By Jeff Lampe
Every spring when the bluegill start biting, my thoughts turn to Darren May and to Jasper County.
May holds what I consider the purest of Illinois fish records. His 3-pound, 8-ounce bluegill caught on May 10, 1987, has stood the test of time while other records have fallen.
May and his monster bluegill came to mind again the other day as I pondered a good story to coincide with this month’s Free Fishing Days, which in Illinois are June 15-18 (June 9-10 in Missouri and June 1-3 in Iowa).
Bluegill are custom-made for getting youngsters hooked on fishing. They bite often, fight hard and taste good. The fact that you might even see a 3-pounder out of an Illinois farm pond only makes catching them all the more enticing.
After all, it was a small pond that produced the 13.75-inch fish that May hooked into all those years ago.
Once, while heading to see prairie chickens doing their breeding thing in Newton County, someone pointed out the location of that record-setting water. It looked like any other Illinois farm pond with grassy banks.
But that non-descript pond created a very exciting fish.
‘‘It was as big as a pan,’’ May said of the bluegill which had a girth of 16 inches. ‘‘Its eyeball is as big around as my thumb. And the black dot (gill cover) is bigger around than my thumb.’’
A day before he caught the record bluegill – on a chunk of nightcrawler – May thinks he saw the same fish swirling in the pond.
That night May dreamed about catching a big bluegill. After returning to the same pond the next day, reality exceeded even his dreams.
‘‘I got a hit, yanked, then lost the fish,’’ he told the Decatur Herald & Review at the time. ‘‘But as I reeled the bait back toward the bank, it hit again. Pow. It almost knocked the pole out of my hand.’’
After hooking the fish, May became understandably excited. Once he had it close to shore, he reached into the water with both hands and threw it 10 feet up onto the bank.
Then he smothered the fish with his body, briefly, before calling a quick end to his day of fishing.
‘‘I had no idea it was a record, but I had to take it to show some people,’’ said May, who spent eight hours showing off his big bluegill before getting an official weight. ‘‘I just knew it was big.’’
Big enough to shatter the former state record by nearly a pound and just 1.5 pounds off the world record, caught in Alabama in 1950. May’s fish was also bigger than the record bluegill for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana – prompting some to claim the fish was a hybrid.
But the Illinois Natural History Survey ran tissue samples of the fish in its laboratory to determine that May’s bluegill was indeed a bluegill.
In the years since, May’s big fish has been on display in bait shops and taverns throughout south-central Illinois. Replicas made by Hidalgo taxidermist Jim Hunsaker have also been on display at the Department of Natural Resource’s regional offices.
May thinks those replicas may still be collecting dust years from now.
‘‘I don’t see the record being broken in Illinois,’’ he said.
Maybe, maybe not. With all the advances in pond management and the prevalence of feeders in some private lakes, big bluegill are out there.
It’s just a matter of someone hooking into one.