By Nick Simonson
With a smack, the foam fly flopped over on the cast next to the silver metal of the boatlift at the end of the dock. A second later, a dimple appeared and the offering was gone, replaced with all the might of a silver-dollar sized sunfish which swirled and turned under the surface. I appreciated the small fish’s effort in not only gulping down most of the relatively bulky fly but also the way in which he cut back and forth and turned in a circle against my pull of the line. As the sun rose and the water warmed and I’d wander back down to the sandy edge, wade out through the snail shells and coarse substrate throughout the day, the fish would get bigger and more aggressive and each battle showed the same spirit in fish of larger sizes.
It was there, along the shore of the lake in front of the cabin my grandparents owned, and now, nearly 20 years later, that my mom called her summer home where I learned to fly fish on the generations of panfish that came before the ones schooling out before me. Always providing fast action, they offered at least some reward for a haphazard beginning cast near the dock in the cool of morning or out over the developing inner weed line as the summer days grew hotter. Without the reward of a bluegill or green sunfish, the process of learning the flyrod and the art and science behind it would not have been as satisfying for a member of that sliver generation between X and the millennials who, while wanting instant gratification, also knew there had to be some work involved in getting to it.
Since those first forays on the fly, I’ve fished steelhead in the cold, rainy days of April where angler hours to fish ratios jump into the double digits, while skin and body temperatures usually feel like they’ve dropped by just as much. I’ve swatted gnats and biting flies while ducking low in the streamside grasses of unnamed creeks, watching the edge of a tiny pool for a flash or rise before flipping an offering out to a wary brown trout at the end of my leaders’ reach. I’ve plied the gushing waters of spring for hard-running pike, burning bucktails and big gaudy leeches with wild strips over schools of hammer-handles that couldn’t resist their natural urge to smash and grab the intruder entering their spawning areas, all while hoping to connect with the big females they were guarding. Through all of those journeys and hundreds more with the fly rod, it has often come back to the panfish at the lake, not only in remembering how the physics and fine-tuning of the fly fishing process worked, but also to refresh and recharge in a summer’s day so perfect, I’d like to tie just a feather of it on a hook and save it in my fly box to feel its warmth in January.
In between spring days fast and slow and those lazy summer afternoons, I’ve filled my time and fly box at the vise, cranking out dozens, if not hundreds, of flies to fill the foam spaces. Many of them will go unused, simply distractions from the slow, gnawing winters of the upper Midwest, but still nice to have as a focal point for a few minutes over a lunch break or an hour or two in the evening. In the summer, like parade candy, when the rare moment comes along where I encounter a young person flipping and struggling with a back cast, I pass along a handful to a member of the next generation taking aim at panfish, or bass, or whatever might be swimming by, knowing that even if they end up in a tree or stuck out among the lily pads, the connection made and the bit of my own angling history passed on with the patterns will have made a ripple in the pond of another developing fly fisherman.
Getting out of the boat in the orange light of sunset, after late-day trips for bass and crappies in the growing heat along the shore and out over the wide open depths of the lake, I prepare to tuck away for the night the fly rod resting against the boat lift. At the sound of a slight snap off the edge of the dock in the shallows, I can’t help but unhook the elk-hair caddis from the cork top of the reel handle and tug the leader loose from the reel with a whir for one more cast. With a flip it lands in the fading rings on the calm surface and quickly disappears into a bookending bluegill that spins and whirls its way to hand and caps off a day that reminds me of the importance of where it all began…in our outdoors.
(Featured Image: Bluegills bring it all together. Panfish provide a reward for beginning fly anglers and a reminder of those early days in a new angling niche. Simonson Photo.)