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A Midge Too Far

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas
What happens when in barely three hours time a 6-inch rainfall carwashes the watershed of a 195-acre lake? Ugly, is what happens. And just two days after this statistically rare late August deluge, I decided to go fishing for bluegills in this lake. My mother didn't drop me on my head when I was a baby, but a few years ago she told me of a nasty fall she took down some stairs when I was still inside her.

Lingering brain damage aside, this was one of those trips everybody takes sooner or later. A trip where your heart isn't in it because you suspect that your favorite spots have been knocked out of action by a bad storm? Nobody really minds staying home and watching TV when faced by such circumstances. The problem comes halfway through that bag of potato chips, when the thought creeps in that conditions out at the lake might not be as bad as you imagine. Once this idea takes hold, it hits you that if you go fishing you might enjoy a bit of good luck while the normal people who ordinarily are at the lake fishing are all sitting at home watching TV due to their even gloomier lake assumption.

In my case, a second idea was prodding me. During the work week before this big rain storm hit Lawrence, I'd been whipped into a fishing frenzy by a modest length FAOL Bulletin Board thread whose topic was midges. Midges, the polite term for "those damn pesky little gnats." And not just flies that imitate winged adult midges; no, the discussion thread even mentioned flies that imitate midge larvae and pupae.

Ignorant of the role midges play in the panfish diet, two weeks earlier I would have dismissed this thread as French pastry penned by bored trout fishing gearheads. But the week the thread appeared, so did a Rick Zieger Panfish article that told how he'd used a winged adult midge on one rod and a midge larvae on a backup rod and caught quite a few bluegills out of a farm pond. That got my attention.

Rick's story combined with the Bulletin Board thread got me thinking how cool it would be to slowly pull a midge train past the noses of hungry bluegills - the "engine" being a winged midge, the "caboose" a larvae. (I can't connect the pupae stage "third car" fly because Kansas fishing laws allow no more than two hooks per casting line.)

So I drove out to the lake, feeling doubtful but nevertheless psyched for tandem fishing a winged adult midge with a larvae trailer. I was equipped for this task thanks to Rick, who a week earlier had given me some winged midges, pupae and larvae flies.

Unfortunately, lake conditions were ten times worse than I'd imagined. The two biggest coves I like to fish in were carpeted with the most intimidating layer of floating debris you ever saw, compliments of that 6-inch rain. It looked like every blade of dead grass in Douglas County, every dead leaf, every twig, broken branch and stick from miles around had been washed into the lake. The surface acreage coated by this flotsam made both coves look like ocean bays that had been slicked by an oil tanker run aground.

I almost turned back for home but decided to sit in my pickup a few minutes and observe this shattered environment for signs of activity. Surely no gamefish was in the mood to bite today, much less even be here. But lo and behold, fish were active. Indeed, near the thickest concentrations of debris an occasional vicious surface swirl indicated a large panfish or bass attacking a prey item. What were these fish eating? And how in the world was I supposed to work a fly through that dense layer of debris without snagging every cast?

This is where it can help you to fish alone: no sympathetic ear was handy for me to waste time whining into. Finally I just decided to hell with it: I'm here, so I'll paddle out and look for little pockets or lanes of open water to cast to, and whatever happens it beats working.

I launched my canoe where two feeder creeks come in. Residual storm runoff was still flowing down these creeks, but a light counterbreeze was pushing flotsam from the cove upcurrent into the areas I wanted to fish. A most discouraging sight...until I paddled into the debris field and discovered that its mass consisted primarily of a thin film of pepper-sized vegetation bits. A heavier fly would sink through this stuff and might catch the attention of any bluegills lurking below.

One of Rick's black rubber-legged marabou nymphs was still on the leader from my Iowa visit the weekend before, so I started off with it. Right away I caught a nice bluegill, about 6 inches long but very thin. I let it go. Curious, why the odd bluegill gets this way: big frame but almost no meat. Maybe like whitetail bucks in rut, some male 'gills suffer extreme weight loss during the summer from spawning so much.

Paddling over to the second feeder creek, I made a happy discovery: the surface above its "sweet spot" had become debris-free thanks to the counterbreeze. Just to see if anyone was home, I laid a cast at the right fringe of this hole and immediately a bluegill nailed the black rubber-legged nymph. After dropping this keeper into my cooler for a solid water snooze, I sent my next cast straight into the heart of the sweet spot. Halfway back, it got pinged by one of those on/off hits that tells you a fish nipped the tail of the fly instead of grabbing the whole thing.

With two fish caught and one in the ice chest, this was all the excuse I needed. Clipping off the black nymph, I tied on the Death Train - a #20 winged adult midge with a near-microscopic #24 larvae trailing a foot behind. You punks like striking short, huh? Okay, let's see you strike short on this!

Into the sweet spot went my tandem midges. No hit. Back again, and again, but no hits. Slow retrieves, medium retrieves, fast retrieves, start and stop retrieves, no hits. Forty-five minutes pass, and not a single hit.

I began running down the list of reasons why the 'gills weren't attacking my midges. Some insect repellent may have got transferred onto the flies by my fingers. Maybe the fish weren't eating midges now because natural midge activity had ceased due to habitat disruption from the flash flood. Maybe this was the wrong time of day to use midges. Perhaps the water was still too stained for the fish to spot such tiny flies. Maybe I should have positioned the larvae fly up front and used the winged adult as the trailer so that in motion the tandem's passage displayed the correct life cycle chronology.

I might have sat in my canoe mumbling to myself until well past dark, had not the counterbreeze suddenly stopped. The creek current now began transporting stacked up flotsam back down the channel into the lake cove. With my sweet spot getting layered again with thick surface crud, I had no choice but to retreat and search the cove for open places to cast to. Even here it was a dynamic environment, with dense patches of flotsam steadily migrating into the open water like growlers issuing from an iceberg calving ground.

But the day was getting late now, and with the lowering sun came the typical evening increase in wildlife activity. Fish began swirling all around me; no question they were still here, and was I ever glad to see this. Feeling only a slight sense of mission failure, I clipped off my killer midge rig; it would have to kill 'em some other day. For now, something bigger and heavier seemed the way to go.

I put on a #10 Hare's Ear nymph that Rick had tied, and to its hook bend I knotted a foot-long tippet section armed with a #18 black gnat. (I figured a #18 gnat might qualify as a midge, and I still wanted at least one midge in the water. Strictly for scientific reasons, you understand.)

Then totally by accident after pulling free from a snagged cast, I discovered the 'gills liked both of these flies equally well if I pulled them through the water just below the surface at line stripping speed. In the next hour six keeper 'gills fell prey, plus a 1 -lb. channel cat whose abrupt short range strike almost ripped the rod out of my hand.

Shortly after boating this channel cat, another strong fish laid a jolting strike on my nymph/gnat tandem. This fish got off before I could identify it, and in my excited condition I kept casting ten more minutes before I glanced down and noticed that my black gnat wasn't there anymore. Duh.

Losing the gnat gave me an opportunity to test fire another of Rick's flies. I don't know its name but it has wings, a black/red/black thorax, a clipped gray tail and it is slightly bigger than the Hare's Ear nymph. I used it as the trailer, and two keeper bluegills chose it for their last meal.

So this flood-battered lake surrendered some good fly-fishing action in spite of it all. Three hours earlier it appeared certain this would be one of those dreaded Longest Day trips. I avoided that fate when the bluegills rejection of my first tandem offering showed that I'd gone...A Midge Too Far. ~ Joe riverat@sunflower.com

About Joe:

From Lawrence, 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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