Whip Finish


Ralph Long - July 2, 2012

Standing motionless on the bank of the pond, I watched as at least a half dozen fish rose towards the fly as if inspecting it's every piece of thread. Then suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the largest in the school closed the last few inches and sipped it in. For a second it simply hung suspended, as if contemplating spitting it out or not, when a lift of the rod set the hook kicked the palm-sized fish into high gear. With a whoop fit for setting the fly on a tarpon I played the little fish. It's slashing runs zigzagged back and forth through the pond as it fought much bigger than its size for more than a few minutes. Nevertheless, the little 3weight rod held to the task and I was soon admiring one of the brightest colored pan fish I had caught in years.

Gills, no matter what we call them, from Bream to Sunnies, Crappie to White bass, they all blend together for me as Gills. I've never found one to fight any harder than the next, yet they all fight pound-for-pound equal to any other fish I have ever hooked. They are built for the fly rod and this fly fisherman, for one, has held a love affair with them since childhood. They are the reason I still own a float tube, and the cause of me stalking pond banks pretty much anytime I find them.

Having enjoyed some of the best waters across the country, I still hold a particular fish I caught on an elk-hair caddis in a Central PA lake as one of my best ever. A die-hard trout fisherman, that blue-black bluegill was the length of my rods 9 inch cork and a thick 1inch across the back. It played my 5weight trout rod like I was under-geared, and it took me nearly 20 minutes to land it between the runs and the lily pads. It ranks up there with any trout I've ever caught. A White bass I caught under the old Berwick/Nescopeck Bridge on the Susquehanna river had me convinced I had a trophy smallmouth on. I still remember the silence from my dad when I dumped that fish into the sink at home. Shortly followed by "Wow", and then more silence.

To often the species gets rated along with the juvenile fish found along the banks of over-populated ponds and lakes, yet assuredly there are still trophy gills waiting to be had offshore in the deeper haunts. But whether cursed or loved, they remain. Often they are stupidly simple to catch and get boring, but other times they are unwilling to even look at a fly and catch our scorn. But regardless, one thing remains the same; they are still there. Maybe that is what draws me to them at times. The challenge, or lack thereof they can afford, or the fact that for many it's the "fried chicken" of fishing. You've had it a million times, but when it's 'right", it's perfect. Regardless of the gourmet selections otherwise offered.

So there I was again, laughing like a kid again and hooking quite a few fish that seemed more than willing to suck in my size14 wet fly. Looking around I was again 20 years old. The small farm pond was surrounded by bright red sumac sprouting out of waist–high grass. The blackbirds were nested in the cattails on the spring fed end of the pond, and the tell-tale circles formed by bluegill beds could be seen scattered around on the pond bottom. I knew I had the afternoon to fish, and wouldn't be expected home until dinner time, only unlike before it was to my wife and not my mom's dinner table in which I would be expected. Stalking slowly I searched the forms of the beds for the largest form of a fish I could find. I knew they would be sulking around the outer rim where the weeds began again, and could only be spotted at times if you caught their fin movement. Unlike the smaller fish that cruised all around the maze of beds without a care. Spotting a likely fish, the back of which looked considerably darker than the rest, I placed a cast beyond the bed and slowly retrieved it towards the pale target of the mud bottom. The fly hovered with the last twitch over the center of the bed, and then began to sink. But it would not make the bottom. Before it could touch the bed the fish, that for so long was motionless, attacked. It shot forward to the fly, and then it seemed like in the same motion as stopped on a dime and engulfed the fly. A two-count pause, and up came the rod! I was right about the size and after dancing in tight circles for a few moments, it raced across the rest of the beds in long arching run. Rushing towards the cattails in an effort to break off, I put some pressure on him and got him turned. And with the knowledge of failure toward the weeds it switched gears in an instant and shot back out to open water where it bounced in tight figure-8's for a few more moments, before finally tiring out.

Kneeling down at the ponds edge, I slid the fish into the palm of my hand, sweeping back the dorsal spines in the same motion. It was a hefty fish for any waters and I admired the steel-grey flanks speckled with black dots and the dark blue gill plate which gave it its name. The top third of the fish was dark blue with coppery tones and nearly an inch thick. As I unhooked and released the fish, it instantly shot straight back to the bed in which it was caught over and took up the same exact station again. I smiled. He had done much for me in its taking of my fly, and a clean release was the least I could do in return. It was going to be a good afternoon. I wondered if I would get in the same amount of trouble if I was late for dinner that I had experienced as a boy. Bluegills have a way of doing that to me.

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