Hurrying, I slid my squat, blue dingy into the back of the pickup and filled it with tackle, battery and an electric motor. Then I headed for the Eastern Shore.
Fish Are Biting …
Up to now, the rockfish bite has belonged to big boats dragging big baits on rough water. The catches have been modest and of decent size but by no means the usual springtime giants. That may change now with better weather.
This time of year, while the dogwoods are in early bloom and rockfish anglers are dragging big baits on stout sticks out in the Chesapeake for ocean run stripers, I often hear a different tune in the air. The special melody that seduces me in springtime calls for a light fly rod, a box of small, ersatz bugs and a few four-pound tapered leaders.
The species I was dreaming of has been special to me since I was in my teens. Fifty years of infatuation signals a special fish and a unique relationship. I’ve often said if I could pursue only one species, one way, the rest of my life, bluegills on a fly rod would suit me just fine — with no regrets.
Preparing for Battle
The small lake I arrived at some 45 minutes later was not experiencing the best of conditions. Relentless spring winds and the rains of the recent past had the waters murky, stained and chilly. But I wasn’t looking for an ideal day. Just a taste of the new year with an old finny friend.
I assembled and rigged my two rods. One is a six-foot-nine-inch six-weight perfect for firing fat bream poppers on a tight loop, deep under overhanging trees. The second is a soft eight-foot four-weight that could effortlessly lay a small spider out to 60 feet with just the right plop.
Slipping out of the boat ramp, I had the place to myself, always a satisfying feeling. That it could also mean that the bite was seriously off hardly bothered me. Being on this sweetwater lagoon after an ungodly stretch of nasty weather had no downside, as far as I was concerned. Plus, I knew the small lake well enough that, whatever the conditions, I should entice at least one or two fish into a vernal waltz.
Still, hooking up proved to be a challenge. I worked the areas that had always produced a few brightly colored, deep-bodied ’gills in years past, but I garnered no rewards. Staying at it proved no antidote. But it was still early, and water temperatures would be warming with the day, so I endured.
Finally, halfway through my second route around the impoundment, as my brown spider settled and quivered just off a newly emerging cluster of lily pads, a familiar swirl appeared under the bug. Lifting my rod tip and waiting to feel the pull of the fish, I was rewarded with a sudden resistance. Then I firmly set the hook.
The four-weight arced over to the corks as a good fish used its broad side to maximum advantage and angled out toward deep water. One of the better aspects of early season fishing is that, though the bite may be spare, the biggest bream move into the skinny water first to choose superior spawning sites.
This hookup once again proved the rule, and I had to let quite a bit of line slip through my fingers as the sizeable bull (male bluegills always select the spawning sites; the females arrive later) announced he was not to be trifled with. The line soon came tight to the reel; the little Bauer hummed as line continued out against its smooth drag.
I was beginning to suspect an early spawning largemouth, and not a bream, had sucked under the spider, when the fish finally turned, surfaced and flashed its broad, multicolored flank, boiling up water in the process. A big bull bluegill: The sight warmed my heart.
Greeting an Old Friend
Circling and sounding, reversing and then returning to the surface, this bantam pugilist ran through all the tricks of its species. It went under the boat, trying to foul the leader first on the anchor line, then on the motor. Failing that, and in a rage, it headed across the shallows for the nearby lily pads.
If bluegills reached five pounds, I doubt they could be defeated on light tackle. But my leader was fresh, and I managed to hold this 12-ounce rascal back from reaching the mass of thick, tangled stems.
At last I drew my fish near the boat. It was tired yet still flashing bright spawning colors against the midday sun. I reached over and scooped it up with my net, gently, as one greets an old friend.
Snapping a quick picture for my rogue’s gallery, I sent the thick, unrepentant gladiator back over the side. Under the conditions, I knew I was unlikely to encounter enough fish for a family meal. No matter. As far as I was concerned, the day was a success.
The Buddhists have a saying that one may behold the cosmos in a single grain of sand. For me, that instant happens every spring with just a brief encounter with this small fish on a fine, light rod.