Whip Finish


Ralph Long - August 1, 2011

With my eyes on a target comprised of a location where a small section of lily pads joined a deeper bank lined with cattails, I leaned back into my float tube and slowly finned. I had about 70 yards to go, so I was in no rush and took the time to inspect my small popper for damage. My rod lay across the mesh apron and the feeling was of sitting in my water-borne recliner watching the nature channel in solitude. My popper was a personal favorite I tend to fall back on early in the season while prospecting these smallish pine barren ponds of Southern New Jersey. It's a basic pattern of natural caribou hair on either sides of dark brown center of deer hair, tied to a #8 hook with a grizzly hackle collar, white rubber legs and a grizzly hackle-tip tail. It's remained un-named over the years in which it has been affectionately referred to as "Old Standby". While I occasionally tie it larger, I seldom go much larger than a size 8, since in the smaller sizes it will cross-over easily as a bluegill popper as well.

Nearing the junction of the lily pads and cattail, I spun myself around with a lazy scissor-kick of the fins and began stripping out line for my cast. With about 30ft separating me from the bank I looked for a gap between the leading edge of the pads, and dropped the popper onto the water with a slight "plop". I watched with anticipation as the rings spread out form the little hair bug and readied hopefully for a strike. With nothing coming I gave the fly a short 2" strip and instantly it was gulped down. The type of rise told me bluegill, and I was not let down. Soon I was looking at a fat slab of a near blue/black & pewter colored bluegill zigzagging around my fins in an un-ending struggle the likes that bluegills are known for. With a quick lift it was on my apron and I had him in hand by the belly. A quick twist of the popper and off again it went, this time without my fly in his mouth, and disappearing instantly into the cedar-stained pond water. Few things are as reassuring as a bluegill that comes to a fly. They are to me, like corn chips are to salsa during the big game, it just seems natural. It just seems virtually impossible to screw up a bluegill and popper combination. So, with the opening jitters out of the way my focus turned to hunting the cattail edges for fish.

About 50yds down the bank and another half-dozen more fat bluegills later I kicked out in front of a small spring. It was easy to spot by the small channel it formed and the odd 2ft wide gap with the absence of cattails. Kicking myself into position I plopped the little bug into the channel and about a foot from the bank. No sooner did the fly hit the water when it was slammed by a creature from the reeds! Water exploded and the little 6-weight rod doubled over as I tried to kick backwards and do the slow drag out of the surrounding cattails. The slow action rod helped to protect my 5X fluorocarbon tippet as I worked to get the fish out into open water. Kicking in reverse it finally gave up to the leverage, and then proceeded to spin me around in my tube. Though not a bruiser, the 3 pound bass put on a display as it crisscrossed through my fins and circled me several times before offering up its lip for my cautious hand. A good fish for that particular water, it was also pushing the limits of my gear & I was more than thankful to have landed it.

If you took your time fishing this little 3 acre pond that seeped out of a large cedar bog could last a fisherman or two a full morning. So I was steadily picking my way around its bank, prospecting each little nook-and-cranny I could spot with my popper. A few more bass came to the apron of my tube, all in the 9-12" range but perfect for what I was looking for. As I approached the far side of the pond, the cattails gave way to flooded timber. The cedar bog being the source of the waters tannic color I was expecting to see a resurgence of larger bluegills if things held true-to-form. I usually found that the bass tapered off on this little water towards the timber, and the bluegills needed a slow approach on the retrieve with less aggressive strikes. They did not let me down once again, as the slow sipping rises were the staple all along the timber. All you would witness was a small bubble where your fly had been and a slow swirl as the fish turned back towards its tea-colored hideaway. Oftentimes the rise would be accompanied by a barely audible pop as the gills little mouth sucked the bug in through the surface film. I was in float tube heaven as I worked my way to the last corner near the truck, where a large deadfall had dropped into the water during one of our storms of the past winter. Dropping another bluegill back into the water, I turned 45 degrees towards the tree and on auto-pilot smacked the popper down between some branches. With no takes on the presentation, I began to retrieve the fly, and jumped as a fast moving wake left the bank in pursuit! It swirled on my fly and in my excitement I took my fly back in reflex, leaving me sitting with a pounding heart and no fish. Three casts later in the same vicinity and I was rewarded again with the chasing wake, and this time set the hook on a nice fat 16" Pickerel! I have always found pickerel to be one of the tougher fish to play from a tube since they are so unpredictable in their bouncing movements. But before long I had it free of the submerged branches and lying across the tubes apron. I popped the fly out of the prehistoric looking mug and dropped him back into the water where he hung suspended right alongside the tube for a few moments before splashing me on departure. I sat back in my waterborne recliner and looked at my fly. It had survived the morning, but just barely. It was torn to shreds, with 2 of the hackle tips missing and the rubber legs gone from the other side. My tippet was mauled by the last fish and was pretty much in the same boat as the fly it was attached to. Though heavily worn they both had done their jobs perfectly. I spun my back towards the landing and kicked for the bank. The Old Standby had put in a good days work, and what more could I ask for?

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