Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Seining For Lunkers

The dry summer reduced most of the farm ponds to the status of deep puddles and now an oncoming cold front threatened to freeze them solid. One in particular held some large bass that would be nice to catch at a later and warmer date and thus we devised a plan around the kitchen table to save the day. Plans always seem pretty simple around a kitchen table and never quite end up that way.

We made a few calls and located a seine that a neighbor had. Upon picking it up we discovered that it was in need of much repair and so the first task was mending the net. Inside the warmth of the house, it wouldn't take long but because the net smelled like fish and pond scum, the lee side of the shop was the second best place for the task even if it was nearly 40 degrees colder. Our fingers quickly turned into frozen fish sticks as we did the mending, dropping the end of a string here, failing to tie the proper knot there but after an eternity, it was mended to the point where there weren't too many holes for the fish to escape. At least the big ones anyway.

We loaded the net and every available bucket, barrel and container that we could find into the back of the farm truck, scrunched in and headed for the pond two miles away down the gravel road. Once there, we backed the truck up to the bank of one side of the pond, unloaded all the gear except the buckets and then backed the truck up to the far side of the pond. With my father on one side and me on the other, we picked up our respective ends of the net and drug it to the waters edge.

Ponds, especially older ponds tend to silt in with time as dirt from neighboring fields is brought with the intense spring rains. Thus around the edges, the water tends to be shallow for quite a ways meaning that for every inch of water that lowers, 12 inches of new and very muddy shoreline might be exposed. In this pond, that meant about ten feet of fresh, thick, Edina clay sludge ringed the pond and to maintain proper control of the net, we were going to have to slog through it where the water met the mud.

Over the next couple hours, the process was basically the same. Extract one foot now sunk 18 inches deep in the stickiest gumbo ever seen without your boot coming off and move it one pace forward, all the while with your full body weight on the rear foot miring it even deeper. Once both feet were planted, we would heave the net another foot through the water and begin again. It was a slow process.

As we neared the far bank, the water began to boil here and there giving us strength in the knowledge that we were actually catching some fish. We extracted ourselves to higher and dryer ground and with a big heave, pulled the net clear of the water. What we saw took all our breath away.

Because the water had been shallow for most of the summer, food had been at a premium and the fish had survived off their own kind. Big fish ate little fish and only huge fish remained. In our nets were perhaps two hundred fish, half of which were bullheads about 12 to 14 inches in length, a quarter were bluegills also a foot in length and a couple inches in width and the rest were bass 18 to 24 inches in length and weighing in at 4 to 5 pounds apiece! These weren't just big fish, these were monster fish!

We quickly loaded up the bass first which easily filled all our buckets. For the bluegills we created a water coral of sorts with the seine in a corner of the pond and tossed them back. The bullheads were left flopping on the shore. We quickly drove over to another deeper pond a mile away and began the task of relocating the monster bass.

Fish are more delicate creatures in cold water and exhaust easily. Left on their own, they would float belly up and die, too tired to swim and get water moving around their gills. So one by one, my father, mother, brother and I would hold the large bass underneath the water and move them gently forwards and backwards getting vital oxygen into their gills. Just when you thought your hand would go numb in the cold water, the bass would give its tail a mighty thrash and streak off into the murky depths of the pond. Out of the fifty monster bass that we brought over, only one couldn't be revived.

We made another trip for the bluegills and being a more hardy fish, we merely dumped them into the pond by the buckets full. A third trip was made for the bullheads that were still thrashing about on the shores. Bullheads are considered a nuisance fish and not desired in farm ponds so we didn't transport them. Instead, we took all 100 bullheads home and skinned them in one of the outbuildings where the cats could clean up any dropped scraps. All winter long, we had fish fries and generally agreed that it had all been worth it.

The pond where we relocated the monster bass and bluegills too had for the most part been a sterile pond. It had a few bluegills, channel catfish and snapping turtles in it but nothing that thrived. Within a couple years, it was teaming with a thriving bass population. During the summer, I liked nothing better than to sneak over with a pole and a four-inch triple jointed Rapala and lay it out on top of the summer moss that covered the surface. After a minute or two, there would be a huge splash as a large bass cleared the water after having downed the lure in one swallow. Setting the hook, I would fight him into shore along with ten pounds of moss and land him.

There is no greater joy than landing a real lunker of a bass, which is why I always threw them back into the pond. They were bigger and had been around longer and thus more likely to not be as tasty as their younger counterparts. Their fillets had to be cut in half in order to even fit a large skillet and I just didn't have the heart to kill something that I had saved a year or two before. Besides, it was always great to see the face of a friend latch onto one of these large fish not knowing that they even existed. However, I never went home empty handed, because if I fished long enough, I would catch a smaller pan sized fish or two to take home and enjoy with a mess of fried potatoes. Being a fish savior never tasted so good.

No comments: