April 08, 2014
Frog-flinging bassmen penetrate the dense vegetation kingdom, a shadowy realm that houses lunkers. Only the rare panfish angler ventures into this jungle. Which is the best reason to go there.
Panfish in dense cover don't have to move far to feed. Consider the slop like the rainforest of your local lake. Rainforests are proven hotbeds of biodiversity, with more species per acre than any other type of terrestrial environment. Our disappearing coral reefs hold that distinction in marine environments. Weed-choked bays fill that role in freshwater lakes and reservoirs. Nymphs, tiny crayfish, grass shrimp, epiphytes, insect larvae, hellgrammites, skimmers, and more populate these areas in such abundance that panfish often can find this smorgasbord within a few square yards.
Sitting bulls await under the canopy, seldom seeing bait on a hook because light lines, cheap hooks, and casting are all but useless here. That stuff won't cut it in the jungle. Slop-fishing requires relatively specialized equipment as well as steady nerves.
Mobility through the jungle is a problem. Best accomplished in a canoe or kayak, the sheer weight of vegetation can stall a larger boat, quickly clogging the propeller of electric motors. A push pole is a better tool for any type of craft — and certainly best for bass boats and flat bottoms. Indiscriminate hunting doesn't work in the jungle. Pick a spot and work it thoroughly.
Luckily, finding fish in the jungle is not difficult. Look for diverse habitats, which can be found with the naked eye in most cases. While dense fields of lily pads tend to define what anglers call "slop," any dense, shallow, emergent vegetation will do — including thick mats of hydrilla or reedbeds where casting is all but impossible. Look for areas where a variety of plant types come together. Those are hot spots.
"We did some work years ago in Florida lakes that supports what you're saying about habitat diversity," says Dr. Hal Schramm, professor and Unit Leader for the Mississippi Cooperative Fisheries and Wildlife Research Unit. "We found greater abundance of macroinvertebrates living in areas with greater diversity of plant life. Plants create habitat diversity that increases the number of critters living there. Plant stalks increase surface area, potential habitat for creatures that cling to surfaces. They're easy pickings for bluegills."
A plant thus becomes a "high rise," taking a few square inches of bottom space and turning it into square yards of living space for invertebrates. "On the other hand, you can get too much of a good thing," Schramm said. "A large, dense patch of coontail is an example. All that surface holds many invertebrates, but they're so closely packed that it's harder for fish to feed." Where different plant species meet, there's more space and a wider variety of prey species results.
Hot spots in slop tend to be edges where pads meet reeds, coontail, hydrilla, milfoil, or other plant life. Each species has a favored substrate — a bottom type best suited for its growth and reproduction. And each different type of substrate favors different invertebrates. Where a variety of plants coexist, a wide variety of critters results, and bluegills won't be far away. Use your ears to find them, too. Popping sounds result from bluegills plucking epiphytic creatures from the undersides of lily pads.
Arm yourself with short-range weaponry before advancing into the jungle. First, expand your reach with a long rod. My favorites tend to be float rods designed for steelhead in the 11- to 14-foot range, like the G. Loomis STFR1601S-SK. This 13-foot 4-inch rod allows me to reach way back to pockets deep in the gunk.
Year-round panfish expert Dave Genz uses a 12-foot Cabela's Whuppin' Stick Crappie Rod. "It has a fast tip," he said. "You don't want the rod to bend all the way to the handle. A stiffer 8-foot rod is better than most 10- to 12- footers designed for panfish. Stiffness equals sensitivity. I rely on feeling bites even when using floats."
Rich Belanger, marketing head for St. Croix Rods, agrees — a fast tip is essential. He favors the new 11-foot, light-moderate power, fast-action St. Croix Panfish Series PFS110LMF2. "You don't want a wimpy rod for dapping into pockets in the slop," Belanger said. "Backbone is required. This stick has it. But it's long enough for a blend of properties, so the tip gives enough to protect 6- and 8-pound leaders. You need heavier line in the slop, but this rod can haul a 1-pound bluegill out with 6-pound mono because its longer arch absorbs more stress."
High-quality graphite sticks might seem like overkill. Some might prefer a long pole. But try holding a telescoping, 20-foot pole in the same spot for several minutes at a time. Ghengis Kahn had tortures less gruesome. Even an ounce less weight in the blank makes a big difference over the course of a day.
Genz and I prefer a Thill Shy Bite on the line above the jig — both as a strike indicator and to suspend baits. "The bottom tends to be rather flat in dense pad fields, except where the ice gouges out trenches when it's pushed into shore as it breaks up in spring," Genz said. "Those can be key spots, but you don't have to alter depth frequently. A small float allows you to quickly cover the area around the boat without wasting time with a jig buried in the silt."
Bulls sometimes hover right under lily pads, so I generally suspend jigs about halfway to the bottom. Shy Bite floats balance the weight of a small jig with no additional weight. If it doesn't stand up soon after dropping it into a pocket, you know a fish has it, it's shallower than expected, or the jig is on a weed.
Genz often alternates between letting the Shy Bite rest on the surface and holding it a few inches above the water while making the rod tip dance. He often tips with maggots. In summer, I generally prefer leeches, redworms, or plastics. Most days, a small tube is all you need. I use 4- to 6-pound braided line on the reel with a 4- to 6- pound fluorocarbon leader, depending on the size of the fish involved. In dense weedgrowth, bluegills usually aren't put off by heavier lines, but no sense making them easy to see. Braided mainlines cut through vegetation better and don't stretch, giving a 1-pound bluegill less space to move away and bury in grass.
Pitching the package to gaps in weeds, pads, or reeds with a shorter rod is not recommended. Missing the mark means wasted time and wasted opportunities as you pole over to retrieve it. If you hit the mark, the splash spooks fish for a minute or so — plenty of time for wind to push your rig into bad places. Which brings up another point. A stationary anchor such as Minn Kota's Talon or a Powerpole can pin you in a spot with no disturbance, which can be almost essential if facing more than a breeze.
It pays to use hooks suited to jungle warfare — just enough gap to lock onto a bull's jaw or lip with nothing left over to snag on pads or reeds. Big sunfish head for pad stalks and weeds. Lift as hard as you want. For at least a second or two, bulls go where they please.
I prefer jigs with a #10 premium hook on a 1/80-ounce head. A short-shank #8 on a 1/64-ounce jig grabs and hooks better, but catches more vegetation when big bluegills try to brush you off. One solution is to bend the points down slightly. Tim McFarland of TC Tackle in Montana makes jigs to these specs with Gamakatsu and Daiichi hooks.
Smaller jigs and hooks slide through vegetation better when lifting a jig to drop it into the next hole. Horizontal jigs can be manipulated in slop better than bare hooks or vertical jigs (teardrops) most of the time. And short-shank jigs drift though slop better than long-shanked ones. Where cover is exceptionally thick, or bluegills exceptionally bold, go without a float and use small spoons like the 1/16-ounce PK Spoon, Northland Tackle Forage Minnow Spoon, or Lindy Frostee Spoon. Replace the treble with a medium-shank #10 or #8 hook.
Fly-fishing for jungle bulls can be wild and crazy, with a few modifications. It's easier to be accurate and stealthy when making short casts with a flyrod, but use short, heavy, tapered leaders terminating at about 8-pound test. Poppers are a good choice for sliding off pads into pockets. The sound of a popper hitting a pad often attracts fish to it.
When the wait's finally over, it's toe-to-toe combat with big saucers cutting sideways through the junk while you pull in the opposite direction. It doesn't have to be nerve-wracking. If you make up your mind to simply release big fish (10 ounces or better), it doesn't hurt to lose a few rounds to the toughest fish — pound-for pound — on the planet.
As a good friend used to say, "If bluegills reached 10 pounds, we'd never land one." That goes double in the jungle.
1 Clear Lake, California
The largest lake in California (43,000 acres near Lakeport) is known for lunker largemouths, but houses overlooked giant 'gills, yielding the 3¾-pound state record last year, along with others over 3. The bite by docks and at the edge of tules is strong from mid-April into September. Nearby Collins Lake, renowned for trophy trout, also produces massive sunnies — 2 to 3 pounds. The best bite starts in April and lasts into the spawn in May and early June. Contact: Clear Lake Information, lakecounty.com; Clear Lake State Park, 800/444-7275, parks.ca.gov
; Collins Lake, collinslake.com
6 Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
This impoundment in the northwestern corner of Maryland yielded the state record 3-pound 7-ounce 'gill, giving evidence of its productivity. With a deep basin, the Prespawn and Spawn periods are protracted, with prime action from mid-April into early June. Contact: Fish Deep Creek, 240/460-8839, fishdeepcreek.com
; Guide Ken Penrod, 301/937-0010,
7 Coastal Impoundments, Virginia
Four reservoirs near Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia, are regular producers of big bluegills and shellcrackers. Fertile lakes Cahoon, Western Branch, Prince, and Burnt Mills have a history of trophy fish production. Western Branch (1,265 acres) reopened to public fishing in 2010 and is known for outsize redear, with certified specimens approaching 3 pounds. Boating permits required. Contact: Burnt Mills Reservoir Manager, 757/441-5678; Chesapeake Bay Office, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 757/465-6812, dgif.virginia.gov
5 Kentucky & Barkley Lakes, Kentucky-Tennessee
These massive impoundments — Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River and Barkley on the Cumberland — are joined by a canal and offer outstanding fishing for big redear sunfish, as well as bass and crappies. Contact: Jack Canady, Woods and Water Guide Service, 270/227-2443, woodsandwaterguideservice.com
2 Lake Havasu, Arizona-California
Lake Havasu, impounding about 45 miles of the Colorado River, has become redear central after producing the all-tackle record 5-pound 7-ounce fish, along with many others over 2 pounds. The record was 16¾ inches long and boasted a 19-inch girth. Best action runs from April through June, when fish gather in coves to spawn. Locals fish livebait but small spinners and cranks catch some monsters. Contact: John Galbraith, basstacklemaster.com; Captain Jerry's Guide Service, 760/447-5846, havasufishingguide.com
; Havasu Fishing, havasufishing.com
3 Pelican Lake, Nebraska
Nestled in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, Pelican Lake consistently produces the biggest 'gills in the region, many over a pound and occasional 2-pounders. Blessed with abundant and diverse large invertebrates, growth is fast in this shallow waterway. Abundant vegetation provides habitat for bugs and a sanctuary for big sunfish. Most giants are caught through the ice or in early spring. Contact: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, http://www.fws.gov/valentine/
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Labeled 'Earthquake Lake, ' a mighty tremor of the New Madrid Fault in 1811 diverted the Mississippi River, backing up this highly productive 11,000-acre waterway in northwestern Tennessee. Big bluegills and shellcrackers roam the shallow lake's cypress forests and lily pad fields, yielding prime pole-fishing opportunities all spring and summer. Contact: Bluebank Resort, 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
; Eagle Nest Resort, 731/538-2143, eaglenestresort.com
9 Richmond Mill Lake, North Carolina
Located near Laurel Hill, North Carolina, Richmond Mill likely offers the best shot at a 2-pound bluegill, truly a rare animal. This pay-to-play waterway, owned by the Kingfisher Society, is managed to ensure balance between bluegills and largemouth bass and habitat quality. After refilling in 2000, it's approaching prime productivity. Giants sometimes require finesse presentations, such as tiny jigs tipped with a bit of 'crawler. Contact: Kingfisher Society, 910/462-2324, kingfishersociety.com
10 Santee-Cooper, South Carolina
This lowland jewel produced the former world record shellcracker and continues to yield amazing numbers of platter-sized bluegills as well as redears, not to mention big catfish, bass, and crappies. Spring comes early and a fine bedding bite starts in late March, lasting into May, but recurring on a monthly basis until September. Anglers also take jumbos in the Diversion Canal between the paired impoundments in fall and winter. Contact: Santee-Cooper Country, 803/854-2131, santeecoopercountry.org
8 Tidal Rivers, North Carolina
Flowing into Arbemarle Sound in the northeastern part of the state are a series of blackwater rivers that represent the northernmost range of the coppernose bluegill, the southern subspecies known to attain large size. Panfish expert Jim Gronaw picks the Pasquotank, Yeopim, Perqimens, and Chowan rivers, with loads of 9- to 11-inch fish and some over 1½ pounds. Local expert Jeffrey Abney scores with hair jigs tied in a grass shrimp pattern. Contact: bigbluegill.com
; Pembroke Fishing Center, 252/482-5343; Bethel Fishing Center, 252/426-5155.