As the year nears its end and the leaves tumble downstream like victory parade confetti, we want to tip our hats to one of our favorite fish in New Hampshire, a constant, cheerful companion throughout the year: the bluegill.
Our first bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) was caught on the Bellamy Reservoir during an ice-fishing adventure in February. With miserable weather that day, we spent most of our time cringing as the wind blew snow in our faces. The only thing that kept our spirits up were the cooperative bluegills. Our sixth fish of the quest fell for a waxworm on a glowing teardrop jig bounced off the bottom in about 16 feet of water. When the little six-inch fish appeared in the hole, we cheered and did a victory dance, making the other fishermen near us think we’d succumbed to cold-induced insanity.
But we were happy to see our old friend. When we were kids in Indiana and New Jersey, we both spent hours catching bluegills on bits of worms under bobbers. There is nothing better than the fish-after-fish action that a school of happy bluegills provide. Now, as fathers, we’re reliving the excitement of bluegill fishing with our kids.
With a state record size of 11.25 inches long and two pounds, the bluegill is the largest of the state’s most common three sunfish (pumpkinseed and redbreast are the other two). Often called sunnies or kibbies, these fish have wide bodies and sharp spines in their dorsal fins. An angler can identify them by paying close attention to the gill cover. A bluegill has an all black tag on its gill cover; a tag with a bright red spot means pumpkinseed and a long tag fringed in light yellow means redbreast sunfish. The tag becomes more pronounced as a sunfish gets older and it uses it to communicate its status to other sunfish.
Although they are stars in the Midwest, bluegills are largely underappreciated in New Hampshire. During the year, as we talked to people about the quest and the fish we have eaten, often someone would say, “What about kibbies? You didn’t eat kibbies did you?” Actually, we found all sunnies to be delicious. Bluegill are the best because they get big enough to fillet. The delicate white flesh tastes sweet and works well deep-fried. Of all the fish we have eaten, a fresh, fried bluegill fillet is easily in the top five.
Through the spring and summer, we caught bluegill nearly everyplace we went. At times, the challenge was getting the lures past the spunky bluegill to another fish we were trying to catch. They are very aggressive, but never more so than when they are spawning.
Spawning time is when bluegills get really interesting. The large males, called bull bluegills by some writers, use their fins to clear a round section of the bottom, forming a shallow bowl. This nest is the parlor into which a bull will entice a female to lay her eggs. His courtship consists of swimming in circles around a female and grunting—what a guy! Once the eggs have been deposited and fertilized, he will guard the nest until the eggs hatch.
A male bluegill can get his genes to the next generation in three different ways. One is to be the biggest, baddest bull in town who builds a nice nest, attracts a mate, and fights any fool who makes moves on his girl. We call this the B.A. Baracus technique.
Another strategy is not to fight other males but just patrol the parameter of a bull’s territory, waiting for an opportunity to zip in and quickly fertilize the female’s eggs just before the bull releases his milt. We call this the Barney technique (from “How I Met Your Mother,” not the dinosaur).
The final strategy is by far the most interesting. Some males will mimic the color of female bluegills and thereby swim freely in the bull’s territory. When a real female shows up, the bull thinks he is getting a ménage à trois. But just before the bull drops his milt, the cross-dressing male squirts his milt in first and the bull never knows anything went wrong. We call this the “Bosom Buddies” technique.
So, cheers to the bluegill—the eager-to-bite, good-tasting, funky-lovemaking friend of the angler. We’ll see you soon.
If you’d like to meet Dave and Clay in person, they’ll be at Wiggin Memorial Library in Stratham this Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m., talking about fish, their adventures and their book project. They’ll also be at Pitchapalooza at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter on Saturday, Nov. 12, to pitch their book in front of a panel of judges at 6 p.m. As always, check out www.catch-m-all.com and find them on Facebook.
-Published in The Wire on 11/11/11