In early February I happened to catch this tidbit of
radio news: in northeast Kansas the January, 2007
monthly temperature averaged seventeen degrees colder
than January of 2006. Prior to hearing this I hadn't
consciously thought about how cold this winter has been.
All I knew is that it felt so cold every day that
instinctively I didn't want to be outdoors doing river-sport
and lake-sport things. Just as well, since almost all bodies
of water in my home area were iced for almost three months.
During this past winter I kept up with FAOL, albeit somewhat
istlessly. Due to prolonged bitter weather plus seven months
of work pressures that were even more bitter, beginning soon
after Thanksgiving Day my fishing spirit lapsed into a kind
of psychic hibernation.
It's a good thing for us Northern Hemispherians that our
planet spins on an axis that annually tilts back and forth –
"forth" giving us fly fisher-types more hours of daylight
and warmer weather. A combination of things snapped me out
of my winter funk: more daylight minutes (helped especially
by the switch to Daylight Savings Time); Florida's Robert
McCorquodale posting photos in the FAOL Bulletin Board of
crappies he'd recently caught; Iowa's Rick Zieger writing
stories about NOT getting a chance to fish due to ice
(making me feel not so alone in my misery).
All things considered, memories of Dixieangler's crappie photos
are what finally lit a fire under me. It's hard seeing photos
of somebody else's 13-inch crappie when the only thing I'm
catching is hell at work.
It's Friday, March 16: I get home from Kansas City, grab
my tackle, head out of town and reach the lake at 5:30 p.m.
Conditions? Pretty nice – light wind, almost no waves, warm
sunshine, only one other fisherman in sight and he's over
across the lake arm heaving crankbaits off a boat dock. Poor
guy, using such heavy tackle; clinical evidence of mental
deterioration caused by a winter spent cooped indoors watching
bass tournaments on TV.
Me, I'm not exactly knee deep in self-confidence, please
understand. After all, today is my first time out in four
months. Yet in my bones I know I'm the only guy on the lake
this afternoon who has a chance of catching anything at all.
Why? Well, because unlike the fellow across the lake who's
trying to entice his quarry by whacking their lateral lines
with the noise equivalent of Ringo Starr's drum kit, yours
truly will employ a tiny, slow-moving, imitation of an immature
phase aquatic insect – what we fly fishers call a nymph.
Not that using a nymph was foreordained; actually, on the
drive out I was giving a midge serious consideration. But
when I got to the lake and looked around on its surface
nowhere could I see those wave ring disturbances that indicate
insect hatches, or egg depositing by flying insects. This
tipped the scales in favor of a nymph.
And using my all-time favorite fly – a #10 flashback Hare's
Ear Nymph – was not foreordained, either. The reason being
I was concerned that "Old Reliable," due to his rather speedy
descent rate following splashdown, would sink too fast. I
planned to start out fishing deep water adjacent to the lake
dam and saw no benefit in having Old Reliable zip downward
through the water column past the noses of sluggish fish that
might well be in the mood to engulf a nymph if only a
slower-moving one would come along.
The wind speed was just enough that I couldn't go super tiny
with whatever offering I selected, due to wind drag on my
floating line keeping a tiny fly from sinking at all. A
compromise fly was needed, something that would sink slowly
yet offer enough body mass that it would visually appeal as
a meal worth grabbing.
Looking through my nymph box, I plucked out a Rick Zieger-tied
#12 Pheasant Tail Nymph. Although the meat end of this fly is
wrapped in a bit of wire the overall design is slender. With
its pheasant tail the overall length is around one inch. The
slender, semi-soft pheasant tail comprises half the fly's length.
That would be useful here, as underwater the tail would function
as a "brake" slowing the nymph's descent anytime I paused or
slowed my retrieve.
To my unhappy surprise, the casting zone along shore was covered
by hundreds of clumps of floating vegetation that ranged in size
from softball to dinner platter. The trick became spotting open
lanes and pockets to cast to, then hitting those openings with
an accurate cast. Very distracting, but I'm here now so what's
a guy to do but try?
On my fourth cast the line began tightening during the retrieve,
I lifted and was into a bluegill. A little one, but that's cool.
My motto is: "Better small than not at all." Hey, maybe there's
hope! But for the next 20 minutes "not at all" is the only thing
that followed "small." Okay, time to move: I loaded my gear back
into the pickup and relocated about halfway up the lake arm to
an area offering shallower water.
After parking, I carried to the water just my rod, curved-nose
forceps and line clipper, a pocket-size digital camera and a can
of soda pop. The fanny bag with fly boxes and other gear, it
stayed in the truck bed. Not much is happening today so I'll
just give this spot a few minutes out of general principle then
head home to watch Kansas play Niagara in the NCAA Tournament
(opening tipoff in 10 minutes). This lake water is still too
cold. And besides, where I'm standing right now there's even
more of this floating green stuff. Just look: 30 feet out is
a 5-ft. wide band of this crap and the water current is slowly
moving it along parallel to shore, like a miniaturized row of
battleships. Gotta stay away from that stuff, otherwise Rick's
PTN gets completely gooped.
I worked the open water between shore and the goop line with no
luck. Almost time to leave, but Okay, I'll try one last cast
closer to shore; what the heck. I sent the PTN down the shoreline
for a parallel retrieve through water maybe 3 feet deep. The
water was clear enough I could see submerged green stuff on the
bottom. Allowing a long drop was unwise so I gave the PTN a
two-second countdown then began...WHACK!...a mid-size 'gill
grabbed the nymph. Hello!
Going back into this shoreline area, I caught and released
four or five more bluegills before the action faded. Well,
if they're shallow I'll just move on down the shoreline and
hit a fresh spot. But first, another cast into the deeper
water on my side of the goop line. The PTN touched down and
this time, due to a casting screwup that snarled my line I
had to bring the nymph toward me without allowing it to sink
as deep. Promptly the line came tight, I lifted the rod tip
and felt that unmistakable sluggish struggle so typical of...
yes...it's a crappie! First of the year!
Right around this time I began hearing fish surfacing here
and there around the lake arm. Occasionally I would look up
from my business to search for where they were rising. This
unconsciously became one of those things like a post-game
analysis of a basketball game where they show an overhead
diagram of the spots on the court where such-and-such a
player took all his shots?
Suddenly it clicked in my mind that the fish swirls were
happening mostly in or very near the long line of floating
goop passing in front of me – the goop that up to this point
I'd been staying away from because I found it threatening
My brain finally connected the dots. Whatever these swirling
fish are, they are rising for prey items located amidst this
floating goop! No clue what the prey items are, but my best
bet now is to acknowledge what's happening and begin working
my PTN shallower, not deeper, so that my nymph is available
to fish that must be holding quite close to the surface.
This is where my initial choice of Rick's slower-sinking PTN,
followed by leaving it on the tippet for lack of fly-switching
enthusiasm, both proved to be lucky decisions. I began
deliberately throwing the PTN as close as possible to my
side of the goop line, sometimes casting through the line
to the other side if gaps appeared in its left-to-right
moving train car profile. After splashdown, I'd swim the
nymph toward me immediately. Not quick retrieves, but
immediate retrieves to put the PTN in motion and keep it
poking along no more than a foot under the surface. This
was the ticket: shallow-holding 'gills and crappie quickly
spotted the nymph and grabbed it.
Still a mystery is the identity of the prey these fish
were hunting. I stayed until after 8 p.m. and at no
time spotted flying insects emerge from the lake or fly
above it. Had I kept some fish and examined their stomach
contents the answer might have come, but I was releasing
everything I caught. These crappies especially, I was so
glad to see 'em that I hurriedly released each one after
shooting quick photos to show Rick's PTN in its favorite
spot (stuck in a panfish's jaw).
After a while I quit counting but this two hour trip resulted
in probably thirty fish caught, split about evenly between
bluegills and crappie. Many more fish took the PTN but got
off. The crappies were around 8-to-10 inches long each,
the bluegills smaller. This lake has no length limit on
crappie; still, it'll be good to control their population.
Always a miserable, thankless task but I'll volunteer. ~ 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