Bluegills And Musical Lakes

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.

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