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  • Patrick Durkin

Bluegills Abound in Family’s Farm Ponds

In between bluegills and an occasional largemouth bass, Travis Lambert recalled shirking his boyhood chores on the family’s cranberry farm so he could spend more time fishing.


After all, he and his friends caught panfish as quickly as most folks pick raspberries.


“I was supposed to be doing a list of things Dad set out for me, but my neighbor friends showed up every day to fish in the ponds, so we’d always end up in the canoe,” he said. “When Dad got home from work, it was obvious I hadn’t done any of the work he assigned. It’s hard to think about work when the fish never stop biting.”


The Lamberts’ cranberry farm near Warrens has two 20-acre spring-fed ponds that supply water for their 15 cranberry beds. The growing cranberries require irrigation daily at sunset, and also at dawn during drought conditions. Cranberries grow best in sandy soil, but sand sheds water so quickly that cranberries need constant water while growing. Once the berries ripen in October, the farmers flood the beds so it’s easier to harvest their crop.


Lambert, 41, now lives and works in Chippewa Falls with his own young family, but tries to return home regularly to help out his father, Dave. On Aug. 15, he stopped by my place in Eau Claire, hopped into my truck, and directed me south about an hour to reach the Lambert homestead and cranberry ponds.


Lambert knew I like bluegills, crappies and yellow perch, and asked if I’d ever fished for them on a cranberry farm. Nope. That’s something I’d never tried in 60-plus years of fishing. From everything I’d heard and read over the years, I knew fishing could be fantastic on cranberry farms, but never knew any cranberry farmers I could pester for access.


Lambert laughed. “Some people don’t let that stop them,” he said. “We used to see total strangers drive right in and start fishing without asking permission. When Dad drove out to this one group, the guy said, ‘Dave Lambert said we could fish here.’ Dad told him, ‘Well, I’m Dave Lambert and I’ve never seen you before in my life.’ In recent years, though, the surrounding woods and brush have filled in more, so we don’t get as many trespassers.”


After arriving and meeting the real Dave Lambert, I looked toward the nearest pond when Travis Lambert pointed out a pair of trumpeter swans and their four cygnets.

“We’ve been seeing trumpeter swans more often the past few years, but this is the first time we’ve had a pair nest here,” Lambert said. “They nested out on that small island. We like having them here. They’re very protective and territorial. We used to always have 50 to 75 Canada geese here each summer, but this year we have none. The swans chased them off. They’ll fly after them and chase them out of sight. We like the swans. They don’t go into the cranberry beds. When the geese are here, we can’t keep them out of the beds. They’re a nuisance.”


I asked the obvious question: Are swans as messy as geese? That is, do they poop as much?


Nope. Their droppings are about the size of a raccoon’s, but one family of trumpeters — no matter how big their poop — can’t match the messy output of 75 Canada geese.


With my questions answered, we launched my cedar-strip rowboat and Lambert rowed us just past the edge of the weedbeds. He said the farm’s two ponds have a maximum depth of 14 feet, and some of its bluegills reach 13 inches. Its crappies sometimes get a few inches bigger, and 20-inch largemouths aren’t unusual.


We caught nothing in those sizes, but I soon realized it was nothing for two anglers to quickly catch 50 bluegills in the 6- to 7-inch size. Lambert and I took turns reeling in, unhooking, and tossing bluegills into my 5-gallon bucket.


That was one instance where you don’t think twice about leaving biting fish to look for something bigger. As it turned out, though, we found nothing bigger wherever we tried. Lambert later suggested we could have tried fishing along the bottom for the bull bluegills, but somehow we just never did that night.


Neither did we catch any perch, but we caught one small crappie.


“Did your dad stock these ponds years ago?”


“No,” Lambert replied. “We think maybe some of Dad’s friends tossed in some fish, but there was never an organized stocking. Somehow they just got in here and did well. We’ve only had one winter where a pond froze out. That spring we used the front-end loader to pick them up and bury them. The fishing was bad that year, but it went right back to normal by the next year.”


After awhile, Lambert exchanged his bluegill rig for his bass rod, and said he’s more of a bass fisherman. “I really can’t think of the last time before tonight that I came out here for bluegills,” he said. “I like casting for bass. They’re bigger, they fight better, and we don’t let anyone keep them once they reach 20 inches. Bass that size are fairly common. They inhale those big rubber worms.”


Lambert said the only other fish he hears about on neighboring cranberry ponds is northern pike. “A neighbor catches them fairly often, but we don’t seem to have them in our ponds,” he said.


“How’s the fall and winter fishing?” I asked.


“We seldom fish in fall because we like bowhunting and the gun (deer) season,” Lambert said. “Ice fishing can be good, but it’s not as predictable. Once you find them, though, you catch all you’ll want. These are very productive waters.”

Travis Lambert reels in a bluegill while fishing his family’s cranberry farm near Warrens, Wisconsin. — Patrick Durkin photos

Travis Lambert adds another bluegill to the 5-gallon bucket.

Few meals taste better than one built around freshly caught and filleted bluegills.

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