Finding and catching trophy bluegills is a challenge countless panfish fans love to tackle. But tracking down humpy-headed giants with any level of consistency is no easy matter, especially on lakes that are brimming with silver dollar-sized sunnies but hold few slabs.
You can increase your odds of rounding up bull 'gills by focusing on waters where schools of super-sized panfish abound. Many such hotspots come and go with the whims of weather, water levels, year-class strength, fishing pressure, and other mitigating factors.
Staying in tune with the best waters your local area has to offer often calls for serious networking with fellow fishermen and contacting fisheries biologists, along with keeping an ear to the ground and an eye on social media posts.
To help guide your bluegill conquests this season on a national basis, we offer the following rundown of 10 top destinations for connecting with a trophy.
A road trip up the East Coast finds the way paved with potential honeyholes, ranging from South Carolina's amazing Santee-Cooper system to the tidal rivers of North Carolina, Virginia's coastal impoundments, and Maryland's Deep Creek Lake.
Yet for a true slab quest in an iconic northwoods setting, consider New Hampshire's 28-mile-long Lake Winnipesaukee. Hard-fishing guide Tim Moore chases 'gills there all season long, and says fish average 8 to 9 inches, with 10-plus giants possible on any given cast to two types of anglers: "the very dedicated and the very lucky."
He recommends timing trips fall through spring, with wintertime being his favorite. "Because lake associations vacuum away weeds during summer, habitat changes constantly and knowing which areas have been vacuumed and which ones haven't is critical," he adds.
Alabama offers plenty of A-list bluegill fisheries including the Tennessee Valley Authority lakes, where good water quality, high fertility and a fine mix of weed growth and gravel areas fuel healthy 'gill populations.
But biologist Phil Ekema says 23 smaller impoundments scattered around Alabama, collectively called State Public Fishing Lakes, routinely produce remarkable bulls, along with giant shellcrackers.
Spanning anywhere from 13 to 184 acres, they're intensively managed for top-shelf fishing. Of these, 184-acre Escambia County Lake—aka Leon Hines Brooks Lake—is a flat-out standout, kicking out pound-plus bluegills at a pace that puts many larger lakes to shame.
Florida is no slouch, either, when it comes to serving up big numbers of bodacious bluegills. Hallowed bass destinations such as Kissimmee, Toho, and Talquin also produce incredible sunfish action.
But of them all, the 730-square mile slice of Sunshine State paradise known as Lake Okeechobee is hard to beat in terms of year-round fishable water—thanks in part to its extensive network of maintained canals and cuts—plus the sheer number of 'gills and 'crackers it contains.
Spawn-time on the Big "O" kicks off around March, and fishing remains stellar through August, give or take weather and water fluctuations.
Mid-South And Midwest
At 160,000 acres, sprawling Kentucky Lake offers some of the continent's most consistent bluegill and redear sunfish fishing.
Veteran guide Randy Kuhens scans promising stump fields, flooded brush, and vegetation with sonar to pinpoint the depth at which 'gills are holding, then suspends a cricket in the strike zone beneath a slip-bobber.
Another mid-continental panfish Mecca lies in the northern reaches of Cornhusker territory, where the storied Sandhills Region is again flush with super-size bluegills, and is widely considered your best bet in the Midwest for breaking the 2-pound barrier. Within the region, Pelican Lake is among the top picks for fish over a pound, but hard-to-access lakes can flourish when fishing pressure is light.
Northern Wisconsin is home to many fine bluegill fisheries, including Sawyer County's legendary Nelson Lake. But the southeast side of the Badger State also holds a pair of slab factories worthy of our list—lakes Delavan and Geneva.
Local guide Dave Duwe plays the deep game on both lakes, summer through fall. When fishing an outside weed edge, Duwe often favors a slip-bobber rig with a small Lindy Toad or Bug ice jig tipped with a waxworm. He also tight-lines the same jigs about 3 inches beneath a ¼-ounce Rattl'n Flyer Spoon, which serves as an attractor. Of course, spoons are deep threats virtually year-round.
In Minnesota, many fine bluegill waters rise and fall with fishing pressure and winterkill, but some remain constant producers. Osakis and Pelican rank high on the list of stalwarts, but for sheer elbowroom and the chance to chase big-water giants, Leech Lake merits serious consideration.
Known for world-class walleyes, Leech also holds herds of broad-shouldered bluegills, which roam its shallow arms and weedbeds largely overlooked by the masses. Post ice-out and the spawn are prime times, but the late winter period—particularly after snowcover retreats from the bays—is my favorite time to tap the big lake's bounty.
A short cast to the south, Iowa's Great Lakes are revered among panfish fans, and for good reason. In-Fisherman friend and veteran guide M. Doug Burns has targeted super-size gills there for years, and says the deep weedlines of West Okoboji are as good as it gets for summertime sunfish nirvana.
Burns targets greens down to 35 feet, scanning for small pockets of big fish with sonar, then dropping a slip-bobber rig sweetened with a leech, or a 1½-inch Shuck's Jigger Minnow tipped with a redworm, into the strike zone.
Best Of The West
If you're looking for Texas-sized slabs, a trip to famed Toledo Bend is in order. The 181,000-acre impoundment on the Texas-Louisiana border has earned a reputation for big numbers of beefy bluegills and redear sunfish.
Texas Parks and Wildlife ranks the five-star fishery as "excellent," noting that most big fish are taken during late spring when fish are on the beds.
Panfish fans indulging a bit of California dreaming should include Lake Skinner on their wish list, given its propensity for producing giants topping 2 pounds. But for reeling in jumbo 'gills in a stunning wine-country setting, Clear Lake gets the nod as our top Golden State destination this time around.
Habitat abounds, though low water levels have taken some shoreline structures out of the game. Still, plenty of classic areas such as tules, docks, and protected pockets remain in play, particularly during the April into June timeframe.