A Lepomis macrochirusean odyssey that begins with Sputnik and ends with Jake in the Lake.
Bluegills and I go back a long way.Bluegills and I go back a long way. One of my earliest memories is of catching a bluegill in McKean Lake, some 20 miles east of our home in Flint, Michigan. A farmer on the lake maintained a dock and a fleet of rental rowboats: $2 a day. The rowboats were freshly painted every year, and had live-wells with hinged covers under the middle seat. I was amazed that a boat with a hole in the bottom didn’t sink. This was a long time ago, before television.
We fished bluegill with cane poles and crickets. I caught the crickets in the fields behind our house, only three blocks from the AC Spark Plug factory. I had a trapline made of cardboard and pieces of wood and whole newspapers scattered around the fields. I’d lift these traps (it was best after a rain), and a menagerie of Michigan critters would scatter: centipedes, earwigs, worms, slugs, snails, and crickets. Lift, capture, repeat as necessary. Crickets can bite, be careful. And they’re soft bait, good for only one fish per cricket.
You knew summer was coming when the cane poles arrived, trucked up from Louisiana and sold in gas stations, sticking out of 50-gallon drums like bare yellow stalks in vases. They started at 25 cents each and could cost as much as a dollar, depending upon size and quality. Sometimes we drove from gas station to gas station looking for the perfect pole. Gas was 19 cents a gallon.
In Michigan, a Louisiana cane pole was good for two or three years before it got brittle and broke. We lashed ours to the rear wall of our house for winter storage. Summer seemed far away, seeing them topped with a thin tall ridge of wet snow.
I also had a yellow metal casting rod in those days before television. When we arrived at McKean Lake, I would grab my rod and the cricket cage my father made from wire and lath and hustle down to the dock to fish while my father unloaded the Pontiac station wagon.
I caught my first bluegill between the slats of that dock. He was too big to fit between the boards and flopped recklessly against the underside, the lead sinker swirling round and round.
“Drop him back into the water or you’ll lose him,” my wonderful father advised.
I did, and the sinker lunged between the slats and the black braided line sawed back and forth against the oak. It was the first fish I ever played.
After the bluegill tired, and the line hung straight down, my father had me lift the fish from the water whereupon he clenched the open mouth with his needlenose pliers.
“Don’t hurt him,” I probably said.
“This won’t hurt him. Bluegills are tough.”
As he wedged the fish between the slats, the bluegill’s mouth made a funny oval shape and my father made a squishing noise to go with it.
And he was right. Bluegills are tough. I dropped him into the live-well and he went wild, bumping his nose with a thud you could feel through the boat. Then we pushed away from the dock and spidered our way around the lake, four poles and two oars sticking out of a rowboat with a hole in the bottom.
The next bluegill of note came my way in junior high, when Sputnik scared the Flint Board of Education into a Science Fair to be held at the giant IMA auditorium, where the Globetrotters played and Dinah Shore sang “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” Our science teacher cut a deal: one grade higher for your final if you entered a project.
I did a study of Lepomis macrochirus—the bluegill. Lepomis macrochirus was the only thing I had to look up. Research done, my father and I went fishing and brought home a three-inch bluegill in a minnow pail. I kept him alive by pumping in air with a tire pump every night after school. You can’t really display a live bluegill at the IMA in a minnow pail, so I had to buy an aquarium. And one big white poster board.
As it turned out, the display next to mine, titled “Birth of a Tornado,” had three white poster boards explaining how a tornado is formed. Beneath these, on the table, a black papier mâché tornado bore down on a toothpick town, some of its toothpick houses already demolished and a five-story toothpick office building right in the path of the twister. It was more art than science.
The display on my other side was titled “Inside Nuclear Fission,” and had six poster boards and a scientific experiment I didn’t understand.
I set the aquarium in my spot. There was pink gravel on the bottom dotted with fake green plastic plants. The little bluegill darted around, looking happy and healthy
My single poster board, done in India ink in my best printed hand, said:
Bluegills are widely distributed in freshwater lakes throughout the United States.
The Bluegill is a member of the sunfish family and is sometimes called a
During the spawning season (May-June) the male’s chest turns a ruddy red color.
The big ruddy males are only in the shallows during nesting season and spend
On the way to pick up my project, I convinced my father to drive us back to McKean and release my three-inch bluegill. We were late getting to the IMA, and most of the displays had already been picked up. Across the auditorium, I saw the aquarium and my poster board with a yellow ribbon on it: Honorable Mention! But a yellow belly floated on top of the water. My father pointed out that he had died an honorable death battling Sputnik and got caught between a tornado and a nuclear bomb. I buried the bluegill in the garden, and got a C in science that year.
I can’t think of bluegills without remembering the summer garden. My father’s favorite meal was bluegill fried so crisp and fresh you could smell the lake when you broke them open. And sweet corn from the garden, along with a salad of sliced onion, tomato, and cucumber chilled overnight in a dressing made from one-third cider vinegar and two-thirds water, sugared to taste. A king cannot dine any better.
In college, bluegills provided us with cheap dates.
Central Michigan University is in the center of the mitten, where the flora and fauna of the Midwest overlap the flora and fauna of the north woods. Everything that lives in Michigan lives in this 30-mile-wide belt. Snowshoe hare browse with cottontail rabbits, and ruffed grouse and ringnecked pheasant flush through the same woodlot.
By my senior year, my four dedicated hunting and fishing chums and I hunted these species, plus woodcock, various puddle ducks, and whitetail deer, all within a few miles of the campus. In January and February, we ice-fished for bluegill, mostly on the Martiny Lake system, 30 miles away. We’d stop at Art’s Bait Shop just outside Mount Pleasant to get our bait and ask Art where the fish were. We already knew where Murphy’s Bar was, in Barryton, just five miles away. They never asked for ID.
Art was a big round guy with a pointed white beard nearly down to his naval. He looked like Santa Claus wearing Carhartt bib overalls and worn Romeo slippers.
We’d descend upon Art with three or four coeds (as they were called in those days) needing Michigan resident fishing licenses, $5 each. We had to buy extra diddlepoles for the girls, but these were only $2.99. Gasoline was 29 cents a gallon, and tuition only $300 a year.
Art loved it when we showed up with our two carloads of college students. He was an exquisite flirt, and when we delivered a new coed to his shop, a tour was in order. He’d start with the minnow tanks along the back wall, dipping his net into the first tank and bring up a scoop of thrashing little perch minnies. The coeds cooed.
Next, he’d dip his net into a pike-minnow tank full of chubs and suckers; these sold for $1.50 a dozen. Also in this tank were larger suckers, decoys for spear fishermen. He’d scoop one of these to the surface and imitate the sucker mouth with his own, his eyes open wide. The girls loved it. He loved it more. Decoys were $1 each.
Then, mostly for the benefit of those who knew what we were looking at, he’d dip into the tank holding the prime pike bait for tipups: golden shiners, $4 a dozen. You could fill your gas tank for that.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” he’d say. “My suppliers say they’re getting harder and harder to find.” He said that every time; it was his sales pitch for those pricey golden shiners.
“Now, I know you’re all bluegill fishermen, so look at these.” He dipped into a small tank of wigglers, immature mayflies that looked like hairy earwigs, black and wiggly and gross, according to the coeds.
The really gross stuff he kept in a refrigerator filled with small plastic containers from the grocery store containing mousies, waxworms, and corn borers. Here Art would turn professorial, carefully explaining how mousies are blowfly larvae from properly aged cow manure, waxworms are bee larvae, and corn borers are the worms you sometimes find in an ear of sweet corn. He’d explain how his suppliers harvested them.
“Do we need to know this for the test?” one of the girls once asked. This cracked us up, and Art adopted it for future tours. “Now, you might need to know this for the test,” he’d say.
Corn borers were the best bait because they’re tough; you can catch three or four bluegills on a single worm. But they were also spendy, $2 a dozen packed in an I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter container. Art said they were getting hard to find what with the hybrid corn and pesticides the farmers were using.
We bought the el cheapo stuff—waxworms and mousies. We wanted soft bait. Part of our mission on these trips was to get the girls to bait their own hooks. Some would, some would never. Out on the ice, whenever someone called for bait, Dave Cope and I delivered it to the hole by stuffing a nostril with mousies or waxworms; both looked like boogers. We’d hold the other nostril shut and blow the bait onto the ice. You had to be careful not to laugh lest you inhale a mousie.
There’s gross for you. The Ivy Leaguers swallowed goldfish, we blew mousies out our noses. Cope, more clown than me, once delivered six mousies to an especially hot bluegill hole. Cope later became a state trooper in the UP.
After fishing, and a warm-up stop at Murphy’s, we had a fish fry at our off-campus apartment—a hunter’s shack in a big field we rented for $50 a month from a farmer seven miles out of town. You could walk out the door and hunt anything in season. You could walk through the woods down to the Chippewa River and jump ducks. We had a one-holer outhouse lined with the luxurious warm fur of a mink we had trapped. The girls loved it. We pumped our water by hand from a well behind the shack, and showered at the CMU gym. We heated with wood, mostly elm killed by Dutch Elm disease, which swept through Michigan in the 1950s and ’60s. Our Christmas tree was a small roadside pine felled by two blasts from Gary Huard’s 12 gauge.
We cleaned our bluegill in the kitchen’s dry sink, the scales sticking to the bare particleboard walls. Some of the girls would help with this chore, some would never. With the fish we served a massive green salad and deep-fried JoJos made from potatoes we’d gleaned in September. We had bluegill deboning classes for the girls; some caught on immediately, some never did.
After dinner we entertained them with a sad country song we’d composed about a divorce. The refrain was, “Who’ll fry your bluegills when I’m gone?”
I forget the rest.
Two of us met our first wives through these weekend bluegill excursions. Life was simple and good.
After graduation I moved to Alaska where there are no bluegill. I actually went 25 years without catching one on a flyrod, can you believe it? I did catch them through the ice on a diddlepole whenever I visited my folks at Christmas. And I learned how to fillet a bluegill, with very little wasted flesh and absolutely no bones. I learned this from Oneta Donders, one of my major outdoor Michigan mentors. She also taught me tricks for frying them.
The next significant bluegill to enter my life came just before Y2K. In 1998 I had the good fortune to befriend and eventually score with Capt. Linda Susan Danner, a living legend in our fishing fleet here in Southeast Alaska. I soon learned why people called her “Dangerous” Danner. Or simply Linda Danger.
Since I have known Linda Danger, she’s caught her leg in her boat’s rotating propeller shaft; it actually wound up her leg and raingear tight enough to stall a 75-horsepower Isuzu. Her deckhand had to restart it and bump reverse and then cut the raingear to free her mangled calf (later, she complained that it was brand-new raingear), and then she fished six weeks of the season with an algae poultice wrapped around her gouged-out calf. And then she got bitten just above the eye by a genuine junkyard dog in Louisiana while searching for a replacement engine for a Chrysler convertible; I saw this with my own eyes. She’s been bitten on the wrist by a cranky female baboon during a tug-of-war with a paper sack containing wine and coffee in Kruger National Park. And I saw her get a three-step charge from a bull elephant when she violated an ironclad Kruger rule and got out of the car for a better photo.
I am not making any of this up.
In 1999, Hurricane Georges sideswiped her winter home built on pilings over a bayou of Lake Pontchartrain. It needed a new roof and the docks that ran along three sides of the house were a bit wrinkled. We flew down after the fishing season; the first thing she did was a brake job on her Chrysler convertible, which had been stored on high ground; she had me attend to her camping vehicle, a trusty old Ford wagon that had taken water up to the spark plugs. I replaced the oil, put in a new starter, cranked it over, and it burped a big gob of wet mud out the tailpipe and never came close to starting again.
The bluegill were scattered through the bayou, but the big ones hung out in the shade of the boatshed. You could reach them from a broken section of dock with a sidearm cast, but you could never get them to take a dry fly. Never. But they’d take a Michigan sponge bug, green, with the white rubber wings trimmed just so. I’d flick the sponge bug into a boat stall, let it sink, and retrieve it with quick twitches, watching for the leader to shiver, and then I’d set the hook smartly.
Hah! I finally outfished Capt. Danger. Trolling salmon commercially, she always outfishes me. But here, she could master neither the finesse of the cast nor the setting of the hook. Over the winter, she caught one. I caught at least a hundred.
“I just can’t get used to catching fish one at a time,” she said.
They were beautiful fish, six and seven inchers, just right for eating. We liked them even better than the blue crabs so numerous in the bayou. When we invited people over for a bluegill feast, we’d have to explain what they were. Our friend Bill Hart described it best: “Some caws ’em bluegill, and some caws ’em brim, or lake runnahs, or punkinseeds, or sunfishes, but dey awl jus’ perch.”
There were catfish in the bayou, but I caught them only once, on chicken livers. Nutria swam by, and we befriended one we called Webster. I hunted mallard in the big marsh across the bayou, but I couldn’t get used to the pelicans flying around, so I quit.
A beautiful wisteria wound through an arbor on the sunny side of the house, and we trimmed it with a chainsaw after Danger found a plant book that said, “prune viciously.”
I almost had her talked into cutting a hole with a trap door in her living room floor so we could fish bluegill and watch the New Orleans Saints at the same time. I offered as a trade to let her take out that wall she had been threatening in my Sitka digs, but no deal: she wanted two of my walls.
Katrina finally took the house, built so well back in the 1960s. After the big blow it was mostly intact, but hopelessly racked on its pilings and with two roofs on top of hers. Every other camp on the bayou was gone.
The seawall held. It was 127 feet long, a six-inch wide concrete wall with genuine re-bar inside; we built it three or four years before Katrina. It created a 127-foot-long spawning bed, because the backwash from waves scoured the black muck bottom back to clean sand. Bluegill spawned all along that wall, probably still do. We always joked it would be the last thing standing, and it was.
There was always a nest under the back porch steps. You could peek down there and see a little white crater with a bluegill hovering over it.
She was building a house in Hawaii when Katrina hit. She finally got to her Louisiana home on Day 7, just in time to see the hired backhoe rake the living wisteria out of the ground along with a big pile of splintered wood. She had flown into Dallas from Hawaii with pleas from her friends in Kiln, Mississippi, to bring some gasoline for the generator; it ran the only well for 50 people. When Danger hit Dallas on Day 3, all the 5-gallon containers were gone from the shelves, so she bought 31 one-gallon containers, filled them with gasoline, and delivered them to “The Kill” on Day 5. She found her way around the many roadblocks keeping out the helpful good-old boys and their bassboats by dialing Baton Rouge for John Smith, a county worker who told her how to avoid the roadblocks all the way to Mississippi.
When such a lady calls you from South Africa and says, “Come on down, honey, gin is only three dollars a bottle,” you go.
On my first trip ever abroad, I went through customs in Johannesburg, got my brand new passport stamped, was directed down a long empty hallway and through a door into a hall where a hundred or so people waited in a semicircle behind a cordoned area. Alone, like a mouse in a lighted room, I stopped in my tracks and surveyed the crowd. And saw a familiar blouse—a short-sleeved blue and white one exposing her wrestler’s biceps and her Barbie Doll forearms with their fine golden hair. She ducked under the cordon, and a hundred people applauded our kissing reunion, but stopped abruptly when my hand, all on its own, slid down her back and gave her rump a squeeze. It got so quiet you could hear a mouse fart.
“Well, you’ve made a big impression on Africa so far,” she said.
We followed the Exit signs from the underground parking lot—the first time I’d ever been in a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side—and approached a guard shack with its barrier arm down. Just beyond, a man dragged a chain armed with long steel spikes across the roadway.
The guy in the guardhouse handed Linda’s parking stub back. “You must pay for this in the terminal, madam. We cannot accept cash for it would be stolen from us.”
In the terminal, we found a machine that processed the parking fee. Back at the guardhouse, the arm was down and the man was dragging the giant spiked caterpillar across the road again. Linda presented the paid receipt.
“Thank you, Madam.” He nodded to his co-worker, who dragged the chain back to the other side. The arm went up, and we shot out into the white sunshine of Africa.
Did you know there are bluegill in Africa?
We found this out from an expensive fish book we bought in an upscale bookstore in Durban. It was called Fishes of South Africa, and had colored plates and life histories. It said that bluegill were planted in South Africa in the 1930s to feed the largemouth bass planted three years previous. Both stocks came from the USA. The fish book had a worldwide map of the distribution of Lepomis macrochirus, and impressed me by identifying the only lake in Washington State known to have bluegill.
How can you not believe a book that knows this?
In South Africa, there were splotches of bluegill here and there across KwaZulu-Natal, but they were in areas with no lakes. What did that mean?
(At this point, I must jump ahead and tell you that I lost that fish book and all my notes somewhere in Swaziland. So I can’t tell you the Zulu and Afrikaner names for bluegill I wrote down phonetically. Until I can get back there and find out, I’ll call them whichamacallits.)
We began the search for bluegill in Durban where Capt. Danger, who must have a winter project, had purchased three fix-me-up apartments, planning to sell two to pay for the third. She is of German ancestry and cannot help herself. Her new moniker was Durban Danner.
In a mall we found a sporting goods store carrying a large assortment of fishing and camping gear. I showed a helpful clerk the fish book.
Yes, he had heard of bluegill near Durban. He called them whichamacallits. They were in one certain body of water, but he had forgotten where. He could find out with a phone call if I liked. I liked. Nobody home.
“However, sir,” he went on, “if it is whichamacallits you are interested in, you must drive to Craggie Burn Dam, a place well-known for largemouth bass and whichamacallits.”