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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
taste and I was back on the Dredge Ditch.
“Long live (my) the noble
Click on thumbnail image
for enlarged view.
sunfish from Tippecanoe River . . . a raging beauty . . .