Four Mile Creek heads among the uplands near the Ohio-Indiana line in hills left behind by retreating glaciers. Springs well up into tiny rivulets formed in the folds of the land, mostly cleared for corn and beans. One runnel begets two and so on, eventually forming Four Mile, which gathers more water as it glides downhill, cutting over ancient glacial till carried far from the north.
In these quiet waters, damselflies dimple their metallic-blue tails on the smooth surface as their eggs drop into the creek. They waft erratically on the wing, without a care, save for coming into the maw of a kingfisher. Four Mile’s erosive forces elbow into the foot of a hill, undercutting the banks that stay stitched together by sycamore roots.
In the shade of that undercut, among the tree roots, lie little green sunfish waiting for the groceries to come to them. It’s a good strategy for making a living in a creek: Find a place to hide from herons and kingfishers, stay in shade so unsuspecting minnows can’t see you, and wait for food to come drifting by.
The strategy must work. Green sunfish live naturally all over the Midwest. And that speaks to their durability of extremes, not to mention their capacity to procreate. Their fecund nature lends to their reputation as being a child’s fish. They look like a mix between smallmouth bass and bluegill, like an animal confused, not knowing which evolutionary trajectory to take. A big mouth allows the green sunfish to eat most anything it wants—bats and shrews have shown up in their gullet—but bugs are the favored fare.
Among Midwestern upland streams, the smallmouth bass is king, and the green sunfish is an afterthought. But literature professor Marcus Selden Goldman, who 90 years ago fished Four Mile while at Miami University, strikes a chord in his book In Praise of Little Fishes. “The crowd in its ignorance deems it manly and impressive to catch crappies and bluegill, but scorns anything called ‘sunfish.’ The result of this attitude is that only seasoned and thoughtful anglers know—or care to know—how to identify the different species of sunfishes.”
I know of no one who would plan a fishing vacation around green sunfish. And I must admit, I probably wouldn’t, either. But I would like to see Four Mile again. It’s a desire, in part, for yesterday; a yearning to reacquaint myself with that baseline, the habitat where I came of age. Neil Young said it perfectly in song: “In my mind I still need a place to go. All my changes were there.”
Too many summers have slipped downstream. But still in my mind’s eye a diving beetle lumbers to the surface for air, a blue damselfly on a water willow lightly and gracefully moves its wings. The sodden smell of sticky mud fills my head. I can feel in my forearm the sudden tear of a smallmouth bass taking off. And I wouldn’t mind the light plodding of one of those little cyan sunfish with a mouth big enough to take in whatever it can.
A creek is more than a place for bass and bream, warblers and wood ducks. Creeks course through people, and Four Mile courses through me: a tall, fat, gray-green sycamore on a shady undercut bend grows naked with age. Slow-moving dark water spattered with yellow sunlight pours over fossil-littered limestone slabs. In the shelter of a pool in a tangle of roots, little fish wait there, living turquoise shards preserved in time.