By Steve Johnson
“The worst day on the water, is still better than the best day in the office,” or something like that, as the saying goes.
A few years back, I was enjoying a beautiful September day on the water with a few friends in hopes of catching a few fish for a meal. We were using a local pontoon boat offered at no cost to persons with disabilities and their families and friends through an organization called the North American Squirrel Association (NASA) found at http://www.nasa squirrel.org. We decided to see if the fish were biting.
Being the lone blind person on the boat, I decided to show up the rest of the group by bringing out the “heavy gear.” This essentially means that I was going to fish with ultra-light line and throw on an ice-fishing jig while my sighted peers would be relying on their sight and using hooks, sinkers and bobbers. Our quarry would be any variety of panfish with a primary focus on bluegill, perch and crappie, and in whatever order they decided to bite. As any true fisherman would say, revealing the location of our spot is secret, but what I can tell you is that it was on Lake Onalaska, a body of water that encompasses 7,688 acres of backwaters of the Mississippi River. You can try to figure out where we were from there!
The day was sunny, with a crispness to the air– your typical September day. We hoped that since the fall feeding had begun, we would, with any luck at all, have a lot of fish to clean by the end of the day.
We pulled up to a spot that was about 100 yards from shore and six feet deep. As I gently dropped my line into the water next to the boat, bam! Fish on! It was a really nice bluegill that was about eight inches or a little larger. I continued to use my ice-fishing jig tipped with a wax worm, and I kept catching fish after fish, keeper after keeper, even while using the same wax worm many times over. The light action of my pole and line allowed me to feel as soon as a fish would strike. Then, I would immediately snap the tip of the pole to set the hook. Many times, the fish would strike before the jig even hit bottom. This went on for the next three hours. We continued to catch jumbo bluegill that sometimes pushed 10 inches. With the occasional perch, this would make for more than a nice meal, and in fact, it would be a feast!
As a group of four, our daily bag limit was 25 apiece which means we could keep a total of 100 fish. Before we knew it, our five-gallon pail was overflowing. We were using a hand clicker-counter to keep track, but we were catching fish so quickly that we lost count a few times and we weren’t exactly sure where we were with our total catch. We finally managed to get an accurate count, and it began to hit 100. Before we knew it, the day was done, and our bucket was overflowing with an amazing catch!
As we headed back to shore, the group decided that they really didn’t want to keep their fish. This really means that they didn’t want to clean them. So the blind guy steps up and says, “I’ll take them.” Little did I realize that fileting 100 fish was no easy task, but it wasn’t new to me. In my younger years, my brother and I relived the same experience over and over. The biggest difference this time was that now, I didn’t have sight.
The cutting board was out, and the picnic table was lined with old newspapers. I gathered them from neighbors to take to our cabin to start fires. The filet knives were well sharpened to make the job easier. It was a slow, methodic process, as I took each fish, made a long cut from the spine down toward the belly just behind the gill plate, and then gently ran the tip of the sharp knife along the side of the spine from the head to the tail, separating the flesh from the bone. Next, I separated the meat from the body and then flipped the filet back still attached to the tail and run the knife under the skin to separate the boneless fresh fish filet. I did this for each side of the fish. About three and one-half hours later, my mission was accomplished, and I had 200 bluegill and perch filets ready for the freezer for some fantastic winter fish fries!
What did I learn from this experience? It was that September is the best time of year to fish!