My Blue(gill) Heaven
I doubt you’ll be surprised when I tell you this: south-central Kansas is not a Mecca for fly fishers. In fact, if you’re one of those trout-purist types it’d definitely be best for you to - as the locals say - get the heck outa Dodge. There’s bass (mostly large-mouth, or white or striped), crappie, and all the other usual pan fish suspects. Kansas rivers and lakes hold drum, walleye and perch. If you want to get a fly down deep enough you can chase catfish, and there’s always the poor man’s bonefish, carp. But this is not fly fishing country, and once you get to the places where the fish are you’ll find that most of them have been beaten pretty hard with home-concocted dough balls, stink bait, gobs of night crawlers, rubber worms and bass bugs the size of small mammals; not necessarily the best places to try to entice a fish with a bit of fur and feathers. There’s not much fly fishing romance here, and for an urban dweller like me there’s no such thing as stepping off the back porch and into the stream. Even so, if you know where to look, there’s fishing to be had without making a road trip. And long-rodders trying to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation always know where to look.
So. The work day is over, my good wife is out of town for a couple of days visiting family, and I’m bound for the fishing hole. The local park board maintains a little flies-only stream, their best attempt at emulating a piece of trout water here on the prairie. It’s pretty nice water, too: narrow runs, some deep pools, a few nice riffles, and at the north end there’s a pretty little pond with shallow, reedy banks surrounded by cottonwoods, scrub oaks, and other local flora and fauna. From about mid-October through mid-April it is a trout stream, with released hatchery rainbows giving local fly fishers their salmonid fix. But the rest of the year it’s pan fish water, and here, on this breezy late summer evening, cool, with the tiniest hint of fall in the air, the only game in town is pan fish, and specifically bluegills - Kansas brookies, we call ‘em. And anyway, pan fish just seems right - must be the atmosphere: mid-September, hanging clouds after a day of rain. I feel like I’m playing hooky, and if I’d a-had a cane pole, I mighta brung it.
Pound for pound (or ounce for ounce) bluegills fight as hard as any fish; somebody once said if they weighed as much as a big trout or a bass you’d never land one. They don’t, though, so I’ve brought my old Lamiglas 4-weight, the lightest rod I own. I park the 4-Runner off the trail so the joggers won’t trip over it, kick off the lace-ups and slide my legs into lug-soled Hodgeman hippers, rig the rod, and walk the two hundred yards or so to Slough Creek, or The Slough, as it is locally and affectionately known.
I head up stream to the pond, find a worn-down spot in the bank, step in, and tie on an Elk Hair Caddis, #12 or so. I lay out the first cast – a roll cast which is, for me, a surprisingly good one - strip back line and twitch the fly. Nothing. Another cast, then two, then (pick a number)…same result. Hmm. Usually works, but OK, little fellas, I can take a hint. I tie on a red-tailed Black Gnat; ‘gills love those! One tiny iridescent greenie - obviously fresh out of his special-ed class - goes for it, but only one. Well. I go through a succession of Adams, Coachmen, Cahills, Duns, ad infinitum, and then switch to wets - Woolly Buggers, a Hare’s Ear, a soft hackle or two - until my pin-on foam patch begins to look like the prize wall in the baseball toss booth at the county fair; same results. I cast, let it float or sink (depending), twitch, wait, twitch it again. A few fish bump it, toss it, dunk it, but they don’t eat it. Do bluegills have a sense of humor? Have they been in school (pun intended) all day, and think now is play time? Everyone knows there’s no challenge in fishing for blugills. I think it’s time for a cigar.
The Puros of St. James is a damned good golf course or mid-stream smoke: enough flavor to be interesting, cheap enough that you don’t feel too badly if you drop it or forget where you laid it down. As mine becomes ash I look through the two fly boxes in my pocket. There’s purt’near everything in there (including a couple of salmon flies even though I’ve never been salmon fishing, and am not planning to go anytime soon) but nothing that jumps out as something a quarter-pound pumpkin seed would find irresistible. I’d like to wax philosophical, or maybe find a hatch to match, or do any of the things the real fly fishermen in the books do when confronted with a similar situation, but instead I just rig up my ultimate when-nothing-else-works combo, the ubiquitous hopper ‘n’ dropper. Nice size 12 Dave’s Hopper, about a #16 bead-head Prince Nymph 10” or so below. Sling it over between two overhanging willow branches; wham! (Well, maybe not “wham”; it is a bluegill, after all). From then on, me and those bluegills are on the same page vis-à-vis their perception of what looks good for dinner. Every fish has its own distinctive feel at the end of a fly line, but the throbbing of a ‘gill on a light rod is unmistakable, and just what I came out here to feel. Most of them like the nymph; a few tough guys go after the hopper. I land and release a couple dozen or so – we’re just here for the fun so nobody is anybody’s dinner tonight - the largest about the size of the spread from the tip of my little finger across the palm to the end of my thumb. Soon it’s getting dark, and it’s time to head home.
The house is empty and lonely when I pull up, but a stiff Scotch while I clean up the gear brightens it considerably, and a second one makes it seem downright homey. I check the fridge. A wonderful Shepherd’s Pie – beef redolent with mushrooms, carrots, onions and wine and with a nice potato and cheese crust - has been left for me. I toast the spirit of my fine wife, and light the oven.
I’m sitting now in one of the big leather wing chairs, my feet on the ottoman. The Shepherd’s Pie is going down just fine, accompanied by a glass of inexpensive but decent red, and Billie Holliday has just finished singing Body and Soul…it’s the fourteenth of September, and late summer - or the precursor of fall, as you prefer – is drifting in through the open windows. Fellas, if I don’t wake up tomorrow, just say I’ve gone to…well, you know.
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