Out There: Bluegill smiles

Lots of memories are created when a day is spent catching a stringer of bluegills. 

Last week, Zach and I went bluegill fishing.

Our trip brought back some wonderful memories, and created some wonderful memories of its own.

Zach is my 12-year-old son. It's been a long time since I was his age — 36 years to be exact — but Zach is starting to enjoy the same things now that I enjoyed back then. Shooting a bow and arrow. Catching lizards. Looking under logs. Hunting squirrels and rabbits. Reading "Ripley's Believe It or Not."

Fishing, too. Zach loves to fish.

The bluegill trip started with an e-mail from my friend Bobby Graves. "The bream are bedding in Lake Ouachita," he said. "Bring one of your boys and we'll go catch a mess."

I woke Zach at 5 a.m. He rubbed his eyes, made some pre-teen grunting sounds and slithered into his shorts and T-shirt.

As we headed out the door, I stopped and cupped a hand around my ear.

"Listen, Zach. You hear that?" I asked.

"Hear what?" he moaned.

"Sounds like a big bluegill. Listen.

"Zaaacch! Zaaacch! Come catch me!"

When I was 12, my Uncle Julius used to tease me in similar fashion, trying to pump me up for the day of fishing ahead. And I'd give him the same "you must be crazy" look Zach gave me.

I would never refuse an invitation to go fishing with Uncle Julius, however, even if it meant waking in the wee hours and riding an hour or more to the lake. Uncle Julius always caught fish. And I wasn't about to miss out.

Looking at Zach asleep in the van, I remembered the purring motor of my uncle's Ford Ranchero, a comforting sound that lulled me back to sleep as we drove. Now and then, I'd stir and look up at the star-swept sky rushing by. Or I'd rouse to the sweet smell of tobacco when Uncle Julius lit a cigarette.

I remember to this day the crisp feel of the cool night air coming through the truck's open windows. I can still smell the coffee Uncle Julius poured from his thermos and taste the fried-egg-and-bologna sandwiches we ate on the final few miles to the lake.

The two-hour trip passed quickly, just like the old days.

"Wake up, sleepyhead. We're here."

Zach came alive. We were early, so we gathered our fishing gear and carried it to the dock. Sunfish swarmed in the clear water beneath.

"See those circles of clean rocks on the bottom," I said to Zach. "Those are fish nests. If you look close, you can see a bluegill in the middle of each one guarding his eggs."

One guard had failed at his duty. Dozens of smaller fish crowded in the nest, eating the eggs.

"Look at all of them!" Zach exclaimed.

Bobby soon arrived, and suggested that Zach ride in the boat while he launched it. Sitting behind the wheel produced a wall-to-wall smile on Zach's face — one of those "I can't wait to see how fast this big motor will run" smiles.

The 225-horse motor ran fast indeed, and seeing the big grin on my son's face as we zipped to our fishing hole brought back memories once again.

There was nothing fast about Uncle Julius' craft — a homemade cypress johnboat carried in the back of the Ranchero and launched with brute strength alone. It was powered with a matching homemade sculling paddle operated by a man who made sculling look like an art.

The quiet made it nice. With the roar of a motor absent, we could hear every sound — prothonotary warblers singing, water lapping at the shore, the breeze stirring the treetops — as Uncle Julius swirled the paddle and moved us along the lakeshore.

We fished with another homemade product — cane poles cut from a brake and dry-cured in the rafters of Uncle Julius' barn. We used cork corks, not the plastic or foam varieties prevalent today, and dacron fishing line with a single split shot crimped above a hook on the end. Yard-dug worms were our bait.

The bluegills we sought had darkened with age, big bulls transformed from golden youngsters weighing only a few ounces to ebony elders the size of dinner plates. We could smell their beds, a distinctive bouquet that permeated the humid air and signaled the start of another flurry.

"Prepare yourself," it said. "The action is about to begin."

The cork shoots under. The smile returns.

Bobby and I watch as Zach tries to land a bluegill that does not want to be landed. The fish darts this way and that, then circles furiously as if to create a whirlpool that will suck its tormentors under.

This time, however, Zach prevails. Several big bulls have broken his six-pound line, but this one is his.

"Weigh it, Dad," he says as he strokes the fish's turquoise face.

My hand barely reaches around the old bull. Zach looks at the digital readout as I lift the scale.

"Fourteen ounces," he reports. He was hoping for 16 ounces, enough to earn a Master Angler pin. But there is no disappointment in my son's face. The bluegill is huge by his standards, and he knows there are many more to be caught on the bed we have found.

Zach and Bobby cast again to the honeycomb of nests clearly visible six feet below the surface. A fish zips out and grabs Bobby's cricket. His rod bows.

"Oh, Zach," he exclaims. "I'm glad you didn't hook this one. It's so mean it might have hurt you."

Zach just grins. He's fighting another bluegill of his own.

Uncle Julius wore a straw hat that had a clear, green plastic insert on the bill. When the sun was high, his face had this emerald hue about it.

Funny, what you remember.

I remember, too, how he could roll his fishing line with a flick of his wrist, sending it spiraling tightly across the water so his bait would touch down in just the right spot. If we were on a good bream bed, the strikes came at the moment of touchdown, and Uncle Julius' long cane pole would bow up, and he would snatch another big bluegill into the boat.

I didn't see any beauty in it then, but I do now. There was beauty in the way Uncle Julius fished and beauty in the way he sculled the boat and beauty all around us in the cypress lakes we fished. There was beauty, too, in each and every one of the hundreds of bluegills we caught.

I don't think Uncle Julius ever would have admitted it, but I believe these sorts of beautiful things are what drew him to the special places I was fortunate enough to fish with him. He would be proud to know, however, that 36 years later, the beauty in it all is as clear and as real in my mind as the waters we fished.

I didn't fish much that day. At one point, Bobby urged me to grab a pole and get busy. I politely declined, indicating that someone had to be responsible for tying rigs, putting fish in the livewell and other such tasks.

I think Bobby knew, though, I was enjoying something much more pleasurable than fighting fish. Seeing the smile on Zach's face as he reeled in one bluegill then another and another was all it took to make my day a sweet success. And having time to reminisce about days spent chasing bluegills with my uncle made it sweeter still.

At day's end, Zach counted the bluegills we'd kept to eat.

"Thirty five, Dad," he said. "And this one I caught is the biggest."

Zach cut his eyes at Bobby and smiled as he lifted the big black bluegill.

"You caught the biggest one?!" Bobby exclaimed. "No way, Zach. If you had hooked that big ol' bluegill, he would have pulled you in the water!"

Zach had a sure-nuff big smile then. He had caught the biggest bluegill. He knew it, and he knew Bobby knew it. Zach couldn't have wished for anything better.

Nor could I.

"Why do you still fish for bluegills?" a friend asked recently. "You could be fishing for any fish you want anywhere in the world, and you still spend days and days each year fishing for kids' fish right here close to home."

"It's because of the smiles," I said. "Bluegills make me smile."

Despite what many people think, it's not always the biggest fish you catch you remember most. Sometimes bluegills are big enough.

Take a kid fishing for bluegills today. The memories you create are sure to last a lifetime.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.