Lynn Burkhead — The power of summertime bluegills
As the sun set low the other evening, I found myself wiping the sweat from my brow, pulling a bit of vegetation from the #10 hook of my black-and-yellow spider fly, and letting my fly rod bend again as the line swished briefly overhead and delivered the imitation delicately onto the water’s edge.
Moments later, the slowly sinking fly with the waving white rubber legs disappeared into the darkening water’s gloom, ambushed by a vicious side-swiping strike of a sunfish that was only a few inches long.
Even though most anglers would turn their noses up at such a tiny catch, I smiled like the Cheshire cat in Alice’s Wonderland, transported for a moment back to the adventure when it all began for me so many years ago.
While most of my angling year is consumed with thoughts of catching a fly rod bucketmouth bass approaching 10 pounds, a big striped bass who tried to knock my topwater popper into the next zip code, or in some years, something swimming in the salty waters of the Gulf Coast, that often changes between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The reason is simple, because summer is the season of the bluegill, a time when panfish willingly pounce on small flies, put a bend in my wispy 5-weight fiberglass fly rod, and help me relive a childhood day spent in a plywood Jon boat with two of the people I loved most in the world.
I really don’t remember much about the outing, other than it took place on 177-acre Herb Parsons Lake, a small reservoir not too far from my boyhood home in western Tennessee. Whether the trip was the idea of my late dad Bill, his dad Willie, or the result of a young boy simply asking to go fishing, I really can’t say. All I do know is that the day was hot, the crickets were lively, and the bluegills were biting.
As best as I can recall, we caught a mess of bluegills that day, and maybe a few redear sunfish too — or bream and shellcrackers, as many Mid-South residents know the two species — panfish that took a cork under with some authority, put a deep bend into my cane pole, and caused a little boy to laugh and shake like he never had before.
I know that I got a little too much sun that day — and I think perhaps my mom or my granny might have scolded the two Burkhead men for that lapse in judgment — but I was hooked. Or more literally, it was a stringer full of bluegills that were hooked, prime protein that my granny’s cast iron skillet soon turned into a meal fit for a king.
What I didn’t know when we pulled the little two-seat boat out of the water — my grandfather, like many other things near his backyard shop, had built it himself — or when we hungrily consumed the platter of pan-fried bluegills that my granny whipped up in her kitchen later that evening, was that the trajectory of my life was changed forevermore.
Why? Because that afternoon session unleashed the DNA material put deep inside of me by the Good Lord above, heaven-sent genetics that destined me to be a fisherman.
And all thanks to the power of a pint-sized panfish, the All-American bluegill.
In the years that have followed, there has been much more to my angling adventures than panfish stealing a cricket or two dangled under a cork. For starters, there have been trips for big bass, both to attempt my own catches and to cover the tournament exploits of others who are household names in the sport.
Some of those bass fishing adventures have been deep in the heart of Texas, others have been halfway across the country, and some have come at the end of a long day when I wind down, walk the bank of a pond, and make a few casts before the sun disappears below the horizon.
There have been a couple of bush plane flights into the backcountry for salmon and trout, Rocky Mountain streams where a brown trout or rainbow waited to ambush a dry fly floating by and tailing redfish on stingray laden flats situated along the Gulf Coast. A couple of years ago, there was even an encounter with a 12-weight fly rod breaking blacktip shark, a story for another day.
But as thrilling as all of those adventures have been for a guy who is somehow blessed enough to make his living selling drivel about the outdoors, every trip around the sun finds me returning to my angling roots a few times each year, content with catching the fish of my childhood, the ever present bluegill found in lakes, streams, and ponds all across the country.
The other evening didn’t bring me anything to brag about on Instagram, no pound-plus bream that would win any prizes or deliver a truck load of likes, or even a social media comment from someone admiring my supposed skills with a fly rod.
Nor did it provide a stringer filled with scaled sunfish headed for the frying pan, something that some waters can support, but not the one I was fishing on.
And there was no one there to watch, no autograph seeking fans waiting to see my latest trophy winning exploits, or the claiming of a big check with a lot of zeroes attached, a financial windfall that would make my wife happy, my banker proud, and for a moment at least, change my life financially.
Instead, there was a honk or two from a few disinterested geese that watched the rod bend, a bluegill that fought a fight far more valiant than his size would have suggested, and a stunningly colored sunfish with hues straight off the Creator’s palette.
When I released this panfish-sized brawler, I saw him bolt away in the water, a tiny brain on autopilot as the colorful bream sought another unsuspecting insect or minnow for dinner. And maybe, wondering what in the world had just happened.
Thankfully, I knew what had just happened as I thought about the power of the summertime bluegill, a panfish that can change a day, an angler’s mood, and perhaps, even the direction that a life and career is headed.
And with a big smile, I let the rod flex again and remembered a day that I won’t soon forget, even if it all happened a lifetime ago.