Remember Sea Hunt, with Lloyd Bridges? Probably not. Unless you’re older than dirt, like me. Lloyd was the father of Jeff Bridges. Certainly, you remember him? (Tron. The Big Lebowski. Sea Biscuit.) The underwater world was “the next frontier” in Lloyd’s hey days. It quickly gave way, in the 1950s, to the Space Race—the “final frontier.”
We’ve more-or-less forgotten frontiers recently. Challenger is in moth balls while Mars and ongoing deep-water explorations are being assigned to robots. People seem most interested in cell phones and the deceptive “marvels” of new apps.
One of my frontiers, something that’s intrigued me since the age of 9, has been the quest for trophy bluegills. We call them bulls, when they broach the 1-pound mark. At 9, and for several years thereafter, my grandmother marched me deep into the woods to hunt for them. I assume I was there to carry the bait can, and to haul the catch back to her cleaning table.
We carried cane poles over our shoulders for a couple miles. Our destination was a swamp. At least, it looked like a swamp. Trees grew out of the water on the fringes. It had no roads or two tracks leading to it through the forest. We waded in through ferns and tall grasses. How my grandmother knew what was in that “swamp,” I have no idea. But she did grow up in that area. Back in 1890 something. And she was very good at keeping secrets.
The bluegills we pulled from that “swamp” were blacker than chunks of coal, with multiple bulges on their foreheads. Having been accustomed to catching mostly 5- to 8-inch bluegills from the dock in front of her cabin (which I now own), I was bowled over by these creatures from the black lagoon.
We had no catch-and-release ethic back then. What my grandmother caught, she cleaned and ate. The “swamp” has since been dammed. It’s now a lake, with cabins and houses lining the shore, filled to the brim with bluegills 4 to 6 inches long because most people continue to behave like my grandmother did when it comes to bluegills. The big ones keep going in the bucket.
I like to eat bluegills, too. In fact, I’ve posted a few recipes for them right here. So I harvest a few. Oddly enough, I have no idea what the legal limit is—because it’s never been so low as five (except on those rare lakes with special regs) and that’s all I ever keep. My self-imposed slot for harvest is 6 to 8 inches. Anything bigger goes back in, to pass those bullish genetics on. Most days, all the fish go back in. I probably harvest once every 3 or 4 trips I make for ‘gills.
I’ve been doing that for many years, in hopes of maintaining a few places where the words “bull hunt” have some meaning. I began searching in Northern Michigan 40 years ago, and now I’m looking all over the Midwest. The biggest bluegills were always in remote lakes and ponds. Seldom is there a cabin or home on the shoreline. Most of them are no longer worth driving (or hiking) back to.
I have a few lakes left where we can walk in and count on catching a few bulls. They all have something in common: The only old holes we find were made by us, days or weeks earlier. When the word gets out on one of these lakes, and it begins to look like Swiss cheese from countless old holes left by the “crappie mafia,” its days of producing bulls are already over. Very few of these lakes, over the past 40 years, have bounced back. And the ranks of big-bluegill lakes have thinned considerably. What happened to all the big bluegills? “They went home in buckets,” says bluegill pioneer Dave Genz.
I somehow managed to overcome my grandmother’s adamant “catch-and-fillet” philosophy. Probably happened as early as 1973, when I first realized one of my favorite big bluegill lakes suffered from a severe case of over harvest. I don’t think anybody’s caught a bull in that lake since.