Dark Water

by Jon Hazen

Have you ever gone fishing and carried expectations with you? I don't mean that you thought the fishing would necessarily be great. Something more modest. Perhaps you expected to find water conditions good and it only followed that the fishing would be the same or better.

I experienced a bout of dashed expectations that changed the way I look at fishing. It began last summer when my parents visited us on their way from Alaska to southern Arizona. I usually take my dad fishing when he is here, and on this visit the weather conditions were excellent for my favorite warmwater fish, the lowly bluegill.

Everything looked good when we arrived at the twelve-acre pond. We had the place to ourselves and the wind had not kicked-up, which was quite unusual. My expectations were pleasantly elevated at the sight of nice flat water at 5:30 on this particular evening.

It seems that nearly every afternoon an onshore flow of marine air hits this valley at about 3 PM, putting the float tuber "on a bicycle" as he or she finesses casting angles and drifts. Other than extra exercise and challenging the normal casting skills, the wind usually doesn't affect the nymph fishing. But tonight, the flat water meant we might be able to get some topwater action by using small dry flies, a bonus for warmwater guys.

We gathered our gear and prepared to launch. I was excited until I dropped my tube on the bank and looked at the water. Ugh! It was the color of coffee with a splash of cream and I thought, "Uh-oh." This was usually a pretty clear pond and I understated my more than mild disappointment to my dad, "It might be tough tonight. I've never seen the water this color before."

Still, it was a beautiful, calm evening, and we set out to make the most of it. Surely something would be happening despite the dark water...I hoped. After all, the Crooked River is the color of 1% milk and the trout fishing there could be very good. But here, I just didn't know, because we are talking about strong, robust, warmwater fish, not those fragile, myopic trouts. I mumbled a quick prayer to the warmwater fish gods.

We suited-up and slogged into the water. I led the way to one of my favorite spots so we could get a reading on what might be happening now and perhaps later. We picked-up a few fish; one here, one there. It didn't take long, however, for me to realize we were in trouble. We continued to fish areas that "never failed" and the results were similar...a small fish here, a small fish there. This pattern continued as we found ourselves nymphing along a hedge of reeds that poked up from the clay-bottomed pond.

My dad and I were each taking a fish about every ten minutes, which was turning my expectations sour, though I surmised these were respectable results under the circumstances. I decided to stop fishing and turned my tube away from the reed bed. This was not a time to fish, but a time to observe.

Ray Bergman's classic text entitled TROUT and photographer/flyfisher friend Jim Schollmeyer have each played a role in teaching me the value of being a patient observer. I really hadn't taken time to tune-in this evening, being so intent on getting my dad into some fish. And the seemingly bad conditions ate at me. I examined the series of decisions that had brought us here, and how we might have turned around immediately and fished somewhere else, anywhere else, even for trout!

I leaned-back and focused my attention on the water before me. For the next ten minutes I lounged in my Buck's Bag and became sublimely relaxed. It was about a quarter to eight and because of the hilly geography, the sun had slipped over the nearby horizon. All twelve acres of the pond was flat. Not a ripple anywhere. I read the surface with ease...waiting for a sign.

I scanned for a dimple, a ring, a bulge, nervous water. Finally I spotted a bluegill rise just out of double taper range for the Sage 7'-9" LL 3wt. I spun around with a sweep of my fins, tacked-on a few good kicks, threw as much line as I could, put together a series of jerking hand twists, and surprised myself by hooking up. Wow! I was born again.

Now, as we all know...casting to rising fish is some of the most fun a flyfisher can have. So now I moved out into the area of the rise, stripped half of my flyline into the float tube's apron, and tied on a #14 deerhair caddis. I continued to watch for the hint of fish and presently was rewarded with another dimpling rise form. It was out of range but welcomed nonetheless. As I watched and waited my mind wandered a bit...somehow I began to feel as if something extraordinary might occur. Sure enough, more rises and another fish brought to hand and released. I called to my dad to join me.

Progressively the fish began to oblige us more frequently. After thirty minutes, bluegill were rising nearly everywhere we looked, and soon double hook-ups were the norm. This was great fishing, and in retrospect, it represented some of the fastest this pond had afforded in maybe ten years of visits. It was a full-on bite measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale.

When you're a bluegill flyfisher, you can't say, "We caught fish until our arms ached," like the cold water boys sometimes do. But we had non-stop action from strong, aggressive, 6-8 inch bluegill with an occasional small bass, for an hour and three-quarters. When a bite of this magnitude occurs, of course natural curiosity begs the questions: why? After all, the water color suggested that a slurry bomber had dropped a load of silt on the pond the day before. Here is what I think happened and why I now am slow to pre-judge fishing conditions based on water clarity.

Even for late June, we had fairly cool, overcast weather during the week preceding our trip. And we know cooling water tends to slow warmwater species' feeding activity. I had monitored water temperatures on other ponds as they fell into the mid-sixties. The previous day, and the day of our fishing, the skies became brilliantly clear allowing full sun to beam bright and strong on this relatively shallow, unsheltered pond.

There had been no wind to chill the water. The dark water (my only theory is that it was an unusual algae bloom) and the density of the water, extracted a very high percentage of the solar energy made available during the two cloudless, long summer days prior to our fishing.

This created a spike in the water temperature at the surface to about 74 degrees. Cool waters that turn warm quickly, often trigger warmwater fish to feed. When I reached down with my fins and gave a good kick, I could feel a very cool layer of water stratified five feet below the surface.

Because the water had so much color, the fish really weren't able to see all that well, and rising to the surface during the day as they sometimes do, was a dangerous opportunity to shake hands with mr. osprey. So they waited.

Then, when the sun was off the water, fish gradually rose to the surface, up, up, up through the cool water. Near the surface they encountered the very warm sun-heated band of water. The rise in their body temperatures prompted, no...it demanded, that they pounce on whatever critter made its unfortunate self available.

The thing I like about this sport is you never stop learning. New challenges regularly present themselves. And now dark water invites both my curiosity and memories of a great evening of float tube flyfishing.

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