I remember the first time I saw the Mississippi River. I had ventured up to the Driftless, specifically La Crosse, in February of 2012. The city and the river were thickly blanketed in snow. I stood in awe overlooking this grand body of water, imagining where it reached the sea down by New Orleans. I’ve always been drawn to rivers, exploring Chicago by kayak and enjoying nature in the Kickapoo Valley reserve.
My Dad, Jim, is drawn to rivers for another reason – fishing. Since I moved to the area, Dad has been searching out the best trout fishing holes. Recently, he decided to expand his hunt to bigger waters and bigger fish. Much of this section of the Upper Mississippi, between St. Paul and La Crosse, consists of a serious of natural lakes and artificial lakes created by dams. Lake Onalaska is one of the bigger lakes, located just north of La Crosse.
One hazy Saturday morning in early September, we rented a little motorboat so Dad, my husband, Christian, and I could try our luck on the Mississippi. Schafer’s of Brice Prairie in Onalaska, WI, provided the boat and some fishing advice. They told us exactly where to go for some easy fishing, barely 100 yards from their dock. Dad sat in the front to navigate.
The people at Schafer’s were right. All three of us were immediately getting bites. Excited by our fortune, we worked to reel them in and were surprised to find that there was not much meat behind those bites. They were bluegill, barely the size of our hands. Even though they may be short, bluegills will turn their broad side to the fishermen after being hooked, swimming at right angles and putting up a surprisingly good fight for their size (dnr.wi.gov).
We kept throwing them back, hoping for bigger catches. Since we city kids were squeamish about grabbing and unhooking our prey, we let Dad have the honors. This kept him pretty busy. Eventually, we realized we weren’t going to catch fish that were any larger, so we decided to venture out farther into the lake for deeper water and bigger fish.
This time we parked close to the railroad tracks, not too far from several other fishing boats.
No luck there. Plus, we were snagging our lines quite often on underwater vegetation. We returned to our previous spot and decided that we’d just have to keep the little guys if we wanted any dinner. We later found out that the lake doesn’t get much deeper than 5 feet! I had worried about our getting a late start on a hot day, since my limited fishing knowledge told me that fish preferred cool temperatures and hid near the bottom on hot days. However, had I done my research ahead of time, I would not have worried. Bluegill is a type of sunfish and sunfish prefer water temperatures around 85 ºF. This explains why a shallow lake, like Lake Onalaska, is so popular with bluegill.
According to the Wisconsin DNR, under favorable conditions, bluegill reach an average length of 6-8 inches. With excellent conditions, bluegills may even grow to 9 inches and weigh up to a pound. However, in lakes with stunted populations, bluegills may grow no larger than 4.5 inches and weigh only 2.5 ounces (dnr.wi.gov). This sounds like what we experienced!
For more information I contacted the Wisconsin DNR directly. A very helpful representative explained what conditions may be leading to stunted fish in Lake Onalaska. First of all, abundant vegetation, promoted by agricultural runoff, provides cover from predators and significantly limits this natural population control. The resulting overpopulation will lead to stunted fish. Furthermore, the lake is a popular fishing destination. Like us, fishermen are likely to only take the big fish, leaving the small ones behind.
Finally, for a more in depth biology lesson (provided by the DNR), the largest bluegills are usually male. Females prefer large males so males focus a lot of their energy into growth. However, while spawning, these males are aggressive and easy to catch. Thus, the large males are the first to be harvested. This can actually lead to an overall decline in the average size of fish in the population.
While the fish were biting consistently, we weren’t always successful at setting the hook in their mouths and were losing a lot of bait to fish that got away. We actually went back to the dock to buy more worms. We figured our hooks might have been too big for their small mouths, and later found out that bluegill suck in their prey, rather than strike at it like many other fish.
After several hours on the water, we decided to call it a day.
Of course, the work wasn’t over. Who gets to gut and clean the fish? We transported our day’s catch to our backyard in a cooler.
We set up a fish cleaning station, a cutting board, a knife, and a bucket, and let Dad get to work. Given we had nothing but old knives and no knife sharpener, he had his work cut out for him. Turns out that deboning a fish is not easy with a dull blade!
Well, in the end, we got to eat our fish for dinner. Lightly seasoned and baked in the oven, they tasted pretty darn good if you didn’t mind picking out the bones!
Mecozzi, Maureen. (Sept. 2008) Bluegill – Lepomis macrochirus, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.