It's nerve-racking due to the ever-present risk of
snagging, but I prefer fishing in or near cover rather
than open water. The cover can be anything - weed line,
submerged weed bed, submerged brush or trees, stumps,
rocks. Two sticks. Anything is better than nothing.
Especially in water I'm fishing for the first time, I
need to see some kind of physical cover to feel like I've
got half a chance. This affinity stems from the fact that
nearly all my 54 years of angling has involved casting
baits or lures from the banks of creeks and rivers or
the shores of ponds and lakes. For a foot fisherman
this is where cover is found, the only place you can
access it. And as a beginner, I discovered that fish
hang out in near-shore cover. Over time I learned many
ways to work cover and tease the fish hiding there into
With open water I can never decide where the best place
is to start. Estimating the depth of open water and
guessing its underwater features by studying the
surrounding landscape is somewhat helpful in identifying
potentially good spots, but it offers no certainties.
I like to tell myself that any water displaying visible
cover harbors a few fish and I've got a decent shot at
catching some. Whereas in open water that displays no
visible cover, there's probably fish out there but I can't
shake the gut feeling that nobody's home. Casting into
open water I never get the sense that anything I'm doing
Nowadays I fish almost exclusively from a canoe. The casual
passerby might assume that because I'm in a canoe I prefer
open water, that I'm in league with the high-tech bass
boaters and pattern my activities after their methods.
No way, Jose: I'm a bank fisherman through and through, I'm
just a bank fisherman who sits in a canoe. That weed line,
submerged log or brush I'm fishing, that's stuff I've found
while paddling around fairly close to shore. So for me there's
nothing new going on here; I work that cover the same way I
always worked it from shore - same angles and casting lanes,
except now I'm coming at it from the opposite side.
Does fly fishing from a canoe (or a kayak, float tube, etc.)
offer special advantages? I'd say yes, absolutely. Do those
advantages guarantee lots of fish every trip? Let's take a
look and see.
It's 3:30 p.m., Sunday, March 5th. I've returned to the lake
arm where on Feb. 27th I caught lots of really big bluegills.
But unlike Feb. 27th, today a strong northwest wind is coming
into the lake arm like a garbage truck charging down a narrow
alley. The tall hills bordering this arm collect and focus
the wind, compressing it to 20 mph with gusts to 25. Faced
with a hostile lake surface, common sense dictates I forgo
this arm and try another.
But another kind of common sense urges me to try this arm,
and do it right now. Here in Kansas we're coming out of
winter; today's high was almost 65 degrees and this wind
is moving surface water that's been sun-warmed during a
long ride across the lake's open area. I'm thinking this
current pushing into the arm will set up a warm surface
inflow/cold bottom outflow "conveyor" that might raise the
overall water temperature of this shallow arm by a few
degrees. Possibly insignificant, but what if a tiny
temperature rise rouses the bluegills and crappies to an
orgy of insect-eating lust and violence? Do I want to miss
out on that? No, I don't.
I'm well aware that by opting to try this lake arm today
I'll sacrifice two important tactical advantages near and
dear to my heart (canoe control and line reading) but I may
reap two important rewards (more big bluegills and early
Paddling hard against the strong headwind, I finally reach
my first mark - a submerged log where last May I caught
many, many crappies. Passing on its north side then turning
south and anchoring west of the log, I lower only my stern
anchor. The wind immediately pushes my canoe's bow around
to the east and the boat weathervanes on tether, putting
me facing straight downwind, the submerged log lying just
20 feet away. With a bit of rod lean to the right or left
I can roll cast a #14 beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph 40 feet
with ease then crawl it back in slowly close beside whichever
side of the log I choose.
After leaving this submerged log, I decide to make the rest
of the day be about fishing a long stand of flooded brush
that sits in this lake arm. My strategy will be to move to
the upwind end of the brush, set my stern anchor and begin
roll casting downwind just like at the log. Once the action
at each individual spot plays out, I'll simply weigh anchor
and let my boat get blown downwind a short ways to the next
brushy spot with a minimum of paddling effort.
Arriving at the upper end of this brushy area I spot a couple
of downed trees lying close to shore. One offers a root wad
whose upper half sticks out of the water, the tangled
underwater half providing excellent concealment for panfish.
This looks nice. As it happens, I misjudge my speed and lower
the stern anchor too soon, ending up tethered 20 feet to the
right of the logs instead of directly upwind of them. But
this isn't so bad; during sideways casts the wind from behind
keeps my hook safely out in front and thus away from my face.
Also, once my line is on the water the crosswind bellies it
out. Normally this is a nuisance but today because of how
these logs are oriented I can exploit the crosswind by
swinging my nymph past the cover in an arc, like a baseball
pitcher tantalizes over-eager batters by throwing lazy
curveballs outside just off the plate.
Next, I lift anchor and use sculling strokes to pull my
canoe to the right, into deeper water. This maneuver
puts me at the head of the brushy area. Dropping the
stern anchor, I can tell the water depth here is about
4 feet. This is a good spot as it's the first part of
the brushy area getting warmed by the incoming surface
water. Newly arriving crappies swimming in from deep
water will encounter this brush first, and some will
loiter here prowling the wilderness of submerged stems
looking for nymphs and minnows.
After leaving the head of this brushy area I move downwind
and left, back into shallower water, and here I'm casting
so close to the north shore that my nymph is almost coming
down on dry land. The sun has been shining on these
shallows all day so this is likely the warmest water of
all; if so, there may be more fish holding here than
anywhere else. Also, due to the minimal depth I can better
see any submerged logs and branches ahead. It still isn't
easy spotting them because the incessant wave action prevents
good looks through the surface glare even with polarized lenses.
I next ferry back to the right, re-entering the brushy
area a bit farther down the line at a spot where the brush
trunks are really dense - not just dense above water but
below it, too. So far I've lost two beadhead PTNs to snags,
no surprise because for me beadhead nymphs are just more
By now the alert reader has noticed that I haven't said one
word about strikes or catching fish? There's a reason for
that: I've fished hard for an hour and a half without a
single hit. I haven't caught a fish.
It greatly startled me, then, when at exactly 5:15 p.m.
during a brief lull in the wind my line got yanked by
what turned out to be a keeper-size bluegill. Whew!
Thank you, Mr. 'Gillie! Until this moment I'd had
nothing to show for my mental and physical efforts but
the occasional algae clump on my hook bend.
I had my ice chest on board but elected to release this
first 'gill; before putting any fish on ice and killing
them for food I needed reassurance, more evidence, that
this 'gill would not be the day's last fish. Fourteen
minutes later 'gill #2, another strong keeper-size fish,
grabbed my PTN and this boosted my spirits a bit more.
But man, was that a long fourteen minutes between fish!
The hour and the time interval suggested two possibilities:
A) the fish were finally beginning to bite, but; B) they
preferred calmer surface conditions before biting. As
fortune would have it, after I released this second fish
the wind not only picked up again but it increased in speed.
My hope at the outset had been that as sundown neared the
wind would lay down, like it so often does. Today it wasn't
At 6:15 p.m. dimming light and the continued high wind made
me say "uncle." I raised anchor and with help from the
tailwind began paddling through the thickest part of the
brush, headed straight for my pickup truck. Suddenly right
beside me a stump of decaying willow vibrated so violently
that a spray of water droplets was thrown into the air, like
a wet dog shaking its fur. My canoe had not hit this stump.
A fleeing fish - a big one - had collided with it underwater,
hitting it so hard it vibrated as if whacked by a baseball bat.
Seconds after I drifted past this stump there was a big
swirling splash 15 feet in front of me as a fish with size
rose to the surface porpoise-fashion. I got only a glance,
but it was a largemouth bass of around 3 lbs. The way it
surfaced made me think it was not fleeing my approach but
instead was attacking a prey item. As fast as I could grab
my stern line and release it, I anchored and shifted my brain
back into Fishing Gear.
Could I have been going at this all wrong, right from the
git-go? Maybe I should have been targeting bass today.
Oops, I'm sorry: not targeting bass exactly but at least
using a fly big enough to appeal to the larger panfish
that inhabit this brushy area? Not some dinky #14 PTN
like I'd selected but a real "meat and potatoes" fly that
only big 'gills and crappie would dare attack…along with
the odd largemouth like this 3-pounder up ahead?
I was in a position to go big quickly. After three weekends
of tying on and clipping off (or breaking off) so many smaller
flies, my 6X tapered leader had lost its skinny 3-lb. test
tippet. The remaining 4 feet of leader was thick, probably
8 or 10-lb. test. I felt that my 1-wt. rod was no limitation;
so long as this leader was stout enough the rod was stout enough.
Anything big hits me in this brush tangle, I yield line then
pump it in when opportunities present themselves. Just go for
it and trust to luck.
Looking through my two small fly boxes, I spotted a Rick
Zieger-tied synthetic yarn chartreuse #6 minnow. I
double-clinched it, manually dunked it in the lake and
squeezed the air out of the fibers. The fly began sinking
at a slow steady pace, pulled down by only the weight of
the hook. This little puppy creeping through the brush a
foot below the surface would be just the ticket to provoke
strikes from lurking crappies and bass. Why hadn't I thought
of using this fly two hours earlier?
Why? Because two hours earlier I'd only wanted to catch
bluegills, and maybe some crappie if I got lucky. Bass?
Gag me with a spoon! But now...well..giving a 3-lb.
largemouth bass a 5-minute hydrorobic workout would be more
fun than not catching any more bluegills. And I wish I
could relate the thrilling details of that battle, but I
can't because for 30 minutes Rick's chartreuse minnow swam
everywhere I could throw it without snagging, and it never
got a touch. Sure would have been nice to catch that bass,
or any bass, even a dinky one.
It's funny how the mind works. Good fishing trips can bring
back memories of earlier good trips. Same goes for trips you
get skunked, or almost skunked. What this March 5th trip
reminded me of was all those trips in my youth when my first
outings of the year would happen around this time. I'd go
out in early March all fired up because I had cabin fever
real bad. Trip after trip I never caught anything and after
a month of constant failure I'd get frustrated and quit, and
wouldn't resume fishing until mid-summer. I was quitting right
about the time the crappie spawn starts, but by then I didn't
care, I'd been skunked so many times I was angry and bummed out.
In short, I was a moron.
Today then, the unprecedented luck I've enjoyed this year
commencing the first week of January allowed me the luxury
of being philosophically analytical about how miserably
rotten and disgustingly poor this day had been. It may
have been the wind, or the waves; perhaps the barometer,
or the wrong choice of flies. Whatever, in my last three
trips to this lake arm I haven't fared nearly as well as
I did when the water was actually colder. Which doesn't
make sense, at least to me it doesn't.
Could it be that annually in early March there's a natural
lull in fish activity even in the presence of ideal weather?
I suppose I'll find out soon enough because this spring I'm
not quitting even if I suffer a long run of bad luck.
Besides, the fishing I did here today was a deliberate
experiment conducted to discover whether a combination
of northwest wind, wave action and a warm water conveyor
energizes the fish in this lake arm. Before the first
cast I knew that failure was a distinct possibility.
I don't like getting skunked, though, and today I came oh,
so close. But in my youth, one of the first lessons fish
taught me is that they don't exist for the purpose of
sacrificing themselves to make me happy or to boost my ego.
Fish are always teaching us things, and while paddling off
the lake today I felt they had again taught me something of
value. I just didn't know what, and still don't.
One thing though: while strapping my canoe to the roof rack
at 7:15 p.m. I looked up and stars were glittering like
diamonds in the cloud-free twilight. Somewhere away to
my east a pack of coyotes was singing to our sky. Barred
owls were hooting and cackling to the south and north of me,
in the trees up on those hills. If nothing else, this
experiment was a 2-fish success that proved again it's
still a beautiful world we live in. ~ 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