"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Best Eating Fish In The River
Copyright © 2009 by Bill Scifres

The long-ear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis), alias red belly, is one of the most beautiful fish of any fresh water -- maybe even salt water -- and if you heed the advice of a fishing friend of mine it also is one of the best in terms of eating qualities.

Red bellies, as I knew the species, were plentiful when I was a kid, and while they still are fairly common in some water, they are not now what they once were. Of course, this can be said of many elements.

They also were fierce fighters on the light tackle I used -- a seven or eight foot willow pole tapering from thumb-size on the big end to match stick size on the small end. This is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but I thought of these poles as buggy whips.

There was a good stand of this willow species on the west bank, upstream, (I have never been able to identify the species) from the Dredge Bridge of the Muscatatuck River, and it produced fishing poles by the dozens (more than I could ever use).

I would tie a piece of good fishing line (sometime pieces of grocery twined tied together) to the big end of the pole, then wrap the line around the pole to the tip of the pole where I would secure it with a couple of half hitches. Then I would wind the line around the tip of the pole until the free line was about the length of the pole. Another pair of half hitches would secure the line at the end of the pole. A sunfish hook (long shank, narrow gap) and a strip of lead toothpaste tube (sinker) would complete my rig.

The swift shallow water and gravel bottom offered plenty of hard craw tails and hellgrammites offered plenty of bait. Now and then grasshoppers and other insects entered the bait picture. 

The swift water (I drank it when thirsty) was shallow on the east side of the river, but it tapered to four or five feet toward the west side. The deeper side was covered with big beds of water willow (a two-foot high weed). The stems, covered with water, provided resting area for many species of fish, including the red belly.

Barefoot (we had only one pair of shoes in those days), and with trouser legs rolled up to the knees, I would wade as far as I dared toward the swift deep water, where the long pole, in fly fishing fashion, would be flipped and the bait would settle someplace near the weed beds.

Slowly the line would sink into the clear water as the current put my offering up for grabs as it swept past the weeds. I would watch the line at the point where it sank, and if it stopped, there was action in the offing.

The feisty red bellies, other sunnies, or an occasional bass or bullhead, would change my placid demeanor to turmoil as the willow pole arched and the line hissed through the water. I would win most of the battles, but inherent was the straightened hooks, loose line losses, and many other and unknown avenues of escape. Strange how the ones that get away always were, and are, larger than those that don’t.

The Tippecanoe River was another good red belly/sunfish stream, and nobody loved the little critters better than the late Lou Bowsher, Buffalo, with whom I fished the old river for many species.

In May or June, when I often opted to try my luck for the goggle-eyes on our wading/floating trips, Lou would be content to hook the sunnies under drifts and in undercut banks. “Best eating fish in the river,” Lou would say as he tossed another one into the live well of his homemade riverboat. Then he would tell me how he scaled them, cut off their heads and removed the entrails (leaving the fins and tail). Finally he would tell me how his wife, Note, would roll the fish in corn meal and fry them crisp and brown.

One taste and I was back on the Dredge Ditch.

Long live (my) the noble king.

longearsun.jpg (50438 bytes) 

Click on thumbnail image for enlarged view.

Long-ear sunfish from Tippecanoe River . . . a raging beauty . . .

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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