lake and never caught up with them. I was hoping this wasn't going to be one of those days. Luckily on the fourth try we got in close enough and I nailed my second fish on the first cast, a solid 12-incher. Janice countered with two more identical fish. This was getting old.

"Maybe the bigger fish are deeper," I thought. "They could be feeding just under the smaller fish."

I pinched a tiny split shot on the line about six inches above the streamer and laid out a smooth cast a little farther from the feeding school. The little ghost sank quickly and when it was about 4 feet down I began a fast, short-strip retrieve like a baitfish escaping.

Suddenly, there was a solid jolt and the slack line zipped into the guides. The Hardy reel screeched once and then began a steady whine as the little 1-weight bent into the cork and the fish ran straight away from the boat. This was a white perch with shoulders. It's the only time I remember praying it wasn't a smallmouth bass.

Steady pressure finally turned the fish after his initial run and he came in grudgingly, his bursts of energy still strong but getting shorter. I played him off the reel the whole time. Panfish or not, I wasn't taking any chances. Besides, white perch aren't really perch at all. They are members of the sea bass family, close relatives of the hard-fighting striper.

It turned out to be a beautiful white, a chunky, 16-inch, 2-pounder that would easily be the big fish of the day. When I netted it, Self let out a "Yeeehaa!" that could be heard in Portland.

"For crying out loud, Self! Quiet down!" I scolded. "It's early. People might still be trying to sleep."

"Oh yeah....sorry.... I forgot," he said, excitedly.

Janice hadn't been wasting time watching. She had quickly landed two more perch while I was playing the big one, bringing her total to 7 fish. Total points: Wife-3, Husband-6.

"Nice perch," Janice said on the way in. She was still smiling." You pulled off an eleventh hour victory with that fish," she added.

"It's only the first day," I replied. "Besides, you caught more than twice as many as I did." Self had been jump-started out of his blue funk by the big perch. He was humming and whistling college fight songs all the way in.

"Tomorrow's another day," Janice said as we headed into the marina.

That was true, but I wasn't going into it with as much confidence as I did today.

******
SECOND DAY
******

The sun was just peaking over the trees when we arrived at the marina on Tuesday morning. The air was cool and damp but a hot, muggy day lay ahead. Self was already there to meet us, anxious to get started. As we stashed our gear in the boat we could hear the steady drone of early morning trailers out on the big lake in the deep water, plying the 100-foot depths for lake trout. Some of the big lakers in Sebago run 20-to 30-pounds but we had smaller fish to fry.

Yellow perch were the target today. Sebago grows her panfish big too. Perch here can run in the 12-to 14-inch class and weigh over a pound... if I could find them. Janice had agreed to a 10-inch minimum on today's fish and I figured the most and the biggest would give me a solid lead in the contest. I needed to put distance between us on this second day.

When we reach the cove we quickly set the seats in place, eased through the narrow entrance head headed straight for the milfoil beds way in the back. In the shallows the weeds here are almost impenetrable but as the water gradually deepens out from the shore the milfoil doesn't reach the surface. At around 10-to 12-feet it doesn't grow at all, making a distinct break-line of weeds next to open water. Schools of big perch patrol this break-line, snatching up hapless baitfish that stray too far from the safety of the thick cover. Here is where we would fish.

I checked the depth-finder. A few fish were suspended at the 6-to 8-foot mark. Janice had chosen a 1/16-ounce, chartreuse, twister-tail jig as her lure, a proven perch catcher on many occasions. I had switched to a #10 light Cahill wet fly. In the water it's as close to imitating a tiny minnow as you can get. A little split shot pinched on the tippet would offset the sink rate Janice would get from her jig.

When I put the boat in position, Self eased the anchor over the side and we made our first casts. The fish gods must have been smiling on me. I nailed the first 3 fish, 10-inchers all, in a matter of minutes before Janice even got hit. She took fish number 4 and then I ran off 3 more perch in rapid succession, guaranteeing me points for first, most and a lock on the second day lead. Self was whistling "On Wisconsin" non-stop. The little Cahill seemed to be the right medicine. Now, if I could just get the big one again I could all but wrap this little contest up.

Alas, it was not to be. Janice wanted to move the boat out to a little deeper water. It was her turn. I had picked the first spot. When we re-anchored she took the last 3 fish, including a beautiful 13-incher that gave her the 5-points. Janice had used my tactic of yesterday against me, going deeper. Instead of 15 to 3, the total score was now: Wife-8, Husband-10. I was still in the lead but she had pulled to within 2-points and made the contest going into day three a toss-up.


Janice took the second day points for big fish with this handsome 13-inch, 1-pound yellow perch.

"I guess turnabout is fair play," I said, as we headed in. "Talk about a last minute victory," I added, glumly. Her smile had turned into a broad grin.

Self was staring vacantly out across the big lake. He was strangely silent, his rendition of the Notre Dame Fight Song having suddenly been cut short by the big perch.

******
DAY THREE
******

A bright and beautiful day greeted us on Wednesday, along with very little wind again. A mid-morning start had been agreed to since pumpkinseeds are on the bite all day long. Seeds are Maine's native sunfish and are arguably the most beautiful of all the sunfishes. They eat a wide variety of insects, snails and tiny crustaceans, so they can be taken on top, in the shallows or deep with regularity. A 5 or 6-year-old seed measuring 6-to 8-inches is considered big in most lakes, but I've taken 8-to 10-inchers regularly in Sebago. Occasionally, a rare sunny close to a foot long will show up and one that size can put a splendid arc in a 1-weight fly rod.

Since pumpkinseeds have tiny mouths, Janice had chosen a 1/32-ounce version of yesterday's chartreuse jig. I opted for a tiny, black wooly-bugger tied on a #12 wet fly hook.

Turtle Cove provides a variety of habitat for sunfish, from pad beds and spatterdocks in 1-to 4-feet of water, to pickerel weed and grass flats over sandy bottom in 3-to 6-feet of water.

We agreed to a 8-inch minimum on the seeds and decided to start the day by working the edge of a huge bed of spatterdocks just inside the cove entrance. With little wind to contend with,the electric motor would let us work the entire perimeter of the pad bed slowly and thoroughly.

We eased up quietly to within 20 feet of the edge. I heard the bail-spring on the little Quantum at the same time my fly line sped forward on the business cast. The two lures dropped gently about 6-feet apart at the very edge of a small opening.

Several large swirls humped up from beneath the mat of pads, disrupted the mirrow surface of the water and overtook the lures before they had sunk a foot. The little rods bent deeply and the lines cut circular patterns in the water as the two sunfish bore deep and tried to head back to the safety of the pad bed.

A little extra pressure kept my fish away from the thick vegetation but Janice wasn't as lucky and her fish made it into the tangle of roots and stems. After a brief tussle my fish came flopping aboard, a large bull seed of 10-inches, it's flaming orange fins spread defiantly. It was the first of more than 2-dozen nice sunfish and half that many jumbo perch we caught that afternoon before boating the legal 10 fish over 8-inches. In addition, we caught and released another dozen or so small to medium bass along the same stretch of pad beds, giving us all the action we wanted from a few hours of fishing.


Pumpkinseeds are perhaps the most beautiful of all the sunfishes. Ten-inchers are common in Sebago Lake, and this one helped me to a substantial lead on day 3.

That first 10-incher turned out to be the biggest of the day, netting me a combined 6-points. Janice had stayed in the race with 7 keepers to my 3, the same as day one, but I had a substantial lead of 5-points going into the final day. Total after day three: Wife-11, husband-16.

"You're down 5-points and still looking confident," I said, starting the motor and heading out of the cove.

"I've caught 18 fish to your 12, anyone of which could have been the biggest. If that was the case we'd be tied," she calmly replied with a smile. "I'm still very much in it," she added.

Janice was right. She was out-fishing me. Maybe I had just gotten lucky and stumbled onto a couple of big ones. She was very much in it, indeed.

Self looked confident as we cruised past the breakwater and into the marina. The sly look had returned and he had resumed his incessant humming again. All I could think of was yard work and housework if I lost.

******
DAY FOUR
******

Self was at the dock early again. He had already prepped the boat. The canvas was off, windshields wiped down from the heavy dew. "We better get started," he said. "It's going to be another hot one and those crappies will go deep and sulk when the sun gets high."

I quickly started the motor. Self cast off the bow and stern lines, jumped aboard and we sped across the open water to the little cove for the final day's fishing.

Janice laid out the 3 lures she planned to use. Her favorite crappie lure was a black, 1/16-ounce, twister tail jig with flecks of silver in it. For back-up she chose a white jig and a tiny, yellow beetle-spin. I decided to use my go-to wet fly, a #10 dark Cahill.

Sebago's crappies travel in loosely knit schools and forage for small baitfish from below, never looking down, always up. Their big eyes are set towards the front and on top of their heads for just that style of attack.

A rocky shoreline runs along one side of the cove with overhanging brush and trees. The water here is 8-to 15-feet deep and is a favorite foraging ground for crappies. Because it is on the eastern shore, it stays in shade later into the morning. We've taken our share of crappies here over the years.

The depth-finder showed a fish here and there. I positioned the boat and we made our first casts. I glanced at Self. He had his fingers crossed. With a 5-point lead the most or biggest fish would clinch this little competition for me and Self and I would be off for two weeks of chore-free fishing.

The little Cahill sank quickly, the little shot taking it down to about 6 feet where I started a slow retrieve in long steady strips of the line. Suddenly I felt a slight heaviness in the line, almost like a hang-up. I raised the rod into solid, live resistance. There was no hard strike here. Crappies have tender mouths and hooks often pull free during the fight. The moderate to soft action of the little 1-weight countered the fish's every surge and within a minute a foot-long crappie came easily to the net. I had taken the first fish all four days and was sitting pretty with a 6-point lead.

My imminent victory was short-lived, however. While I was taking my fish off the hook the wife's rod dipped sharply. It dipped on the next two casts... and the following three casts....and the final three casts. She caught 9 crappies in a row in 45 minutes, including a beautiful 15-incher on her next to last fish. I never had another touch. The Cahill had let me down big time. The little black jig wasn't just magic, it was black magic. Final score: Wife-19, Husband-17.


My wife, Janice, worked a little black magic with her favorite black jig on this beautiful 15-inch back crappie. But it was more than day four's biggest fish.

Self was stunned. His big scheme had been dashed on the rocks in less than an hour. "This is another fine mess you've gotten me into, Self," I said emphatically. "Why do I even listen to you. Now I have to do the housework "and" the yard work for the next two weeks. I'll never get to go fishing."

"Oh, that's not all," my wife chimed in. "You also have to do the grocery shopping for a month."

"What?!" I shouted. "How did that happen?" I shot a withering look at Self but he was staring out across the deep, green waters of the big lake, trying to act as inconspicuous as possible.

"I made a couple of side bets when you were leading," he mumbled sheepishly. "I never thought you'd lose."

"Well, I did lose," I said angrily. "Do you realize I have to do all the housework and all the yard work for two weeks, and all the grocery shopping for a month...and...wait a minute...you said a couple of bets. What's the other one?"

"Well, there's also the matter of a steak dinner," he said sheepishly.

My wife interrupted before I could get my hands around Selfs throat. "You know, I kind of like these little contests," she piped up. "Maybe we should make them an annual event. Better yet, how about twice a year?" she added.

"In your dreams, I muttered. "In your dreams." Dreams...dreaming...I woke with a start. I'd been dreaming. It was late. The shadows were getting long. "I've got to finish the lawn," I thought.

I heard my wife hollering from the back door. "C'mon dear, better hurry up and get ready."

"Ready? Ready for what?" I hollered back.

"You promised me a nice dinner in town tonight," she replied. And don't forget we have to get up early tomorrow morning too. You said you would help me with some of the housework. Did you forget?"

"No," I hollered back. "Or yes...I guess I did," I said sleepily as I walked across the back lawn.

"I'll bet you forgot the shopping too," she said, as I entered the kitchen.

"Shopping! What shopping?" I shot back.

"You said we'd go over to LL Beans tomorrow afternoon and you would help me pick out a nice little fly rod for our panfish outings. You did forget," she pouted. "You said I'd love fly fishing and you would help me get started this Saturday."

"I did? Yeah, that's right. I did." I replied. "Hey!" I thought, "this isn't going to be such a bad weekend after all."

"But no contests! Okay?" I quickly added.

"Contests? Don't be silly dear," she said with a big wide grin. "I could never beat you in a fishing contest." ~ Gerald Wolfe (RW)


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