Having gotten a whole summer’s worth of rain in three weeks, Kansas reservoirs and lakes are swollen and campgrounds and boat ramps are completely submerged, meaning camping, boating and for the most part fishing, too, are out of the question. I was reminded this week of an interesting fishing trip to a local reservoir years ago after several inches of rain.

Our boat pitched and heaved with each “white cap” that rolled under the hull, and Marion Reservoir was littered with floating debris, remnants of the nearly four inches of rain just days before. We usually fished  there by drifting over shallow water outside French Creek cove, using night crawlers on jigs as bait. Suddenly my wife hauled back hard on her rod and uttered those three little words every fisherman longs to hear, “I’ve got one!” She worked the fish perfectly, gaining line with each crank of the reel. As I reached for the net, the monster showed itself for the first time, and I slumped horrified into the nearest seat. It was a dreaded “stick” fish, (not to be confused with a “fish stick”) and a big one! She wrestled the four-foot long monster next to the boat, where I gingerly removed the hook. I hated to release him to haunt another fisherman, but we had no room for him in the boat. (I’m sure it was a “him” because of certain protruding anatomical features) My wife and I stared blankly at each other, numbed by the encounter.

I’m as certain as I can be that everyone who has ever fished has had an encounter like the scene I just described, but how many of us know anything about these prehistoric creatures. Their life cycle is strange and secretive to say the least. They are born in many different forms, from “helicopter” like seeds to long bean pods. The most prevalent species found in Kansas waters are the cottonwood variety, which begin life as fluffy white seeds. Whether blown by the wind or floating on the water, the seeds of all species eventually reach a spot of dry ground, where they burrow into the soil and soon emerge as tiny seedling-like beings. Here they spend the first part of their life cycle, which determines how large they will be. The four-foot specimen we encountered is actually small in the stick fish world and was probably 20 to 25 years old. I have caught brief glimpses of these monsters several times the size of our catch, which must have been over 100 years old.

Eventually, whether by storm, wind or rain, the beasts are toppled into the water where the final part of their life’s journey begins. Now they float aimlessly around their chosen lake or river, like cast-out souls searching for fulfillment. On land, they had adapted to feed on nutrients from the soil. Now in their watery world, they become opportunists, often gathering into great, twisted masses on the lake or river bottom, and feeding mostly on fishermen’s bait. During long, hot summers, when water levels dwindle, the brutes can rest for months in large tangled groups along back water shorelines. Storms and high water seem to bring them forth like night crawlers after a rain, and suddenly again they are everywhere. This is when most encounters seem to occur. When suddenly surprised by a lurking stick fish, give it plenty of space. They are usually docile but can do considerable damage to fishing tackle or boats if run into or hooked. 

I don’t mean to paint “stickies” as trash fish because they do have some noteworthy uses. While resting in their large summer groups, they are excellent sun bathing decks for turtles and make fine dry docks for herons and egrets. Beavers like to “borrow” them as temporary reinforcements for dams and lodges. The “cane” variety, a long, slender species, makes fine walking sticks if harvested and dried, and their tails can be formed into circular handles when fresh from the water and still pliable. Dead ones, if pulled ashore and dried in the sun, produce lots of BTU’s when burned for campfires and barbecues. The immense under water groups become choice fish habitat, and are prime “honey-holes” if found and fished over. But be forewarned, as this type of fishing does seem to provoke a large number of stick fish bites.

We escaped our stick fish encounter fairly unscathed, happy, yet awed at having been so close to such a prehistoric, secretive creature right here in the waters of central Kansas … Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors!

Steve can be contacted by email at stevenrgilliland@gmail.com.

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