Since making a strong move last fall into
the sport of fly fishing, just one thing
has made me consider quitting the fly rod
and switching back to spinning tackle. What's
that one thing? Losing crappie, that's what.
In decades of using spinning tackle to throw
jigs, spinners, or jig and minnow rigs, I never
had serious problems landing hooked crappies.
So after going into action this spring with my
new 9-foot 4-wt. fly rod as my one and only
fishing tool, I was at first surprised then
mystified and finally alarmed at how frequently
hooked crappie were getting loose before I could
net them or lip them.
Whatever was going wrong, it sure wasn't the
flies. The hooks on my #12 and #10 Hare's Ear
nymphs were clean and sharp, which in my mind
ruled out incomplete hook penetration as the
cause. Crappies definitely like those nymphs;
I was getting lots of takers. Indeed, the
eagerness they displayed in attacking this
pattern made me determined to stick with fly
rodding despite the ongoing loss of quality fish.
Still, the disappointment was getting to me bad.
I tried being philosophical about it because, you
know, everyone who picks up a fishing pole is going
to have fish get away; losing fish at the last
second is just part of the sport. But this was
different. I appeared to be doing everything
right - fly selection, quiet approach, accurate
casts into fish-holding water, correct presentation,
gentle hook set - yet on many outings, four out of
every five crappie I hooked got loose just as I was
about to lay a mint on their pillow.
Maybe the only saving grace in suffering a prolonged
spell of bad luck is that you get lots of opportunities
to watch things go haywire. Not that you're in any
mood to appreciate it. But given enough repetitions,
sometimes you can mentally isolate and identify that
one troublesome piece of the puzzle.
I knew that one component of the problem was the
shallow, weedy, brushy habitats I was working.
My concerns about fish diving into this cover
and breaking off made me aggressively haul back
on my rod after a gentle hook set; I wanted to
rapidly separate the fish from cover before it
had time to get entangled.
Another component: I mostly fish out of a canoe,
so my strikes and hookups took place at close
range - usually inside twenty feet. Out of years
of habit, I hold a rod tip high in the sky when
I'm fighting fish. With a 9-foot fly rod this
created a very steep pull angle that brought
crappies to the surface almost immediately
after hookup. Each fish was "green" - full
tank of gas, tires aired up, ready to rock
Crappies, though, are not exactly famous for
their rod-shattering fighting ability. This
was the chink in their armor that I hoped to
take advantage of by pulling them to the top
so fast. But this spring, crappies began
showing me an escape trick so cute it would
have made Harry Houdini proud.
After hookup, I would pull the crappie directly
to the surface to keep it away from cover.
Whereupon it would roll onto one side and
pretty much just wallow there passively. Over
and over again, that puny response suckered me
into thinking the fish was already beaten, and
I'd better get it to the boat quickly before it
recovers and dives into cover. I would begin
strip-skidding the fish toward me with its head
held up out of the water. Of course, at two or
three points along the way I had to stop pulling
long enough to reach up and grab another bite of
line prior to the next strip-pull, right? Feeling
the brief relaxation in line pressure, the fish
would give a lightning-quick wiggle of its head.
That one little wiggle made hardly a splash, but
it was enough to eject my nymph and quick as a
hiccup another crappie was gone.
These crappies were geniuses; I seemed powerless
to counter their escape move. Granted, I was
always excited and in a big hurry to boat each
fish. Am I supposed to not be excited when my
nymph is taking hit after hit from a species of
fish that I dearly love to eat? Hey, if things
ever get to where I'm hooking crappie after
crappie and it doesn't excite me, it's time
to quit. So I had to figure out a way to keep
being happy and excited but still catch these
Well, truth is I figured out what needed to be
done a good two months before I made the correction.
Two months being the period of time it took me to
save up enough money to buy...another new fly rod.
My newest rod is a 3-wt. 9-footer.
I've never mail-ordered a fishing rod and never
will. Every rod I've bought, I based the selection
on that magical combination of length and stiffness
and how it felt in my hand. The various rods I
own, each enables a different fishing style and
I already knew how I wanted that rod to feel
before I went looking for it.
But I had a devil of a time selecting this second
new fly rod. The problem was that standing on the
salesroom floor waving it around, the action of
the 3-wt. felt dramatically softer and slower
than my 4-wt. Same manufacturer, same model
rod, but the 3-wt. felt way slower and softer.
Was it too soft, to where I'd lose fish because
Looking back at my decision to go 3-wt., here
I think is where I fully committed to fly rodding
for panfish. Two months earlier I'd purchased
a 4-wt. rod because, although it was plenty
supple, it still had that feel of stiffness I
knew was necessary to consistently defeat the
occasional big channel catfish or largemouth bass.
Something inside me just could not let go of that
But once I began using that 4-wt. rod I began
losing crappies left and right. Why did that
happen? I think it's because the 4-wt. had
enough stiffness that it let me pull crappies
to the surface a little bit too fast. Then
once the fish was wallowing on the surface at
close range, the 4-wt. was not quite soft enough
to dampen the hook-throwing flick imparted by
that quick little head wiggle.
I couldn't very well change my fundamental
fishing tactics, so what I needed to do was
make some sort of equipment change that would
slow down the sequence of events following
hookup. If finally came down to a simple
A) Keep losing all those wonderful crappie by
using a fly rod that is stiff enough to defeat
the occasional big catfish and bass, or;
Seeing as how I already own a half dozen spinning
and baitcast rigs stout enough to battle big catfish
and bass if I get that itch, I decided the only
thing to do was bite the bullet AGAIN and seriously
specialize my fly tackle for small panfish. Catch
those great tasting 6-inch bluegills and 7-to-11
inch crappie. And the fact is, panfish in that
size range were my bread and butter targets from
the very beginning.
B) Begin catching lots of crappies by using a
softer fly rod that reduces the odds I'll
defeat that occasional big catfish and bass.
So it wasn't the 4-wt. rod's fault that half
my panfish quarry was swimming off with a smirk.
It was my fault, caused by inexperience at fly
fishing. I did not select the correct rod the
first time around, not for the job I had in mind.
And what happened to the 4-wt. rod I bought in
March after I got a 3-wt. in May? Well, about
that same time my buddy Donnie decided he'd try
fly fishing (after watching me land 'gill after
'gill in a farm pond he took me to). I was pretty
excited that he wanted to give fly fishing a try,
and I thought he might have better luck if he
started out with a 9-foot 4-wt. rod instead of
his (unused) 8-ft. 5/6 wt. rod that was collecting
dust in his garage. I gave him my virtually new
4-wt. so he could light that fire with the first
I wasn't trying to saddle Donnie with my own bad
luck. Far from it; once he starts going after
panfish in earnest he will need more rod stiffness
than a 3-wt. offers. Ever since we were kids he's
had a knack for catching bigger fish than me.
Whatever we go out after, I'm generally the one
who catches more fish but smaller ones; he catches
fewer fish but bigger ones. Funny, but it's always
been that way. ~ Joe email@example.com
Publisher's Note: There are a couple of options
Joe could have tried (which he faithfully promises he will
pass on to his friend Donnie). First, get the fish on the
reel. A spinfisher wouldn't consider stripping the line in
by hand - neither should the fly anglers. Second, pick up
a FrogHair leader and a spool of their leader material.
(If you aren't familar with it, see the Sponsor page!) It
has some stretch to it, which helps prevent pulling out
hooks - or breaking off leaders with 'fast' rods. ~ dlb
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