"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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"Best Eatin' Fish In The River"
Copyright © 2006 by Bill Scifres

Nobody seems to get excited about one of the scrappiest denizens of Hoosier waters, yet the male of the species in summer is without question one of the most beautiful of our fishes, not to mention its superb table qualities. 

That fish--as I am sure few anglers have guessed--is none other than the longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis), a k a red-belly, and other local callings. It seldom is longer than five inches and heftier than four or five ounces. The blueish-green back and sides flecked with small, vertically elongated, shiny black spots, orangish-red belly and extremely long black gill-opening flap leave little to doubt in identifying the species. But for all of its breath-taking beauty, the red-belly has other attributes, starting with its ferocity in taking small artificial lures or live baits, a fight that is no less exciting, and a table-taste that its fans say is not matched by any other fresh-water species. 

Although my angling interests were infiltrated by other species at an early age, I will never forget my willow-pole and grocery-twine encounters with red-bellies. And while my mother fried my catches of red-bellies for family suppers (that was the evening meal), most of us enjoyed this mild-tasting fish without knowing how good it was compared to other species. 

Later in life, the late Lou Bowsher, my old Tippecanoe river guide and friend, would revive my interest in red-bellies as we floated that beautiful river for smallmouth and rock bass. 

I would always be fishing for such table stalwarts as goggle-eyes, smallmouth, or channel catfish, but the bite that brought the broadest smile to Lou’s face was that of the scrappy red-belly. Other species often were released on the spot, but red-bellies went into the live well of the boat for Lou’s lunch. 

“Best eatin’ fish in the river,” Lou would say. 

Lou would scale the red-bellies, remove the heads and entrails, and his wife would fry them (tails and fins, dredged in a mix of flour and yellow cornmeal) to a golden brown. Then, with fork to lift the white meat off the skeletal bones, Lou would dine--defiling the taste of his catch with no other food. Red bellies, like most of the other members of the sunfish tribe, are nest builders, and just as it is with other sunfish, the males (untrue to popular misconception) are the nest builders and protectors. For this reason, the colorful males are taken more often than less-colorful females. The species probably is most at home in rock, gravel, or sand-bottom streams, but red-bellies will be found in clear-water lakes and impoundments, especially  those fed by rivers and streams. 

My stream-fishing efforts seem to indicate that red-bellies are not as common as they once were, but I still take them on both small artificial lures (especially spinner baits and small jig/worm combinations), or live/natural baits. 

Although hellgrammites (larval stage of the dobsonfly) were one of the most exciting natural baits I have ever fished, the white meat from the peeled tails of hard crayfish probably is just as good, and considerably more plentiful and easier to catch. 

Craw-tail meat is not as durable as worms, hellgrammites and numerous other live baits. But if baited on a small hook fish are hooked more often that the bait is stolen. 

Once I have removed the tail of a craw and extracted the meat from the hard shell of the tail, I flatten out the meat and cut it in half lengthwise (the tail meat will be in the form of two joined rolls). Then short pieces of the worm-like rolls can be threaded on a small hook to increase the number of hooked fish. But even then, the slightest hint of a bite can mean the bait has been stolen if the angler is napping instead of setting the hook.

Click on thumbnail image for enlarged view.

The longear sunfish is one of Indiana’s most beautiful fish, but it is just as exciting to catch, and tasty, as it is beautiful. longearsun.jpg (50438 bytes)

Morel Report

Success has been spotty for Hoosiers, but rains of  the northern third of the state appear to have prolonged the season. George  Rhoads, of Wabash, displays two of the five large morels he found in his  lawn. The largest was more than 13 inches in circumference when he picked it  last Saturday. Rhoads, a mushroom hunter of many years, says he has found more  than 800 mushrooms this  spring, but many were very  small.

Click on thumbnail image for enlarged view.

george.JPG (96044 bytes)

All columns, essays, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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