It was a nearly perfect morning. We had arrived to find our favorite yellow perch spot empty of angler competition, the broad stream running full and clear and a warm sun poking up over the tops of the thick trees lining the far shore.
With medium-sized bull minnows hooked on shad darts under weighted bobbers, my buddy Frank and I flipped our rigs out into the stream, above a small eddy churning about 30 feet from the shoreline. Both our bobbers disappeared as soon as they drifted close to the edge of the twisting water.
Setting our hooks, then gently fighting and easing two fat neds to the shoreline, we grinned so wide they almost hurt our faces.
“Man these are definitely keepers,” I said.
“Definitely,” Frank concurred, “but we had better check.”
Agreeing, I hunted in my tackle bag for a measuring tape. It was not to be found.
“I must have left it at home,” I said.
Frank was not having any luck either. “I know I had one last year,” he said.
“Dang. I’m not so positive that my fish is legal,” I had to admit.
“I’m not sure enough to risk a $200 fine,” Frank agreed.
After a final desperate search and still coming up empty, I proposed an option.
“I think a dollar bill is close to six inches. Let’s cut a branch the size of one and a half bills to measure our fish. We should probably add a little length just to be sure, because I’m not positive that a bill is just under or just over six.”
Both our neds proved legal by this method, and we used the small stick until we limited out.
We would later discover that a dollar bill is exactly 61⁄8 inches. So we had probably released, unknowingly, a dozen legal keepers.
We also discovered we had overlooked bringing a fish stringer, pickerel lures, a better quantity and selection of shad darts, heavier sinkers and a minnow net for dipping bait.
Making Your List
The first trips of the year can be like that. You think you’ve got everything you need until you find out you don’t.
With the benefit of hindsight, Frank and I made a checklist:
A measuring tape or ruler.
A five-gallon plastic utility bucket, a great catchall for carrying the various items of your tackle to the fishing site as well as in carrying back any fish you might harvest.
Two fishing rods per person so that an accident like a broken rod or a reel that has frozen up over the long winter won’t derail your after an hour on the road and a mile hike to the secret spot. It is also handy to have one rod rigged for bobber fishing and the other for bottom fishing.
A regulation book in case you catch a species you hadn’t planned on and can’t remember the minimum legal size or legal season for possession.
Extra shad darts of varying weights, sizes and colors, plus small spoons and crank baits, extra hooks of the proper size and hi-lo rigs to set up for bottom fishing. Also bring sinkers and bobbers in enough quantity that you can lose a few in the multitude of snags and low treetops in springtime angling waters.
A minnow bucket so that you don’t have to purchase yet another when stopping at the bait store; plus a small dip net to allow your hands to stay warm in the chill of spring.
A line clipper;
A good knife;
A small towel or two to keep your hands dry and warm and to wipe off fish or bait slime.
A hemostat or pliers to aid in divesting your fish — especially pickerel — from the hooks.
A camera to prevent your being called a liar.
Boots in the event of a flooded or muddy shoreline.
A light waterproof jacket or poncho for that day when a warm, sunny sky turns into an dark dowpour.
A first aid kit, including bandaids, medical tape and disinfectant for fin and hook punctures, plus a small wire cutters should a hook bury in past the barb.
Last but not least, a fishing license.