Fly Fishing for Bass on Koteewi Lake
It’s a new lake, 14 years in the making. It wasn’t supposed to take that long; an economic recession then a pandemic slowed things down. It is part of a larger park in Central Indiana that includes prairies with abundant wildflowers, hiking trails, and activities like archery and zip lining. But the 20-acre lake is what I was focused on; and I couldn’t wait to launch my kayak on its smooth waters.
Before fishing an unfamiliar body of water its best to know the boating restrictions. In my little unpretentious kayak I'd rather not be surrounded by bass boats with powerful outboard motors capable of obtaining great speed while generating large wakes. Fortunately, Koteewi Lake is limited to canoes, kayaks, and other boats with trolling motors (capable of only 15 mph). The objective here is not speed and noise but rather a slow, quiet approach to explore the waters and find fish.
Koteewii Lake has other attributes. Its banks are rich with vegetation: small trees, bushes, and wildflowers. The fauna is pleasing to the eye and perfect habitat for bugs, amphibians, and birds. Some small areas have been cleared for fishing from the bank but most of the lake perimeter remains in its natural state. Whoever designed this little aquatic oasis understood nature, and fishing.
It was a gorgeous morning, and I had the lake all to myself. Only a slight breeze, water like glass, and a beautiful sunrise. The crystal-clear water was perfect for my preferred method of fishing, using a fly rod to cast dry flies toward the bank and retrieve them back to the boat. The fly imitates a frog, minnow, or large bug bouncing along the surface. Bass are not picky eaters; if it looks like a tasty morsel they will take it.
Before launching the boat, I like to pause for a few minutes to observe the water and surrounding area. Is there any wind, the water smooth and clear, any geese or ducks on the lake, and are fish visible near the bank or rising to eat surface insects? I also take this time to adjust my consciousness. I try to calm down, breathe slowly, be aware of my surroundings. Listen to the birds and the breeze rustling through the trees. I am visiting one of nature’s sanctuaries; I want to be respectful, to blend in and not be disruptive.
I quietly put my kayak in the water using the convenient canoe/kayak launch that is provided. I slowly paddle to the opposite bank to begin the search for fish. Thirty to 40 feet off the bank is a good position for the boat. I cast the fly to land close to the bank, then intermittently tug on the fly line to twitch the fly on the water. This is called “animating the fly”, or making it look alive. Although the conditions couldn’t be better for fly fishing, the first several casts yield no interest. Maybe the fish are not active, not feeding in this spot, or my clumsy casting is scaring them away.
When several casts over one area are unfruitful, I slowly paddle along the bank to a new spot. One of the first things to learn about fishing is that we don’t dictate the terms of the experience. They will bite when they want to. Patience is the order of the day.
After nothing more than a few feeble strikes on my fly from small bluegill, I paddle around a corner of the bank into a new area. Now some fish are striking the fly with more vigor, and one latches on. I tighten the line to set the hook, strip it to pull him in, and land the little bass to the boat. I quickly take a picture of the small but healthy fish, remove the hook, and slide him back into the water where he scurries away.
I then paused to take a deep breath. I think to myself the old fishing cliché: “The skunk has left the boat”. The fisherman’s lament is to get “skunked” which is to go all day without catching a fish.
I find that after catching the first fish I become a different angler. With the fear of getting skunked behind me, I’m more relaxed, patient, and deliberate. As a result, my fishing technique improves, which can lead to catching more fish.
I slowly paddle along the bank a little further. The sun is now higher in the sky and the air warmer. I look for some shaded areas of the lake where the fish may feel more comfortable rising to the surface. Water directly under overhanding tree branches sometimes holds fish; they are looking for bugs dropping out of the trees or even the occasional small rodent or bird falling into the water.
With a cast that puts the popper very near the bank a fish eagerly takes the fly before it even moves. It appears to be a small fish but is fighting hard and feels bigger than he looks, a tell-tale sign of a bluegill. I pull him into the boat and submit him to the usual inspection and photography process. He is very pretty, glistening stripes and the characteristic spot on the gill behind his eye. Back in the water he goes.
I paddle on, still holding the same distance from the bank and seeking suitable areas where more hungry fish may live. Bass love to hide in cover such as a downed tree under water, aquatic plants, or large rocks. Here they can ambush unsuspecting fish or other creatures for an easy meal. I see a large tree trunk under the water and begin casting over it. Initially there was no action, and I was about to give up and move on. I managed one more cast with the fly landing too close to the boat. Since poor casts usually do not result in any success, I hurriedly started to retrieve the fly line so I could resume my paddling.
Unexpectantly, just before pulling the fly back into the boat . . . the water exploded! With a big splash something hammered the fly and pulled it down into the darkness of the deep water. I pull the rod up to set the hook but the fish, in his maniacal desire to consume the fly, had already hooked himself. The rod bent severely; this fish was large, and strong.
Landing large fish is a skill all its own. Patience is the key; one must let the big ones do their dance until they’re ready to give up. Your tugging may get them close to the surface, only to have them dive down again and continue the fight. After playing this bass for several minutes, he finally tired and let me pull him into the boat.
He was a beautiful large-mouth bass; shiny, plump, and healthy. His image barely fit in the iphone camera. In my excitement to catch such a handsome specimen, I yelled “I love you!” before releasing him back to the cool waters. I took a deep breath. My day on Koteewi Lake was now complete.
For days after a fishing trip, I relive the experience. I think about the water, the weather, which fly I used on which rod, and what fish I caught. I ask myself what I learned and what I will do differently next time. Most importantly I wonder when I will come back, because for me fly fishing is a spiritual experience, and I count the days until I can do it again.