We were out running some errands, and Claire agreed we could stop by the Busse WWD so I could go check it out. Every time I’d been there in the past, there were at least 10 dudes standing there fishing, shoulder to shoulder. Not my kind of fishing, generally.
I quickly hiked through the snow, enjoying the crisp cold air and the snow crunching under my new boots. When I got to the WWD it was deserted except for a pair of anglers just arriving. Looking into the water, I saw a bunch of black rocks everywhere.
Then I realized they were fish!
They were sitting motionless, perhaps sunning themselves in the shallow water being warmed by the bright sun. There were bluegills and a few bass. I decided to return later with my gear.
I returned later my fly rod in hand and pockets stuffed with fly boxes and a streamer wallet. The pair of anglers was still there, catching a bass every few minutes. I think they were using minnows, and they were cleaning up! I was excited for them, even before I started fishing.
I headed down the bank a ways, just to get out of their way. They were fishing right into the pipe where warm steaming water flowed out. I did my best to walk the shore stealthily, but my light steps were no match for the fish- I watched them dart away as I walked. Bluegills must have short memories though; once I stopped walking and stood motionless, it didn’t take long for them to return to the shallows. I’m sure they could still see me, but either they thought I was no threat to them or they thought I was a new tree.
For a while, I wasn’t a threat to them at all. No matter how I presented my Beckstrom Special soft hackle wet fly, all they would do was nip the tail. I watched swarms of bluegills follow my fly, but I couldn’t get anybody to take a serious swipe at it. Usually I try every presentation I can think of before changing flies, but this time I decided to switch to a brighter fly so I could see it better in the water. I figured I might be able to see if a fish took it, giving me a an extra split second to set the hook.
I tied on a white and red sakasa kebari- a reverse hackle wet fly. I like them because they are extremely simple to tie, they can be tied with only thread and a feather, and panfish love them. The feathers form a radar-dish-like shape, the hook eye like the antenna, which pulses with a very buggy movement in the water. This one had a “rib” of red and white thread; great contrast, very visible in the water.
My change of flies did nothing to catch fish, but it was easier to observe what was happening in the shallow water. The faster I moved the fly, the more action its feathers generated, and the more fish that came to investigate. After trying a variety of slow and medium presentations with no success, I tried ripping the fly through the water as quickly as possible.
The very first cast I did that, I caught my first fish of the day!
Conventional internet wisdom says to slow down your presentation in the winter. Turns out the opposite was true for these fish at this spot on this day. Perhaps it was because the water there was warmer and not winter-like. Perhaps because the fish had not been informed of the conventional wisdom. Perhaps I attracted more fish to the fly, and the fear of somebody else eating their meal created a peer-pressure situation that convinced them to hit.
With my new super-fast presentation, whipping my fly out and stripping it back like a crazy person, I was catching fish left and right. Big bluegills, little bluegills; a few times I caught fish three casts in a row. There was no need to let the unweighted fly sink- even a little bit; as soon as it hit the surface I tore it through the water, usually getting a hit almost immediately.
This was great! I was catching a ton of fish on a cold January day. I didn’t care they weren’t big, or weren’t bass, or that my toes were getting cold- it was simply great fun.
And then I had a much bigger fish on my line. It was a short but great fight, and I was delighted when I saw the fish in the water. Not a monster bluegill, but the biggest I’d caught so far.
While I fished with my sub-surface fly, I noticed little splashes every now and then, all over the water’s surface. I recognized them as bluegills hitting something on the surface. Although it was winter and conventional wisdom says topwater lures are for summer only, I tied on a black foam beetle. I knew full well there were no beetles; they had all surely died or found someplace warm to winter.
I immediately started catching more bluegills- every cast resulted in 3-4 hits from hungry bluegills. They were so aggressive half their body came out of the water to attack the beetle; their dorsal fins popping up like miniature sharks before pouncing on my defenseless fly. I couldn’t believe how fun this was, or that I was- again- catching fish on dry flies in the winter.
After catching a bunch of bluegill, I was finally able to entice one of the small bass swimming around. I watched him take my little white fly, not 12 inches from the shore. I lost him almost immediately, and for the record I blame the awkwardness of fighting a fish directly below me. I feel like I would have landed him had I been in the water…
But the bass gave me hope, hope that I might be able to find other bass.
I tied on a slightly bigger fly, this time a red and white streamer that landed a nice largemouth in a local pond. I hoped its size would dissuade the smaller bluegills and entice some of the bass I knew were everywhere.
It is pretty tough to fly fish from the shore, especially when the bank is lined with branches eager to reach out and take my flies. Luckily each time that happened, I was able to retrieve my fly and continue fishing. It’s also fairly tough to fish in freezing temperatures; my fly line was stiff and my guides constantly filled with ice. Through sheer luck and persistence, I was able to get my streamer out where I thought there would be bass. I false cast perpindicular to the shore, then at the last second re-angled my cast to shoot the line out in front of me.
It worked fairly well, and soon I caught a few more bluegill who attempted to eat something far bigger than they could fit in their mouths. This was fun, but I really- really- wanted to catch a bass.
As the sun started to set, I wondered if I should go back to bluegill fishing- after all, I was catching fish on the little fly; far fewer fish on this bigger fly. I decided to keep at it on the off-chance I could actually catch a bass in January.
Sure enough, I felt the take and knew immediately it was a bass. Although the fight only lasted a few seconds, I could barely contain my excitement. I’ve caught very few bass on the fly, and compared to the little greenies and bluegills I usually catch on flies, a bass is a welcome weight on the end of my line. Nothing compared to carp, but most fish aren’t.
I stifled my giggles so I didn’t disturb the nearby anglers, and with an ear-to-ear grin I snapped some pictures of my first January bass.