Special to the Leader-Telegram
Editor’s note: Max Wolter is the Department of Natural Resources senior fisheries biologist in Sawyer County and a lifelong angler.
At the end of an August-ish day sometime around 2002-ish (from the best of my memory) my friend Art and I walked wearily up the path from the dock to my parents’ cabin outside of Cable. Our backs were sore, our faces were sunburnt, and our hands were raw. It had been one of the most exhausting days of fishing of our young lives. You might think that we’d been slinging musky baits for hours or battling monster fish. But the truth is we never took a full cast and we didn’t catch a single fish over eight inches long that day.
In Wisconsin, almost all lakes deep enough to support fish have at least one, often three to five, species of panfish. Bluegill, perch and pumpkinseed sunfish are native to most northern Wisconsin lakes. Black crappies are not native but were stocked extensively across the north in the early 1900s and are now almost as widespread as other panfish.
As a group panfish are not all closely related, but they are lumped together because of their similar size (about that of a small frying pan) and because of how common they are. Bluegills often are one of the most abundant species in any lake, with some studies estimating bluegill density at hundreds of fish per acre.
The lake mentioned earlier certainly had plenty of bluegills. Standing on the dock and looking down into the clear water we could see pods of several dozen milling around. A hook dropped in the water would be immediately mobbed. Even a bare hook could catch fish. It was just too easy. We figured we could have caught 1,000 fish if we wanted to. And that became the basis for our challenge.
Could a pair of anglers catch 1,000 fish in a day (never mind that the average size was probably five inches)? We’d done some research the day before we started out on this mission. Standing on the dock we did a timed “power hour” where we tried to catch 100 bluegill in under 60 minutes. The first trial was promising, with 100 “gills” in 52 minutes. We refined some techniques and tried again: 44 minutes. Catching 1,000 in a day seemed possible. We resolved to wake up early the next day and make a run at 1,000.
At 7 a.m. (early for us, at the time) we caught bluegill No. 1, an average-sized five-inch fish, right off the end of the dock. Standing side by side, Art and I quickly caught 130 more in just over an hour. Then the congregation around the dock began to disperse. It was time to seek out new fish.
We hopped in the boat and whirred off with the trolling motor. Only 50 yards from the dock we found another massive school of bluegill that bit almost frantically. Another 80 fish, bringing the total to over 200.
We picked our way around the lake like this for several hours, scooting down the shoreline each time our catch rate slowed. We found that even though bluegill would bite willingly on worms, it took too long to re-bait our hooks in between catches. Instead, we used small wet flies, perfectly sized for even mini bluegills to gobble up. We could catch 200 to 300 bluegills per fly before it became a frazzled unrecognizable mess of feathers and string. We didn’t even have to cast most of the time; the fish were typically crowded around the boat, staring up at us and waiting for our deceptive offerings to hit the water.
When we were in rhythm our approach was almost mechanical. Dip the fly into the water, watch the bluegill grab on, yank it out, remove the hook, toss the fish back in, repeat. Each time a fish was brought in Art or I would call out the number, often loud enough for the whole lake to hear.
After about 600 bluegill, we made a critical mistake: we stopped for lunch. It was nice being out of the sun, and we indulged heavily on the usual cabin fare of brats and potato salad. Our enthusiasm to go back out and catch more bluegill was flagging. It took until 2 p.m. before we marched back down to finish our mission.
We slid quietly into some new water, but we found it wasn’t just our zeal for catching fish that had changed; the fish themselves seemed to be acting differently. They darted in and out of the shadows now cast by the tree line, making it harder to stay on top of large schools. For the first time all day, spans of four to five minutes would go by without a fish coming to hand. And with each dry spell, we lost more light.
At 850 bluegills and with waning sunlight we got serious. We turned on the outboard for the first time all day and motored across the lake to what had earlier been our most productive area. There were still fish around, but we had the same challenge spotting them well enough to drop flies in their path.
At around 900 fish it became clear that we were not going to make it. The sun was setting and the bite had changed completely from what we’d experienced in the morning. We returned to the dock with 928 total bluegills for the day. Short of our goal, but still an obscene number of fish. Not a single one was kept, and to my knowledge, not a single photo was taken to commemorate our effort. But Art and I still talk about the day we almost caught 1,000 fish.
Author’s note: I still think this is attainable! If any anglers give this a try and are successful, let me know about it.