Many things I thought I knew about fishing have
been happily thrown out the window since late fall
of 2005, when I proceeded beyond my normal annual
cut-off point as a fishermen (early September) and
entered the realm of 4-season fly fishing (adding
late fall and wintertime clear through early spring
to my usual warm weather trips).
And like so much of the personally illuminating fly
angling I've enjoyed before and since the fall of 2005,
when it comes to having a glimmer of hope for success
I owe almost everything to Iowa's Rick Zeiger, FAOL's
Panfish column writer. Rick is a 4-season fly angler
and just one of the many things that seized my attention
in his many published stories is that his trips take place
in the same general area of the American Midwest where I
live, and in more or less the same type of water.
I can't stress enough the power of this "If Rick is catching
'em, maybe I can, too" component that now stays tucked in
the back of my mind like an ace up a gambler's sleeve.
Without it, it's doubtful that on my own I would have
mustered the energy and courage to go out during cold
weather, afoot or in my canoe, and risk public embarrassment
waving a long skinny fly rod through the air in full view
of passing motorists, migrating waterfowl and deer in rut.
Kansans all know that only the crazy go fishing in cold,
nasty weather. And only total crackpots would use fly
tackle in cold, nasty weather. Last October I wasn't
sure I had the right stuff to become certified as a total
crackpot but I enrolled in the 6-month Crackpot course
anyway then attended late fall, winter and early spring
classes at the lake almost weekly, took all the required
exams and passed! I feel so much better about myself now.
It's Friday morning, October 27th and a cold but much-needed
rain has been soaking northeast Kansas almost continuously
since Wednesday, but is projected to end this afternoon.
Once the rain moves out and the sky clears, a northwest
wind is forecast with gusts to 25 mph. Three days earlier,
on Tuesday evening, I'd promised a friend in Kansas City a
meal of panfish the coming Saturday night. Yours truly
intends to deliver.
Wondering what my fishing luck will be like this windy
afternoon, I reviewed recent events. The previous Sunday
evening I'd arrived at this lake later than desired and as
a result had only an hour of light in which to fish. I
was in the mood for statistics that evening. I made
exactly 50 casts and caught 30 fish - 27 bluegills (a
few 8-inches long) 2 small largemouth bass, 1 crappie.
I released all fish.
The next afternoon, Monday, I returned to this lake a
couple hours earlier and tried a different spot. I
intended to keep statistics again but lost heart when
the fish didn't bite as eagerly or immediately as they'd
done the evening before. Still, I ended up catching
approximately the same number of panfish as the night
before. And released all fish.
What especially gave me hope for today's "fishing for
the table" trip is that during Sunday's and Monday's
C&R trips I was fishing in air so chilly that I could
see my breath even before the sun went down. So if
three days of cold, steady rain (and hopefully some
modest runoff to raise the lake level) hasn't bumped
this lake into TILT mode and shut the fish off, I might
When afternoon came the wind speed was everything that
had been forecast. This made me feel real smart for
opting to not bring my canoe. I would be fishing from
the shore, taking advantage of a tall backdrop to break
the wind. What I found when I arrived, though, is that
the wind was angling across this tall backdrop in such
a way that I still had strong wind to deal with.
Examining my nymph box, I picked out a Rick Z-tied
"Perch-a-bou" minnow imitator. What attracted me to
this fly were the two bead eyes, which I hoped would
cause the 'bou to sink rather quickly. Here I should
admit that I haven't used the Perch-a-bou fly much
because: 1) it's too pretty to use; 2) I have only two
of 'em, and; 3) it's primarily a crappie-killer fly and
October isn't crappie spawning time.
What tipped the scales in the Perch-a-bou's favor was
that lone crappie I'd caught at this lake the previous
weekend. It was the first crappie I'd caught since that
trip this spring where Rick and I ripped into 'em up in
Iowa (I caught over 100 crappie that day). So today here
in Kansas I was thinking that if the crappies are coming
within range of me again maybe the Perch-a-bou fly is
just what the doctor ordered. Worth a try, so I tied
it on and gave it the heave-ho.
On the fourth cast the Perch-a-bou was hammered by a
keeper red ear sunfish, which I immediately put on ice
in the little cooler sitting at my feet. One down.
But in 30 more minutes of trying I didn't catch another
fish. This of course provoked speculation about whether
the fish were biting today, or biting yet, whether I was
using the wrong fly, or using the right fly in the wrong
way, etc., etc.
By observing my line angle during retrieves, one thing I
determined is that a Perch-a-bou doesn't sink through the
water column very fast. And although that is a fine
attribute in certain habitats it was working against me
today due entirely to the wind that kept sweeping the lake
surface in front of me. As my floating line got bowed
laterally by the wind, this pulled the Perch-a-bou up
very close to the surface and kept it there. Since the
water I was fishing in angled off into considerable depth,
my guess was that the Perch-a-bou was simply not descending
to where the fish were. If they were there.
Back into my nymph box I went, and selected what looked to
be a #16 beadhead nymph. The beadhead plus the copper wire
wrapping around the thorax should, I hoped, let this fly
settle to combat depth fairly rapidly. Not only that, its
compact size and heavier weight should make casting easier
in this wind.
After knotting it to my leader, I free-dropped the little
nymph into a patch of shoreline water that looked to be a
foot deep. Two seconds later the nymph touched bottom.
This 2-seconds-per-foot observation supplied the countdown
formula I needed to explore various zones of the deep water
in front of me.
At each nymph splashdown, depending on how far off the bank
the nymph landed I began counting down 6 seconds (for a
3-foot running depth), 8 seconds (4 feet), 10 seconds (5
feet) and so on. And lo and behold, the fish were not only
down there occupying various depth zones but they welcomed
with mouths wide open my helpless little nymph.
After I'd caught about a half dozen keeper bluegills the
idea came to me that I should try a technique that Rick
Zeiger uses all the time with great success. So I tossed
out the nymph and gave it a 26-second countdown (13 feet).
I watched and waited patiently, almost like a bait fisherman
would do, as the end of my floating line angled underwater,
pulled down by the weight of the little beadhead, wire-wrapped
On the 26th count I began slow-stripping my retrieve and the
line became tight. Must be hung up on the bottom; I shouldn't
have let it sink that long. But as I lifted my rod to verify
that I was indeed hung on the bottom, the "bottom" began
pulsing against my pull, showing its displeasure at having
a hook suddenly stuck in its jaw.
This was a heavier fish, I could tell from the struggle.
And I hated rushing to judgment, but the strong though
sluggish fight characteristic certainly suggested that
this was a crappie. Seconds later the fish rose to view
and...it was a crappie, and a good one. Gently working
the fish to shore, just as I guided the fish into the rocks
it shook the nymph loose from its jaw. Too late: I was
already bent down to lip the fish and with a pounce thrust
my hand underwater, got under its belly before it could
react and flipped it out of the lake up onto the rocks.
This first crappie was a 10-incher (a slab in my book) and
was soon joined in my ice chest by an 11-incher that took
the nymph during a lateral retrieve in water about 6 feet
I spend the rest of this trip trying my best to "do like
Rick." And it worked because by the end of the day I had
fifteen panfish in my ice chest. Plenty enough for that
"dinner for two" fish fry I'd promised.
Many of the fish I took from the lake (or released) took
my little nymph on the fall, and in deep water. Most
exciting, seeing my line twitch then move off while I'm
standing there doing absolutely nothing but silently
With the many years of jig and bobber fishing that I've
done, it was interesting to consider that this tiny copper
wire-wrapped beadhead nymph I selected today, this nymph
functions underwater exactly in the fashion of a micro-jig.
But instead of being connected to a bobber as most jigs are,
my "micro-jig" nymph was suspended at various and easily
controllable running depths by a "linear bobber" - my
floating fly line.
Here is where I contend that anyone new to fly angling
will quickly feel right at home wielding a fly rod if
the newcomer is a spinning tackle user who has experienced
success using leadhead jigs, spinners and small crankbaits.
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