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If anyone has had the urge to spend some time fishing now is the time to do it. If by “fishing” one means simply taking the time to catch fish, July is the peak time for all of the most popular species as well as a few that appeal to a small but enthusiastic minority. We hear plenty about bass, trout and salmon fishing, as well as stripers, bluefish and tuna along the coast, but oddly enough there are fish that are more popular (and abundant) than these front page glamour species. Surveys reveal that more anglers fish for “panfish” than any other species and for good reason. With no size or bag limits, abundant populations and no closed seasons it makes sense that fishermen who decide to go fishing on the rare day off from greater responsibilities rig up for white or yellow perch, bluegills, horned pout (aka bullheads) and pickerel (daily limit 10). Requiring little more than a fishing rod and a tin can full of garden worms, these species are cooperative, aggressive and so plentiful that most anglers use a 5-gallon bucket as a creel and go home only when the bucket is brimming with the makings of a great evening fish fry. A seasoned angler can catch his self-established limit of fish in an hour or two, and then, with a sharp knife, create enough tasty fillets in an hour to feed the entire neighborhood. What’s left of the fish goes into the compost pile for next year’s garden. Who else will have that much fun in the course of one long, summer’s day?
Gearing up for a day of “bucket” fishing is simple. A rod and reel loaded with 6-pound-test line, a few No. 8 hooks, a cupful of worms and a float or bobber are all you need to succeed at traditional, subsistence-style fishing. Because most of these species are weed-oriented fish you’ll find them in water that’s less than 10 feet deep. They are so abundant that a person can fish in the same spot all day and fill a bucket without having to move to a more productive spot. Ambitious anglers can increase production by fishing from a kayak or canoe, even wading if the water is shallow enough. Cast to “holes” in the weeds and lily pads and hang on. It’s the rare stretch of open water that won’t be full of hungry bluegills, perch or pickerel, and because these species are “schoolies” (meaning they travel in same-sized groups) it’s likely that you’ll catch several in one spot. Pickerel are not very sociable but they are so abundant that there will be two or three eager specimens lurking near a given patch of open water. This is the fun of panfishing – you can expect to catch something on nearly every cast.
Fortunately, panfish are active throughout the day, but if you can only find the time to fish at dawn, dusk or at night you’re in luck. Bluegills and perch start feeding just before sunrise and don’t stop till dark. The same goes for pickerel which, for some reason are not very aggressive at night. However, horned pout are most active during the hours of darkness. These bottom feeders (call them catfish if you prefer) are so abundant in mud-bottomed ponds that it’s possible to fill a bucket with them in an hour or less. It’s more likely that you’ll run out of bait before you fill your bucket, but there are ways around that. Bullheads eat just about anything so consider using a small piece of salt pork, fatty chunks of meat, fresh chicken skin or anything that’s strong, tough and reusable. Liver and kidney pieces are good, too.
Expect to latch onto an eel or two if you plan to fish after dark. Believe it or not eel is great eating chunked and fried or broiled. The challenge is more in landing and handling these slippery, slimy critters, but anyone with an Italian or Greek background can tell you how good eel can be – even pickled!
Because Maine’s night-feeding fish are more aggressive than the daytime nibblers like bluegills and perch, it’s a good idea to bring a hook disgorger or pliers with you. Some multi-tools feature both items, which make it much easier to deal with a fish that swallows the hook.
All fish have spines or fins with sharp edges, so be careful when landing the larger specimens. It’s a good idea to bring a fish in and let it settle down for a few seconds before trying to handle it. Even though bullheads have very sharp spines on their dorsal (top) and pectoral (side) fins, it’s easy enough to avoid them by sliding one hand up the belly and then grasping the fish with the dangerous fins held securely between the fingers. Most of the bullheads caught in Maine are hand-sized fish and are easy to process, but if you happen to catch a big one it’s a good idea to use a net to contain the fish while you remove the hook.
Although there is no size or bag limit on panfish in Maine it makes sense to keep only the larger specimens simply because it’s just as much work to fillet a small one, yet the net result may be just a teaspoon-sized fillet. My personal rule is that keepers must be the size of my hand – anything smaller is really not worth the trouble. A 6- to 10-inch perch, for example, should provide two fillets about the size of a half stick of butter. Larger fish, of course, produce larger fillets, but most panfish are under 12 inches long (hence the name, “panfish”). An angler who’s adept with a filleting knife can run through a bucketful of hand-sized fish in an hour or less. Those who know how to use an electric filleting knife can cut that time in half.
Some folks are fond of white perch, which are common throughout the state, but yellow perch, bluegills and most other species are equally good. I’ve met anglers who prefer bullheads to any other species, and some who eat only perch, bluegills or pickerel. Go, fish, decide for yourself, but I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!
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