ERIE CANAL ADVENTURE: Catching bluegills in the St. Lawrence

August 20, 2020

Story Location:
Alexandria Bay, NY
United States

ALEXANDRIA BAY, NEW YORK - In the gray light of dawn yesterday,  I heard Terry’s steps on the public dock where we tied up for the night.  My mind was still on the bugler who, somewhere in this small town on the St. Lawrence River, played Taps just as darkness fully enveloped the community. The bugler sounded out the military song unhurriedly, with great reverence, drawing out each note.  

Through the night, the water-muffled rumble of diesel engines on freighters passing by on the river woke me.  These giant ships slip quietly through the water, deck lights lit from stem to stern, red or green running lights proclaiming port or starboard, eventually disappearing as they continue on their missions to the west or east. 

I sit up in my bunk every time a freighter passes, taking in their gentle but powerful sound and their passing lights. The guttural purr of the engines beckons me out of sleep smoothly.  No jarring alarm. As the rumble fades, it eases me back into sleep just as seamlessly as it woke me. “Good coming and going,” as Robert Frost wrote in his wonderful poem ‘Swinger Of Birches.’

The great St. Lawrence Seaway supports an endless flow of commerce.  This time of year it also supports massive populations of tasty blue gills.

I watched Terry set up after I heard his steps pass our boat.  He carried a light rod with a spinning reel, a waxed paper cup filled with worms he dug the night before, and a white, plastic, five gallon bucket.

He didn’t need the reel.  He dropped his tiny jig-head hook tipped with a small piece of worm into about three feet of the clear water in an empty slip by the dock.  He watched intently as bluegills rose to the bait.  He pulled it away from the smaller ones, and easily hooked the larger ones. 

His rod bent slightly as he pulled the fish from the water.  Then he set the butt of the rod on the dock, wrapped his left hand gently around the fish, held it against his sweatshirt and removed the hook carefully from its mouth.  Then he dropped the fish into the bucket, rebaited with another small piece of worm, and started the process again.

The whole procedure, from hook in the water to hook being removed from the fish’s mouth, took no more than a minute. I watched Terry catch eight fish and then stepped out of the boat to get more intel.

He told me that an endless population of bluegills enters the St. Lawrence system each summer when the water warms.

“I catch them from about the Fourth of July through the end of August. Get up at about 3 a.m. and hit several docks around town, staying as long as I’m catching, moving on when they slow down.  I sell them to a guy a few miles outside of town for $1 a pound and he sells them in Ohio.  Panfish.  He takes all I can get for him.”

Freshwater blue gills.  Good eating fish.

Terry said this is the last county where there is no limit on the number of bluegills you can catch.  “That will probably change eventually but for now I can make $300 or $400 a week while they’re around.  And when they’re around, they’re everywhere. Last night I caught 120 pounds.”

The size limit on bluegills is six inches.  “I can tell if they’re legal by how they fit in the palm of my hand.”  

He’s good at pulling the bait away from the small ones and pulling it in front of the big ones, hooking them when they lip the worm. He throws few back. The clarity of the water here makes all the difference.

“I’ll stay right here as long as they keep coming,” he said as he snatched up another.

I rolled out an old piece of wisdom:  “No sense in leaving fish to find fish.”

He looked at me and smiled:  “Ninety percent of the fish are caught in ten percent of the water.”

As the sun rose higher, Terry looked in his bucket, half filled with bluegills.

“I better go put these on my cooler, on ice.  They’re warm when they come out of the water and they can go mushy if you don’t cool them down quickly.”

He picked up his bucket in one hand and his rod and worms in the other.  Then he turned and walked back up the dock into town. I watched him go, eventually disappearing, just like those freighters and tankers in the night. 



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