In Praise of Bluegill
Many virtues make it my favorite sweetwater fish
This is a special time of year for me. There have been a number of 80-degree days, trees are filling out nicely and the strawberries in our garden are ripening. The day lilies are blooming, brightening the landscape, and birds are busy, singing their songs and building nests just about everywhere.
Our freshwater ponds and lakes are also awakening. Water lilies are reaching up and extending their green pads and white blossoms above the surface. The frogs are croaking and peeping amorously, and along the shallow, tree-shrouded shorelines, saucer-sized beds are beginning to be scraped out of the bottom by a small but mighty fish.
Each spawning site will be guarded with singular ferocity by a brightly colored male. His profile is as saucer shaped as the spawning site he has just created, and the little bull is relentlessly intent on attracting a mate. These fish are bluegills. A good-sized fish is only 10 inches long, but it is my favorite species in all of the sweetwater.
Hooked on Fishing
Perhaps it’s because the bluegill was the first fish that ever pulled on the end of my line. I was about six years old and remember that tug as if it was yesterday because it was followed immediately by a bigger tug. Then the small, bamboo pole I held bent over in an acute arc.
It was all I could do to hold it upright as my heart raced like never before. Somehow managing to get the brightly colored fish up onto the old wooden dock, I watched as the furious rascal beat a reckless tattoo on the weathered boards.
My father was careful to subdue it without getting spiked by the critter’s sharp fins, and we soon had it back in the water on a stringer, which I checked every 30 seconds for the remainder of the trip. I didn’t catch anything else, but it mattered not a bit to me in my first flush of piscatorial victory.
For the next two days, I paraded that bluegill about the neighborhood on the stringer, eventually boring all but my mother with repeated descriptions of the grandeur of the moment. The ’gill was a big one, I was told, and without anything else to compare it to I accepted that judgment unequivocally.
By the end of the second day my parents convinced me to give the deceased a proper burial, explaining that it was gathering an odor and we had perhaps waited a little too long to serve it as supper. But I knew there were others out there, and I solemnly dedicated myself to their pursuit. I have held to that promise for over 60 years.
These days I have exchanged the simple cane pole for a fixed line; a hook and a red worm for a light graphite fly rod adorned with a small black reel, a floating line and a little popping bug.
In years past I have consumed at least my share of the tasty devils, but lately I have taken to releasing almost all of them. Each of my catches, I have come to realize, are either too small to eat or too large and grand to kill.
Over the years, pursuing these bold swimmers while wet wading, from the shoreline, from canoes, kayaks, skiffs, bass boats, dingys and even inner tubes, I have found all of the experiences the same: fantastic. There is no other fish as willing to do battle, as eager to strike in hunger or defending its territory and as energetic and resolute in continuing the fight all the way to my hand.
These fish are a model of life lived to the fullest. Each time I pursue them, I feel blessed to experience their fiery hearts and exceptional attitudes. My rod and reel are standing at the door as I wait for the wild springtime winds to die down. The ’gills are on the beds, I have an old promise to keep, and I can’t wait to fulfill it yet again.