Autumn Panfish

Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

I have spent most of my life in a near-suburb of Philadelphia. I often feel envious of people who live full-time in areas I regard as fly fishing destinations. Not just the glamour spots like the American Mountain West. There are plenty of places right here in Pennsylvania that seem far more desirable, in terms of more fish, better scenery, and fewer humans.

However, I’ve learned over the years to appreciate what I do have here—a generally year-around fishery for a variety of species. As long as you’re not a snob about what you catch, fishing opportunities abound here in what has been colorfully described as “the armpit of Pennsylvania.” When I first told friends in my native New Jersey that I was marrying and relocating to Pennsylvania, several of them said “Oh! God’s Country!”

I said, “Not where I’m going.” But I married for the love of a man instead of my love of fishing, and here I’ve been ever since—40 years this past April.

As I write this, I’m looking out the window at the big hickory tree in my back yard. Its foliage is at the peak of autumn perfection, the golden yellow leaves glowing as the sun lights them. Fall is a fine time to fish in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The Fish & Boat Commission clings stubbornly to an outdated trout management strategy that revolves around the mass stocking of hatchery-catchables. I find this deplorable, but I would accomplish nothing by boycotting this practice since I am forced to pay for it with my license dollars anyway. So I do take advantage of the Fall Stocking program, although it seems to be on a path to downsizing itself out of existence. I for one will shed no tears when this happens.

The greatest benefit of fall trout stocking is that it draws anglers away from areas that are not stocked, and so those are left to me and the few others who share my unconventional tastes. The medium-sized Piedmont streams that course through Delaware County are full of Red-Breast Sunfish, Fallfish, Smallmouth Bass, and a potpourri of other species that respond well to artificial flies. Sometimes there are even a few hold-over stockie trout. In the autumn I most often fish bead-head nymphs, either drifted under a strike indicator or swung wet-fly fashion. Although the action is not nearly as hot and heavy as during the spring and summer, it’s more than enough to be interesting and fun. Sometimes a midge hatch will even bring some fish to the surface.

I enjoy lake fishing in the fall as much as I do stream fishing. I have a small Sportspal canoe, fitted out with an electric trolling motor. I’ve taken some good-natured abuse over the years for this rather stodgy craft, especially from canoe enthusiasts with far more refined tastes than my own. But my homely little canoe makes a perfect fishing platform for one or two anglers and, so far at least, I am able to car-top it solo.

There are several fine lakes within about an hour’s drive of my home. I have one particular favorite, which I’ll call Midge Lake. It’s surrounded by woods and fields, and has extensive mud-bottomed flats that host a strong population of what I call “lake midges.” These are not the tiny trout stream midges that are so important in area streams, and run in size from #22 down to incredibly tiny creatures that I refer to as “White Specks.” These call for TMC’s tiniest hook, an almost microscopic #32. And yes, I’ve seen the trout selective on these and it’s positively maddening.

But getting back to the lake fishing, the lake midges I see are more like a size 12 to 14 and tan to ginger in color. Every fall I watch conditions closely, hoping to hit this hatch just right. I did so one time several years ago. I’m afraid, however, that all the stars aligned perfectly on that day and I may never see the like again.

It was mid-November, and I thought my canoe fishing was over for the year. But a spell of unseasonably warm weather had moved in, and the forecast that day was for a partly cloudy day with a high in the mid-70’s and fairly light winds. I could not resist heading out one more time. I got on the water in early afternoon. Big, fluffy white cumulus clouds floated along in a Delft-blue sky, and when the sun peaked through it felt good on my back.

I worked along shoreline cover with a variety of flies, and as the sun dropped lower I had only one small bass to my credit. I kept hearing splashes behind me, and I’d turn to look but a steady breeze ruffled the surface just enough to obscure any rises. Besides, I’d learned long ago that it’s folly to chase rises on a lake. By the time you get to where you saw a rise, that fish is gone. And then you’ll see another rise where you just came from.

There was one other boat on the lake, and I’d kept a respectful distance. Now it was moving in my direction, however, and I thought a friendly conference might not be a bad idea. The two gentlemen asked how I’d done, and I told them I’d caught only one small bass. “We only got one small bass too,” one of them said. “I think it must be the only fish in the lake.”

We enjoyed a laugh at that, and then went our separate ways. I kept fishing, but was getting rather discouraged. Just as the sun approached the horizon, the wind suddenly died and the lake went mirror-smooth. I heard another splash behind me and again turned to take a look. What I saw was jaw-dropping. The surface of the lake was covered in dimpling rises. I think every Bluegill in the lake had come to the surface.

Not chasing random riseforms is one thing, but when there are that many of them you’d be crazy not to mosey on over. As I approached, I started spooking fish ahead of the canoe. Close enough, I reckoned, and cut the motor. I looked over the side of the boat and could see midges on the surface, crawling out of their larval shucks.

I was not really equipped to match a hatch, my boat tackle bag being heavily stocked with streamers and bass bugs. I rummaged around and found some 4X tippet, and in my single box of smaller flies a lone Razor Midge pattern that was a little too large and not the right color. It didn’t matter. For about 20 minutes I had a hand-sized Bluegill on every cast.

Now the sun was disappearing fast. I knew that I needed to head back to the launch or I’d be putting my canoe on the car in the dark while holding a flashlight in my teeth, since the launch area at Midge Lake has no lighting. I spooked fish after fish ahead of the boat all the way back to the launch. At one point I cut the motor and said, “To heck with it, I’m fishing!” In a moment I realized how foolish this was, reeled up and continued on in.

This past Thursday the weather forecast looked promising for a repeat of this wonderful event, so off to Midge Lake a friend and my canoe and I went. But it was not to be. The water was peppered with flying ants all afternoon, and we caught a decent number of fish. But the level of activity never came close to what that heavy midge hatch triggered. We did see a few midges toward dusk, but nothing like on that magical day.

Maybe I never will hit it that way again. But I did once.

6 thoughts on “Autumn Panfish

  1. Jim Murphy

    Love the story and the way it was written. But, look out next fall there be more boats on the water well equipped with a variety of midge patterns, a 3wt rod, and a hankering to catch bruiser panfish.
    Thanks For Sharing
    Jim

    Reply
    1. Mary S. Kuss

      Thanks, Jim. I think it’s safe to share–except of course for the true identity of the lake in question. Most of the folks who fish it are targeting bass, with conventional gear. I think they regard people who fly fish for Bluegill rather eccentric, if not downright dotty!

      Reply
  2. Michael Vorhis

    Very nice story Mary–I could hear the lapping of riffles against the gunwales and feel the breeze on my face. Midge Lake sounds like a nice place to spend an evening. And I could relate to your “folly to chase rises on a lake” observation; so true.

    I don’t believe I’ve ever seen midges that large–or more probably I’ve always confused them with crane flies or gigantic mosquitos. They sure look like something that ought to have its likeness commemorated on a fine-wire hook.

    – Mike

    Reply
  3. Mary S. Kuss

    Thanks, Mike. We Americans still tend to equate the term “midge” to tiny. I remember the first time I took notice of lake midges, and got one in hand to examine. My eyes boggled. These insects are indeed Chironomids–true midges. The photo that accompanies my blog post is a good representation, although probably not the identical species. Over 20,000 species have been identified. Some of them are even bigger than the ones I see. Look at the sizes the Brits tie their “buzzers” in. These are the rough equivalent of my “lake midges.” And no, I’m not about to try to key them out to the species or even genus level!

    Reply

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