During the normal winters of decades past, the game of musical chairs we played with lakes went something like this: Small lakes early; depressions on shallow flats in larger mesotrophic lakes during early mid-winter; smaller basins or large bays off the main lake in those kinds of lakes into late winter; and back to small lakes on late ice.
But, even though it's early February, Shoggie and I (Guide David Shogren: 218/765-3197) continue to find good bites on smaller lakes. The reason we're generally fishing bigger lakes by now is the fact that sunlight penetration dropped to a bare minimum in past years when the ice thickened to 3 feet and snow cover began to pile up. Decreased sunlight penetration means a slowdown in plankton production. All the green weeds die. And oxygen production slows to a standstill.
The sheer volume of water in larger lakes keeps oxygen levels higher. Larger lakes generally have larger tributaries pumping oxygen in. Larger basins get windswept, keeping the snow off more surface area. Plankton populations crash far less often in larger lakes.
Higher oxygen levels keep fish active. And, in recent years, less snowfall and thinner ice have meant plankton counts remain high all winter in the smaller lakes. And some green weeds remain in those critical 8- to 12-foot zones all winter long. We can see them with our underwater cameras. Big bluegills relate to green cabbage and submerged wood wherever they can at this time of year. The biggest bulls will be crowded around those last green stalks like Custer at the Little Big Horn.
Perch are just beginning to group up in lakes around here — another reason we often make the transition to larger venues in February. Fishermen currently report seeing pods of 5 to 6 big jumbos at a time. When they begin to coalesce into larger schools, we'll be driving out there.
But the draw of smaller lakes is hard to ignore. Most of the time we're walking out, as we do at first ice, pulling everything we need in our shelters or sleds. Nobody else around. The woods are close. That slight breeze we feel would be a howling wind on the big lakes. Here we can wander around outside the shelters and hunt, dipping transducers until we see that tell-tale cluster of marks near the bottom.
Bluegills can be quite high off bottom or never far from it, depending on the population counts of species present in the lake, the clarity of the water, the importance of zooplankton as forage, and the predator counts and sizes. You might find bluegills behaving differently in each of 100 lakes between 25 and 40 acres in size in your region. Or you might find them all behaving in much the same way. I've encountered lakes with no crappies where bluegills suspend in schools 10 to 15 feet below the surface all winter long (took me most of a day to find them). In the small lake directly across the road, crappies rule the open water and bluegills are seldom found more than 4 feet above bottom.
Next assignment: Crappie patrol.
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.