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Where There's Smoke
By Joe Hyde, Baldwin City, KS


I was making preparations to launch when two vehicles rolled up to the driveway leading into the picnic area but stopped short of coming in. Just as I finished knotting on my flies, the white Volvo eased slowly alongside my pickup. Its shirtless driver rolled down the window and asked, "Hey, dude, is it okay if my family comes in here and we have us a picnic?"

"Sure it is," I answered, "This is public land; you guys get on in here and do your thing."

"Well, I just wanted to ask, because we're going to build a fire on the ground over there by that picnic table, and if you'll be fishing here off the bank that (fire) might be a problem."

"It's no problem; give me another minute and I'll be in my canoe, out on the lake."

So both cars pulled in. Dad and Mom, three daughters and the family dog bailed out and hit the ground moving. Dad walked over to me and thrust out his right hand. I looked up to shake hands and saw a half-full whiskey bottle.

"Care for a little snort? I've been working on it already, but don't worry, there's plenty more where this came from."

"Thanks," I said, "but I have a couple of beers in my ice chest, so I'm good to go."

"You know," began Dad a bit too expansively, "I got an Uncle, he works in the maintenance crew at this lake? So I come out here a LOT. When I'm out here at this lake, I can do anything I want to."

My threat display radar lit up on automatic, the screen showing five - check - SIX bogies bearing zero-four-zero relative, one in tight, the other five fanning out into textbook picnic site attack formation. This was no place for me. Time to put to sea...right now.

Paddling away from shore, my initial thought was to move halfway down the lake arm to a new spot, one I hadn't tried when I was here last weekend. Then I thought: why paddle way down there when I'd so recently scored here, 75 feet from my put-in point? Don't turn up your nose at a proven hotspot when you're fishing for the skillet, dummy.

"You kids get away from that road!" Dad shouted.

See, I was here this afternoon on a mission. My girlfriend and I had talked about driving out to fix dinner for her father on his northeast Kansas farm. Janet had warned me that her dad doesn't just like fish, he LOVES fish. And her brother might stop in for Sunday dinner as well, and he loves fish, too. I definitely needed to catch more 'gills and/or crappies, she said, else there wouldn't be enough fillets. We needed more meat than the 28 fillets yielded by those 14 panfish I'd caught the weekend before. Either I bring home more fish today, she said, or tomorrow we'll have meat loaf for dinner.

Now don't get me wrong, folks, I love meatloaf as much as anybody. But compared to bluegill...

"You girls get out of the lake, RIGHT NOW!" Dad roared. The dog began barking.

So I eased into last week's hotspot, anchored, and began casting to the same cover. Today, though, I was using a Pheasant Tail nymph tandem rig; #14 bead head PTN up front, a #14 copper-wire wrapped body PTN trailing. In this 18-inch deep water, I estimated the rig would settle steadily to about mid-depth and stay clear of bottom snags if I used a normal speed left-hand pickup.

"GET OFF THAT BRIDGE! GET THE HELL OFF THAT BRIDGE AND COME BACK HERE RIGHT NOW! DO YOU GIRLS HEAR ME!"

Bless their hearts, the bluegills were not only still here but boy, they were hungry. Every second or third cast one of my PTN's got hammered. I began putting good-size 'gills on ice.

Because I'd paddled away from the picnic area when I left shore, I was anchored facing away from the family. It never dawned on me that I was anchoring directly downwind of their fire site. A few minutes later, this aspect of our geographical relationship came to my attention as I was enveloped by a stream of stinking, charcoal lighter-fired wood smoke.

Hearing a loud crack, I glanced over my shoulder and spotted Dad stooped over trying to snap a thick branch. He was facing away from me, and with no shirt concealing his hind side I not only heard a crack, I saw one. Is a pair of skivvies wedged someplace south of those empty belt loops? I couldn't tell, and wasn't about to inquire because I didn't really want to know.

Let's finish this cast and I'm out of here. Then one of my PTN's took a hard hit. It was a good fish I could tell. It went all over the place, making rocket runs east and west before rising to show itself. A crappie! I've never seen a crappie fight like this; it battled in the style of a largemouth bass. It was almost a foot long.

"WOOD! We need more WOOD!"

This big crappie, of course, changed everything. My stinging, watering eyes were crying for a change of scenery, and my ears were telling me to move to a spot without all this human racket. But my fisherman's heart assumed command. One good crappie and my canoe anchors became too heavy to lift. The fish are still here, I thought. They're biting right here, and I will ignore this smoke and racket and whatever else, if that's what it takes to put more fillets in tomorrow's skillet. I'm on a mission and...

"Oh hell, what'd she do now? Hurry up, take her down to the shore and put some lake water on that!"

Six or eight fish later, this first spot played out. I slowly moved 100 feet down the lake arm. Anchoring, I thought I had moved beyond the smoke. But the overcast sky and humid air, combined with the easterly breeze, made the smoke lay low on the water and it found me and enveloped me again, its density scarcely reduced by the extra distance. But that was acceptable because the 'gills were biting like mad here, too.

"We need WOOD! Go to town and buy us some wood!" I heard one of the car engines start, and Mom zoomed away in a hail of thrown gravel. Maybe now the picnic area would quiet down at least a little bit? Ho, ho, ho.

"...I gotta learn someday to be shuttin' my mouth Stead-a talkin' 'bout stuff I know nuthin' about..."

Dad had turned on his boombox and it was sending, ohhh, around 110 decibels of rap music into the surrounding airspace. Hip-hop music was getting pounded into my skull, filling it up inside, the sound reverberating throughout the entire lake arm. Leave it to a drunk to screw up a place so quiet and beautiful: From my experience as a musician, it's always your drunks who want the music played at ear-splitting volume.

So...when exposed to hip-hop do even Kansas bluegills get wild and crazy and start assaulting Pheasant Tail nymph strangers on the street with no provocation? I guess they do, because the gills never stopped biting; they didn't even slow down. Part of me secretly wanted them to quit biting so I could quit this spot and paddle far, far away from these Picnickers From Hell. But I was on a mission; yes, a mission. I was catching fish and had to continue doing so. I can do it; I have to do it, I'm on a mission.

When Spot two played out after another ten fish, I rubbed my smoke-filled eyes then moved across the lake arm, away from the smoke trail to a spot where an old creek channel comes in. The channel runs close along the shore, and I began probing the weedline with my PTN tandem. More 'gills and another big crappie were all too happy to see those nymphs.

It started getting hard to fit fish inside my small ice chest. Time to leave. By now, Mom had returned from town with more firewood. Crackhead - I mean, crack-tail - Dad was doing an imitation of Kevin Costner in the movie "Dances With Wolves." You know, where Costner hops around the fire stabbing at it as though it were a buffalo? About 15 minutes earlier the three small girls, unescorted, had taken off down a perimeter gravel road on their bicycles. They hadn't returned yet and suddenly it dawned on Mom and Dad that it was starting to get seriously dark out?

"YOU GIRLS COME BACK RIGHT NOW! COOMMMME BAAACCCKKKK!" both parents began bellowing. Thoughtfully, Dad turned off his boombox before commencing yelling, giving the girls a better chance at differentiating his call from the bellowing music. After playing the boombox for the last hour, I was mildly surprised that he didn't try rhyming the text of his comeback call.

As I beached my canoe, the white Volvo with Dad driving it roared out of the picnic site and headed at high speed down the timber-bordered perimeter gravel road in the direction the girls had disappeared. I racked my canoe and began stowing gear, saving the fly rods for last. Then from the direction the Volvo had gone came a loud cracking noise like a huge creature crashing through the woods. A few seconds passed, then through the trees came that unmistakable, high-pitched whine of spinning tires.

"You have GOT to be kidding," I muttered, "He DIDN'T." But I knew he had.

Fast as my hands could move, I began clipping flies off my leaders, storing them back in my fly box, then started breaking down and casing my rods. I'd zipped the second case shut and laid it in the bed of my truck when out of the corner of my right eye I caught sight of a pale white beer belly approaching...

"Hey, dude, I got a little crossed up back there and went off into the trees a little ways. This is your pickup, right? Well, you gotta help me out, dude. I've got a rope; give me a little pull and get me out of there, dude."

Marvelous: and I'd been mere inches from a clean getaway. If I'd only gone retro today and used ultralight spinning tackle instead of these two fly rods, I'd already BE gone.

"What kind of rope?" I asked with retro enthusiasm.

"Stout. It's in my car. Mountain climber rope." Which it definitely was NOT, as I saw immediately once we arrived where his Volvo was sloping downhill with its front bumper jammed against a big pile of blowdown limbs. The car was stuck at a weird angle, only its right rear tire was still in contact with the gravel roadway. I couldn't help wondering if drunk Dad had miraculously swerved at the last second to avoid running over his own children, all of whom had biked into the picnic area only minutes before he'd hiked back.

The first gentle tensioning pull from my pickup and this "mountain climber rope" popped like a champagne cork. Proof that wannabe mountaineering line is best used for domestic tasks performed by the wife of the household - jobs like tying your dit ship husband to a backyard tree every Saturday afternoon so he can't become a menace to society.

Beergut Bubba was at least aware enough of his condition that he turned down my offer to call a wrecker (since the call would have brought a sheriff's deputy as well, resulting in his incarceration for DUI). So I drove off, finally free of this family's non-stop assault on my senses.

What a day in the Great Outdoors. I took home 25 panfish (all but three were 'gills), thereby adding 50 more fillets to the 28 already bound for the farm.

Boy, was Janet ever right: next day at dinner, her dad taste-tested one small bluegill piece then waded into the tall platter of deep-fried fillets like a wolverine cheating on a berries-only diet. And me? I'd skipped breakfast on purpose, so guess who else was grabbing and growling. ~ Joe

About Joe:

From Baldwin City, 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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