Birding when bass aren't biting

  • By: John Gierach
Ed Engle and I were fishing some prairie lakes in the northern Nebraska Sandhills and our seasonal timing was off by a couple of weeks, which every fisherman will immediately recognize as a handicap. The best time to fish these shallow, marshy lakes is in the spring when the water is just warm enough for the largemouth bass to be starting to spawn, but still just cool enough for the cold-water-loving northern pike to be actively feeding during the day: a moving window of water temperature that in some years only stays completely open for two or three weeks.

There are other variables, as well as the usual imponderables that always crop up in fishing, but as a general rule you'll probably do OK if you can hit a week with water temperatures in the low to mid 60's. There's a little slop, since these lakes vary in size from about 50 acres to almost 800 and can warm up earlier or later owing to their size, depth, weed growth and the number and flow of the springs that feed them, although that usually doesn't amount to more than an extra week or two of wiggle room.

But this year the water had warmed unseasonably early, so by the time Ed and I arrived in the last week of May, the weather and the fish had both begun to ease into a pattern more typical of summer. A fisherman will tell you that fish often "sulk" during hot days, which is a euphemism designed to blame the fish when they're not biting, as if they'd signed contracts agreeing to be caught.

Middays that week were sunny and hot, and the wind was often blowing hard enough that launching my 14-foot john boat with 12 inches of freeboard took a degree of either courage or foolhardiness. On those days it was possible to envy the ocean-going bass boats you sometimes see on the bigger lakes--the ones with dual-axle trailers, metal-flake paint jobs, upholstered swivel seats and hundred-pound-thrust trolling motors.

You see the widest imaginable assortment of boats on these lakes. I like to think that mine is near the middle in terms of seaworthiness but, given the appraising glances from some of the more serious bass types, it could be a little below. The only thing that will tell you more about a fisherman than his boat is how he treats his dog.

But then the fishing was so slow most days that we quickly fell into a program of going out in the cooler mornings, lounging around our little rented cabin at nearby Big Alkali Fish Camp during midday, and then going out again in the evenings when, for an hour and a half or so, the wind would drop, the light would slant, the air would cool, and large, hungry fish would move into the weedy shallows to feed. As Ed pointed out, in his optimistic way, the long fishless days only made the witching hours in the evenings more glorious. As for those dead afternoons, I've come to think that getting bored only means you've failed to master the fine art of doing nothing when there's nothing to be done.

Actually, Ed and I hadn't even planned to go out there this year, but then Jeri Ballard, who has run the camp for the last 20-some years, called to say that the State of

Nebraska was pulling the lease on the camp and closing it down, so we decided on the spot to make one more valedictory trip.

We'd discovered the place by accident a decade ago while on one of those open-ended fishing trips to explore the lakes on the nearby Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. In the course of looking for a place to camp, we pulled off the state highway at a weathered sign, crossed a cattle guard, rumbled half a mile down a gravel road pocked with pot holes and into an oasis-like grove of mature hardwoods shading some ramshackle cabins and alive with birdsong. We ended up splitting 40 bucks a night for a week in a cramped cabin with electricity, a rudimentary kitchen, a cold water tap and a perfectly good outhouse in back.

We've done exactly the same thing now for nine out of the past 10 years because the place was irresistible. It was cheap, comfortable as an old shoe, a scant 15 miles on good roads from the refuge lakes, and Jeri was like everyone's favorite aunt from the farm as well as an up-to-the-minute repository of accurate fishing news.

If all goes according to plan, by the time you read this the state will have bulldozed the place and rebuilt it with shiny new (and more expensive) cabins and a store, and it will be run not by the easy-going Ballard family, but by a state employee who may or may not consider this a plum assignment. My prediction is that in another 20 or 30 years the place might begin to develop some character.

We didn't bother checking on the fishing conditions because this was more of a sentimental journey than an actual fishing trip, but that's not to say that we drove all the way out there just to pout. You can get either angry or morose as the world you've learned to live in becomes unrecognizable, but it won't stop or even slow the change. And anyway, although gazing at the past is pleasant enough, it can cause you to move into the future ass-first, which I don't recommend.

The fact is, Ed and I are both primarily trout guys, but there's something about fly-fishing for largemouth bass and pike that we just can't leave alone. It's more unpredictable and rough-and-tumble than most trout fishing and there's an ambience about the whole enterprise that trips some old, well-worn synapses from childhood. It's hard to pin down that last element, but as Ed said, we fish from a boat that could easily have belonged to either of our fathers, and that can't be entirely coincidental.

Also, I'm one of those who often gets songs stuck in his head while fishing--pleasantly or otherwise. When I'm trout fishing, it's likely to be "Treetop Flier" by Steve Stills or even half-remembered snatches of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." When I'm bass or pike fishing, it's more likely to be "I Love to go Swimmin' with Bow-legged Women."

As usual when the fishing is slow, but not completely off, there were some excellent moments. Most of our bass were caught on floating deerhair bugs with weed guards and most of the strikes were spectacularly visual, with the fly going down in a swirl that looks like a flushing toilet, as more than one fishing writer has so eloquently described it. But then my biggest bass ate the fly with a miniature dimple worthy of a four-inch bluegill. In fact that's what I thought it was until I noticed that the entire size 4 bug had disappeared from the surface. When I finally came to my senses and set the hook, all hell briefly broke loose. Landing a large bass on a fly rod in thick bull rushes is exciting as hell, but not particularly pretty.

Most of the few pike we got ate heavily weighted Eel Worm-style streamers in deeper water, but then one night on Dewey Lake I'd switched to a floating deerhair frog hoping for a bass in the last of the light and ended up hooking a pike I couldn't land.

The fish took in one of those long, rushing strikes that brought him partly out of the water and Ed and I both saw enough of him to comprehend that this was a very big pike. The usual recipe for landing an extremely large fish on a fly rod is that the fisherman does everything right, while the fish does at least one little thing wrong. In this case, there was a moment when it could have gone either way, but I'd hooked the fish within inches of a thick stand of flooded reeds and when he ran for the cover he gave me a rope burn on the fingers that were holding my fly line and then neatly tied me off in the stalks and threw the barbless hook. I may have howled out loud from disappointment or I may have suppressed it. I don't remember and Ed was too polite to say anything beyond, "Aw, too bad, man."

There's a specific etiquette to fishing when the sweet spot is so brief. The fisherman stands in the bow while the boatman works either the oars or the pole, depending on the density of the cover. When a fish is hooked, there are times when the boatman just sits back and watches the fun and other times when he must act quickly and plays an integral part in landing the thing. You've spent the day exploring or back at cabin #7 watching orchard orioles and jabbering in a kind of caffeine-induced stream of consciousness, but now you're on the water and between hearing the first sploosh back in the weeds that's obviously a fish of some size and dark, you have a scant two hours at best.

The rules are unspoken, but strictly adhered to: You relinquish the rod to the other guy based on how well the fish are biting, how long they'll continue to bite, and when the conditions will change. Not that you actually know any of that, but still… This amounts to sheer time when the fishing is slow or the number of fish caught or strikes missed when it's hot. We've never bothered to discuss it, but as far as I know, neither of us has ever felt cheated by anything but our own dumb luck.

One day we got a tip from a friendly young Fish and Wildlife guy on a secret, but still public bass lake a hundred miles away and took the long side trip to avoid killing another afternoon. We were driving straight east within a stone's throw of the South Dakota border when we stopped in the little town of Ainsworth for gas and found the place festooned with American flags because it was Memorial Day, which I'd somehow forgotten.

I'll admit that my heart gripped a little at the sight. I'm capable of being so cynical about such things that I sometimes even annoy myself, but there is simply nothing more poignantly and defiantly festive than that flag on that day in this country in these times. Of course the pang was characteristically selfish: a moment of regret that I'd spent so much of my youth being entirely too hip to appreciate anything that home-spun and heart-felt.

At the gas station we got a couple of those glances that aren't at all unfriendly, but simply register the presence of someone clearly not from around there. I've been told that I wear my politics on my sleeve and can be spotted a mile away, but I think it's just a lingering cultural aura that says, Here is a man who functions well enough in society, but who nonetheless did not escape the 1960's unscathed.

But then virtually everywhere I've been in rural America, politeness is automatically returned in kind, so if you say "please" and "thank you" and maybe hold a door for a lady, you're speaking the dialect. There's also the universal symbolism of two guys towing a bass boat behind a pickup, which most take to mean that you can't be all bad. Ed and I may not be straight out of Norman Rockwell, but it's been decades since anyone asked us if we were hippies or werewolves.

The young ranger's directions were imp-eccable and we could see what he meant about the lake. It was public and there was even a small brown sign announcing the fact, but it was effectively in the middle of nowhere and you could miss it even if you knew it was there.

Between a wind so strong and hot it felt like you were standing in the door of a blast furnace and a thick algae bloom on the lake, the fishing was a complete bust, but the obscure little wildlife management area was a riot of bird life. I'll spare you the list (except for the dickcissels because I like the name) but I will say that in the area refuges surrounding many of these Sandhill lakes a diligent and lucky birder could see as many as 270 different species of bird, many of which nest there. In fact, if you're wading around in the marsh to fish, you have to walk on egg shells to avoid literally walking on egg shells.

The continuous racket was incredible. Shore birds in mating season seldom shut up, and killdeer in particular live in a perpetual state of hysteria. I remembered nature writer Annie Dillard once saying that as pretty as we think bird songs are, their human equivalent would be to scream "mine!" at the top of your lungs over and over again.

Just as Ed and I were leaving to get what turned out be among the top five steak dinners of my life up in Valentine, a pair of fishermen pulled in and asked through the window of their pickup how we'd done. I said the fishing sucked, but it was a nice place if you liked to watch birds. The driver guffawed and slapped his knee, as if the idea of a bass fisherman who was also a bird watcher was a real hoot.