Panfish: A Story in Three Acts

Nobody starts fishing by fly fishing. Nobody that I know, anyway. Most of us likely started with a cheap push-button spincasting reel and a carton of worms.

As a kid I remember going to McCarty Park with my dad, stopping at Gunderson’s a few blocks away to pick up panfish worms. I had a bright orange Donald Duck rod about four feet long and caught ‘gills that felt about as large. A few summers later I grew away from fishing and Gunderson’s went out of business. The last time I visited the park lagoon it seemed little better than a carp hole, and I don’t quite understand how the bait shop survived as long as it did in the middle of South Milwaukee.

Still, my first cognizant memory of fishing is in that lagoon. All of us who fish have that memory, and most of them likely end with a bluegill on the line.

After picking up a fly rod, and catching my first fish– a tiny rainbow trout– on the South Boulder River in Montana, bluegills played an integral role in developing my affection for the sport. A hand-tied Woolly Worm– white chenille, oversized grizzly hackle, ndred yarn– took a small bluegill next to a willow tree on a kettle lake in the southern Kettle Moraine forest during an afternoon rain shower. It surprised me to suddenly feel the weight of the feisty fish tugging on my rod. It tickled me to know that something I created could fool a wild and wily critter. It began to build that unshakeable confidence in fly selection sorely needed on “one-of-those-days”.

A year or so later I migrated to rod building, purchasing a kit from Hook & Hackle. It was a four-piece 3-weight, a drab matte gray blank with black wraps that I extended too far beyond the guides and the ferrules. The overwraps stiffened the rod enough that, rather than bending in a graceful U-shape, it contorted into something like an “L” whenever I set the hook. I still wonder how it didn’t snap in half. That rod got worked at an unnamed reservoir, the remnants of an old gravel pit that was as much overgrown with weeds as it was with bluegill. It took little more than to drop the fly along the edge of the weedline for small ‘gills to dart from cover and eagerly suck in whatever you gave them.

Even today, when I live in one of the most beautiful places in the country, among some of the best fishing opportunities in the state, when I routinely have the opportunity to chase remnant brookies or wild browns or aggressive smallmouth… there’s something to be said about taking a rod, a simple selection of flies, a couple of beers, and catching hand-sized panfish with abandon along the shoreline.

Fishing need not be challenging or fancy to be fun. Bluegills are testament to that.

My nephew’s first successes fishing were on flies, though he may not appreciate it yet and it may not be in the way you imagine.

A year ago my wife’s family is up at their cottage on Fish Lake– one of the many Fish lakes that dot every county in this state– on my father-in-law’s new (to him) pontoon boat, fishing. We didn’t bring live bait, and my nephew is itching to fish with something. I rummage around my fly box and pull out a Clouser MInnow, one of the few flies I had with me that I figured would have enough weight for him to make a decent cast on his push-button spincast rod.

I tie on the Clouser, remind him again how to properly cast, and leave him to it as I turned to the other side of the boat and began fishing. My father-in-law is focused on the retrieve with his own spinning lure. A few moments pass in silence. Eventually I realize that my nephew has stopped fishing, just standing there. I figure his line has tangled for the umpteenth time and set down my rod to turn and help him.

There he stood. His rod was doubled over, and one of the largest crappies I’ve even seen was twisting from the end of his line.

I’ll admit, I may have let loose an expletive.

Somewhere I have a photo of him: quietly beaming, rod held taut with both hands, a Clouser dangling from the lip of a giant crappie.

This year we didn’t have the boat, so we waded just offshore toward a thin stand of weeds. It was a sunny afternoon and the jet skis and pleasure cruisers had churned the lake into a giant wave pool. I didn’t expect much but was pleasantly surprised by a slow and steady bite. My wife was with us this time– bluegills are the universal sign of fishing, even to non-anglers– and we enjoyed the simple pleasure of a line tug or twitching bobber. I taught my nephew the age-old tradition of yelling “Fish On!” and tied on a small soft hackle nymph that I was having some success with, instructing him to slowly retrieve it with his rod until his felt the line stop; then set the hook.

A short time later he hollered “Fish On!”

My competitive nature compelled me to begin light-heartedly keeping score on our total catch. I pulled out to a commendable lead when my nephew announced that he had caught fish eggs. My wife, a researcher who has put in considerable time raising zebra fish for study, confirmed with some astonishment that they were fish eggs, a whole mess of them strung along the soft hackle.

My nephew called the competition over. He just caught hundreds of fish; no way I could catch up. Rather than start a philosophical debate about when a fish becomes a fish, I finally conceded.

At this point my three-year-old niece joined in the fun, splashing her away across the beach any time one of us put a fish on the line so she could “pet” it. After a while she told me that she wanted to let one go after I caught it. When that time came I gingerly held the little ‘gill in my hand as she looked toward me.

“Hold out your hands,” I said. She laid them palms up. I gently set the quieted fish in her hands, and as she slowly dropped them in the water the fish flicked his tail and was gone.

Two days after our stay at the cottage I’m leaving for work early and heading down to Vilas Park with a mess of fly rods in the back of the car in order to meet with a group of kids from Wander Wisconsin, a summer rec program. In all honestly I don’t know much about it, and don’t know what to expect. One of the program directors called the store a few weeks back asking if we would be interested in teaching some 10-12 year olds fly fishing, and I said yes. As I wait for them to arrive I begin to wonder if I should have asked more questions.

The van pulls up with nine children and chaperones. We’ve got two hours and I know the main reason they came here, so I dispense with most of the typical introductory stuff and take them right into casting. Ten minutes later they’ve convinced me they can throw the line forward without too much trouble and I send them out to the lagoon.

What ensues isn’t “fly fishing” in the strictest sense of the sport; it’s more like dabbing with a cane pole, or reenacting a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. We lose flies. I untangle leaders and re-build busted ones. I run across the pond whenever someone yells out they have a fish, since I’m the only one with a forceps to unhook ’em.

Sure, a couple of the kids have pretty nice casts. A few more begin to pick it up as the last hour draws to a close. But the important thing to me is that at the end of the day each one of them can go home and say I caught a fish on a fly rod, for the first time, ever. And that fish is a bluegill.

At the end of our time together I ask them if they had fun. Yes. Does anyone think they might want to go fly fishing again? A few of them say they’ll ask for fly rods for their birthday, or Christmas.

I don’t know if any of them will come back again. I wonder if my niece and nephew will still be interested years from now when hormones kick in and the better part of the rest of the whole-wide-world gets the best of them. Maybe they’ll float away from it like I did, only to come back to it many years later when the time and place is right. Or maybe they’ll only be left with a good memory from childhood of their aunt and uncle and sunny days and bright-colored fish.

But nobody stops fishing before passing through a school of panfish. Nobody that I know, anyway.


Author: chesleyfan

I work, I fish, I write.

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