Monday, March 25, 2013

A Diminutive King and Fallen Castle

This blog entry has been written in concert with a tying tutorial I did for my bluegill fly pattern, the Disco Cricket, over on The Fiberglass Manifesto, and author Cameron Mortenson's "Year of the Bluegill" initiative. Please head over there and check it out.  You fly fishers in particular should really enjoy the entire site.

I know a lot of us began our fishing careers chasing the humble little bluegill.  We stood there on shore, some of us with a cane pole and a bobber, and flicked squiggly globs of leaf worms to lily pads in the shallows, in hopes of hauling in a fish or two.  We didn't notice the differences between the varied species of these diminutive scrappers, nor were we aware of their many names -- long ear, shellcracker, pumpkin seed, red ear -- they were all bluegills to us kids, probably bream ("brim", as they say) to our southern counterparts.  Honestly, I still have trouble keeping all the different, brightly painted little guys straight sometimes.

Many of us learned to fish on bluegills because they are often so willing to bite.  As any muddy little kid with a sunburn and a Zebco can tell you, they will sometimes even bite on a plain gold hook when the bait can runs dry.  That makes the sunfishes royalty of the novice youth fishing world.

They're also very accessible.  Almost every splotch of blue on the map has at least a handful of sunnies patrolling the shoreline, darting into the weeds when you walk up to the bank.  Nothing is better for a kid learning to fish than actually being able to see what he's going after.  The fishing itself can be a very visual affair as well.  You can see the curious little ones swim right up, and take a nip at your bobber.  I know for myself, I wasted many a childhood afternoon trying to figure out how to catch those guys, matching wits with a three inch fish and losing.

When you do finally get a couple years of bluegill fishing under your belt, you know even more what to look for.  And what to listen for.  When the day finally comes that you spot those pie pan spawning beds laid out like honeycomb on lake bed, when you hear that little spluck! noise they make sucking in bugs from the surface, you know you're in for one of those days we fishy folk dream of.

The final part of the equation has to be the tremendous fight these buggers put up.  A bluegill flat-out pulls his little butt off.  They dart and dive, and the bigger ones do that fun spinny thing, like a maple seed falling up in reverse.  All great fun to cut your teeth on.

Then comes the time in our fishing lives when some of us are overtaken with the need to find and fight the big bluegills.  This is no longer a matter of simply flopping a bait into the city park pond, and waiting for the fish to come play.  The bruisers aren't so easily fooled -- as the saying goes, that's how they got to be bruisers, after all.  They hang out in deeper water than their slimmer brethren, they're often much more finicky about what they'll eat, and they'll yank on your 4lb. mono until they've buried your hook in the weeds, and you're left with nothing but a glob of muddy salad to show for it.  We're not in the minors anymore, this is the show, and it's wonderfully fun.

Not incidentally, bluegills are my favorite freshwater fish at the table.  Always have been.  I know the walleye and perch people will be up in arms of over this, not to mention you brookie guys and those weird, scary catfish dudes, but that's the way it is.  Given my druthers, it'd be a beer batter bluegill fry and sweet corn, with a couple thick slabs of tomato, still warm from the garden sun.  Pass me a PBR.

That's what you drink at a bluegill fry, by the way.  Go ahead and check, it's in the Constitution.  Bluegills are not craft beer fish.

For the novice fly fisher, just as the young gear fisher, bluegills are often there to help learn the sport.  Newbie fly geeks are often nearly as helpless as any kid with his first cane pole, so it works out that the quarry would be the same.  Personally, when I picked up my first dime store fly rod, and began to cast to the dink sunnies in the shallows, I was swept back to the age of dunking worms with my brother, when we'd spent more time throwing rocks than trying to catch fish.

And again, the progression with the fly rod remains the same as it was with the cane poles and spinning rods.  Obsession grows.  Sooner or later you find yourself casting past dark out with the ticks and mosquitoes, seeking advice and articles, dreaming of truly giant bulls on a fly rod.  These are not the mythic salmon of Scotland or high mountain cutties, but bluegills, through some combination of their tenacity and willingness to bite, can become downright addictive.

I don't think we need to employ Cold War era spy craft, using double secret codes and marking park benches with chalk at dusk (as is the standard internet tradecraft of covert fly fishing operatives everywhere) when mentioning that Lake Onalaska, over on the western edge of Wisconsin, is home to some of the best sunfishing you'll find anywhere.

They've pretty much put the word out.
The lake is formed by a dam on the Mississippi River.  There are miles and miles of braided water through a stand of islands at the north end of the lake where the smallmouth bass and pike fishing can be excellent.  We've spent many days up there, and occasionally nearly had to spend the night there too, after losing our way in the dozens of  near-identical looking channels.  For some reason, I was always the one who had to get out, and pull the boat over a sand bar while Brian yelled threateningly from the back of the boat, "If I have to put this beer down..."

The allure of "the chutes" as they are known locally, all those back channels and wandering paths between spits of river mud and sandy little islets, is great, but the real action happens down in the bluegill water.  Spring and fall especially, when the bite is on, you won't have to ask where, just follow the armada.  Massive sparkle fleck bass tournament rigs, fairly bristling with every fishing electronic known to exist, pull up beside plastic, roto-molded jon boats in the shallows, and everybody catches bluegills.

Lots of fish. And big ones.  Consistently over time, the biggest 'gills I've ever seen in person.  I've heard every theory out there concerning how and why this place is a sunfish factory (I like the one about the river current washing scuds and other yummies down to the pig bluegills lying in wait), but I don't think anyone really knows how exactly it works.  The important thing here, as a far as the angler is concerned, is that when the time is right, you can fight the fattest 'gills you've ever seen until the basket is full, and get up to do it again the next day.  I have, and I can personally guarantee you that none of those fish have gone to waste.

Brian inherited the trailer from Marty years before I started coming to Onalaska for bluegill bonanza weekends.  "Ol' Number 14" had been laid to rest some decades before, deemed unsafe for human habitation by any sane person, on the top of a small wooded rise in a campground right on the water, lending great views of the lake and fall sunsets from the picnic table parked out front.

Getting unpacked for another weekend at the very swank No. 14
Lest you get the wrong impression, all was not Midas gold at the trailer.  The first time I was invited, the temps dipped well below freezing for our ice fishing weekend.  When we arrived after dark, there was no power in the campground and the furnace would not run.  Within minutes, Brian spilled the Coleman lantern he was attempting to light, sending a river of flaming white gas down the counter top.  The trailer didn't burn down, but only because it was too rotten to ignite.  That night my pillow froze into a point on one end, conforming to the inside corner of the trailer as I dozed warmly with my brandy sodden dreams on the floor, stocking cap pulled down tight.  I was immediately in love with the place.

Brian and Dad, the power back on
No matter how many times her roof was resealed with blackjack, scrap sheeting, and prayers; rain always managed to run in, especially through the roof vent over the dubiously designated "living area."  Which was convenient, actually, because that's where the hole in the floor was for it to drain out.

She did have a working cook top and tiny oven, the latter of which hovered at random temperatures somewhere between glumly cadaverous and positively solar.  We used it to alternately freeze dry and vulcanize meals brought from home.  Bluegills were fried outside on the reliable old green Coleman stove, and we quickly learned where the local pizza place was.

Her greatest feature, though, was most shocking.  Literally.  After a long, soaking rain or in spring when the frost was coming out and the ground was wet, all of her metal surfaces would become electrified to the touch.  I'm not an electrician, but I remain fairly positive that wasn't right.

Brian and I would get quietly giggly on Blatz and Korbel back then, and invite fellow campers from around the grounds over for a drink.  The entire time just dying inside, waiting for them to unknowingly brush up against a wall or range hood and be jolted into a cussing streak. Yes it was mean and juvenile.  It was also some of the greatest fun I've ever had.  Closest I've ever come to peeing myself from laughter.

Buddy quickly learned that track would sting his little paws. Built in puppy barrier.
The allure of living in constant fear of being zapped, drenched, frozen or broiled alive on those summer smallie trips aside, the real reason for being there was the bluegill fishing.  At the right time of year, a limit of heavy 'gills could be acquired in plenty of time to spend the rest of the morning in junk yards looking for trailer repair parts.

Big, thick gills, too heavy for a heron, apparently.
It was not uncommon to catch them two at a time...
... or four...
... or simply have one greedy fish inhale every bait you could throw.

Ol' No. 14, beauty that she was, is gone now, trundled off to the big campground in the sky where the fish are even bigger and nobody gets electrocuted by leaning against a window air conditioner.  She brought us together, became our base camp for a lot of wonderful outdoor pursuits.  Not the least of which was embodied by the small but mighty, pugnacious king of the panfish in my mind, the ever-ready bluegill.


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