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Bluegill Moon

Under the full-moon light, Palestine Lake was alive. The air was cooled by a sunset thunderstorm, and now a chorus of frogs was singing full blast, and a dozen or more owls chimed in from the shadows. Percussion was handled by bream and bass, snapping and popping among the cypress knees lining the shore. Every critter on the lake joined in on what sounded like a joyous celebration. It all seemed surreal under the lunar light that was on again, off again as clouds passed across the night sky.

"Looks like the moon's 'bout full as a tick on a dog. It's gonna be good and bright tonight," said Danny Jordan, a longtime friend and a seasoned veteran with 25 years of law enforcement with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. We had been planning to do a little nighttime full-moon bream fishing for more than a year but something always came up.

As the moon cleared the cypress trees we launched his canoe-johnboat hybrid and slowly worked our way along the grassy shoreline. Danny and I have spent many nights jiggerpole-fishing the lake for bass, and we would hear big bream feeding at the surface on insects and other surface critters. On those trips we found ourselves wishing we had brought along fly rods and a few popping bugs to give them a shot.

Due to the extended drought afflicting much of Florida, Palestine Lake was lower than normal. Subsequently many of the shoreline cypress trees had exposed root systems. With this in mind, Danny figured the cypress trees would probably be a good place for panfish to be hanging out while waiting for insects to fall into the water. He maneuvered the boat just off the narrow grassline and we started casting our poppers into the darkest shadows beneath the trees. We were using Glo-Bugs, poppers painted with phosphorescent paint. To "charge" a bug up, you simply cup it in the palm of your hand and hold a flashlight beam to it for a few seconds. A glowing bug is much easier to track at night.

We used the electric motor sparingly, shutting it off to allow the boat to glide in silently, close enough for us to cast the bugs to the bases of the trees. As it turned out Danny's fish location prediction was right. On my third or fourth cast I gently twitched the tip of my fly rod and the Glo-Bug vanished with a thunderous splash. The hand-sized bluegill put a deep bend in my light fly rod, and dug deep in tight, concentric circles all the way to the net. As soon as I tossed it in the box, Danny headed for the next cypress tree as quietly as possible because bream and bass spook easily at night and will leave the area altogether if you're careless.

Through the evening, the moon passed in and out of broken cloud cover, so we fished in total darkness a good deal of the time. That's when the Glo-Bugs were most visible to us, and we could place them into some tight places and spot them easily while retrieving. We used conventional popping bugs, too, and bream hit them just as readily, but we needed bright moonlight to see them and work them correctly. And we figured the fish could probably see the Glo-Bugs better when it was darkest.

For night fishing without the moon, wear a headlight to tie knots and check leaders and such. I quickly turned mine on once hooked up so I could see to maneuver a fish when close to cover.

My headlight came in very handy when we entered a small cove covered with a bunch of lily pads. Just as Danny's bug touched the water it was popped by something big, judging by the sound. Danny said, "Turn on your light quick and see what just hit my bug. That ain't no bluegill." I turned on my light and had to laugh. On the end of Danny's line was a thrashing 3-foot gator. Danny's only comment was, "I sure hope he doesn't break the line and take my Glo-Bug, cause we ain't got but a couple left." Luckily the barbless hook fell right out as the gator rolled around.

With the lake being as low as it was my plan was to do a little wading around midnight once the moon was straight overhead. Danny's gator experience put that plan off 'til daybreak when I could keep an eye out for them.

When fishing a Glo-Bug or any popper, I use a light tippet so I know I can't horse the biggest bream much at all. We bend the barbs down on all popping bug hooks so it's important to keep a good tight line while working a big bream out of the maze of cypress roots and the adjacent grass. You don't have to be an expert to fish bream with a fly rod at night. It's all short casting-flipping is more like it-and since you're casting close to trees right along shore, backcasts are over open water.

On nearly every cast that bright night, we were rewarded with an explosive hit from a hand-sized bluegill or small to medium bass, and even the occasional catfish. Most of the time we only took one bluegill from the holes we fished unless we both had good keepers on at the same time. Most of the bass we caught were in the 3- to 4-pound class, but there are some real trophy bass in the lake. Danny's biggest bass in the past was a 12 1/2-pounder that hit a topwater plug.

Palestine Lake is located about seven miles north of the town of Lake Butler, just west of County Road 231. It is a rare and unique part of Florida. Unlike many lakes in Florida, Palestine's shorelines are pristine. Palestine Lake is just about perfectly round, comprises just under a thousand acres and is shallow with a good hard sand bottom. The shoreline is lined with numerous ancient, stunted cypress trees along with a narrow grassline, and scattered coves of lily pads. As yet, there is no exotic vegetation growing in the lake.

It is truly an unspoiled North Florida lake blessed with clean fresh water that produces large bream and trophy bass year in and year out. You won't find housing developments or lakeside homes here. A large paper company owns the adjacent property, and if it should come up for sale, the state of Florida should do whatever is necessary to purchase it. Palestine Lake is a rare state treasure and one of the very last of its kind.

The lake and I go back a ways. As a boy 50-some years ago, I would have been skulling or paddling a homemade wooden boat. My treasured tackle box was comprised of a small nickel-sized snuff can containing a few old hooks of different sizes. Perhaps a half-dozen pieces of beaten flat lead or double-aught split buckshot for sinkers and maybe a couple of whittled down jug corks. A few yards of Mama's sewing thread was used as a line I tied on two or three slender tree saplings I had cut down on the shore. Bait was grasshoppers and crickets caught on the way to the lake which I kept alive in a fruit jar with a few holes punched in the top.

Danny fishes hard so I knew from many previous nights that we would be fishing all night long. At the first crack of day I decided it was time to get overboard and wade fish the remaining shoreline back to the boat landing. Danny headed on back to the landing to start cleaning a few of the bream we had caught for breakfast.

The bottom of the lake is hard sand and the only problem with wading is from time to time there are old tree trunks lying on the bottom that you have to get over. I decided to carry along a few different types of popping bugs and a small artificial cricket. Not only were the bluegills and bass still hitting but I also started to pick up a few shellcrackers along with an occasional warmouth perch. There is no doubt that a bluegill is a tough fighter but not compared to a shellcracker of the same size. A bluegill is not even in the running. Latching onto and fighting a large shellcracker with a good lightweight fly rod is a fly fisherman's dream come true.

By the time I got back to the landing the tantalizing smell of Danny cooking breakfast filled the cool early morning air. Danny had a pot of jailhouse coffee boiling and a dozen bluegill fillets already cooked and was just taking the last of his special onion-loaded hushpuppies out of the pan. Along with a warmed can of pork and beans, we had a fine breakfast. As I sipped a final cup of coffee and finished off the last hush-puppy, I reflected on the past night and of the real, yet simple pleasure I had experienced. For a few brief hours it was as if Danny and I had stepped back in time to boyhood days, to be remembered and enjoyed to the fullest. FS

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