Bluegill’s the Best

by Jim Eagleman

A day on calm water is a day relaxing. A fishing rod adds some excitement. I like to go fishing, but I like the catching best of all. If my friends agree, we will prepare and consume a wonderful supper of fresh bluegill.

“We all live downstream” proclaims a sticker on my old tackle box. I meditate this conservation message as I bait a hook. The forested watershed that drains this small lake is healthy and full of trees—no chance of rain falling on bare soil here. All thirsty roots absorb falling or running water before it reaches the lake. What little water draining into a creek from the lake dam will flow over rocks and gravel. Landowners the next property over will hopefully take note and appreciate.

Another sticker, this one well-worn and faded: “The Quality of Fishing Reflects the Quality of Living.” More meditation. Does a society that pays attention to fishing make it better for everything? It does if it cares about clean air and water, healthy forests, and what the future holds. The noisy chickadees overhead probably don’t care, but they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t like it.

Later, a gentle rocking of the canoe with water lapping at the sides makes me think of rivers and streams that might feed this lake. They carry more than fish and fish food. How this lake is maintained, what flows in and out, says a lot about the landowner. And all who own land along its course are tied together with the thread of water. They all can help keep it clean—or not.

I scan the shoreline and wonder, watching the trees along the shore move and sway with leafy branches that tip into the water. The canoe reacts similarly. Still dazed and drifting, I coast up to a branch from a submerged log that juts out of the water. I find that if I tuck the tip under my armpit and let the branch cross my chest, I can still sit, cast, and stay in one place. The branch is a perch for a kingfisher, I learn from the landowner. The bird and I use it for different purposes. I hear him chatter back and hope he doesn’t mind that it’s my turn.

Bluegill are a “warm water” species that “Indiana sportsmen and women love to harvest,” says a DNR brochure. I recall a Boy Scout trip to the upper tier of Minnesota one year, to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area. One rainy day instead of more paddling and portaging, we opted to stay at camp and fish. The boys and leaders caught lake trout, muskie, pike, a few smallmouth bass, and bluegill all day. During cleaning, we decide to keep the fish separate on a large griddle to learn our favorite. Despite all the coldwater game species available to us, it was the bluegill that rated highest. “That’s cool,” said a young scout. “We’ve got them back in Indiana.”

A friend and past employee, Jack Weddle, loved to fish. He was fond of bringing a five-gallon bucket full of bluegill by the house just before supper. “If you clean ’em, I’ll help you eat ’em,” he’d chuckle. Another productive day, he claimed his wrist hurt from fishing. “You mean from all that casting?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “from showing everyone how big they were,” chopping his hand across the other outstretched palm. They were keepers if they barely touched the insides of his bucket. Jack was a pro at bluegill fishing and I picked his brain every chance I got.

To send a bee moth larva or red wriggler out on a line in hopes of something means to have faith—or at least patience. I see the iridescent bobber take off under water—the thrill now replaces daydreaming—and I grip the rod firmly and begin reeling in. I savor the memory of the last bite of luscious bluegill and want more. As I add the fish to the stringer I visualize the milky batter in a bowl with the skillet made ready. Maybe my friend who wields a knife better than me, can get two fillets from each of these bluegill’s breast muscles.

“It’s a honey hole,” another friend yells. We nod and make a mental note to come back. By late afternoon, I paddle across open water to the dock, the wind now pushing me to one shore. I think back to earlier people who lived here—fish being a nice change from the normal fare, and maybe supplemented with fresh vegetables. On the shore, the canoe is pushed over on its side, rod and gear shaken out, and the stringer arranged in my hand. It’s a long walk back to the house and now to clean.

There might be another way to spend a day other than fishing, but I wouldn’t think it could get much better. A day spent fishing rejuvenates, reacquaints, and restores. It’s a great way to enjoy this glorious Brown County life. Try it this summer, and eat bluegill.