There is no fish, pound for pound, that fights as hard. There are few fish that taste as sweet, with flesh as firm and flaky. No fish swims in more states, and there is none more willing to oblige a hopeful angler. I’m talking about lepomis macrochirus, old copper belly, or “titty bream” as they call ’em in the south (a reference to a ‘gill so big you have to hold it to your chest to remove the hook because your hand won’t fit around it). They were the fish that lit the fire in nearly every young fisherman.
If I could, I’d start every morning with a strong cup of coffee and a paddle around a bluegill lake. There is a comfort, a familiarity that fills me when I fish for bluegill. Rising from your seat to peer for the next set of beds, the anticipation when your line splashes down in just the right spot, and the staccato tug of a big bull bluegill bring back my fondest childhood memories. Its fishing at its simplest, its purest. Nothing more than a cheap outfit and a no. 6 hook adorned with anything that wiggles or hops will suffice. There is no pretense involved with bluegill fishing, no expensive tackle, no chartered guide required. Bluegill aren’t the center of billion dollar industries, commercialized tournaments, or ridiculous hype. They’re prolific and industrious, a blue collar-working man’s fish with no pomp and panache. They’re American as apple pie, and I’m considering starting a petition to replace the eagle as our nation’s mascot.
Despite their demure disposition and proletariat mentality, spawning males are certainly one of the most beautiful fish in the lake. Blackish-blue backs give way to fading blue stripes, with undertones of olive greens, purples, and pinks. Their namesake blue gills, punctuated with a dark blue gill flap, contrast with turquoise gill covers and a penny copper chest (yes, bluegill have a chest. And shoulders). When turned in the sunlight, they glean a kaleidoscope of colors.
For table fare, bluegill are tops. You can keep your Copper River sockeye salmon and your bluefin tuna—give me a plate of fried bluegill any day. They have a mild sweetness and a firm yet flaky meat that sets them apart from other panfish. They’re great fried, baked, steamed, poached, grilled, seared, or wrapped in sacred leaves and roasted over the coals of a ceremonial fire. Perfect for soups, bluegill fillets’ firmness stands up to rigors of soup making better than other panfish. I’ve never met a plate of bream I didn’t like.
Perhaps best of all, one can keep a mess without contrition. Bluegill are prolific spawners, and in many cases bringing some home for the dinner table may benefit an ecosystem. ‘Gills are an important cog in the aquatic food chain, a staple in the diet of so called “game fish.”
So if you’re a bass fisherman that’s “outgrown” bluegill, or a weekend warrior who thinks they no longer have the time, do yourself a favor: sharpen the fillet knife, dust off the ultralight and rediscover the fish that started it all.