By Nick Simonson
In mid-February my mind often wanders toward spring, and if allowed, into the warmth of summer and thoughts of fishing trips past under the heat of a shining sun. One of my most formative fishing memories is that of catching bluegills off the dock on those sunny days that blur into the three-month span that is June, July and August which frequently found me staying at my grandparents’ lake cabin. I would bait my Aberdeen hook with worms and nightcrawlers my grandfather dug up for me from the cool dirt patch in the small opening in the woods of the back lot of his lake cabin. I would cast them out for countless hours of entertainment, burning away the day as the sun scorched my skin and lightened my hair.
Sometimes I’d unclip my bobbers and cast out my offering only to pull the bait away from the fish, trying to steer clear of the smaller panfish and connect with the bigger bluegills that lurked near the bottom of the school or out toward its edges. Other times, I’d simply cast the bait out and reel it back in as fast as I could watching the bait spiral like the propeller on a boat motor as the horde of hungry sunnies would steam in a phalanx behind it, with one or two occasionally accelerating from the group nipping at the whirling worm on the golden hook. I didn’t know it at the time, but the concept was basically the modern slow-death rig now widely employed by many in-the-know walleye anglers.
In the waters of the past, before city sewer was installed around the lake, the summer weeds grew thick and the dog days of the season were marked with a shade of green on the surface. There, on either the inside or outside edge of the underwater jungle which touched and matted up forming a ceiling between lake and sky, the occasional pike found respite from the heat due to the inflowing creek about 100 yards down the beach. Undoubtedly, they picked off their fair share of the small panfish that tucked into the shade of the dock and boat lifts as well. Stunted as many of them were, the one-to-two-pound hammerhandles provided a certain upsizing of excitement for a young angler on summer vacation, and long before the lake was stocked with muskies, known for their tendency to follow and not strike, I recall the first time my heart leaped into my throat and I watched in terrified excitement as something other than a sunfish showed up in the shallows.
Not unlike the hundreds of times I’d done it before, I cast a spiraling worm offering out into the water and buzzed it back to the dock, feeling the occasional nip and pull of the faster fish in the school of sunnies. About halfway back I could tell most of my bait had been cleaned off by the bluegills and felt the simple drag of the bare hook in the water. In the light between the puffy summer afternoon clouds, I saw the glint of the hook and on the edge of the shade a dark form took shape under the greening surface, following the tiny golden piece of terminal tackle inch-for-inch. As my nerves took over, I sped up and the fish’s pursuit did as well, as the distance closed between the flashing hook and my position on the dock. My heart rate soared, and I kept reeling as the fish accelerated and zipped between my legs and under worn wooden platform and algae-coated metal frame of the dock, leaving me with my first adrenaline rush of an encounter with something other than a bluegill.
Since that time, I’ve had countless other close calls: following smallmouth bass that slash the surface as a plug is hastily retrieved for another cast, muskies in that same water which have now replaced the population of hammerhandles as the apex predators, and yes, even aggressive pike which have turned on a hooked and struggling walleye at the side of a canoe. Each of them are etched in the fishing memories in my mind, and some in the stories I’ve written over the last two decades. None, however, stand out like that first one coming under the warmth of the summer sun which sent my pulse as high as the temperature on that mid-August afternoon…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Follow Me Down. A trip down memory lane to warm summer adventures early in the author’s angling brings to mind how exciting a following fish can be. Simonson Photo.