Sign Up for our Newsletter
First Name*
Last Name*
Email*
State or Province*
Zip or Postal*
Country
Grays Sporting Journal Subscriber*
Yes No

Grays Best

Significant Bluegills Print E-mail

A Lepomis macrochirusean odyssey that begins with Sputnik and ends with Jake in the Lake.
by Ron Rau
From the May/June 2011 Issue

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:

LEPOMIS MACROCHIRUS
“The Bluegill”

Bluegills are widely distributed in freshwater lakes throughout the United States.
They like to eat worms. They really like to eat crickets. For some reason, they
don’t like grasshoppers so much.

The Bluegill is a member of the sunfish family and is sometimes called a
“pumpkinseed.”

During the spawning season (May-June) the male’s chest turns a ruddy red color.
The female lays the eggs and the males guard the nest. The big males attack
anything that approaches their nests and are very easy to catch in this situation.

The big ruddy males are only in the shallows during nesting season and spend
the rest of the year in the deepest part of the lake. In summer, these fish are
known as “deep-water roaches.”

 

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?

I didn’t.

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.

Durban Danner and I bought fly rods and spinning rods and lures, a Skookum tent, two husky foldup cots, two coolers, a camp stove, a deluxe foldup chair and table set, and two new tires for the Toyota. All this for $800 US.

An Afrikaner friend loaned me a tackle box full of bass plugs and metal spoons with large treble hooks. There was even a genuine Jitterbug, frog pattern. By Arbogast himself.

You get to Craggie Burn Dam by driving about 200 kilometers out of Durban on pavement and turning onto a sandy dirt road that, for roughly 50km, takes you on an uphill summer ride through Central Michigan, through poplar and birch and maple, through undergrowth looking exactly like summer in Michigan, ferns included. I knew we were closing in on Lepomis macrochirus.

By the time we got to Craggie Burn Dam (think lake), we were in cattle and sheep country. Ungulates grazed the green hillsides wherever the eye wandered. Scattered evergreens grew in rocky draws that turned into creeks and flowed into the lake. It looked like Montana.

We drove around the lake, and at the inlet, where a feisty stream moved quickly under the road, we saw a sign suggesting a nearby campground. We drove a rutted two-track through a broken gate and across a pasture. In a grove of trees, we saw a guard shack—window broken, door open, nobody on duty. A faded-in-the-hot-sun sign promised a campground just ahead.

We drove to the next grove of aspen and cottonwoods and found shabby tables, trash barrels (empty), and burn pits. It was mid-afternoon. We pitched the tent, and I grabbed my fly rod and headed for the lake, picking my way around fresh cow-pies and shiny black sheep turds.

Bulrushes! Was I glad to see bulrushes, and scattered, too: not those thick, choking beds of rushes you can’t fish. I hurried to the shoreline and, sure enough, a sand and gravel bottom, just what bluegill need for spawning. (I should have mentioned this in my Science Fair project.)

It looked good.

I walked the shoreline looking for little bluegills living in these Michigan bulrushes in Montana. The sun was just right for seeing into the water, and the lake was perfectly calm; you could see a fish rise anywhere. And there were some rises, way out there, half a kilometer away.

The more I walked that shoreline without seeing a bluegill, the slower I walked. I stopped at a likely spot and went through the motions of fly fishing. Nothing. I tried a different spot, and another on down the shoreline. Nothing. I switched to a wet fly. Nothing. I tried again at sunset, a dry of course, and didn’t get a single strike, although there were occasional rises near my fly.

The slim African ranger, who drove by just before dark in a creaky and broken bakkie, charged us a very modest fee, told us that the lake had just recovered from a drought, and that the whichamacallits were out in the middle and nobody could catch them.

We broke camp and drove back to Durban. Dangerous came down with a fever, chills, and cramps. She had neglected her malaria pills, but the sisters at the Catholic hospital assured us it wasn’t malaria. Two doctors said the same thing. Two pharmacists agreed. None of their pills worked.

It wasn’t completely debilitating. The fever came and went. After a week of toughing it out in the apartment, she said, “We might as well go camping and looking for bluegills. I can be just as sick out there.”

On a bluegill tip, we drove up the coast of the Indian Ocean to the coastal town of St. Lucia. Here we met a gas station attendant who suggested we accompany him to his village on his days off. Only $6, or R90, including dinner. It was 30km away, there were two ponds to fish, and whatchamacallits in these ponds.

Well, maybe. There were surely some bluegill-looking rises out there, and I easily reached them with my fly. The village kids had never seen a fly rod in action, but they could see what I was up to, and cheered some of my better presentations. But I couldn’t get a strike. The kids caught only two fish, on makeshift poles; they looked like chubs to me. I taught a teenager how to fly-cast; he caught on immediately.

And the sangoma in that village cured Linda. Our guide arranged a meeting, and as we entered her cool, thatched-roof rondavel we saw bones and hair and plants and branches hanging from the walls and the ceiling, and shelves and shelves of bottles and plastic containers. The floor seemed made of rippled brown and black marble, cool and hard and smooth and shiny. I asked, and was told the floor was made from properly aged cow manure. Properly-aged cow manure produces mousies, too, I remember thinking.

Danner showed the sangoma a pesky bite in the webbing of her little toe. The sangoma, an ageless black woman with elegant movements, gave her two mixtures wound up in the torn plastic of bread sacks. One mixture was black and moist and smelled like urine-soaked bark. The other was a white powder. Back in the $25 US motel room in St. Lucia, Linda soaked her foot in hot water with the dissolved bark. Then she applied the white ash. She was cured overnight. The white nucleus of the bite turned black and was gone in two days. No more fever and chills. The sangoma was spendy: $12 US.

On another tip, we drove to Ndumo Game Reserve. My oldest and long-lost son Jake was with us. At a picnic site, I threw a rock halfway across a river, halfway to Mozambique. Dangerous drove us around and discovered a two-track that led to a pan (lake) down a forbidden road. Of course Danger took us down that road, and we discovered a postcard jungle lake. Immediately, I was anxious to drag the Jitterbug across the placid green water. As I did this, crocodile eyes watched me, two tennis balls side by side, 50 yards away, and more farther out in the lake. I caught two surface-feeding catfish. Then I changed to a small Mepps Spinner. I had a dozen or so strikes before I finally hooked an eight-inch tiger fish. It had a steel body and aluminum-band lips. After another dozen or so strikes I hooked another one.

I changed locations, put the Jitterbug back on, got it tangled in some brush, waded out in the slime-green water, and rescued it. Two days later, I was down with a fever and had white festering sores from my navel on down, four on my balls. I still have scars on my legs.

***

We didn’t find any bluegill on that first trip to Africa, though we spent six weeks looking for them. We went back the next year, to Craggie Burn Dam. There was a drought again; all the bulrushes along the shoreline were dried out and bent over. The same ranger in the same bakkie told us the same whatchamacallits were out in the middle of the lake; no one could catch them.

We drove up to Mooi River, elevation 2,000 feet. They get frost on their lawns in autumn and sometimes a little snow in winter. That’s where we found the bluegills.

The first one I saw was about eight kilometers out of town. We followed the river on pavement and took side dirt roads to the bridges. I saw three Africans walking across a field, carrying fishing rods. Walking toward the pavement.

I hurried across the fields. None spoke English, but they were very friendly young men. I pantomimed to look into the tallest’s knapsack, bulging with fish. He opened the flap, and there were eight or 10 small black bass, some as small as five inches, and one big beautiful bluegill with shiny yellow sides splotched with black and iridescent blue around the gills.

The next day, I saw a bluegill being caught. We were driving a long dirt track to an historical site, a blacksmithing, horseshoeing, horse-boarding, wagon-repairing depot in the late 1800s. It was now a bar and sold wonderful biltong, we were told. The track wound around a series of ponds with bulrushes and mallard ducks. Two Africans were fishing beside the road. I got out and pulled two Coca-Colas from the ice chest. (Coca-Cola is the largest employer in Africa, did you know that?)

As I handed them their Cokes, one’s bobber began making ripples. He pulled out a four-inch bluegill; it ate an angleworm.

I offered to take it off the hook, and they smiled and stepped back to watch, because every bluegill fisherman knows it can be tricky getting a flopping ’gill off a hook without getting finned. You have to pet down the dorsal and squeeze tight. They congratulated me roundly, because the friendly American knew how to take a bluegill off a hook.

“Throw him back. Let him grow up,” the fisherman said.

I did.

Yes, father, there are bluegill in Africa. We found them. They look like they just came out of McKean Lake.

***

  The last mess of significant bluegill I caught was in Michigan, three Mays ago. My father died in 1996, and my sister and nephew and I bought a brand-new minnow pail for an urn. It cost $15.99. We felt very good about this, because we knew Jake would totally approve. We decided to hold on to the ashes until my mother died. Hers would go on the far side of the lake in front of Kenyon’s, the bar and restaurant she favored, while my father’s would go on this side, where our old cabin was and also the better fishing.

If they wanted to get together in the underwater otherworld, that was up to them. They didn’t get along so well those last few years.

My mother died one month to the day after 9/11. I was in Alaska. My sister was there at her bedside; she died on the couch at home at the lake. Two years later, my sister disappeared with our small inheritance and my mother’s ashes. Three years later, we heard she was in North Carolina.

My nephew Darren took custody of the minnow pail. Three years ago, we decided it was time to dump the ashes.

Flying into Michigan from Seattle, I thought about my father, of course: what a great father he had been, taking me hunting and fishing like that. Putting in 46 years at The Buick, coming home every afternoon with his three long-necked Goebels from Teefey’s Beer & Wine down the street. I saw him drunk only once, on New Year’s Eve at a neighbor’s party. He’d been abusing whiskey; he was unfamiliar with whiskey.

He was very strong. He would pick up a tackle box full of quarters and half dollars with a stiff arm while sitting at the kitchen table. We kids could hardly lift it off the floor. His Russian grandfather could lift a table with his teeth, or so my grandmother told me. A shoestring uncle who grew up in Richfield Center with my father and his brothers tells of brothers Jake and John pulling the hay wagon home up a long hill, after their horse went lame in town.

When I was about 35, my mother and I coerced him into driving from Michigan to Kansas for some pheasant hunting by threatening to go without him. When we bought our hunting licenses and the clerk asked how tall he was, he said “five-foot four.” I did a double take, because he always seemed so much larger than that.

I hadn’t been in Michigan for nine years, and it felt odd to be going back. But a warm feeling overcame me when the blue of Lake Michigan came into view out the airplane window, the Wisconsin shoreline nearly a straight line of sand, arcing slightly where the lake bulges into a teardrop at Chicago. It looked so peaceful and tame down there. I’ve grown used to the rocky, crooked shoreline of Southeast Alaska, with white water washing the rocks.

Descending into Detroit, I remember thinking, It’s about time we did this. The ashes had two close calls already. First, there was a little girl playing with the sand in the minnow pail. Darren swept up the spilled ashes from the garage floor and scattered them in the garden. The second close call found the minnow pail spending the night in the driveway beside the car. I guess that can happen when you move into a new house after dark.

The morning of the dumping, I showed up at my cousin Jackie’s cabin on Sage Lake. It was his father who had helped pull the hay wagon uphill. I borrowed some waders and drove to the other side of the lake. It, too, looked peaceful and tame and ordered.

I came equipped with my new eight-piece fly rod I’d bought in Flint at a tackle shop that sold worms and night crawlers from a soda-machine-size dispenser outside the front door. The directions warned of electrocution if you tried to jiggle the machine. In winter, it sold mousies and waxworms. The fly rod was on sale for half-price—$35—and came with a reel, line, and a pair of three-pound-test leaders, all packed in a sturdy canvas-covered foam travel case.

On the other side of the lake, I found the outlet dam for the Au Gres River that provides the water for Sage Lake. There was now a one-lane bridge across it. When my father and I discovered this place, you had to walk in.

Even with the new bridge, the hole looked the same—larger, even. We found big male bluegill below the wood-planked dam. Other people soon showed up and cleaned out the hole, but we had discovered it.

I waded across, slogged up the other side to my belly button, and began casting: a green Michigan sponge bug with the white rubber wings trimmed just so. On the sixth or seventh cast, the bug disappeared and I set the hook: a good one. He turned sideways as bluegill do, and swam against the bent rod. Then he dove. Then he came up again and swam sideways against the rod the other way. I brought him in flat-wise on the surface—a fine, ruddy-breasted male. I petted down the dorsal, removed the hook, and put him on the stringer. He filled my hand and felt firm and muscular.

In an hour I caught a dozen, two of them with that loud pop!

“They’re still here, Dad,” I probably said. I was so glad to find them. What if I hadn’t?

Back at the picnic table at cousin Jackie’s, the bluegills cleaned, Darren and I were sipping beer and BSing with Cousin. The minnow pail was on the table. There wasn’t much more to say. We were quiet a long time.

“Well, I guess it’s time to put Jake in the lake,” Jackie finally said.

We headed toward the northwest corner of the First Island, also known as Happy Island, in Cousin’s “speedboat.” He idled all the way, which was amusing because cousin Jackie was one of those I cussed out in my teenage years for making waves and messing up my bluegill fishing. I kept waiting for him to open up the motor, but then it dawned on me: this was a funeral procession.

Jake hated the speedboaters even more than I did. Late in life, he threatened to shoot at them. And the water-skiers. And the jet-skis. And the yuppie neighbor with the fake log siding on his house. My sister and mother took these threats seriously and finally had him committed.

Cousin killed the outboard and we drifted over the dropoff near the cedar-shingled icehouse. Back in the 1930s when my father began coming here, they cut ice from the lake in the winter and stored it here for summer use.

We used to fish northern pike over this dropoff, with chubs and golden shiners when we could get them. Or we might go ashore and wade the shallows for bluegill. You could almost reach the bulrushes with a fly rod from where we anchored for pike.

I don’t know what I said. I know I sobbed and my eyes welled. I turned the minnow pail upside-down, and a cascade of yellowish ash splashed into Sage Lake. The ashes dispersed rapidly, surprisingly, as though a gentle breeze was blowing underwater. We saw the long swirling yellow cloud for a long time as the boat drifted away.

There were still ashes stuck to the bottom of the pail, and I dug at them thinking the whole bunch would move. They were hard, as though baked: grit from my wonderful father collected under my fingernails.

I removed the foam flotation and sunk the minnow pail. It went down in 20 feet of water, wobbling like a silver bomb.

He probably wouldn’t have approved of sinking a brand-new minnow pail like that. He’d have gotten awfully mad had it happened accidentally. My cousin later told me it blew for three days after that, with whitecaps that gave the shoreline a good spanking.

Jake was in the lake.

 

__________________________________

Ron Rau’s baseball memoir, History of a 67 Year-old Curveball, is now available from This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it It deals, in minor ways, with bluegill, pheasant, grayling, mallards, salmon, ravens, a cow moose with calf, and a Dall ram. Mostly, though, it’s about baseball.

 
Tag it:
Delicious
Digg
Spurl
NewsVine
Reddit
YahooMyWeb
Ma.gnolia
De.lirio.us
co.mments


©Copyright Gray's Sporting Journal. | Privacy Policy