Fishing for prairie lake largemouths
- By: John Gierach
It happened gradually, but there was a single moment when it was clear it had happened. I think it was in our fifth consecutive year of fishing the Nebraska Sand Hills for largemouth bass. On the last morning of the trip, Ed Engle and I walked over to the office of the little fish camp to check out of our tiny cabin, reserve another one for the following year and formally say goodbye to Skeeter, the camp dog. Skeeter is a West Highland Terrier who would have been 15 that year-a little slow, a little hard of hearing, but otherwise OK.Still, when you were ready to leave, there was the thought that you might not see old Skeeter again. Then it happened. The daughter of the woman who runs the place was behind the counter, and when she flipped open the big reservation book she said, "You're Ed and John, right?" "Right." "Well Jeri already has you down. Same week next June. That OK?" "Yeah," we said in unison, "That's OK." So we had officially become regulars, booked for the same week until we said otherwise, and the timing seemed about right, since we'd finally gotten comfortable with the fishing there and even somewhat knowledgeable about it, at least at that one time of year. This place was a little intimidating at first, as new water can be when there's almost too much of it. There were lots of lakes in the area, ranging in size from small ones between about 50 and 80 acres to some whoppers that covered nearly 800 acres and looked big enough to have tides. They were all close enough together and accessible enough that any morning over breakfast you could decide to fish any one of them. And if one lake was a bust, you could trailer up the boat and be on another one in less than an hour. That turned out to be a mixed blessing. When there's just one lake, you commit: poking around, trying different spots, gutting out the doldrums and then bearing down in the evening. Any good water at the right time of year is likely to give up some fish eventually unless something out of your control is just off-and that could be anything from the wrong water temperature to inept fishermen. When there are lots of lakes and moving is easy, you can cut your losses, but you can also lose patience before you've given a place a fair shot. I remember one day when we launched on three different lakes before dusk. We wondered later if we'd allowed ourselves to panic, but then it was that third lake that finally gave up a few good bass, so maybe it was just dedication. By now we've fished almost all the lakes in the area and have settled on some favorites. We like the small lakes because their size makes them seem friendlier and because we've caught lots of bass on them, including some of our biggest. The really big lakes can also fish well, but they're more mysterious, as if the bass sometimes get lost out in all that water and can't find their way back to where they're supposed to be. But then you fish the cover, so all that water usually just amounts to distance you have to run the boat across to reach the islands of reeds where the bass hang out. From a distance, these look like dry land covered with tall grass, but they're actually patches of bamboo-like common reeds standing in water several feet deep, with their trunks making a sunken forest where bass can lurk. You start by casting to the edges, trying to put your deerhair bug so close it touches the stalks. When bass are really wired, they can move three or four feet for a bug, but then at other times they'll get so tucked into their weeds that if they have to so much as poke their heads out in the open, they won't eat. I remember a friend telling me about the time he was out with an old bass fishermen he wanted to impress. He was casting his fly to within six inches of the heaviest cover and not getting any strikes. Finally the old fisherman said, "If all you're gonna do is fish open water, we might as well go home." After you've fished the edges of the weeds, you carefully poll your boat in, casting to the channels and potholes. In theory, any place you can get your fly to hit the water could draw a strike, but in practice, the smaller, stickier spots often leave your bass bug dangling helplessly a foot above the surface. There are a couple of reed islands on one of the bigger lakes that we like a lot. The water is deeper here than it is in some, so the reeds aren't packed so tightly and there's a little more room to cast. Not only that, but there are days when bass and sometimes yard-long pike crowd into these things, either looking for food, or at least not above ambushing something that looks edible. We almost always fish floating deerhair bugs in these lakes because they usually work and because it's so sweet to see the fish whack them on the surface, but one day at these islands we couldn't buy a strike on top, so we tried five inch-long rabbit strip leeches with lead eyeballs-the fly fisher's answer to the rubber worm. That did it. We caught bass all morning, and some were bigger than what we were used to in that spot: as much as two pounds heavier, with mouths you could stick a fist in. We burned a lot of film taking hero shots of each other holding bass and thought we'd learned the trick, but it didn't work the next day and it has never worked since. It was just one of those things that happen to fishermen who put in their time, but otherwise, as they say in the Midwest, "it's a head-scratcher." On the second day of our last trip we tried that spot again, but the lake was in the middle of an algae bloom so thick it was like fishing in split pea soup. We gave it a chance, but the visibility was so poor a big red and yellow bunny leech would sink out of sight in two inches of water. Finally we got the boat out, moved to one of the smaller lakes and caught some bass before dark. It took an hour of prospecting, but we figured out that the fish were not only tight to the weeds, but also tight to the banks, in the places where, if you were wading, you'd plant your foot one last time before stepping up onto dry land. The strikes were instantaneous, as if there were some chemical reaction that made your deer hair frog explode the second it came in contact with water. I caught two good-size bass and then offered to switch off on the oars with Ed. He glanced at the dusky sky and said, "Go ahead, man. It's your night." I got one more before dark. The big lake had been almost vacant that day, but there were several boats on the small one and trailers on shore with Nebraska plates. But then it wouldn't be right if the locals weren't already there before the tourists caught up. This lake was brim-full the last time we fished it and that was good to see. Over the previous three years the area had suffered from the same drought that had hit the northern Colorado Rockies back home, and the lakes had begun to shrink. It was almost imperceptible at first, but eventually weed banks that had stood in several feet of water were 10 feet up the bank and some of the rough boat ramps had almost doubled in length. The bass adapted well enough, but we worried along with everyone else. This wasn't our home, but it was a great thing in a world where great things are increasingly rare, and it seemed to be fading away. The fishing was still OK and might be for a while to come, but this clearly couldn't go on indefinitely. The fishermen still came, and they were still on vacation, so they were happy enough, but there was a wariness in people's eyes that, even among fishermen in the effective middle of nowhere, matched the national mood. But then the drought broke-or at least began to break-the winter before our last trip, with above average mountain snow packs and heavy spring rains. The streams back home were in full runoff, and although we didn't expect it to happen so quickly, by the time we arrived in Nebraska in early June, most of the lakes were either back up to their former levels or close to it. Except one. We asked Jeri about it a few days into the trip. She said people were catching fish there, but the water was still real low and some fishermen were having trouble with the thick weeds that usually stay down until later in the year. "It's that real stringy stuff with the tiny little white flowers," she said. This lake had seemed to shrink more than most over the drought years, although that may have been an illusion caused by its small size to begin with and its gently sloping banks. The flooded timber where we caught many bass six and seven years ago was now 30 steps from the waterline-maybe five more steps than last year-and the lake didn't seem to be recharging after the drought along with the others. We hiked into the lake and, as promised, it was choked with duck weed, with stalks like tangles of wet bailing twine and mats of tiny little white flowers at the surface, but there were still strips of open water along three sides ranging from 20 to maybe 60 yards wide, as well as some unreachable pot holes out in the weed beds. Grass had sprouted around the edges on what had once been lake bottom, making the new shoreline look almost permanent. We split up to fish from shore and I ended up on the far side of the lake, where I started seeing bass boiling in the strip of open water between me and the weeds. I checked the water the way fly fishers do and saw that it was crawling with small, pale green damselfly nymphs, but the fish were happy enough to forget about the bugs long enough to grab a size 4 frog. (You have to love that about bass.) They liked a plop and a few short, swimming pulls, then a rest. As soon as the bug stopped, they'd hit it from behind. We fished till late and caught many bass. They seemed well fed and healthy and most were between, say, two and three pounds: about typical size for that lake, not counting the rare hog that turns up every once in a while. Aside from being shrunken and weed-choked, the lake seemed the same as always, right down to the herds of bullfrogs you flush into the water as you walk the shore. We didn't know what to think about this shrunken lake. It was sad to think it might be on its way out, but good to see that the bass were still there and still had their predictable sweet tooth for bullfrogs. And there was always the hope that after another wet or even just normal year, the springs would finally freshen and it would pump back up along with all the others. If not, there'd be no one to blame and no one to sue. It would just be another thing that happened, proving nothing except that you were once younger than you are now. I guess I'd been a little sad to see Skeeter that year, too. He's the first thing we look for when we pull into camp and he was the first thing we saw: the familiar fuzzy white lump sitting with his back to us in the middle of the dirt road. He was deaf as a post by then, so I had to get out of the truck, walk around in front of him and politely ask him to move. When he did, I saw that his slow pace had turned into a full-blown limp. Skeeter was an impressive 17-years-old that year, but like the little lake, he was still his old self in most ways. We learned that earlier that year he'd stolen some venison steaks from a group of campers, buried them in a grove of junipers out back and only dug them up days later, after his victims had packed up and left. I know humans in their prime who aren't that smart. We fished the lake till dusk when the breeze turned cool and a low bank of clouds as thick as mashed potatoes piled in from the northwest. There were still a few damselflies hatching, but the bass had gone off, with just the odd boil here and there, mostly out of casting range. A small flock of black terns skimmed the open water. The clouds had turned charcoal gray on the bottom shading to brilliant pink up at 30,000 feet. A narrow shaft of late sunlight snuck in under the storm and painted the whole place in that sentimental gold we all recognize from full-page ads for expensive fly rods. Usually, lakes are only that beautiful in old memories, but this was right here and now-nostalgia in the present. Near as we could figure, we had caught 30 bass between us. We made it back to the truck just as the storm let loose and ducked under the camper shell, still in our waders and with our rods still strung. It was a good, pounding storm with pea-sized hail, and it made such a racket on the aluminum roof that it was impossible to talk even if there'd been anything to say, so we just sat there for a while enjoying the rain.