May 12, 2012
By Matt Straw
I like this one because she matches my hat. We made one more bluegill-crappie run last night and now we're gearing up for the Minnesota walleye opener.
What a year. Bass are already spawning in smaller lakes up here, in central Minnesota, even though night-time temperatures dropped into the 40°F range every night over the past week.
We kept four crappies last night. Nobody else was at the ramp. We have a fire burning out back, and I'm whipping up some curry. We marinate the crappies for an hour or two, then wrap them in tinfoil and toss them in the fire. Hobo crappies. Awesome stuff.
Just beyond the flames and down the bluff is the Mississppi. While poking the fire I watch a heron, an eagle, and a great-horned owl go gliding by to the calls of geese, under the tree tops, and under the radar of people sitting inside, watching TV in the homes nearby.
The walleyes down at the bottom of the bluff will be fair game tomorrow. But I'll go elsewhere. Some people from this neck of the woods go up to Bemidji, Leech, Cass, or Red. The people south of here come up to Mille Lacs, Whitefish, and Gull. I slip off down the back roads to little lakes time forgot. Not far away, because the traffic is murder around here on opening day. It's almost a religious thing for some — being on a classic walleye lake on opening day. Ugh. We have family members that set up folding chairs near a local ramp. They pull out a thermos of coffee, pour a steaming cup in the predawn gloom, sit, and watch the circus unfold. Brakes fail, trucks slide into the water, tempers flare, fisticuffs ensue, wreckers come. The Ringling Brothers could throw a tent over it and sell tickets.
One colleague told me today he goes trout fishing on the walleye opener. Good call. Give me a quiet little backwater with a handful of hefty walleyes left in it from stocking efforts that ended a decade ago. And a couple pike protected by the new regulations around here. And a few largemouths with a genetic propensity for obesity.
They say we can't fish for largemouths yet, in Minnesota. Not for a couple weeks. But we can fish for the sacred walleye and the mighty northern and pretend we had no idea these crazy largemouths would hit the same suspending baits, presented the same way, in the same places at the same time.
This is my back yard. It's like the wardrobe in that story about kids, lions, and kingdoms on the other side of the clothing racks. Out the front door I have sidewalks that lead, within a few blocks, to traffic lights, a grocery store, and a pizza joint. Out the back door, the lawn ends along a precipitous bluff leading to the haunts of deer, coyotes, racoons, and grouse. Once upon a time, it was a smallmouth paradise during early summer back there. A quick rappel down the bluff and I was wading through pigs anytime after opening day.
I haven't eaten a smallmouth in 35 years. When I did it back then it was out of desperation. I was camping, fishing for trout, young, and arrogant. I packed a fry pan, some grease, and not so much as a can of beans. I went hungry the first night, gave up on trout the second day about noon, and drove down lumber trails to an Upper Peninsula stream full of smallmouths. Which are not bad at all. When you're starving.
A lot of people around here and from surrounding states ate smallmouths, though, until the population in Brainerd all but collapsed. Or I wouldn't be writing about the fishing beyond the campfire in my back yard. What a waste. Trapped between dams, the genetics no longer able to flow, smallmouths were like sitting ducks when they gathered to winter. People filled their livewells and hauled them away.
Hopefully, most of them will be sitting in line at a boat ramp tomorrow morning while some completely oblivious sort is taking the rods out of his truck. And putting them slowly, carefully — one at a time — into his boat. Which is still on the trailer. On the ramp. While 300 guys in 150 trucks watch. And wait. And steam. And my relatives laugh.
I typically caught-and-released about 80 smallmouths, on the average, for every 5 hours fished down the bluff. Fifteen years ago. Now I generally get skunked.
Minnesota protects smallmouths with catch-and-release regulations from early September on through winter now. A spectacular idea. One I wholeheartedly endorse. It just came along a little late for the fish in the wardrobe.
Every silver lining has a dark side. So I put that bluegill back and forgot where I caught her.
1 Clear Lake, California
The largest lake in California (43,000 acres near Lakeport) is known for lunker largemouths, but houses overlooked giant 'gills, yielding the 3¾-pound state record last year, along with others over 3. The bite by docks and at the edge of tules is strong from mid-April into September. Nearby Collins Lake, renowned for trophy trout, also produces massive sunnies — 2 to 3 pounds. The best bite starts in April and lasts into the spawn in May and early June. Contact: Clear Lake Information, lakecounty.com; Clear Lake State Park, 800/444-7275, parks.ca.gov
; Collins Lake, collinslake.com
6 Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
This impoundment in the northwestern corner of Maryland yielded the state record 3-pound 7-ounce 'gill, giving evidence of its productivity. With a deep basin, the Prespawn and Spawn periods are protracted, with prime action from mid-April into early June. Contact: Fish Deep Creek, 240/460-8839, fishdeepcreek.com
; Guide Ken Penrod, 301/937-0010,
7 Coastal Impoundments, Virginia
Four reservoirs near Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia, are regular producers of big bluegills and shellcrackers. Fertile lakes Cahoon, Western Branch, Prince, and Burnt Mills have a history of trophy fish production. Western Branch (1,265 acres) reopened to public fishing in 2010 and is known for outsize redear, with certified specimens approaching 3 pounds. Boating permits required. Contact: Burnt Mills Reservoir Manager, 757/441-5678; Chesapeake Bay Office, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 757/465-6812, dgif.virginia.gov
5 Kentucky & Barkley Lakes, Kentucky-Tennessee
These massive impoundments — Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River and Barkley on the Cumberland — are joined by a canal and offer outstanding fishing for big redear sunfish, as well as bass and crappies. Contact: Jack Canady, Woods and Water Guide Service, 270/227-2443, woodsandwaterguideservice.com
2 Lake Havasu, Arizona-California
Lake Havasu, impounding about 45 miles of the Colorado River, has become redear central after producing the all-tackle record 5-pound 7-ounce fish, along with many others over 2 pounds. The record was 16¾ inches long and boasted a 19-inch girth. Best action runs from April through June, when fish gather in coves to spawn. Locals fish livebait but small spinners and cranks catch some monsters. Contact: John Galbraith, basstacklemaster.com; Captain Jerry's Guide Service, 760/447-5846, havasufishingguide.com
; Havasu Fishing, havasufishing.com
3 Pelican Lake, Nebraska
Nestled in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, Pelican Lake consistently produces the biggest 'gills in the region, many over a pound and occasional 2-pounders. Blessed with abundant and diverse large invertebrates, growth is fast in this shallow waterway. Abundant vegetation provides habitat for bugs and a sanctuary for big sunfish. Most giants are caught through the ice or in early spring. Contact: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, http://www.fws.gov/valentine/
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Labeled 'Earthquake Lake, ' a mighty tremor of the New Madrid Fault in 1811 diverted the Mississippi River, backing up this highly productive 11,000-acre waterway in northwestern Tennessee. Big bluegills and shellcrackers roam the shallow lake's cypress forests and lily pad fields, yielding prime pole-fishing opportunities all spring and summer. Contact: Bluebank Resort, 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
; Eagle Nest Resort, 731/538-2143, eaglenestresort.com
9 Richmond Mill Lake, North Carolina
Located near Laurel Hill, North Carolina, Richmond Mill likely offers the best shot at a 2-pound bluegill, truly a rare animal. This pay-to-play waterway, owned by the Kingfisher Society, is managed to ensure balance between bluegills and largemouth bass and habitat quality. After refilling in 2000, it's approaching prime productivity. Giants sometimes require finesse presentations, such as tiny jigs tipped with a bit of 'crawler. Contact: Kingfisher Society, 910/462-2324, kingfishersociety.com
10 Santee-Cooper, South Carolina
This lowland jewel produced the former world record shellcracker and continues to yield amazing numbers of platter-sized bluegills as well as redears, not to mention big catfish, bass, and crappies. Spring comes early and a fine bedding bite starts in late March, lasting into May, but recurring on a monthly basis until September. Anglers also take jumbos in the Diversion Canal between the paired impoundments in fall and winter. Contact: Santee-Cooper Country, 803/854-2131, santeecoopercountry.org
8 Tidal Rivers, North Carolina
Flowing into Arbemarle Sound in the northeastern part of the state are a series of blackwater rivers that represent the northernmost range of the coppernose bluegill, the southern subspecies known to attain large size. Panfish expert Jim Gronaw picks the Pasquotank, Yeopim, Perqimens, and Chowan rivers, with loads of 9- to 11-inch fish and some over 1½ pounds. Local expert Jeffrey Abney scores with hair jigs tied in a grass shrimp pattern. Contact: bigbluegill.com
; Pembroke Fishing Center, 252/482-5343; Bethel Fishing Center, 252/426-5155.