Bluegills & Rednecks

Hang Time, by Kyle Paliotto

And déjà vu all over again.

by John Gierach

The ponds are only half an hour’s drive southeast of home, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been there. On the way out I sorted through unreliable memories and settled on being glad this wasn’t important, because pinning it down seemed unlikely. For that matter, I couldn’t put my finger on why I’d worn out on the place, either. It had always been profoundly ordinary—which was the best thing about it—but that was probably the very thing that caused me to take it for granted and finally drift away.

It’s the same story so many divorced men tell about their once-happy marriages: “Nothing really happened,” they’ll say. “I just woke up one morning and it was over.” But in this case there was none of the regret that accompanies questions of faithfulness. Your old sweet spot doesn’t care if you fish it anymore or not. In fact, given the choice, it would probably just as soon you didn’t.

There are a dozen ponds spread out over 200-some acres: old gravel quarries that were abandoned early in the last century and eventually filled with groundwater and went wild. This would have been a light-industrial wasteland once, but when I first saw the place in the early 1970s, it was fully grown up in groves of cottonwood and locust, the stark edges of the ponds softened by cattail marshes and the two-track access roads devolved into foot trails. You could still tell these weren’t naturally formed ponds, but you had to look twice.

There was the usual hodgepodge of bluegills, catfish, largemouth bass, and carp. People claimed that these fish first arrived accidentally as eggs stuck to the legs of herons, but a fisheries biologist I asked said that was unlikely. The insects, frogs, and turtles would have flown, hopped, or walked from nearby wetlands, but the fish had to have been stocked. The bird-leg theory made intuitive sense, though, because these ponds had the feel of a place that had been used up, abandoned, and forgotten, and had since come back entirely on its own. It was hard not to imagine Biology singlehandedly reclaiming the landscape.

I’d fallen hard for everything about the Rocky Mountains from day one—with trout and the places they lived at the top of the list—and I’d taken up fly fishing.

I was still fairly new to Colorado then, one of thousands of young dropouts who’d decided we didn’t want to live at arm’s length from the things we loved as we’d seen others do. (My father loved to fish and went when he had the time, but he almost never had the time.) I can’t be much more specific. We’ve been characterized—sometimes by those who weren’t there—as true believers in a social and political revolution, but for many of us it was simply that we knew what we didn’t want and were still unclear about the alternative. Remember, the term was dropping out, not signing on.

I’d fallen hard for everything about the Rocky Mountains from day one—with trout and the places they lived at the top of the list—and I’d taken up fly fishing. I enjoyed its fussy old-world pretensions, but although I understood the practical virtue of that new idea known as catch-and-release, I also ate a lot of trout. If nothing else, they were free, and when you worked cheap and had time on your hands, free was good. Still, it was trout and fried potatoes, trout and rice or trout and beans, until the occasional cheeseburger began to taste like beef Wellington.

These warmwater ponds varied the menu. I’d grown up eating bluegills. I liked them, and more to the point, knew how to catch and cook them. Trout were a real challenge to me then (still are), and catching them wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but under the right conditions, catching bluegills was like picking raspberries: all you had to know was where they were and when they were ripe.

The trick was to find them spawning, which they do in the spring when the water temperature reaches about 67 degrees and stays there for a while. It doesn’t matter if the weather goes sideways and the water cools off again; they’ll simply abandon the beds and come back later. Even when they spawn successfully in the spring, they’ll sometimes do it all over again in early summer. These horny, persistent fish seem ready at a moment’s notice, and that was the justification for keeping spawners. It was said that bluegills reproduced so prolifically, you could take whatever you wanted without doing any harm. Like all fish-management philosophies of the “Aw hell, it don’t hurt nothin’” variety, it was true only up to a point.

It was a simple matter of walking around the ponds starting in mid-April looking for the colonies of shallow, saucer-sized spawning beds that bluegills excavate in no more than a few feet of water. Sometimes they were hard to pick out against a dark bottom, sometimes they were as obvious as elephant tracks, but once you knew where they were, you could walk right to them the way you’d walk straight to the fish counter in a grocery store. I was using a fly rod by then, but these fish would eat any nymph or wet fly in a size 14 as readily as they ate pieces of worm on small hooks when I was six.

The rule I was taught growing up was that a bluegill that completely covered the palm of your hand was a keeper—and I don’t have particularly large hands.

There were never many people at these ponds; just the odd bird watcher and a handful of blue-collar bass fishermen that I rarely talked to. They thought I was a hippie, I thought they were rednecks, and that was pretty much the end of it. The most that usually passed between us was the kind of meaningful nod that acknowledges a truce without giving up on the underlying grudge. But it turned out that we weren’t as different as we thought, and a process of mutual assimilation had already begun. Before long, ponytails started to outnumber crew cuts on some landscaping and construction sites, and the proximity of work led to the usual cultural exchange. Not many years later William Kittredge would write, “Things are looking up. Rednecks take drugs; hippies take jobs.”

In the years after the fall of Saigon, I’d sometimes see Vietnamese families fishing the ponds. They used cane poles and bait, and judging by the galvanized buckets they filled with fish, they knew what they were doing. There might be three generations together, with the mama-sans in coolie hats and the grandkids in baseball caps shyly acting as interpreters. I never learned their stories; mostly we just complimented each other’s catch in passing, with some awkward bowing on my part in response to their elaborate politeness.

The closest I ever came to a run-in with one of the rednecks was when a guy told me my “gook friends” oughta be arrested for keeping too many fish, and I informed him that with a daily bag limit of 20 bluegills, the family of five could legally bring home 100 of them if they wanted. The guy got pretty steamed, but in hindsight, I don’t think he was really all that mad. I think he just saw me as ridiculous with my long hair and beard, my prissy little fly rod, and a stringer of what he’d have considered kids’ fish.

But who could resist bluegills with their handsome coloring, their sleepy brown eyes, and their adorable willingness when spawning to eat anything they could get their mouths around? And they’re so beautifully adapted to avoid being eaten themselves. Their frying-pan-on-end shape makes even small ones awkward to swallow, and their sharp, spiny dorsal fins enhance the effect. One of the first things I learned as a kid was to comb down a bluegill’s fin with my thumb so I could hold it without getting stuck.

In ideal conditions, bluegills can weigh as much as a couple of pounds, but they usually aren’t large. The rule I was taught growing up was that a bluegill that completely covered the palm of your hand was a keeper—and I don’t have particularly large hands. A fish that size using its flat sides to plane against the pull of the line puts a satisfying bend in a light fly rod, or as Al McClane once wrote in his laconic way, a bluegill “is not spectacular but it resists vigorously.”

A stringer of 10 palm-sized bluegills (half a limit) yielded a dinner of 20 succulent miniature fillets that were best lightly beer-battered and deep-fried, although out here in the wild Southwest, bluegill tacos were also a possibility. At the time I had it in mind to beat the system by living off the land, but to be honest the fish I brought home didn’t cut all that significantly into the grocery bill. But what they did do was train me in the kind of

subversively creative thinking that kept the system at arm’s length. That would come in handy later when I became a writer and continued to live by my wits into middle age and beyond.

There was something comforting about those ponds. The snowcapped Continental Divide on the western horizon and the occasional cactus were constant reminders that I was on the high plains of Colorado—an exotic location for a kid from the Heartland—but otherwise the green, lush funk of the place was as distinctly Midwestern as any of the farm ponds I’d fished as a kid. I didn’t feel at all homesick and wouldn’t have admitted it if I did; I was just experiencing the same impulse that makes an American visiting Moscow want to stop at a McDonald’s.