Feb. 25-27 was one of those 3-day weekends where I wanted
to do many different things and the plans I tried to nail
down changed almost hourly. I would go fishing; No, I'd go
visit a friend; No, go watch a basketball game; No, go scout
a new lake; No, go paddle the Kansas River.
Any plan change that involves using my canoe can cause problems
because camp-on-the-river trips and fishing trips require
specialized gear items and a fair number of items at that.
If my music gear happens to be loaded from a recent gig
(bass guitar and amp, guitar and music stands, song books,
etc.) then my pickup truck looks like the heap Jed Clampett
drove down Beverly Hills Blvd.
Quick mental shifts are frequently necessary to enable my
various recreational activities. And, well...occasionally
those shifts aren't executed very smoothly. Such became
evident Sunday evening minutes after my buddy Sam and I
dragged our solo canoes up onto a big Kansas River sandbar
and started setting up our evening campsite. The twilight
sky was clear; this would be a great night for star watching.
The temperature was dropping into the upper 30s and I was
excited about cooking supper because I was hungry and had
brought some really tasty cookables. Life is good, I thought
to myself after erecting my tent then laying my sleeping pad
inside it to self-inflate. I began tossing accessory gear
bags onto the tent floor.
Something was missing, though. Then it hit me: No sleeping
bag! Five hours earlier in my haste to pack for this trip
I'd somehow left my sleeping bag behind. Way to go, Dummy!
After a brief panic attack, I remembered the goose down
hooded jacket I'd stuffed into my river bag. I already
had on wool long underwear and had brought fleece pants
plus two blankets. Bringing that goose down jacket was
blind luck; it's a new item, one I'd never before packed
on a canoe camping trip.
Well, I wouldn't freeze to death now; and in fact, I slept
snug and warm that night. Lucky, lucky, you big Dummy.
But the next morning loading my canoe while breaking camp,
suddenly I couldn't find my keys! Major panic attack.
Okay, Dummy, think back: Yes, my key carabiner was clipped
to my pants belt and must have somehow dropped off the day
before, when Sam and I were scouting a sandbar 2 miles upriver.
I hadn't heard the keys fall because they landed on loose sand.
Oh, now this is just great: It's Monday morning, I have this
whole day off, and after leaving the river what I'd planned
on doing next was to go fishing. Not now! Now after
reaching Lawrence, Sam would have to shuttle me back upstream
to Perry and I'd have to paddle this 13-mile river section
all over again just to hunt for my lost keys, and if I didn't
find them there'd be hell to pay at work.
After 15 minutes griping and grieving about losing my keys,
I patted myself down for about the 20th time and there they
were, zipped inside the chest pocket of my fleece sweater.
I NEVER put my keys there, but I'd done it yesterday right
after we'd launched our canoes and then forgot I'd done it.
I was just out of sync, man. Out of sync. Which was bad.
But at least I'd survived the cold night. Hey, I'd not
only survived but now I could go fishing just as soon as
I got off the river. Which was good!
Arriving at the lake at 3:30 p.m., Monday's unseasonable
70 degree high was still making the air feel marvelous.
A light southerly breeze ruffled the water. Nobody was
here but me.
On my previous visit to this lake arm I'd caught a few nice
crappies in addition to some decent bluegills. February 27th
being the cusp of spring, I felt it possible that a few more
crappie had left deep water and infiltrated this shallow
lake arm. So after assembling my rod I clipped off the
Hare's Ear Nymph still on the leader from my last trip,
and tied on a new yellow marabou fly.
This yellow fly had come into my possession two days earlier.
Tim Yager, co-owner of Yager's Fly Shop in Lawrence, KS, had
given it to me. Yager's just started carrying this fly and
Tim was curious what it would do. He'd heard it was good on
panfish. I guess not many other locals go panfishing in
winter, so he gave me a test sample to try out.
I didn't think to ask him what its size hook is (guessing #8)
but this yellow marabou fly is about 1 ½ - inch long, has
red bars on the thorax and two silver beadchain eyes. I
told Tim that I'm gun shy about beadhead flies; for me they
hang up in woody cover much easier than un-beaded versions.
I was honestly reluctant to accept this test fly. But then
I thought: "Well, why not? If I lose it on a snag I've got
ten un-weighted #10 Hare's Ears and lots of other flies to
fall back on."
After paddling out to a good looking spot and anchoring,
prior to my first cast I dunked this yellow marabou in
the lake to wet it, fully expecting it to drop to the
bottom like a cannonball. Instead, it floated. Hmmm.
I had to dabble it in the water repeatedly until the
fibers finally saturated. Then I dunked it again, again
expecting it to plummet out of sight. Instead, it began
descending very, very slowly. Hmmm! This "suspension"
behavior immediately reminded me of a synthetic yellow fly
that Rick Zieger ties, a fly that he catches lots of crappies
with up in Iowa. I began to warm up to this yellow fly,
thinking it just might bring me some "Rick Luck" on crappies
(assuming it wasn't so heavy when wet that it caused casting
But I fished two different spots thoroughly over the next
15 minutes and never got a touch either place, and these
were spots where just two weekends prior I'd ripped into
'em using a #14 Hare's Ear Nymph. Fifteen minutes was far
too little test time to form a fair opinion of the yellow
marabou, I knew that. Still, I couldn't help thinking hard
about discontinuing this test and switching to my proven
Hare's Ear killer.
Then at the third spot I anchored, first cast, 5 feet into
a slow strip retrieve - BOOM - a big bluegill dropped a bomb
on Yellow Mary and put a serious bend in my 1-wt. Clear Creek.
Tim Yager had said this ought to be a good fly on bluegill,
too, not just crappie. But there in his store, to me the
fly had looked too big for even a big bluegill to cram into
its mouth. Wrong.
After boating a half dozen 'gills and one bass I began
hearing, vaguely and somewhere in the distance, what
sounded like the splashing of surfacing fish. Feeding
fish. Hidden by wave action, the waves being made by
these splashes could not be seen. The sound continued,
though, and as the afternoon wind died and the surface
becalmed I spotted an area of open water 100 yards west
of me that was getting ripped by feeding fish. What
those fish were, I could only guess. (And my guess
Time to move.
I glided in silently, gently lowered my stern anchor to
the bottom, cam-cleated the anchor line then sent the
yellow marabou into the middle of a cluster of fish
splashes. Fish were rising constantly even as my false
casts flew close above the spot. As near as I was to
them the fish were zipping to the top, rolling and diving
back down so fast I couldn't identify the species. I
couldn't even see their bodies to gauge size, either;
they were just too quick. To find out what they were
I would have to actually catch one. Which never happened;
they were not interested in the yellow marabou no matter
what action I imparted.
I was seeing a few midges buzzing about now, so I suspected
these fish were attacking midge nymphs, or hatching midges.
Right here is where I could have clipped off the yellow
marabou and tied on a Griffith's Gnat/Olive Soft Hackle
tandem rig. Or better yet, reached behind me for a backup
rod already rigged with said tandem flies - except that
I hadn't brought my backup rod.
After a few moments agonizing over what to do, I decided
to stick with the yellow marabou fly, leave this fish-packed
"dry hole" and return to the brushy cover I'd been fishing.
I felt like I was betraying my own chance for a good education
by turning my back on what looked to be the ideal opportunity
to experiment with a midge tandem. On the other hand, I'd been
catching fish before this surface feeding commenced and catching
fish is what I wanted to keep doing more than anything.
Minutes later back at the Brush Farm, Yager's yellow marabou
rewarded my decision by provoking savage hits from lots more
bluegills, plus four nice crappies and a few largemouth bass.
One bass was 15-inches long, and catching that rascal on a
1-wt. rod gives hyperventilation a good name.
It's always fun catching fish, but what was so exciting today
was the consistently large size of the bluegills. At this
lake I've never had a day when I caught so many big bluegills;
most were thick bodied 8-inchers, a couple were 10-inchers.
I'd never seen the like. And the crappies - one was 13-inches
long, another 12-inches, one 10-inches. It was catch and
release fishing so back into the lake everything went. I
wasn't counting, but conservatively I'd estimate 40 would-be
keepers and close to 60 fish overall.
Back in sync, man, bigtime.
When I left the lake at 6:45 p.m. (dusk) the noisy surface
feeding was still going strong. Reviewing the afternoon's
sequence of events, it struck me that I hadn't caught a
single fish prior to hearing this feeding noise. Then
after it started, the fish I caught were all hooked
underwater in places well away from that feeding area.
This made me wonder if the mere sound of surface feeding
by distant fish is enough to trigger underwater feeding
by fish that are holding in adjacent areas?
Sound travels through water incredibly far and fast, and
as quiet as those splashing sounds today were I'm sure
the lateral lines on distant gamefish are sensitive enough
to collect the signature frequencies generated by surface
feeding and send those impulses to the fish's brain for
correct analysis. Group surface feeding sounds may excite
all fish, prodding every species within reception range to
get busy hunting for whatever prey items they typically eat
...before something else gets there and eats it first.
Well, maybe so; and maybe not. All I know for certain is
the next afternoon had identical beautiful warm weather.
I was so excited and happy about the luck I'd had Monday -
and so confident that I would enjoy more of the same -
that Tuesday afternoon I took two hours of vacation time
and ran back to the lake and fished the same spots I'd
fished Monday. And Tuesday afternoon, sure enough, that
surface feeding racket commenced at the same time. I
stayed back away from it this time and used the yellow
marabou fly again, throwing it into the same brushy cover
and giving it the exact same running depth and action
during retrieves. And what happened? The 'gills and
crappie hardly gave it a look. In three hard hours I
caught maybe 15 fish total and they were all smaller fish,
some of the bluegill so small it's a wonder how they fit
the hook in their mouths.
A lot of fishermen play bluegills cheap. Let me tell you
something: anyone who can predict their behavior with
absolute accuracy and catch a lot of them every time
out is a better man than I, Gunga Din. ~ Joe
From Douglas County, 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