I had a very satisfying June contest experience as a number of lifers came to hand from both near and far. I will not soon forget an incredible day that not only increased my lifer collection by two but was also very representative of the primary ways lifers seem to “happen,” at least for me.
On that day the Carp chaser and I were taking a late June swing south of the Minnesota border primarily in search of the much desired redear sunfish, a prized species that eluded us on an earlier tour of southern Missouri waters. We had not originally planned a second attempt at the elusive shell cracker but extensive research had turned up redear water a bit closer to home and with one small lake sporting two-to-one redear to bluegill sample data it seemed to be a can’t miss hit-and- run lifer situation.
We arrived at the lake and the day was starting out right as we were able to leave the rain jackets in the car, a rare occurrence so far for this June. The weather was very warm and humid with a steady 25 mile an hour wind roaring through the woods and grasslands surrounding the lake. There was an incessant whine of unseen insect life in the trees, seeming to warn of some yet unseen storm approaching from over the horizon. We did not pay much attention though as there right before us, was the small lake ringed with reeds and cattails and complete with some standing timber – just like in the visions and dreams from the night before.
Grabbing rods and bait we raced down to the water’s edge ready to claim our prize; however, it wasn’t going to be quite that easy . . . and perhaps it shouldn’t be for a lifer. Apparently no one had told the bluegills that they should maintain their numbers according to the last survey levels because they were everywhere, all shapes and sizes and all willing to swallow anything with a hook in it. Green sunfish were there too –everything was snapping except for red ears. We decided to split up and search different directions for the shell cracker mother lode.
After hours of feeding dozens of crawlers to the bluegills in two millimeter increments and hooking a couple of tiny redear runts , I felt the time was right and clipped on a wriggling half crawler. I got a solid bite, a swirling tug and the plan suddenly had come together with a hand sized red ear flopping at the bank ready to be admired and photographed. I let out a whoop but with the wind whipping I knew my celebration would be a private one with my brother stationed in the far corner of the lake and far out of earshot.
After a good deal of admiring I released the fish and looked down the lake to see Carp chaser walking up to the top of the earthen dike. “Good” I thought, he must have gotten one too. However he continued over the top of the ridge and disappeared down the other side. I packed up and hiked over, finding him in the scour hole of the culvert of a small outlet stream tangling with largemouth and bluegill – but no redear thus far.
That is one of the challenges of fishing with two or more people when pursuing contest or life list species in farther out locations, as there can be a feeling of pressure when you haven’t scored on the target species yet - but there are advantages to partnership too – and I set out on a scouting trip to see if I could find some activity further downstream.
The little stream seemed to fan out and get very shallow, all but disappearing as it was engulfed by the murky hardwood forest, but I could see a little light deeper in the woods. After navigating through some tangle I emerged on a hiking/bike trail with a nice arching bridge over the creek. The creek had picked up some current here and emptied into a deep pool illuminated by shafts of green filtered light coming through the canopy above. The pool was bordered by the exposed roots of massive trees and except for the ornaments of several red and white bobbers adorning the lower branches one would have thought nobody had ever fished here before.
Some activity in the pool caught my attention, it was a June bug of about 3 inches long and wider that that with its wings splayed, buzzing angrily on the surface of the water. Suspended just below it was a sunfish of respectable proportions, eyes pointed up and busily doing fish calculus as to how it could get that insect into its mouth. As incredible as that scene was, what was more exciting was that from my vantage point the sunfish did not appear to be a bluegill. So as much as I wanted to start plunking in casts I knew I had to give Carp chaser the first couple shots in case that was a redear cruising that pool.
I got back to Carp chaser and after my description of the forest pool it didn’t take much convincing to get him to pack up and start running through the woods. From the bridge the first careful casts went out and were greeted by huge bluegills and some hefty largemouth. The battles were now on in this incredible environment and the thoughts of a new species seemed to go by the wayside. That is until there was a different shade in the flash of green at the end of Carp chaser’s line. Not yet a positive ID but I offered to slide down the bank to grab the fish. Carp chaser would hear none of that and up and over the railing came the fish. Suspended in air over the planks of the bridge was a beautiful , gnarly redear. A shared celebration, a sigh of elation and relief and the completion of a plan ( although note quite exactly as anticipated), and a face to face encounter with a wonderful fish for the first time.
On the way back toward civilization we stopped by a dam with a lot of fishing activity going on. It was now evening and the water looked good. Carp were slurping and gar were surfacing. The weather was settling and even though there was still lighting in the distance it looked as if it was going to be a great night. By dusk we managed a few drum and channel cats and then Carp chaser took our one good flashlight and went on a scouting mission downstream saying he would be back by pitch dark. Two hours later I was reclining on the little section of cement walkway enjoying the weather and wondering if Carp chaser would be back by dawn. The family groups of the daylight hours had now packed up and gone and the serious cat fishermen were now setting up on the banks and settling in for the night.
I was content just to sit back and watch my rod tip by the illumination of the dam lights. I got a hit and pulled in a fish, as it got up the bank it looked like I had a nice little flathead and I teetered my way down the rip rap to collect the 5 pounder – I seemed to have been rewarded for the patience (or was it laziness). After a photo op and releasing the fish I cast back out. My sinker seemed to hang up immediately so not wanting to re-tie for the tenth time I let it settle back hoping that the current or even a fish would pluck it out the present predicament.
Carp chaser arrived from his downstream foray with plenty of stories but no species in the bag. I let him of know of my flathead catch and began to pull up my line to allow for some more casting room. I didn’t seem to be snagged anymore and holding my rod tip high I felt for any indications of current status. There was a hollow feeling then a definite bumping bite so I set the hook. The battle ensued like a fairly heavy fish was on and when the flashlight hit it as it danced on top of the waves caused by the backwash of the dam there was no mistake – and the shout went up: EEL!!! It was writhing just below us and off the rocks and I was in a state of near shock. The landing net which by now was a receptacle for our bait containors, insect repellent, empty pop cans and other miscellaneous items was frantically emptied by the Carp Chaser who scrambled down the rocks and netted the fish – no not fish, eel. It was truly a creature unto itself.
Back up on level ground we celebrated. Our antics got the attention of a nearby fisherman who said he hadn’t seen an eel in here for years, but when he was growing up they were more common – up to 4 feet long and as big around as a pop can. We marveled over the fish before releasing it – and as many of you know there is hardly a way to describe the experience of having an eel in your hands, simply amazing.
After the release, even though it was late we had to fish the afterglow for a while. There was no felt pressure now – there was hardly a realistic thought of lightning striking twice, particularly after the report that eels were a rarity here – we were both just elated to have experienced the fish first hand.
The flow from the dam had changed now setting up a right to left rip current right in front of us. Lines stretched more tightly to the side along the rocks. The storm that was away earlier had now drifted back a little closer with flashes of lightning becoming more frequent. I was beginning to get a bit uncomfortable from sitting down on the cement for several hours and feeling like the circulation to my legs had been cut off for the last hour when Carp Chaser announced “fish on!”
“How does it feel?” I asked. “Pretty good” the reply. Thinking it might be another flathead or other usable species I did my best to get to my feet and with my numb legs began to lumber clumsily over to where the net was in case it was needed. Suddenly an unexpected yet still somehow expected request rang out from behind me . . . “get the net.” A number of possibilities flashed through my mind but deep inside I knew what the situations was. Rather than panic I knew I had to stay completely focused. With my head down and as I put one foot somewhat in front of the other I needed complete calm and all I could think to say was to plea “don’t tell me what it is!!”
But of course by now I knew exactly what it was. My balance isn’t what it used to be and scrambling down loose rip rap is a comedic adventure in the best of conditions. Now I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. As I was nearing the landing net the thought occurred to me that I could grab it and holding on tight just hurl myself down the decline of sharp boulders and rocks – If I was still conscious and didn’t have too many breaks in my bones by the time I reached the bottom I could still net the fish.
I grabbed the net and started back to where I knew there was a somewhat reasonable pathway down the rocks I made the first several steps and then looked down to the see the fish. Yep it was an eel alright. It hit me like an electric shock, another eel! In the surge of the building current the vision seemed even more fleeting and precarious. I can safely say I don’t remember the rest of the trip down the rocks but all of a sudden I was at the water’s edge scooping up the eel and then scrambling back up the bank on all fours with the creature in the net.
On the walkway we surrounded the net like a couple of sumo wrestlers realizing that if the eel squirmed out and got down between the rocks it was gone. After some initial photos we unhooked the fish and it became very docile. Catching our breath we really put out some celebration this time and that attracted some more of the nearby anglers. I feared a little that they would try to rain on our parade a bit but they were completely enthralled with the catch and scurried back to get their cell phones to get photos for themselves. One super legit couple sporting matching circle hook tattoos on their arms were really appreciative of the eel and had to get some good photos of him holding the eel: “make sure you get the tail” They were then concerned that the fish get back into the water quickly. We gave them some eel data and explained that we were on a quest to catch different and odd species and seemed to have hit the mother lode here. Looking down at the eel the guy nodded his head slightly and answered “I believe you certainly did that!” Watching the eel swim/snake away, it was an unbelievable capper to an unrepeatable day. The hardened slime on our hands served as a reminder through the night that those once in a lifetime events actually happened.
Whether it is a well-researched plan or just the luck of being at the right place at the right time the experience of catching lifer is no less special to me and I know that you have to be out there on the bank putting in time to make it happen no matter what the situation – because you can never be sure when lightning is going to strike, and it can even strike twice.