Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Aug 13, 2012

Few fish are as iconic to such a vast group of fishermen as the simple Bluegill. Young and old alike can relate to a common bond, which at one point in their life, created a feeling of excitement that fishing creates course through their veins. And most often than not the first source of that excitement was in pursuit of a Bluegill. They are the beginner's fish, as well as the veteran's fish. They are the quarry of bait fishermen as well as fly fishermen. They can be caught most any time of the day, with any type of gear, and seldom ever leave us wanting. They are all of these things, rolled up into a palm-sized fish with a blue-tipped gill plate that brings far more smiles than any other.

That is the reason why there are times when I will pass on all other types of fishing to pursue a day of bluegills. They are simple fish, not wanting for much save for a meal of opportunity. And as a result they are a fly fisherman's best friend. Uncomplicated, they are better than any therapy ever gathered from the cold leather of a couch. A rod of nearly any size on hand, a few smallish flies, and one can expect to catch at least a few fish. Bluegills will take any floating or submerged fly they can swallow and at times will attack with ferocity even flies nearly half their own size. What a blessing.

Which is why, I found myself standing on the bank of a local lake on a hot summer day in place of my normal lunch hour. Not a large lake really, just a small impoundment of about 40 acres. In my pocket were 6 flies in a small Altoids tin, and a spool of 5x tippet. Along with the rod in my hand, that was all I would need for the hour-or-so I had to cast for some gills. Strolling along the bank I was quick to notice the fleeing wakes along the grass line. All of which seems to disappear under the blanket of algae hovering about 15 feet from shore. One doesn't have to look far for bluegills if you have even a basic knowledge of your quarry. I, on the other hand, had accumulated what should have amounted to a doctorate in the pursuit of bluegill at a very young age. At least that was the case had you asked me about it some 35 years prior. This was a period in my life when catching a bluegill on a fly was about akin to landing a 24 inch hook-nosed brown trout. Back then I was not walking a ponds edge. I was stalking the long grass with Pete Capstick while keeping an eye out for Cape buffalo, and wading the northern rivers with Curt Gowdy on American Sportsman after 5 pound Brook Trout. No small task with my hand-me-down gear and some wet flies. But nevertheless, today I was just me walking the bank, smiling to myself and trying not to let these little gills make too much of a fool of me. SO, I slowed down and began to pay attention. 

I paused and stripped line out. From the tin I chose a #12 Foam Butt caddis. It is an Elk hair Caddis variation of my creation that had found a home as my standby for chasing bluegills. I cinched the knot and began false casting to play out line. With about 25 feet of line in the air I placed the fly along the edge of the algae matt with a small slap, and waited for the rings to disperse on the surface of the water. Just as the last rings were fading, which signaled me to give the fly a twitch of life, the fly disappeared in a swirl. Lifting the rod I was immediately rewarded with a bluegill in its tell-tale dance. For a small fish, they are pound-for-pound in the top tier of game fish in the 'fight" category. An 8 inch bluegill will put up just as much fight as a large trout, and will go longer into that fight, from my observation. I played my line by hand, and as the fish got closer to the bank I lift it out of the water and swung it to my hand. It was a fat palm-sized bluegill, with silver fading into emerald and green lying in my hand. I gripped the fish from the belly to avoid the dorsal spines, popped out the fly, and gently dropped the fish back into the water. How many times over my 46 years had I done that exact thing in almost the same cadence? Instantly I was no longer an adult passing his lunch break with a fly rod. Instead, I was once again Curt Gowdy dropping a heavy northern brook trout back into a misty Canadian river. I could almost hear his voice narrating as a moved forward squinting into the sun for my next target to drop a fly upon.

A bit further down the bank I spotted a swirl out in the matted algae. It was in a pocket of clear water about 4 feet in diameter. I pulled a few more feet of line out, straightened my loop with a false cast, and dropped my fly into the small pocket of clear water. As the last of the rings disappeared, I gave the fly 2 small strips, twitching it towards me about an inch each time. As the rings began to settle after the 1st twitches the fly disappeared with an audible "glurp" as the fish sucked in the fly without actually breaking the surface. This time it was a larger fish, and for the type of take I had just seen, I would have thought it a decent bass. But as I let it bounce its way towards me through the algae I knew it was another bluegill. This time it was a fat 8 inch version, with a bronze belly fading into blue-green flanks and a near black back. At almost an inch across the shoulders, it was a fine little gill, and I admired its heft in my hand before I dropped it back into the shallows. I reeled in my line that lay around my feet on the bank and snipped off the fly. I had 10 minutes to get back and with an extra spring in my step I turned towards the truck. I felt better now, having just re-affirmed that all was right in the universe after all.

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