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
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
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.
on thumbnail image for enlarged view.
longear sunfish is one of Indiana’s most beautiful fish, but it is just
as exciting to catch, and tasty, as it is beautiful.
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.
on thumbnail image for enlarged view.