By Nick Simonson
“Hey Nick, what are we going to catch,” asked Rylyn, the oldest son of my wife’s cousin, as we made our way out to the dock.
“Ninety-nine percent bluegills,” I replied as his brother Radlee and father Chase made their way behind us, trailed closely by my son AJ.
Unsealing the red top of the dozen crawlers purchased the night before from the baitshop on the other side of the lake, I sat on the still-warm metal of the dock that had baked all day in the sun, which was setting in a glow of red melting into purple night clouds along the tree-covered horizon to the west. Selecting the first worm and pinching a small piece of it off, Rylyn’s neon jig flipped out under a yellow-and-orange slipfloat and within seconds, it disappeared with a swirl on the water and a shout of “I’ve got one” from the dock. After a quick fight, Rylyn lifted up a rock bass, already proving my estimate to be incorrect.
Within moments, all three boys had their bobbers on the water, and fish of all sizes and species began to break the surface to excited shrieks, and claims of the biggest of the evening already started to mount. Crawlers passed back and forth between me and Chase like hot potatoes. It was all we could do to keep up with three boys lost in the moment of non-stop panfishing from the end of the dock near the creek where I had grown up, summer after summer. The dirt-made-mud by the splashing and flipping of fish piled up on the webbing between my thumb and forefinger, and my fingernails took on a dark trim as the worms began to disappear.
In their place, a variety of panfish made a quick trip up into the evening air, making for a blur of colorful memories in the evening light. In addition to the red-eyed rock bass, there were pumpkinseeds, with their creamsicle orange bellies and mottled sides with vermiform markings of green and turquoise, and of course, the promised bluegills in a variety of shades from silvery cerulean to green with olive bars. Occasionally, a large green sunfish would appear, with its thick sides and large mouth, gulping at the line as if it was still trying to take down the jig stuck tight in its bottom lip while laying claim to the chunk of crawler it had wrestled loose from the hook.
One such greenie was so large, it gave us all pause as I ran back to shore to grab my camera. At almost 12 inches, it fought with a mighty swirl and bend of Radlee’s rod and caused the drag on the old Zebco 202 to squeak and holler with a protest that I imagine had not been heard from the reel in many years. After a quick smile and release, he held tight to bragging rights of the biggest fish for the rest of the night, as the competition between the brothers escalated for not only the largest catch, but also the most and the smallest. The latter was quickly claimed by Rylyn, as an improbable inch-and-a-half yearling bluegill recklessly impaled itself on his 1/16-ounce jig, and provided a good laugh as it flipped its way out of his hand and back into the water.
Between the two rival anglers, my son AJ was content to count his way up to 17 fish, lost to the concept of competition which will one day develop on the same dock (if it hasn’t already in other aspects of his life) with his younger brother and perhaps these cousins, much as it did for me and mine three decades ago. As the light faded, and counting continued, other fish joined the fray, including a few largemouth bass and a rogue black crappie that hung off the break a few feet out from the dock. All the while, the stock of nightcrawlers began to disappear, until we were down to our last few pieces of worm.
Behind us on shore, the crackle of firewood and orange light signaled the coming night as a few neighbors started their late-summer bonfires. Squinting against the twilight and scraping up the last chunk of bait I loaded one more jig and the final bobber splashed down. Like the hundred or so times before, it quickly slipped under the surface, met with the same excited shouts from the end of the dock which rattled out from the metal frame and over the glassy purple surface of the water. With a sploosh, the evening’s final fish went back into the lake, and we packed the rods up and headed to start our own fire in the metal ring on the edge of the sand, knowing that after this weekend, there weren’t many more left on the calendar, and the warm summer days and temperate evenings, like the disappearing night crawlers, were quickly fading away.
Warmed by the light of the kindling and birch bark passing on to the six logs in the fire pit, the five of us discussed the evening’s excitement that led into other tales of fishing and adventure around the area, interspersed with hopes for the fall’s grouse and pheasant seasons, and deer hunting further down the road. All the while we watched the last of the day’s light fade into dark as the twinkling stars began to pop out overhead on one of the final warm evenings to be had this summer…in our outdoors.