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Surprise, Surprise
By Joe Hyde, Douglas County, KS


It won't last much longer - word of the crappie spawn will see to it - but if the overnight temperatures in northeast Kansas remain even seasonally cool over the next few weekends I should be able to camp overnight in solitude very close to any water I decide to fish.

It's Saturday, March 11th. I'm camped 10 feet from a lake shore. Friday night after arriving here a little before midnight, prior to hitting the sack I unstrapped my canoe, took it off the roof rack, laid it on the ground next to my truck then completely set it up for the next day's fishing. Anchors, paddling saddle, ankle rolls, landing net, fly rod (with fly at the ready in the keeper ring), ice chest, fly boxes, PFD, two paddles. Illuminated by the soft light of a half moon overhead, my canoe looked vaguely like a combat vessel armed and quietly waiting to enter battle.

At 6:30 a.m. the pre-dawn light was dim but still much brighter than last night's half moon had been; I could see all around me easily. It was still only me at this campsite, and no other anglers were on the lake in boats yet, or could be seen standing along the shoreline. The lake's surface was utterly smooth. This lake's water is still very cold, but it felt right being Johnny-on-the-spot today: I could try for crappie before the morning sun climbed too high in the sky.

I've always read that crappies are a light-sensitive fish; when prowling the shallows they prefer to feed during low light morning and evening hours. When they feed in the shallows at mid-day it's only because there's enough wave action above to scatter and diffuse the sunlight and not allow any direct, harsh penetration. Or else the water is turbid enough to subdue the sunlight penetration. Crappie and walleye are alike in this low light preference, or so I've always read.

And maybe that's just my excuse to camp beside lakes overnight so that I can get a super-early start and be boating fish when most other anglers are still in bed getting entertained by dreams brought on by the rapid eye movement sleep phase. Well, those anglers have their dreams and I have mine. My wide awake dream this morning is coming true: I'm out here in low light conditions and will attempt to catch crappie. Bass and bluegill need not apply.

After lowering the tailgate and crawling out of my truck shell "micro-apartment" I straighten up, take three steps to my canoe, reach down and pivot it 90-degrees to the right, slide the boat into the water, step inside and lower myself onto my paddling saddle, push off and silently I'm gone. I've slept fully dressed, so the elapsed time from sleeping bag to the first spot I anchor at is maybe two minutes.

For about fifteen minutes, I probe a weed-fringed shoreline pocket where a couple of weeks prior I fooled two large fish but both came off the hook almost immediately after the strike. With both strikes, there appeared an underwater greenish silver reflection the size of a running shoe sole, and that told me they were crappie. Both fish might still be here.

Or not...

Okay, no big deal. Prime Time should run another hour at least, and there's so much cover in this lake arm it would take me a week's worth of 24/7 casting to properly fish half of it. I moved on down the arm, same side, and tried a small innocent-looking group of brush branches. This spot doesn't pay off every time, but when it does you'll be staying here a while. This morning I didn't stay five minutes because no matter which angle I swam my chartreuse marabou fly through the lanes between those sticks, nobody below was interested.

Next I moved north more into the center of this lake arm's shallow end, where I worked an isolated circle of brush stalks. Many times last year I caught bluegills, crappie and bass here, all three species in one stop. But today throwing into it, beyond it and swimming Charlie Marabou back through it, throwing barely outside it and way outside it, no fish were interested.

Time to exit these side shows and buy a ticket for the main event. I lifted anchors and paddled for the large brushy area in this lake's arm. My plan was to work it's the end nearest me first and then fish toward the northwest, moving into ever deepening water as I progressed.

I anchored near the south end of an oval-shaped stand of brush and began casting into it and around it. I was being careful with my casts and retrieves; no sense losing this important fly to a snag when I could so easily move my boat close enough to dislodge it by sticking my rod tip down into the lake.

Around 7 a.m. I was still exploring this first brush clump, and with no luck. I twisted my torso to the left, intending to shoot a cast well off to the side of the clump. On the final backcast my left hand lost control of the fly line and Charlie Marabou splashed into the lake behind me. Twisting back to the right to see where the errant cast landed, my attention was drawn to an adjacent brush clump standing to my right about 30 feet across a patch of open water. I hadn't caught anything at this first brush clump yet, so the notion of trying the second clump was instantly appealing. But could I reach it from here?

For stealth reasons, I wanted to stay anchored right where I was and cast to both brush clumps. One way I could do that was to pivot my canoe in place by lifting the bow anchor only and then use sculling strokes to pull the canoe around 45-degrees to the right and then re-set the bow anchor. This maneuver would leave me facing the open water between the clumps; I could then cast to both clumps without twisting my torso quite so much while casting. As a result, there wouldn't be any back pain twinges or boat balancing issues.

But before going to this much trouble I wanted to see if a "backward cast" might do the job. So I twisted hard left and looked left, as if I wanted to cast to the left... but instead of delivering the fly to the canoe's left side, I made my final backcast be the actual forward cast toward the boat's right side, and during this final "backcast." I twisted my torso back hard to the right so that I could see where the fly touched down. I apologize if this description is confusing, but out on the lake the technique actually works pretty good. Here this morning, the technique dropped Charlie about 5 feet my side of the distant brush clump. Close enough for government work. Of course, I now had to keep my torso twisted hard to the right in order to monitor what if anything happened during the retrieve. A miserable, thankless task but someone had to do it.

Charlie's marabou fibers, I should mention here, had much earlier become thoroughly saturated with lake water. There would be no "floating Charlie" offered to the crappies today (like happened accidentally in last week's story). At the first sign that the crappies were interested in hitting up top I would immediately switch to a true surface fly. There's always a few collecting dust in my fly box.

Submerged brush stalks and stumps are thick in this deceptively "open water" area between the two brush clumps. Nevertheless, when Charlie touched down I let him sink five seconds before starting him creeping back toward me. Risky business, but in the fishing I'd done so far this morning Rick Zieger's marabou fly had impressed me with its resistance to snagging. Perhaps some little tying trick Rick uses when assembling the pattern? Whatever, I felt more confident than I normally feel about working Charlie deeper through this type of cover.

Five feet into the retrieve, the thicker part of my tapered leader, the part that had been riding on surface tension, began to slide underwater a tiny bit too quickly - a subtle but tell-tale sign that the fly had either encountered a snag or been gently seized by a fish. Raising my rod tip gingerly, I felt that first slight movement that confirms it's a fish, and did a quick lift to put the hook home.

Of all the sensory delights gifted to us by the sport of fishing, to me one of the most electrifying is seeing the initial reflective flash as a large fish turns its body full sideways to fight you after it first feels the hook. This fish I'd just connected with was not only showing me that reflection, but the reflection was a greenish-silver color combined with sluggish, deliberate pulls against my 1-wt. rod. This had to be a crappie, and not some 8-incher like yesterday's keepers had all been. No, this fellow on my line now had been living in this lake a while longer and hadn't missed many meals.

Last year, all too many crappies taught me the hard lesson that a landing net reduces the number of last-second shake-offs. These fish can throw a fly slicker than any largemouth bass I've ever seen. My landing net was in the canoe today so there would be no frantic, fumbled thumb grabs at the lower jaw; after coaxing this fish to the boat slowly, being careful to keep its head underwater, I gently led it over my submerged net and lifted up, bringing the 11-inch slab on board. Its next stop was the Old Four Walls of my ice chest.

Once I could breathe again and my heart rate slowed, I sent more backward casts into that same area. About every fifth or sixth retrieve brought a strike - a take, I probably should say. Your leader begins to sink unnaturally and the retrieved line stops moving toward you. As the line tightens you ready yourself for whatever happens next because something's about to. Often it's a snag, and if you're lucky a bit of increased line pressure will gently pop the fly's head off the object it has butted up against. This is where repetition and muscle memory gained over many fishing trips helps you relax and ease off your line pressure slightly. If you can resist that initial urge to rare back with a strike during these retrieve delays, the fly often comes free and you can resume your slow retrieve with the fly remaining in that immediate area.

But sometimes it's a fish that makes your line stop, and then you deal with that however best you can.

From this one spot, I boated six very nice crappies. And despite having a landing net, an almost equal number of nice ones got free. Sometimes their escape happened underwater, sometimes up top facilitated by a head wiggle that my rod pressure and lift angle had not provoked.

After exhausting this honey hole, I moved northwest 40 yards to the border of the densest brush clump, and here I got into some nice bluegills. I hadn't meant to keep bluegills today, not if I started catching crappie first. But when the bluegills are going 8-inches with thick bodies it's time to junk a ridiculous plan like that. Also in this thicker brush I caught two more keeper crappies. I left the lake at 11 a.m. with 8 crappies and 5 bluegills - a good little two-meal haul.

The hottest action was between 7 and 8 a.m. and then it tapered off sharply. It wasn't lost on me that this one-hour action slot (and smoothest lake surface) confirmed the convention wisdom that crappies prowling the shallows prefer low-light conditions. But these creatures are fish and therefore immutable in their ways. No doubt there are many times when crappies turn human conventional wisdom upside down and dump the rocks out of our heads. One did exactly that to me yesterday in a creek channel, when it took a fly off the surface at mid-day. So people can expect to hear that rattling sound coming from my skull again someday, I suppose just about any time. ~ Joe

About 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 'day job.'

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