Fishing Pilgrimages Part 2 by Mark Usyk

While I was stringing up the two 7wts, Nikki was asking questions. “Do you want to set up the chairs and get stuff ready for lunch? Get the fire ready? Do you want to get this out of the Jeep? Do you want to get that out of the Jeep?”  For every question she asked, two fish could be heard clobbering a dragon or damsel fly in the background. It was one of those mornings where you didn’t have to see the fish jumping, you could hear them. I was trying to concentrate on pulling a bass taper fly line through the guides of the second rod when she asked another question about what I wanted to do. I tried not to be short with her, but I answered her with a mere eight words “I just want to get on the water” and kept threading line through guides. She laughed and said "ok, fair enough" as another splash was heard close to the shore on the other side of some bushes close by.

There were so many dragon and damsel flies hovering and weaving and diving, all over the lake, that any random shot with some #8 birdshot from a twelve-gauge would have equaled a slaughter of the innocent Odonata insect order of a quantity enough to make an entomologist drop to their knees with tear filled eyes. I’d seen it here on this lake like this before, but it had been a couple years at least. The last time it had been a trip I made with just Jake, his younger brother hadn’t come for some reason that’s forgotten. We paddled around the lake and were entertained by bass splashing and performing feats of acrobatics in every direction as they did their best to fill up on the large insects. There were so many that Jake actually knocked one out of the air while casting a marabou jig with his spinning reel. The air was just that thick with them. The irony being that the Dragons and Damsels were simply doing their best to lay eggs and ensure the survival of their species on the lake, all the while many of them meeting certain death.

Because I didn’t see it every year, I knew like with most insects, it was all in the timing. And this year, our timing must have been right on again. I don’t question these things much when I stumble upon them. I simply take advantage of them because like everything else in life, nothing lasts forever. You either use that time wisely, or wonder how it could have been later on after it’s passed. Right now, I just wanted to get on the water.

I paddled us out, not very far, and Nikki took the popper from the hook keeper and stripped out some line. I lined us up about twenty-five feet or so from some lily pads along the shore and told her to start casting when she was ready, and she made her first cast within about seven seconds. Apparently she was ready.

She missed a couple fish in the first few minutes. They’d take the popper and pull it under, but she couldn’t get a good hook set. So I figured they were probably small fish. Little bass or more likely bluegills that weren’t big enough to even get the bass sized hook in their mouth. I was always amused that bluegills, or pumpkinseeds or any manner of sunfish for that matter, were so greedy that they’d try to eat something that never had a shot in hell of fitting in their little mouths.

Sometimes I wondered if they really didn’t just have the little dog syndrome. You know… the little dogs always have the biggest attitudes. They bark and nip at anyone or anything like they don’t have an understanding of how small they really are. They think they can intimidate you, and honestly, those little bastards usually do intimidate me. It’s this little thing with these sharp gnashing teeth, and they move fast. And their eyes. How can something so small and cute be so frightening like a demon possessed kid’s toy? I wonder if the little pan fish aren’t picking on that foam popper, grabbing its little rubber legs or the feather sticking out of its butt like a bully on a playground grabs the ponytail of a little girl and laughs at her. They’re just trying to push their non-existent weight around until you lift it from the water to make another cast somewhere else, at which point they probably think they ran it off and laugh and high-five each other.

The fish were still jumping all over the lake, but while you’d see a fish go completely air born out in open water, the loudest commotions were literally right along the shore back in the tall grass. The long bodied insects would land on the green blades to rest, only the fish were there waiting in the shallows, hidden in inches of water along the bases of the tall grasses. They’d launch themselves up at their targets and thrash in the warm shallows, pushing through the grasses like a concert goer in a crowd using shoulders and elbows to move through it on the way to the beer stand.

It made sense to me that more attempts were being taken in the grass where the bugs were sitting still than out in the open where they were a constantly moving target, but the ratio wasn’t over that big of a spread. I told her to try casting close to the grass, to not worry about losing flies to the weeds. I was still working out of a popper box that had been tied a couple months ago for a bass guiding trip, so these flies were already paid for. Not to mention I still had quite a few. As soon as she placed her next cast closer to the shore, she brought her first bass to hand.

It was hot out, it had to be a little before noon, give or take, and none of the fish were monsters. Some of them, mostly largemouth bass, were less than ten inches. I always expect that in the warm shallows. But a fish is a fish. The way I see it, if you’re catching small fish, it’s better than missing a couple big fish and not catching anything at all. So at least starting with small fish is a good place to begin. I’ve always thought that you need to catch your first fish before you can catch the rest. It sounds blatantly obvious, I know. But in my head, I always tell myself after the first fish that now it’s got fish stink on it. Now, it’ll work.

So Nikki was casting and catching, and it’s always good to me to realize that you’re at this specific point with someone. They were new at this once, not that they aren’t still pretty green, but now you’ve arrived at that place where you don’t have to do anything for them. You just put the paddle in the water every now and then to turn the canoe or move it to the next spot, and for the most part, they’re sitting there casting and fishing, and so are you. You’re not helping them fish, you’re fishing with them. She’d catch a bass and get it to the canoe, and maybe if she was struggling to remove the hook I’d scoot forward from the rear seat to get it. But for the most part, my part in the whole ordeal was simply taking a picture now and then, or suggesting that she try casting to a certain spot, like the far side of those lily pads under that willow tree. At which point she'd say something like "Don't tell me what to do." We were fishing. Both of us. It was good.

I was just working the perimeter of the lake, and we were doing pretty decent. Ok, we were doing really well. In an hour we’d probably caught a dozen or more bass ranging from eight inches up to probably fourteen or fifteen. The majority of the outer edges of the lake was a sudden stop of old hay field that had over the years become brush and saplings mixed in with over hanging willow trees. The shore would come to an abrupt meeting with the water, and where the water began there would be a mix of weed beds and here and there bunches of lily pads. Most years the weed beds were so thick that fishing anywhere within ten feet of the shore was impossible without some type of weed less fly, but not this year. For whatever reason this year the weed beds were tight to the bottom, giving us more than enough water above them to fish poppers and even streamers if we felt so inclined. A guy at work tried to tell me that it was because it was a dry year. I must have looked at him like he was speaking some foreign language I’m sure. I told him yeah, it was dry and hot… But the weed beds are UNDER WATER. He laughed. Somehow he’s probably right but it still seems ridiculous to me.

Anyway, we’d come to the one side of the lake bordered by woods, and instead of lily pads and weed beds, there was a good ten feet of tall grass that bordered the shore here for about seventy-five yards. Out a few feet from that there was a sudden drop off where the depth went from maybe four feet to over your head. If I’d been thinking about it I’d have also realized that the wind was blowing across the lake to this shore line, and the biggest concentration of dragon and damsels was here, not to mention that sudden drop off. We hammered bass left and right as the canoe drifted parallel to the shore line and we were having a blast. Every second or third cast was a bass, with an eight or nine inch bluegill mixed in here and there. And then Nikki’s popper was swallowed by a hole in the surface of the water that immediately stretched the leader and fly line out straight and to the bottom.

She looked at me and pulled on the 7wt remembering to set the hook good and then things got interesting fast. While largemouth bass in warm water aren’t known as the biggest fighters, they’re reliable enough to know that they’re going to go straight down into whatever weeds they can find. This one had read the text book and knew what was expected of it. Nikki was excitedly asking for advice and all I could tell her was take it slow, don’t break it off. If it wants to fight let it fight, just keep tension.

You know it’s a decent fish when it changes the direction of the canoe, and this one did it three times at least. I had my long handled net ready, and after missing it the second time the panic was there that we all get when we know it’s about to be our fault that someone didn’t land a good fish. No one wants that kind of thing hanging over their head.

For a couple months now, she’d been telling me that she wanted a big boy. She was completely happy just being out and fishing, which is all one can ever really hope for, but I knew she was really hoping to feel a really good fish on the end of her line. After all… Aren’t we all?

After the front of the canoe had pointed in several different directions like the compass you just can’t trust, she managed to bring the bass boat side and I scooped it up in the net. The yellow popper with the black stripes was firmly planted in the left side of its mouth. I couldn’t help but notice while removing the popper that I could just about fit my closed fist in its mouth. The other thing I couldn’t help but notice was the huge smile on Nikki’s face. This was her first good fish on the fly. She wanted to feel a good fish on her line… Don’t we all?

Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and signed copies ready for purchase on this site…