My fishing buddy, Brendan, and I took full advantage of the latter two options during a recent pond fishing excursion, gathering a tasty little meal in the process.
We began doing a little bass fishing with Ned Rigs, with him using a basic Z-Man TRD and me using a TRD CrawZ, one of my favorite new lures in recent weeks. I hit on a small bass and then skipped my craw under a dock and got a hit on the fall from a male black crappie. I could tell it was male as they typically are quite darkly colored during this time of the year to attract females.
I moved a bit and fished in some shallow water in the weeds, which was mostly fruitless fishing until something big yanked my jig. I set the hook and it immediately turned its head and snapped my 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. Only thing I can figure is it must have been a big catfish, as the bass in that pond aren’t nearly big enough to do that.
Rather than chasing the big fish, I decided to downsize and go after a mess of panfish, as I could see bluegills and crappie swarming the dock now. I first tried a Fle-Fly Crappie Kicker on a Big Eye jighead coated with some lure flavor spray, which definitely got their attention but seemed to be a bit big for the bluegills that attacked. I then busted out the trusty ice rod and hit them with a neat little ice fishing jig I picked up online, a yellow-glow PK Lures Predator Flash jigging spoon. I tipped the small, red treble hook with my go-to fish attractant, some Berkley Crappie Nibbles, and tossed it in about a foot deep. Almost immediately, I got a hit from a small bluegill. As soon as I tossed the gill back in and put the hook back in the water, another one hit. And another.
For a while, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. I found the perfect combination. Handy watched incredulously as I pulled them out one by one, and soon I hooked into a nice-sized bull bluegill and decided it was a good keeper. I hit on a couple crappie soon after, while Handy started getting some hits more bass on his Ned Rig working the shallows to my right.
As he walked the shoreline, he looked in the woods and miraculously spotted a morel mushroom just a few feet inside the woods in a clearing. He dropped his pole immediately, and when he walked into the clearing to pick the shroom, he said he found another.
That was enough to get me to drop my rod, as well.
I left my 5-gallon bucket — full of about five fish at the time — sitting on the dock and hurried over to the sloped woods. We began searching the area, and soon he found two more. We traversed the side of the north-facing slope and ended up finding eight total. When I say we found them, I mean he found them and I got torn up by thorns, but it was still a good time.
We walked out with a nice haul of good-sized morels and put them on my truck bed, then went back to fishing. Handy was hitting the bass hard now, getting bit on just about every other cast. The bluegill weren’t hitting as hard now, but the ones that did hit were big bulls that were about the size of my hand. Their bellies were bright orange, and I added them to my bucket with glee.
I caught a few more crappie way up on the bank behind the dock, where they appeared to be working on beds, making me think the females hadn’t laid their eggs yet. The crappie were really shy, not at all aggressive like you would expect after the eggs had been hatched. Most of the time, the fish would actually back away from the lure once I put it in the water, and the only way to get a bite was to hold it incredibly still until the crappie decided it was food. It was almost like ice fishing season never ended for them.
I caught about 20 fish or so total, but ended up throwing the majority back because they were either too small or were females with eggs. I kept nine total — two male black crappie and seven bull bluegill. Handy ended up also catching about 20 largemouth, which all went back in the pond, as well.
As it got dark, we headed back to the truck and cleaned the fish. The crappies and three big bluegill were easy to clean, as I pulled big fillets off if them. I gave most of those to Handy to take home to his wife, Emily, who now loves fish thanks to some white bass we caught during the winter.
With smaller bluegills, filleting is a lot more difficult, especially with an electric fillet knife as you’ll likely end up cutting through the fish by accident. The best way to process bluegills that aren’t monster-sized is to chop off their heads, cut a straight line from their anus to their head to pull out the guts and then either skin the remaining flank or use a tablespoon or the back of your fillet knife to descale them, scraping from tail to head. That way, you can cook them skin-on and get the added flavor from the skin and bones, which can be removed fairly easily by hand after cooking.
We had 18 fillets and eight mushrooms, so we divvied them up equally in Ziploc bags.
When I got home, I filled the mushroom bag up with water and shook it well to rinse it. You can throw that water out in your yard after rinsing to try to grow morels next season. I live in an apartment, so I ended up freezing the bag of water and will take it out later to a spot to try to grow some morels there. This is also why people say to use mesh bags when morel hunting, to drop the spores so they will grow back the following year. I don’t know if it actually works, but I’m going to try it.
I also rinsed my bluegill in the bag, shaking it well and then dumping the pinkish water, refilling and repeating until the water remained clear after shaking.
I usually will let fish soak in the fridge for at least an hour before cooking, adding salt, lemon and a bit on vinegar to draw out any toxins in the meat. I soak the mushrooms for a bit, too, but only using water.
I breaded the mushrooms and fish with a mixture of flour, paprika, Team Catfish gourmet fish seasoning and lemon pepper, then fried them in vegetable oil.
Nothing is much better than panfish and morels. Except maybe walleye and morels.
Do you have a great recipe for panfish or morels you’d like to share? If so, send it to me by email at email@example.com!