With his slip bobber set shallow and a small leech hooked to a panfish jig, Colin Burris cast his line as far as he could in whip-like fashion from a backroad bridge in Cass County.
The line sailed 25 feet into a clearing in the lily pads. Bull’s-eye! He hit the honey hole where hungry bluegills were shoaling in the midsection of a tiny lake shaped like an hourglass.
On a sunny afternoon last week in Thunder Lake Township, three cousins took turns hitting the target and nailing big sunfish. They cheered when any sunnie was retrieved all the way to the railing of the bridge. Eighty maybe? All were released.
“I hate this game,” Colin joked after losing yet another fish that escaped by veering into the lily pads and tangling his line.
The outing was a simple summer pleasure and a reminder of how much fun anyone can have catching a bluegill the size of a small dinner plate. Sunfish as big as that are now rarities in Minnesota, and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been talking to anglers about the benefits of holding back on harvesting the big ones.
In places where anglers support protection of the species, the DNR will consider special bag limit restrictions to rebuild the size structure of bluegills. The agency’s Quality Bluegill Initiative aims to expand the number of special sunfish lakes from about 60 to as many as 250 lakes by the year 2023.
Colin, 28, of St. Paul, was flanked by Joe Kennedy, 12, of Cottage Grove and Luke Keester, 20, of Lincoln, Neb. They were vacationing together with their families on Woman Lake when Luke’s father confessed the exact location of a roadside fishing hole he’s kept secret for more than 20 years.
Tucked away on a gravel road not far from heavily traveled Hwy. 6, the squat concrete bridge spans a fast-moving brook lined with an array of aquatic plants in every imaginable shade of green. The lake isn’t marked by any road signs.
Upstream from the bridge were the lily pads and bulrushes. Downstream were broad-leafed plants and patches of submerged moss that wavered in the stream like neon green smoke.
For more than two hours amid a cool breeze, the cousins reeled feverishly when a bobber disappeared. They cast one at a time, but the spectating was never boring and it gave them time to rebait.
Dogfish added to the drama. At least two of the tubular fish, also known as bowfin, hunkered in dark layers of underwater grass near the bridge. They lunged like sharks at the bluegills when the panfish swirled through the water on the anglers’ fishing lines.
“The sunnies are too big!” Joe said. “They can’t eat’em.”
Colin caught a silver-colored common shiner, a palm-sized baitfish. Coupled with sightings of a great blue heron, a woodland hawk and the paw of a large snapping turtle, fishing for sunnies on a secret lake was sublime.