Once the spawn ended it became less like berry picking and more like real fishing. The bluegills scattered out in the ponds, the little ones sticking to the shallows, the bigger ones splitting the difference between feeding and hugging sunken structure for protection. They’d have spawned roughly according to size, which was real handy, but later they’d congregate for less obvious reasons that often had to be worked out on the spot: water depth, temperature, cover, food, shade, and so on—the usual puzzle. Getting enough for dinner took more time, which was more time spent fishing, which wasn’t all bad.
I especially liked casting small poppers in the evenings after work, and as an aspiring purist, I decided to make my own. My best had pencil-thin sanded cork bodies, feather tails, and rubber legs. The paint jobs were chartreuse overall with a scale pattern on the back stenciled with contrasting spray paint and a piece of old aquarium net, plus the usual black-on-white painted eyes. I tried other colors, but as the bass fishermen say, “You can’t lose with chartreuse.” Commercial poppers are usually dipped in paint, which is efficient in terms of mass production but fouls the eyes of the hooks. I told anyone who’d listen that you can always spot a hand-painted popper because the eye is clean.
Some ponds were naturally better than others, and I had my favorites. The best was way back in the southwest corner, a 20-minute walk and as far from the parking lot as you could get. The east end was uniformly deep, but on the west side the bottom sloped gradually, and there were channels surrounded by grassy hummocks of old spoil where the workers who dug the quarries lost the gravel seam and dug test trenches trying to pick it up again.
This pond regularly had the biggest bluegills and the most extensive spawning areas, and because it was a little dicey to get around in the boggy cattail marsh on the west end where the fishing was best, I usually had it to myself. Most years there was an active osprey nest just east of the pond, and one of the adults was usually perched nearby looking as regal as the finial on a flagpole. The bird would glare at me while I fished, as if it begrudged me every bluegill I put on a stringer.
For a while my fly rod was the only one I ever saw on the ponds, but later two fly fishing friends sometimes came along, including one who was living with me while he sorted things out long-distance with his wife. These guys were both from the Midwest themselves and remembered bluegills fondly, but they were unusual. At the time most fly fishermen—at least the fancy ones—were trout specialists who looked down their noses at lesser fish and, by implication, lesser fishermen. Some of those guys started calling me Grits. It wasn’t meant to be a flattering nickname.
The county had posted a sign saying that the ponds were closed from dusk till dawn, but the cops would swing by only on slow nights, and even then they’d rarely show up before midnight
I did spend some time out there fishing for bass. Now and then I’d pick up a small one while fishing poppers for bluegills, and I assumed there’d be bigger ones somewhere. After all, the rednecks were bass guys, and there’s always the suspicion that other fishermen know something you don’t. This was also about the time that Dave Whitlock was repopularizing fly fishing for bass—and coincidentally selling the bejesus out of his beautifully tied deer-hair bass bugs—so it was in the air. I made some hair bugs of my own that worked well enough, although they fell far short of the high standard set by Whitlock.
I did best casting from a float tube into the stickiest cover I could find, fishing at dusk and on past dark on summer evenings. The county had posted a sign saying that the ponds were closed from dusk till dawn, but the cops would swing by only on slow nights, and even then they’d rarely show up before midnight. They were looking for beer-drinking teenagers and didn’t really care about fishermen, but they’d ticket your car anyway, so I tried to be off the water by 11.
These didn’t turn out to be great bass ponds. Every now and then I’d hang one that approached 15 inches and sometimes—rarely—I’d get one a little bigger. I’d grown up in bass country and understood that these were just barely keepers, but I’d occasionally invite one home for dinner anyway.
Then a friend and I discovered some lakes in the Nebraska Sandhills that had much larger bass and, coincidentally, bluegills that could weigh a pound or more. We also fished some bass tanks in South Texas where a local fisherman asked us to “keep some-a them little five-pounders for supper,” and not long after that I started going to northern Wisconsin to float placid rivers for smallmouths. By then I’d capitulated and was buying Whitlock Swimming Frogs in two sizes and colors.
And of course, there were always trout, which took up more and more of my fishing time until they became the gold standard. There were the trout close to home and those farther away in the Northern Rockies and on into Canada, where I assumed they’d be bigger and sometimes they were, not to mention sexier fish like steelhead and Atlantic and Pacific salmon that lived even farther away. By then I’d become just solvent enough to have some disposable income, and had learned that no travel agent would talk me out of disposing of it thinking the fishing was better somewhere else.
I didn’t have a high opinion of carp, so I assumed they couldn’t be all that hard to catch, but they turned out to be pickier and warier than brown trout.
It turned out that the really big fish in these ponds were carp, which I’d been seeing all along but had never paid any attention to until some Midwesterners began promoting them as a fly rod fish. They called them backyard bonefish, and said they were most people’s only chance to fish within an hour’s drive of home and hook a 10-pounder that would take them into the backing.
I didn’t have a high opinion of carp, so I assumed they couldn’t be all that hard to catch, but they turned out to be pickier and warier than brown trout. I had to bear down hard, and even then it took more afternoons of stalking, casting, and fly changing than I care to admit before I hooked one that did, in fact, weigh around 10 pounds and took me right into the backing on its first run. I stayed with it long enough to learn the ropes a little and eventually catch an 18-pounder that took 15 minutes to land. It was a thrilling fight and a magnificent fish, but it was still just a carp, at which point the novelty started to wear off. And that was it for me and the ponds. I just woke up one morning and it was over.
Going back out there many years later, I half expected everything to look smaller—like when you return to the house where you were born and you’re no longer three feet tall—but everything was the same. The last time I’d been there, they’d already gentrified the place with a fancy two-hole outhouse and a handicapped fishing pier, which, like so many of those things, was situated in the perfect location to build a pier but not such a great place to fish. And they’d already installed the big sign listing all the things you shouldn’t do, including keep a bass less than 15 inches long and fish with bait in any ponds except the first two.
At the time those rules hadn’t made an impression on some of the rednecks who continued to keep 9- and 10-inch bass and fish with bait in the back ponds, but then there have always been three kinds of fishermen: those who read and obey the rules, those who read them so they’ll know what to hide, and those who ignore the rules entirely out of a pioneer’s sense of entitlement. My father was scrupulous about regulations, as I am now, but at a tender age my black sheep uncle showed me the dark side in detail, so you could say I’m able to be objective about this.
I didn’t go to the ponds that day as a conscious act of nostalgia, but because I had an afternoon to kill, couldn’t remember the last time I’d caught a bluegill, and just got a wild hair. It took five minutes to pack a 9-foot fly rod, a spool of tippet, and a box with weighted nymphs and cork poppers. And on the way out to the truck I grabbed my old chain stringer in case I found a pod of big bluegills. I hadn’t carried that stringer in years, but I remembered right where it was: hanging on a nail inside the garage door like an antique waiting to be rediscovered.
John Gierach has written numerous books about fly fishing, most recently All Fishermen are Liars (Simon & Schuster, 2014). He’s now hard at work on his next book. You can find many of his books by clicking HERE.