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An Outlet Runs Through It


By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

Last Sunday my buddy, Donnie, and I drove to Toronto Lake and Fall River Lake (both in Kansas) to scout them for fishing. A recent state fishing report mentioning crappies in Toronto Lake ranging from to 2 pounds was a siren call we heard loud and clear.

Unfortunately for us (and everyone else, I suspect) both lakes were extremely turbid practically liquid mud as a result of recent heavy rains. Plus on the day of our arrival the wind was blowing very hard, intensifying shoreline muddiness in the wave battered areas that otherwise looked best to us for bank fishing.

On our drive home we stopped by Pomona Lake, located about 40 miles southwest of Lawrence as the crow flies. Its water was muddy too. I asked Donnie if he'd mind taking a quick look at the outlet channel below the dam. Turned out the Corps of Engineers was releasing water that day, at a volume I estimated around 500 cubic feet per second.

Under this condition (but especially during higher-volume draw downs that are far more intense) a considerable number of lake fish swimming happily in the vicinity of the dam find themselves pulled inexorably toward the draw down tower. One minute they're a lake fish, then comes a quick and curious trip through a conduit tube and presto! they're in a man-made river channel living in a whole new world. Many such displaced fish stay in the outlet channel but most migrate downstream, eventually ending up in the same place used electricity goes.

The trick is to catch 'em while they're still there in the outlet channel. There are two schools of thought on the best way to do it. 1) Fish the channel during the drawdown event by using heavier tackle that lets you hold your own in the powerful exit current and eddies. 2) Wait until the drawdown event is over, when the outlet channel's water level drops and concentrates any fish still present into a shallower, narrower and slower-current area that's better suited to light tackle angling. Both disciplines have devotees. Coming from an ultralight spinning background I've always gambled on whatever's behind Curtain #2.

The Pomoma Lake outlet will forever hold a special place in my heart. In 1969 I caught that year's U.S. record line-test walleye there. It was my first-ever walleye. I didn't even know what the fish was when it came into view; the angler near me who netted it for me ID'd it. I also didn't know back then that walleyes are one of the world's best-tasting fish. After weighing this curious looking creature at an Ottawa, KS grocery store I took it home, cleaned it and gave away the fillets. The following spring I read in a Field & Stream magazine that the U.S. line-test record for walleye for 1969 was a 7-pounder some guy had caught on 4-lb. test line.

I'd caught my walleye, also a 7-pounder, on 2-lb. test line. Oh well!

My fond memory of Pomona Outlet also includes the many instances of bang, bang action I had on crappie when tossing a tiny size 00 Mepps spinner into the main pool then retrieving it just above the rocks. This was great fun, especially the times when so many minnow and bobber fishermen were sitting nearby drawing blanks.

On Sunday when we stopped there, Donnie was ready to get home so he didn't want to give the outlet area a try even though he was using ultralight spinning tackle. Looking at the outlet channel's current speed, I wasn't sure it would do me any good to try, either. But my eye was drawn to a small area of slack water that lay along the right bank just below a slight shoulder. I'd caught many, many fish there in the past. Might as well nymph that spot for a few minutes, just for a drill. I did and ended up catching a few small crappies, then we left.

Two days later, Tuesday, I was lying in bed early morning grumbling to myself about the rotten weather forecast for that day. I looked outside. Cloudy, but no rain falling. I got on my computer and tubed up the real-time radar image for the Pomona Lake area. Pomona was occupying the center of a wide storm-free corridor between two active storm cells. Hmmm.

At 8:30 a.m. I got to the outlet and parked. To my happy surprise the lake outflow had been reduced to maybe 75 cfs. At this lower release volume Pomona's outlet divides into two distinct areas: a stilling basin pool and below that, just past a man-made riffle, lays the outlet's main pool.

The main outlet pool is where I caught that 7-lb. walleye and countless other fish over past years. And what caught my breath today is that nobody was fishing this larger pool. It was all mine. Being a retired person does have its problems, I'm learning, but seeing this pool absent of other people sure wasn't one of them.

Two men were vertical fishing the stilling basin, reaching over the guardrail fence with their poles. I parked across the basin wall from them, got out and lined up. Stepping to the fence on my side of the guardrail, I offered a bit of friendly good morning talk and discovered that the men opposite me are representatives of a species frequently encountered at public access fishing spots in the state of Kansas. I refer to the bib overall-clad Single Syllable Troglodyte.

"You fellas been rippin' into 'em?" asked I.

"Ungh."

"Well, it's sure cloudy today and might rain anytime, but at least the wind isn't blowing a hurricane like it was Sunday. Wasn't that awful?"

"Ungh."

I might never have torn myself away from such scintillating conversationalists had I not looked downriver toward the large pool. There stood a Great Blue Heron that had waded halfway across the man-made riffle at the end of the stilling basin pool. Standing amidst those rocks with water gurgling past, in a flicker of movement the bird harpooned then lifted into the air a silvery fish that looked to be 8 or 9-inches long maybe longer, maybe bigger, because the heron quickly released it.

Well now! If a hungry heron is doing Catch & Release, who am I to stand around making small talk when I can be down there nymphing the area below that riffle?

It occurred to me a short time later that this trip marked the first time I've fly fished the outlet of any federal lake. It would also be the first time I've fly fished a riffle in Kansas. Granted, this is a man-made riffle but the hydrology of Pomona Outlet's riffle is what you will find in riffles pretty much everywhere.

riffle section

Due to recent rains that had stained Pomona Lake's main body with suspended sediment, even the reduced outflow volume hadn't improved the water clarity in the outlet channel; it was still quite muddy. This put serious doubt in my mind whether any fish would be able to spot my nymph. To compensate, the tactic I employed initially was to cast my nymph into the current border then commence a slow up-current retrieve, the aim being to maximize the exposure time when the nymph might be detected and attacked.

What made this whole business so comforting and familiar is that it's the same technique I used for many years while ultralight fishing in riffles and riffle pools using a tiny spinner. Except with fly tackle and a nymph the technique was working even better. Why? Because with fly fishing you have a wide choice of nymph weights, and those choices give you the ability to probe any given spot within or below a riffle with much greater deliberation.

So nymphing this riffle area turned out like all those great earlier trips of catch and release fishing I enjoyed at this outlet while using ultralight tackle and spinners. With my nymph I started catching little 6-to-8 inch crappie like they were going out of style. This sort of thing bores many people but has never bored me -- catching lots of little fish, I mean. Because if the little ones are biting I figure everything's biting, and you never know what'll hit on the next cast during such times.

It's like eating popcorn in a movie theater; you just can't quit. After I'd caught 125 crappies on one side of the outlet channel, I switched sides to see what might be happening over there. This change was spurred in part by curiosity about whether there might be an isolated school of bigger crappies roaming around. I hadn't ferreted out any such school where I'd been fishing, so why not try across the channel? I walked around to the other side.

Almost the whole time I'd been catching those 125 little crappies, the near-bank zone is where I was having the most luck. Just before crossing the river, though, I'd sent a few casts across the riffle's current chute, the chute on my side. Lifting my rod tip to maximum height brought the floating line out of the current, leaving only the narrower leader in contact with the water. This resulted in some hookups in slower water areas out toward the center of the riffle. So after I reached the opposite bank I decided to play around with various presentations to see what would happen. One of those presentations was to walk downstream, turn and cast back upstream into the tail of the riffle and let the current wash my nymph downstream in a free descent such as would happen if an actual mayfly nymph had become dislodged in the riffle and got washed downstream?

To my amazement, I began catching crappies this way. They could actually see my nymph in that dingy water as it zipped past them at current speed! Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised by this but their feeding behavior, this capability, was totally unexpected. It was like these crappies were practicing how to work riffles the way mountain stream trout do when they lie in ambush spots then rush out to pick off passing insects. I've always admired crappie anyway, but this feeding exhibition in a riffle increased my appreciation of them.

By the time my back started hurting from being tensed up for three hours it began raining. So I left Pomona Outlet having caught and released 165 crappies, 1 channel cat, 1 bluegill and 1 white bass. All of them small, but each great fun in moving water.

small crappie

The day will come, it will certainly come, when I visit that outlet and the fish are averaging lots longer and heavier. It's a bit nerve-racking thinking how wild such a trip might be now that I've seen what fly tackle can do in a Kansas riffle. I learned from that walleye 38 years ago, and from many fish since, that the bigger ones will not hesitate to grab a tiny moving thing that looks like real food. In a limestone riffle what better object for them to attack than a dead-on imitation of a nymph? ~ Joe

About Joe:

From Douglas County, Kansas, Joe is a former municipal and federal police officer, now retired. 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 recently retired from 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 former 'day job.'

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