Turning off my pickup's ignition, I stepped out of the cab,
got into the topper shell and pulled out my folding camp
chair. The plan this evening was to not fish at all, just
sit out by the lake and relax reading a fine book
(River Town by Peter Hessler) and
occasionally look up at the surface of this lake arm
to monitor visible insect activity and mark the location
and sequence of fish feeding. Knowledge thus gained from
the lake would be applied during future fishing trips here.
I can't count the number of times I've intended to do exactly
this, and then didn't. So often in the outdoor sports a person
can acquire a tremendous amount of useful information simply
by warming the bench and watching the flow of play instead of
participating in the game.
Around 7 p.m. when the sun began angling lower in the sky
the evening floor show began. I sighed upon hearing the
third surging swirl - a sizeable something attacking a
smaller something with intention of converting it to food -
and once again my "observe only" resolve crumbled, as it
has so crumbled many times before. Why do I even bother
trying? I should know better. The dramatic swirling sounds
that even small fish make when they attack a surface prey
item turn me instantly into a young teenager racing down
the street on my bicycle with two shiny quarters in my
pocket, trying to catch or intercept the Ice Cream Man
before his little truck moves out of the neighborhood.
Partly it was Ned's fault that I surrendered so quickly,
put away the book and chair and hastily unstrapped my canoe
from the roof rack. Two hours earlier on my way home from
work I'd stopped by K&K Fly Fishers in Kansas City to thank
Ned and the other staff guys for stocking the 00-wt. Sage
fly rod that I bought recently. I hadn't been back to the
shop since buying it. And of course, I couldn't help
rhapsodizing about how great this ultra lightweight rod
casts and how much fun it is to fight a panfish with. Next
thing I knew, I ended up buying a new fly. Which I never
would have done had Ned not shown me a fly that resembles
an inch-long section of centipede with long flexible legs.
The fly looked great to me. Now two hours later here at
the lake, after rigging up my rod I knotted this fly to my
My first target location was a long, submerged log that
lays prone in the upper middle part of the lake arm. I'm
beginning to think I'm the only guy who knows about this
log, or recognizes its value. The water surrounding it
must be shallow enough that the bassboat boys who fish
this lake arm seldom venture into its general area for
fear of running aground or snarling their props. But
black crappies certainly venture here, as do bluegill.
As do I in my shallow-draft, dual-anchored solo canoe.
Anchoring 20 feet upwind of the log, I threw Ned's
"centipede-whatever" fly five feet to the right and just
beyond the tree's slowly decomposing but still substantial
rootwad. This first cast did not go unnoticed; my leader
halfway home displayed a soft twitch and when I lifted I
was into a fish with good weight. Its resistance, although
strong, was just sluggish enough to make me think this was
a crappie, and I was right. Soon it surfaced to identification
level then began that casual swim-around I've learned to dread,
where the crappie carries its mouth barely out of the water,
as if the fish is a synchronized swimmer sculling during a
pattern move. But instead of suddenly rising up and giving
its head a sharp wiggle (which so often throws the hook) this
fish went deep and somehow self-released about ten feet from
I'd seen during the swim-around that this crappie was easily
a 12-incher. When you lose a crappie like this, it makes you
want to smack yourself in the forehead for having done the
sportsmanlike thing earlier by crushing down the fly's hook
barb. Maybe if I'd left that microbarb intact I'd have
landed the fish?
After the shock of failure wore off, I remembered that I
wasn't fishing for the ice chest this evening; this was
catch and release. Still, it would have been more fun to
boat that fish and release it myself instead of it finagling
a way to release itself. Hey, I don't need a big crappie's
help; I'm perfectly capable of releasing it myself, you know?
I guess a lot of keeper crappie just don't trust me.
I fished this log for about 30 minutes, throwing to both
sides. This evening, bluegill hits were outnumbering crappie
hits by roughly a 4-to-1 ratio, giving me more statistical
evidence to chew on regarding my growing suspicion that the
2006 crappie spawn in this lake is over. Is it over, or
almost over? Or has the spawn been merely interrupted, put
on hold by a two-week cooling trend which saw this year's
early April above-average temperatures in northeast Kansas
return to historically normal, cooler late April/early May
Only the crappies know the answer, and they ain't talkin.'
Takes on the centipede fly began falling off, telling me that
I'd worn out my welcome here. About this same time I became
aware of the increasing frequency of swirling noises
originating from the surrounding lake surface. With about
an hour of daylight left I decided to place my bet on surface
feeding and switched to a small cork popping bug. After tying
it on, I uncleated my anchor lines prior to moving to a new spot.
Then I thought, "Why not see what this popper will do right here,
even though I've probably used up all my luck at this spot?"
The top of this log's rootwad lies just beneath the surface.
I took advantage by throwing my yellow rubber-legged popping
bug upwind of the root tangle. The bug splatted into the lake
and the light northwest wind began moving it into the kill zone.
The bug was blown along very slowly. About a foot out from the
roots there vaguely came into view a ghostly dark, slowly rising
form of a wedge-shaped fish, its head tilted upward in the
grab-prey position. Oh man, oh man, this was a very nice crappie!
It cautiously examined the tail of my popper from a distance of
less than an inch. About 10 seconds ticked by then the fish
simply descended straight down fading from sight and was gone,
leaving my hair-trigger right arm cocked in a state of tension.
When a big crappie does this to you and the water is clear
enough that you see it happening, it would help to have a
modest-sized bottle of oxygen on board so you can slap a
breathing cup over your mouth and inhale deeply, like an
From this log, I moved 100 yards farther down the lake arm
to an area of standing and submerged brush. Yes, it's the
same brushy area I've written about so many times already.
For what it's worth, I'm probably just getting started
writing about it; this is a marvelous fishing spot.
How much longer it'll be marvelous this spring is open to
question. The problem is a new type of aquatic plant that
is aggressively taking over this lake's two main arms.
I'm as ignorant about aquatic botany as I am about aquatic
entomology, so I can only hope this plant is a cool water
species that'll die off soon and leave this lake arm in
fish-able condition. For now the plant seems intent on
carpeting the surface of this arm to the point where in
a few more weeks any method of fishing here will be
Tonight, though, I could still operate by carefully
throwing my popper into open lanes and holes found
around and inside the standing portion of the brush.
As my canoe approached the brush stand I was spooking
fish in patch-carpeted deeper open water. This I logged
for future reference, as the day may quickly come when
throwing to such spots is the only game in town for
panfish at this lake.
Reaching the brushy area, I slipped my boat through
the stumps and stalks, deliberately penetrating into
the dense, intimidating interior "where no bassboater
has gone before" (as Captain Kirk might have said if
he'd been a canoe fly fisher instead of a Federation
starship captain). Not another soul was in sight; it
was just me and the brush and whoever else was here.
And they were here. And they were hungry, and they
were big. On almost every cast the popper would get
mauled by a bluegill, small bass or crappie, or redear.
More bluegills than anything.
It felt good to see so many really nice 'gills coming
to hand. During the last two years, since I began
fishing here, I've taken a fair number of 'gills home
from this lake arm. Never very many taken per trip
but perhaps the "Zieger Effect" is occuring anyway -
where my modest panfish removal is properly balancing
the extraction of keeper-length bass that get taken home
by the powerboat crowd. Fewer 'gills in the lake = more
bugs for each 'gill to eat = faster growth and larger
Or not. Maybe tonight I'd simply blundered into a huge
bluegill spawning bed where only the lake's richest 'gills
held tickets. In a fleeting sense that question did come
to mind. Mostly, though, I was kept busy hooking, landing
and releasing fish, giggling like a lucky little kid whose
nickel makes the machine drop all its gumballs down the
chute at once.
Not that it was easy, because it wasn't. With the
submerged brush stalks offering wrap-around possibilities,
plus so many dense vegetation clumps crowding the open
pockets and lanes, the pressure was on to get any hooked
fish out of there as quickly as possible. The standard
technique for doing this is to lean back and horse the
fish out. But when you're using a 00-wt. ultralight fly
rod, as I was, there's a certain reservation about trying
this due to concerns about the rod's durability?
In such dense cover, probably no matter which rod weight
gets used the fly fisher is bound to lose some fish. I
know this to be true because in the past I've lost even
small bluegills in heavy cover like this when using a
5/6-wt. rod, a 4-weights, a 3-weight and a 1-weight.
I'm no stranger to losing fish. What I am a stranger
to is shattering an expensive fly rod by forcing more
bend into it that its shaft is designed to survive.
But even with the 00-weight, everything turned out Okay.
I don't know if it's my years of experience fighting fish,
or if it's this rod's durability, or both, but by exploiting
every mistake made by a fish I succeeded in boating most
of them. Here's how:
We all know how panfish will dive after taking a surface
prey item. We also know that after the panfish feels the
hook sting and line resistance, it often runs back to the
top for just an instant. Hooked pannies hardly ever jump
in the classic sense like a largemouth bass will do, but
they will rush to the top for a brief bit of thrashing
about. Sometimes they will do this while fleeing laterally.
If you anticipate the behavior, the second that thrashing
moment comes you lean back on the rod. This pulls the fish
from only inches of water, then once its body gains some
momentum you skid it across the surface toward you. Once
it's lying flat on its side, skidding across the top, the
fish's body and fins can't get any traction or leverage on
In close quarters fishing like what I was doing, this method
allows you to complete all or most of the initial retrieve
phase, leaving the end-game fight and final grab and lift-out.
Still leaves you with plenty of opportunities and time to lose
the fish, but arguably the worst is over now. Sounds technical,
but really it's just a common sense method every fisher uses
instinctively sooner or later. To my great relief I was
managing to skid out many thick bodied 8- and 9-inch bluegills,
a 12-inch bass, a couple of 9-inch crappie and a 10-inch redear,
without once perceiving undue stress on the double-ought Sage.
The key, I think, is having your rod pointed more or less toward
the fish at the moment it surfaces. This lets the strongest,
butt section third of the rod do all the heavy work in safety
during the lift, and after that's done it's a matter of
maintaining inertia, keeping the fish moving your direction.
No matter the species you're after, catch and release fishing
is always great fun. Sometimes though, the thought comes that
we humans are the ones getting caught and released. At the
end of the day when exiting areas of cover thick and menacing,
it's a feeling you get, that some of those fish scared the
living daylights out of you when taking you into impossible
snags, but you've survived to fight another day with nothing
seriously injured or broken. ~ Joe Hyde
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