Do you love big bluegill?
The area that comprises Greene-Sullivan State Forest lies divided between Eastern Sullivan, and Western Greene counties in South-Central Indiana, and was originally established in 1936 with a land donation of 3067 acres from the Indiana Central Coal Co. Further donations from various mining factions through the years have grown the property to its present size of approx. 8000 acres. The forest contains over 100 ponds, or "pits" as they are commonly referred to, providing approximately 1200 surface acres of water.
This part of Indiana is coal country, and when viewed from above such as in satellite or aerial photos, the landscape provides dramatic testimony to man's ability to alter the earth's appearance in order to supply his ever expanding infrastructure. Looking down from overhead, the various pits appear like pieces from a jigsaw puzzle, irregular in shape, disproportionate in size, scattered randomly across the ground as if dropped haphazardly by a distracted child.
Separating and dividing some of the pits are tracts of forested land which give the appearance of having been groomed by a giant rake. This is where the discarded mining material, or overburden, was piled in rows in order to uncover the coal beds that lied beneath the surface.
After the mining pits filled with water, what was left were long narrow strips, or canals, separated by equally narrow peninsulas of rocky land. A few of these canals go for great distances, twisting and turning like a huge maze, perhaps even making a connection with other nearby lakes.
To truly appreciate the uniqueness of Greene-Sullivan State Forest, you need to spend some time in a boat on one of the bigger pits. Cruising along on these electric only lakes, some of which contain water so clear that visibility to depths of 15' or more is not uncommon, can be a somewhat disconcerting experience.
One moment you may be over 40' of clear water. Then, in a span of just a few yards, up from the depths looms an underwater structure, a small scale mountain that rises from the floor of the pit to within mere inches of the surface.
If the boat operator has remained vigilant, he or she has raised the trolling motor and allowed the craft to glide over the obstruction without incident, thereby avoiding any unpleasant interruptions.
. Then, after a few feet, the shallow top of the ridge may give way to a sheer drop, descending once more into the depths, allowing the motor to return to its vertical position and progress to continue yet again.
A different perspective may be had by leaving the main body of the pit, and traveling down one of the canals. Here you will find shallower water, flanked on both sides by rock strewn ridges that support a variety of trees and plants which loom out over the water, casting shadows upon its surface, and at times forcing you to duck your head.
During the summer months these canals can display an almost primeval appearance, with the canopy overhead nearly blocking out the sun, and the dense undergrowth obscuring your vision. One can all but glimpse what this area might have looked like some 300-350 million years ago, when the vast coal beds were being formed. Magnificent trees, some over 100 feet tall, were commonplace. The Earth’s oxygen rich atmosphere gave rise to huge insects, six foot long millipedes crawled along the forest floor while dragonflies with wingspans approaching two feet buzzed overhead.
Those titans from Earth's carboniferous period are of course no longer with us, having gone extinct eons ago. But the stories of giants still persist here, and indeed a specimen was produced not millions, but mere decades ago, that made headlines across the Hoosier state. And so the legends persist and the stories abound, discussed around campfires and across bait shop counters. Just what were the conditions and circumstances that produced this monster fish, and perhaps more importantly, could it happen again? Do the giants still swim in these waters?
For Mr. Harold Catey of New Castle Indiana, the morning of March 25th, 1972 began like many others had before. It was a Saturday, and Harold and some friends had made the journey down from New Castle the previous day, to enjoy an early Spring fishing trip. They were camped at Reservoir 26, their usual spot, and had spent a good part of the day on Friday trying for some panfish. In this case, Bluegills and Crappie.
Mr Catey remembers the fishing that weekend to be less than spectacular, so after a couple of hours spent at Reservoir 26, Harold and his friend Bill decided to drive around and try some other spots. Greene-Sullivan State Forest has well over 100 pits open to the public, so different waters are literally around every corner. They had been driving around, stopping wherever the water looked inviting, and casting a line. Simply pulling off to the side of the gravel road and trying their luck, searching for the good bite, as most anglers are prone to do.
It was at one such location that Harold stepped to the edge of the gravel and surveyed the water that lay before him. It certainly didn't look too inviting. It was a small pit, not even worthy of a wooden sign bearing a name. With it's steeper than normal bank, and bare dirt, turned to mud from the recent spring rains, access appeared difficult. Across the road on the other hand, lay a pit that looked somewhat more promising. Not to mention easier to get to.
Nevertheless, Harold decided to give the smaller, un-named pit a try. He carefully made his way, slipping and sliding, down to the water's edge. He was using a Heddon spincasting outfit, the very same one he had used on a recent trip "up North", to fish for a species decidedly larger than the panfish native to GSSF. The two friends had the bait basics covered, choosing to fish with crickets and minnows.
Harold baited up with a fresh cricket and made his cast. The insect had hardly settled under the water when the float disappeared and the line went taut. The angler set the hook and it was game on. Harold could tell by the fight that the fish was large, but he figured it for a Bass, or maybe a Crappie if luck was with him. The trusty Heddon, spooled with it's heavier line, brought the fish to shore giving Harold his first look at it. What he saw stunned him. It was a Bluegill, unlike any other he had ever seen. The fish was huge, and in his excitement to land it he stepped into some soft mud and sank nearly halfway to his knees. He was able to swing the fish up on the bank, where it came off the hook and started flopping back down towards the water.
Mired down by the mud, Harold was unable to free himself and secure the fish. In fact, he soon fell over backwards, further compounding an already tense situation. He remembers that Bill, still up on the gravel road, was laughing so hard that he could barely breathe. Harold laughs himself now, when he tells the story, and recalls using language that left no room for misinterpretation on Bill's part, suggesting that help was desired and had better not be long in arriving.
When the two anglers were safely back up on the road with their prize, they were shocked at the fish that lay before them. In true angling fashion however, they still needed to catch fish. After all, that was the point all along - dinner. They slipped the big Bluegill headfirst down into a galvanized metal minnow bucket. It didn't fit very well, with its tail hanging out the top, but it would have to suffice.
The two anglers fished the rest of the afternoon, and along about evening began to think about what they were going to do with Harold's big fish. At the time, The Indianapolis Star Newspaper was running its annual big fish contest. There were categories for several of the Hoosier state's popular species, and since no one could remember seeing a Bluegill as large as this one, it seemed like a good idea to enter the fish.
Harold and Bill made their way to Wright's Baithouse, located a short distance away. Owner Wayne Wright was helping his last customers of the day, preparing to close for the evening. When the two men told him they had a big Bluegill to weigh for the newspaper contest, he was less than enthused at staying late, but agreed to put the fish on the scales. Wayne finished up with the other customers and wearily turned to the two men. "Allright, let's see this huge Bluegill you two are going on about" he told them.
When Harold produced the fish, he remembers that Wayne's eyes nearly popped out of his head. " Oh my," was all he kept saying. When the fish was placed on the scale it topped out at 3lbs, 4 ozs. It was 13.5" long, and had a girth of 15.5" Needless to say the fish went on to win the newspaper contest in the Bluegill category quite handily, as well as claiming the title of new state record, which has stood for over 40 years.
Harold sent the fish to Alabama, to have it mounted by taxidermist Archie Phelps. The only photos of the fish that have thus far been uncovered consists of the newspaper clippings from 1972, which, along with the record fish entry form, comprise the entirety of the file currently held by the Division of Fish and Wildlife. These photos were not known to exist by Harold until I uncovered them during my research, and in fact Mr. Catey requested that I send him copies, as he had no further photographs of his own.
And what happened to the fish? it currently hangs in a local watering hole, in Mt. Summit, Indiana. The mount has been redone at least twice over the past 40 years, and due to artist’s interpretation it is nearly impossible to tell what the fish may have originally looked like, aside from its tremendous size.
The angler himself, remains modest about his catch. As he once told me matter-of-factly.... "It was sheer dumb luck" When I asked him if he thought the record would ever be broken, he paused a moment before replying, " I hope so. I've had it long enough, it's time for someone else to carry it awhile. I would like to shake their hand"
When I first decided to delve into the story behind Mr. Catey's record fish, my motivation was simply personal. I had hoped to discover something, anything really, that I could use to help me in my quest to grow my own trophy Bluegill. I was looking for the smoking gun, the "AH-HA" moment, when you realize you've found that one key piece to the puzzle.
In this case however, what I found only raised more questions. I approached this situation in what I thought was a methodical manner, trying to gather data in the most analytical way possible, in hopes of replicating the results in my own ponds. I wanted to put together the formula, that perfect combination that would yield record quality fish right out of the gate. X + Y / Z = Giant Bluegills every time.
If it were only that simple.
After talking with Mr. Catey, my first surprise was learning that the location usually given for the catch is in fact incorrect. I have seen Reservoir 26 listed as being the pit that produced the fish, when in reality it was Hickory Lake, which back in 1972 didn't even have a name. It was just another small, nondescript pit. Once the location was established, I began investigating the history of the pit, hoping to establish its age, and ideally, come up with a stocking report from the DNR.
I spent an enjoyable morning in the office of Mr. Steve Siscoe, property manager with the DNR over at Greene-Sullivan State Forest. Mr. Siscoe was gracious enough to take time from his busy schedule and allowed me to pore over maps and documents regarding the property itself. In addition, the current fisheries biologist for this part of Indiana, Mr. Dave Kittaka, was kind enough to dig back through old records in the hope of uncovering fish stocking data. His efforts are greatly appreciated also.
What we turned up was another surprise, at least for me. The area where Hickory Lake is located was last mined from 1954-1961. Mr Catey caught his record fish in 1972. Since a Bluegill's growth is indeterminate, could the fish have lived, and continued to grow, for 11 years?
Maybe. It's within the realm of possibilities, but I would consider it unusual for this area.
The stocking report itself was a disappointment, in that there wasn't one. Mr. Siscoe told me that it was common practice back in the day to mine an area, leave it and allow it to fill with water, then return some years down the road and re-open the area for mining once again. When that happened, the company would of course drain the water, and the mining faction itself, not the DNR, would sometimes transport fish from one BOW to another, rather than let them all perish. Apparently many of Greene Sullivan's lakes were stocked in just this fashion many years ago, before the DNR took on a more active role in its management.
In addition, there are some small creeks running through the area, which of course would supply their own native species to whichever pit they happened to connect with.
So what about the fish itself? Was it something special, or just a product of its environment? I was able to locate a biologist who was working at the property when the fish was caught, and Mr. Jed Pearson, now a fisheries biologist for the northern district of Indiana, remembers a picture of the fish hanging on the wall inside the forestry office. Unfortunately, he was not the biologist who examined the fish at the time. He was able to provide me with the name of the person who probably did, but this gentleman moved out of state many years ago, and my efforts to locate him have proven unsuccessful.
The DNR's file on the fish contains no documentation other than the record entry form, and a couple of yellowed newspaper clippings. I am forced to conclude that this was after all, 1972. If a biologist even saw the fish, it was probably given nothing more than a quick look-see, and pronounced a Bluegill. A big Bluegill perhaps, but a Bluegill nonetheless.
So where does that leave us? If you take a look at the accompanying photos, you will see, outlined in red, the area where Mr. Catey caught his fish. The red arrows point to the area where I was able to hike to and verify the possibility of Hickory Lake being connected to the much larger Graveyard Lake, ( Incorrectly labeled as More Lake in the photos). Especially probable during a high water event.
So, our fish enters Hickory Lake, either during high water or from bucket stocking courtesy of the mining company. Either way, when the water level drops he's in there for the duration. However it happened, stocking density is low, and our boy finds himself with good clean water, lots of food, and very little competition. There's little angling pressure, due mostly to limited access to the majority of this pit,(only one easy spot to fish), and the close proximity of several other, more likely looking lakes in which to try one's luck.
Combine that with what I feel must have been a genetic predisposition for exceptional growth, and you have the makings of a trophy fish. In other words, the "smoking gun" talked about earlier was probably just a combination of several factors, all converging in one fish. There simply isn't a magic formula existing in Hickory Lake that turns every fish into giant, state record Bluegill. If there was, we surely would've seen other 3 lb + fish over the past 40 years.
Nice catch Harold. Thank you for sharing it with me.