The Second Best Bluegill

by Louis Bignami

Fifty years of second best seems a heavy price for not weighing a potential world record at once.

As usual, A. J. McClane said it best. In his Secret Life of a Bream Specialist, one of his quality columns George Reiger selected in his fine book Fishing With McClane, McClane noted, "It would require supernatural aid to sing the praises of a fish whose rustic charm far exceeds his capacity for prolonged struggle. But when caught on very light tackle, there is a patent of nobility about the bream."

Bluegills, AKA "Bream" aren't bad in the pan either. As McClane continued, "A king might fare no better than on a feast of swamp cabbage, hushpuppies and deep-fried bream . . .. It may be that panfish are strikingly similar in dimensions, coloring and morality, but as the meek inherit the earth, so the bream has inherited the water. He is the most sought, caught, prolific fish in our land."

Given such a democratic fish, willing, even anxious to be caught by even the most undeserving, it's a shame that a mere 2-ounces of bream can make a man so unhappy for so long. Back in 1950, when T.S. Hudson broke Coke McKenzie's 1947 4-pound 10-ounce world record with a 4-pound 12-ounce fish from Mr. McKenzie's favorite fishing hole, McKenzie wasn't happy. In the years since, T.S. Hudson and his fish have long since disappeared. Little is known about Hudson's catch save it bit a worm dangled from a cane pole using the "sneak up" system which McKenzie developed to take fish from the crystal waters of Ketona Lake, a small pond in a Birmingham, Alabama suburb. The pond is posted now by the new owners after several drownings. But kids still sneak in and report two and three pound bluegills.

McKenzie doesn't have to go back. He's got a strong memory, and a mounted fish, to remind him of that long ago April afternoon in 1947 when he set, but lost the record forever. McKenzie fished Ketona Pond, a quarry pond just five minutes from his home, often before or after his shift at the local bolt and rivet company. According to McKenzie, "You could grab some worms, a quill bobber and a cane pole and catch enough bluegill for dinner any day. I usually got 15 to 20 bluegills that went between 3/4-pound and 1 1/2-pound. There were a lot of big bass in the little lake too, but you couldn't catch them very often on bait or lures. After a while, we quit trying for bass. After I discovered 'the trick' for bluegills, they came easy." McKenzie continued, "The trick was really simple. The water in the ponds was all from seepage. There was no runoff. So it was so clear you could see bottom in ten feet, easy. Fish would spook if they saw you. So we rigged with no weight and a quill bobber and crawled up to the edge of the bank."

"If you hunkered down real quiet, and stuck the pole out over the water, your gob of worms would sink naturally until it was four or five feet deep. The quill would lie there flat on the water. When you got a hit, you would watch the quill tip up and follow it down with the tip of the pole until the quill was couple of feet deep. Then set the hook."

Interestingly enough, this is the exact technique, even to the quill bobber, that British anglers use for their highly sophisticated match fishing for species like bream that much resemble our bluegills.

As McKenzie remembers it, "That day I tied on a number 3 Harrison hook baited with a red worm on some 6-pound test line, and crawled up to the edge. You had to sneak up on the fish and peek over the edge. They would spook if they spotted you. Cane poles let you catch a lot of fish fast because you could move the bait right to the fish. My friend and I already had about 15 bluegills. It was a pretty slow day, and I wondered if we'd have dinner fish."

His next hit was different! When he hauled back on the pole the fish didn't come up at all. It dived and circled. McKenzie remembers, "I figured I had a bass. I'd lost bass before. I didn't think I'd land him."

McKenzie mentioned a couple of kids out gigging frogs who came up and, while he tried hard not to break off his fish on his 6-pound test line, kept asking questions. McKenzie never really saw the fish in the water. It was getting dark, the quarry ponds were shaded and dark and he couldn't see well from his perch over the water.

Coke McKenzie and second best 4-pound 10 ounce bluegill caught from Ketona Lake, Alabama

"Suddenly," he remembered, the excitement still plain in his voice more than 40 years later, "This monster, the biggest bluegill I'd ever seen, rolled up on his side. There was no way to get him up the steep bank."

Fortunately, McKenzie figured out a way. He talked the two rubbernecking boys out of a frog gig, jabbed the fish and, now in the dark, headed home.

McKenzie said, "It's a good thing I didn't clean the fish. We had company at the house, so I left it in the refrigerator in a pan of water. I planned on cleaning it in the morning, but the company stayed late, and I had to rush to work. We got to talking about the fish. The foreman and I got to arguing about its size. Then my boss heard how big it was. So he sent a man over to the house to get the fish. When the fish was weighed that afternoon it ran 4-pounds 10-ounces."

In perspective this is a buster bluegill. The previous record was only 2-pounds 8-ounces. Shortly after Coke McKenzie's record, a 3 1/2-pound bluegill came from Ketona Pond. Then, on April 9, 1950, T.S. Hudson caught his still record 4-pound 12-ounce fish.

McKenzie, when interviewed at age 77 and with a wife in failing health, ruefully commented, "I should have weighed that fish right away. I know it had to weight at least 5-pounds. I'm sure it was larger than Hudson's fish that got weighed right away. I saw both fish mounted, and mine was bigger." So, instead of holding a record, McKenzie, by waiting 20 hours to weigh his fish, has been second best for over 40 years. While he patiently answers questions and willingly sends photos of his mounted bluegill, you can, if you listen carefully, still hear his sense of loss at those extra two ounces.

Bluegill Size Factors

Two record fish in three years from one small pond does seem odd. Alabama Fisheries experts wondered what made the Ketona bluegills so big. So they went over for a look. In an October, 1979 Outdoor Life article on the record bluegill written by John Phillips, Barry Smith, then Assistant Chief of Fisheries for Alabama, noted: "There are two lakes at Ketona, a small lake where the world records were taken and a larger lake that is also supposed to have nice bluegills. But because of the steep banks, the little lake was the only one we could get into."

"We tried shocking and other tactics to collect some of the big bluegills, but all we could come up with were average-sized fish. The Department wanted some of the Ketona Lake bluegills because we had reasoned that the genetic makeup of these fish might be such that they would foster larger bluegills than we were currently producing at out state hatchery."

Such turned out not to be the case. Environmental factors, and WW II which took some fishing pressure off the fish, seemed to make the difference at Ketona Lake. Scale checks of McKenzie's bluegill showed it to be nine years old. That is three years older than most experts calculated as a maximum age attainable for a bluegill at that time.

Limestone waters like Ketona's help grow bigger fish too. As always with panfish, overpopulation, stunting and competition with a large age class will keep sizes down. In small Ketona Lake there were huge numbers of bass to eat smaller bluegills and extremely limited spawning areas for bluegills on small limestone ledges. So few bluegills hatched, and most of those became bass food.

The common situation, which pulls most of the bass out of bass and panfish waters until panfish take over, didn't obtain. Locals hadn't figured out how to catch the bass in this suburban Birmingham lake.

According to Coke McKenzie, "The company that bought the site drew down the ponds after Fish and Game did their study, but Ketona Lake filled back up. Now you can't get permission to fish. Kids still tell me that they sneak in and bring out 2- to 3-pound bluegills all the time. So I guess you could still set a record, if you could get in to fish. With all the fancy gear they have now, somebody might break Hudson's record."

You get the impression McKenzie wouldn't mind being number three on the list, if Hudson were dropped down to number two. It's being second, answering questions about the "second best" bluegill for generations that McKenzie regrets. That, and the hours his "5-pound" bluegill shrank in the refrigerator.

Perspectives

Forty years is a long time to hold a record for fish as widely distributed and easily accessible as bluegills. Given the number of potential ponds, lakes, flooded strip mines and other waters across the country, it seems possible that T.S. Hudson's record could eventually be broken. Every fisheries biologist interviewed in the South has stories of record bream that go direct from water to cooking oil.

Nationwide records offer a better perspective for those in other areas. The NFWFHF records top out with a 3-pound 8-ounce fish taken by Darren May in Illinois. The IGFA records top out with a 4-pound, 3-ounce bluegill caught in 1980 by Phil Moore Conyers in Hopkins County, Kentucky. The last fish suggests that larger specimens may die of old age somewhere. The key is finding the ultimate "honey hole," such as Ketona Pond, where the conditions are ideal to produce those solitary, huge bluegills that wreck records.