FLINT HILLS — Bill Hartman remembers the days when he was getting started in fly fishing and he became somewhat of a local novelty.
"The landowners would get their families together and they’d come down to see the nutty professor out there in a belly boat, fly fishing on their ponds," said Hartman, who was an administrator at Emporia State University. "They had never seen anything like it and they were curious."
Hartman still attracts attention when he fly fishes the ponds and lakes of the Flint Hills, but mostly for the size, variety and number of fish he and his clients catch. Landowners no longer view his fishing trips as a sideshow act. They know that when he launches his belly boat, the fish are in trouble.
"When I started 25 years ago, it was mostly trial and error," said Hartman, who runs the Fly Fish Kansas Guide Service. "Everyone would fly fish for trout, but not a lot of fishermen would use flies to catch bass, crappies, bluegills and channel catfish.
"Even now, I’ll have people who will call me about my guide service and ask, ’Where do you fly fish for trout in the Flint Hills?’ I’ll tell them, ‘We don’t. But we’ll catch just about everything else that swims in Kansas.’ It’s just a great way to fish these big ponds and lakes in this part of the state.
"I have about 15 private places where I have permission to fish and they’re all loaded with fish."
Hartman was headed for one of those places on a gray, spring day.
He rambled down a dusty back road until he got to a gate. Once he drove his truck through, he bounced through a pasture until he topped a hill and looked down on a gem of lake set in the beauty of the rolling landscape of the Flint Hills.
"Isn’t this beautiful?" said Hartman, 62, who lives in Emporia. "The Flint Hills are a very pastoral setting. You can get out here in this beauty and it’s just you and the fish."
With that, Hartman started getting ready for a day of fishing. He unloaded his inflatable boat, climbed into his waders, pulled on his wading boots, then strapped a pair of waders to his feet. He held his 4-weight fly rod with a small doll fly and a strike indicator attached to the line and headed out with two kicks of his fins.
It didn’t take him long to find fish. After only a few casts with his fly rod, the orange indicator bounced slightly and Hartman set the hook. He watched as the fish bent the rod almost double as it surged for the cover of the bottom. The fish quickly gave up on that strategy and rocketed to the surface.
But it wasn’t long before Hartman had the 2-pound bass to the boat.
"One of the things I like about fly fishing is that you get to feel the fight," Hartman said. "You give the fish a sporting chance. Even the small ones are fun to catch."
Hartman started by catching a mix of crappies and bass. Then he ran into a school of big bluegills. One of the fish tugged so hard, he thought he had a big bass.
But when he got it in, he found that it was a bright-colored bull bluegill.
Doing some rough measuring before releasing the fish, Hartman said, "That fish will go close to 12 inches. That’s a huge bluegill."
Moments later, Hartman headed for a second pond. And there, he found much the same success as he had at the first one. Most were tossed back, but Hartman kept a few crappies, bluegills and bass for a fish fry.
"The nice thing about flies is that they’re good imitations of what is in the water," Hartman said.
Hartman started off in fishing as a catfisherman. But he said he got tired of sitting on a bucket, waiting for a bite.
Today, he says, he’s not fishing if he doesn’t have a fly rod in his hands.
"I tie some of my own flies, I buy others," he said. "I can fit just about everything I’ll be using that day in my pocket."