I occasionally attend the weekly Friday morning gathering of a group known as Ames Anglers. Part of each meeting is people sharing their recent fishing stories. I felt like I might be attending another group meeting that shares the AA acronym. I was there to do a program on wildflowers, but had to stand up in front of the whole group and admit that I hadn’t been fishing yet this spring. Sure, I had excuses, but most of those guys had been out several times already. Thankfully, the error of my ways has now been corrected. I have been fishing!
My wife, Sue, is usually ready to put her feet up on a Friday evening after a week of teaching middle school students to play their chosen instruments. Friday evening before the Memorial Day weekend was no different, but she gamely said she might enjoy a little time on the water after supper. It didn’t take too long to hitch the boat to the truck and gather the necessary fishing tackle. A couple of garden spades turned over at the edge of my compost pile provided more bait than we were likely to need; not the great big night crawlers, but just two inch, fat pink garden worms. We were on the water at Hickory Grove Lake by 6 p.m., and home again by shortly after 8, with as nice a mess of large bluegills as I’ve seen in a long time. I could barely get my hand around them to remove the hooks as we reeled them in.
State law now places a limit of 25 bluegills or crappies per angler per day. We didn’t take home near that many, but probably could have the way they were biting that evening. I’m reasonably fast at filleting fish, but I wouldn’t enjoy having to fillet out 50 of them, even as nice as those fillets were. Four bluegills of that size gave us eight nice boneless fillets; more than enough for a meal for both of us. The sacrifice made by a handful of my garden worms provided us enough fish for four meals. It’s hard to beat golden fried fresh fish fillets, but I really must look into some other recipes. I have enjoyed fish boiled, baked, broiled and in fish chowders. With several appetizing ways to prepare fish, we’ll eat more. That, in turn, will encourage me to go out and catch some more.
The catching part will get more difficult as we move from spring into summer. Panfish like bluegills and crappies are spawning right now, or soon will be if the weather stays fairly stable. All the female "gills" I cleaned still had full loads of eggs on board. The spawn beds are in shallow water, seldom more than three or four feet deep. Each male cleans out a shallow bowl-shaped nest by fanning away debris and silt with his fins. A panfish spawn bed looks like a herd of elephants walked through, leaving their tracks on the lake bottom. A female will be attracted to lay her eggs in each nest. The male will defend the nest from perceived threats, large and small, until the young fish hatch. The males, at least, often strike at a bait or lure as much to drive it away as to eat it.
Panfish are almost too easy to catch when they’re spawning. The ease and fun of catching so many fish led some people to take home far more than they could use, though. Waste of fish and wildlife is never a good thing, and led to the 25 fish limit that was put in place a few years ago. There is still no possession limit on bluegills or crappies. You can put as many in the freezer as you like, as long as they weren’t caught at a rate of more than 25 per day. There is seldom any danger of overfishing a healthy bluegill fishery. Their reproductive potential is huge. Only a few successful nests will provide many more young fish than can grow to maturity. Bluegills actually benefit from being harvested. Predator fish and animals (including people) consume their reproductive excess, leaving more space and food for the surviving fish to grow. Fish the size of the ones that we were catching indicate that they had plenty of food and space.
The easy fishing spawn period will go on for at least a couple of more weeks, but fish may be driven off the beds into deeper water if the weather turns unsettled. Crappies may not return to complete their spawning if there’s prolonged nasty weather, but bluegills will complete their annual reproductive effort, even if it takes them into mid summer to do it. The next couple of weeks would be a wonderful time to take a kid fishing, or give in to the kid that’s still there in all of us and enjoy some time on or next to the water.