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That Little Popping Sound
By Joe Hyde, Baldwin City, KS


It's wonderful what wildlife scientists accomplished a few years ago, working the magic that gave hybrid bluegills to the world. I haven't personally caught a hybrid bluegill yet, but a neighbor of mine caught one a few years ago and the creature looked like a dinner platter with gills; it filled the entire bottom of his ice chest.

I just wish those scientists had also studied a regular bluegill's DNA code more carefully and made an effort to correct certain genetic flaws. Specifically, it would have been nice if they'd identified and then altered the gene that controls a bluegill's inborn feeding behavior (if there is one). The idea being to generate a population of these pesky fish that will either smash a surface fly and get hooked outright, or else just leave the fly alone altogether. No in between; either they grab the fly for real or they totally ignore it.

It's fine when a big bluegill grabs your fly then lets go of it underwater before you have a chance to set the hook. But it's quite another thing to have a big bluegill dramatically break the surface with a loud slurping swirl right underneath where your fly is floating, making you THINK your fly has been taken inside the fish's mouth when in fact the fly never got touched at all.

So if somebody ever gets bluegills to either grab a fly and hold it, or leave it be, then I won't anymore get suckered into hauling back with a reflexive strike that jerks my terminal tackle toward my canoe so fast that I cover my face and chest with floating line, leaving me sitting there looking like a little kid who got sprayed with "canned string" at a buddy's birthday party.

Bluegills can drive you nuts doing that, and they sure were having lots of such fun at my expense last Sunday morning. The whole thing was my fault, too: if I'd only stuck with my trusty flashback Hare's Ear nymph I wouldn't have got embarrassed. But no...I had to try something new and different and the 'gills made me pay.

This was a deal where weeks of hot, humid weather have conspired to keep me off the lake for almost a month - which has happened before and will happen again, I'm sure. Finally I just couldn't take it anymore and went fishing even though the forecast was for a daytime high of 102. Besides, the downstairs freezer was almost out of bluegill fillets, and you can't catch supper if you don't go fishing.

Arriving at the lake just before dawn, I found the air was still very warm, making me wonder what the lake water temperature was like. Putting my hand down into it, it definitely felt warm. But I could see surface feeding activity happening, so I figured this was as good a time as any to try a small popping bug. I tied on a little yellow popper that I'd picked up at the newly-opened Yager's Flies store in Lawrence, KS.

Paddling out to a distance that put me away from shore in water about 3 ft. deep, I began casting to the irregular edge of a floating weedline. Right away I caught a bluegill. After that fish, on the next cast the little popper didn't move more than a couple of feet after splashdown when it got torpedoed by a largemouth bass that sent me through all sorts of changes before I finally lipped and released him. That fish would have gone 1-3/4 lb., maybe even 2-lbs.

It still amazes me that you can cast a tiny fly out into a lake and a big fish will grab it. I guess no matter how big a fish grows it never turns down a bug meal if the opportunity presents itself.

About when I'd caught three or four 'gills, a small powerboat appeared with a couple of fishermen inside. They were after bass, casting buzzbaits, whirring their lures back to the boat just under the surface. When they drew close enough, I asked how they were doing and they said they'd caught a couple of good-sized bass. Another case of early birds catching the worms.

Unfortunately for me, the pair then proceeded past me and began fishing the very shallowest part of the lake cove, entering the main feeder creek channel which was exactly where I was planning to go next. Oh well...

They didn't have any luck once they got in there, though, probably because their entry involved passing across an area only 6-inches deep. I heard the sound of their trolling motor clogging as they went in, and coming out a few minutes later they hung in the mud and got stuck real good. Their commotion while getting loose from that mud bar doubtlessly spooked every fish in the area. Times like that, it makes you feel good to be steadily catching nice bluegills from a canoe while the competition sits helplessly a short ways away, rocking back and forth trying to liberate their larger boat.

About 30 minutes after those guys left, I lifted my anchors and paddled into the area they'd vacated. I fooled one keeper 'gill in the feeder creek; it grabbed my popper after I dropped it at the base of an aquatic grass clump. Grasshoppers are in season now and probably that 'gill had eaten more than a few already and figured he was ambushing yet another careless young one.

After exiting the feeder creek, I seriously thought about calling it quits since it was starting to get hot pretty fast. But my canoe was in a nicely shaded area where the heat wasn't that bad yet. So I stayed in the shade and caught a few more 'gills. The surprise was catching a keeper crappie that clobbered my yellow popping bug on the surface at around 9:30 AM. By all rights, that late in the morning that crappie should have retreated to deeper, cooler water and waited there for the return of lower light conditions. But who am I to criticize any crappie that wants to check out the inside of my ice chest? I unhooked him, lifted the cooler lid and tossed him on the ice.

With a steady south wind blowing, I had a chance to do some shoreline drift fishing past a row of private cabin boat docks. This little exercise netted me a couple more keeper 'gills, to where I estimated there were now enough panfish in my ice chest to make for a good meal.

Looking up from my business, I spotted another powerboat, this one with a couple of fishermen standing in it. They were working an area of deeper water about 150 feet north of me. Ordinarily this sight would be nothing to comment on, except that the man standing in the bow was using a fly rod. This was the first time I'd actually seen another person fly fishing this lake from a boat (although I've met a few others who've said they do it).

So I let the south wind keep blowing me in their direction and a few minutes later I got to within conversation range and asked how they were doing. They reported catching some fish, which was of great interest to me since the water here was deeper than where I'd been working. I was particularly curious to learn whether the fly rod fisherman had scored in this water, and if so had he scored using nymphs fished slow and deep. He said that's exactly how he'd been working the spot.

The fly rod guy in the bow was Mike Richardson of rural Lawrence. His partner, Jim Cole of Kansas City, was manning the boat's stern area, employing an ultralight spinning rig, which may have represented a change of pace for him because he told me later that he's a big fly fisher, too; indeed, he's the former president of a fly fishing club in KC. So these two guys and I had lots to talk about.

As our boats floated in close proximity, Mike noticed my canoe's two-anchor rig. Out of the blue he asked if I'm one of the guys who writes fishing stories in FAOL. I confessed to being me. He said he reads FAOL's Warm Water section, and he really digs Rick Zieger's articles in Panfish Archive.

Just before I left the lake, I showed Mike and Jim where I'd caught most of my 'gills that morning - which also happened to be where I'd caught most of the bass, too. They troll motored over and gave it a try. As I was backing out to drive off, I glanced over and Mike's fly rod was bent over double like a croquet wicket. Jim hand-signaled to me that Mike was into a good fish.

A few moments later, Mike lipped, unhooked and released a really nice largemouth bass that looked to go 3 lbs. easy, probably closer to 4 lbs. A good thing, then, that he was using a 6 wt. rod.

At the outset I'd fished very close to where Mike connected with that big bass. His fight was far enough away that I couldn't tell what kind of fly he'd used to fool that fish, but I doubt it was a tiny popping bug of the kind I was using the entire morning.

Nice to know that bass is still there; maybe someday we'll meet. ~ 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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