RALPH BARTHOLDT: Panfish or predator? To each his own

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She was introduced to pike as a 2-year-old. Just a towheaded tot, stripped down to her diaper on a summer day at a local lake while her dad was hooking panfish.

She wore salt water sandals and the kind of grin you still remember despite all those years having fled by like lemmings.

My daughter’s joy was the result of the bluegills mostly, that I caught with a worm hanging under a bobber in July, near some floating weeds not far from what is now a bicycle trail, but then was just a rail bed.

Bluegills are the perfect kid fish; they are colorful and have kissy mouths. They are small, and once a tiny finger knows to beware of the spiny dorsal fins, a kids’ fondness for sunfish is sealed.

Worms are part of it. Squiggly little hummers that squirm and wriggle and seem to make smiley upturned grins with their brown bodies, and don’t mind at all being speared with a hook. Worms don’t scream or bite, just leave a tiny squirt of digested dirt in a small hand, and that’s all.

Catching bluegills and crappies is a kid fishery and the fondness grows with age.

I know a guy who regularly lands trophy trout, the kind that send deckmates scuttling for their cell phones, and whose livelihood is linked to making sure his clients have enough big fish pictures on their phones at the end of the day to fill a Facebook page. He’s been a fishing guide so long that his name is synonymous with the lakes he plies.

Right now, this moment even, he’s grinning, pulling panfish from a small, cactus-rimmed lake he visits when North Idaho is frozen over.

It makes him giggle.

Little tykes just learning like to retrieve fish that their parents reel to shore. There’s an excitement that accompanies this, sending children back and forth from the worm can to the fish they are eager to touch.

On the hook it flips and jumps. It’s a pleasant rainbow, a bluegill, just a finned, kissy-mouthed version of My Little Pony and they touch it.

Their senses are overjoyed.

Synapses snap like a handful of Bang Pops on a summer sidewalk.

When the pike came up, my daughter’s first, her joy at the prospect of a funny-faced bluegill had her leap to the line.

She stuck out her hand. She kneeled at water’s edge, then turned tail screaming back to me like the world was a gasoline fire. She clung to my leg and wouldn’t let go.

The pike, snaky and malevolent-looking, grinned, or hissed, its teeth all snag backward, or so it seemed, its spotted body speckled like a jarful of wasps. It slithered on the hook, a murkwater dervish looking for a spell to cast.

Hammer handle, I might have said. Nothing to worry about.

The pike wasn’t much more than a few pounds. The water was warm. The fish spent. I let it go and consoled the little girl who can’t remember the incident these days.

It didn’t, as I had feared it might, scar her for life.

She may have dreamed about it and jumped up a time or two from her bed, but we still do that, and likely so does she, from other things.

At 22, she laughs when I tell her the tale.

Unfazed. She likes to fish, and pike are on her list.

There’s an allure to catching these toothy predators as well as their bigger cousin, the musky. It goes way back. Their name is derived from “big fish,” and in old English, is pick axe and spike. Some people call them jack fish, or slough sharks. Graduates of panfishing target them for their size.

A friend of mine with a mortgage and a two-car garage says they scare the bejesus out of her.

To her, if you’re not catching panfish, you’re not catching fish.

• • •

Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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