Conventional thinking and common sayings: You can always catch bluegills. Bluegills are easy because they're so aggressive. With bluegills, it's not fishing — it's catching. You want reality? You can't handle reality.
On a recent trip to a lake that's produced many bluegill photos for the Ice Guide and other publications than, perhaps, any other over the past decade or so — we spent a day chasing bluegills. Only one was caught. It's in the hands of Dan Quinn, field promotions coordinator for Rapala, in the photo there. That's his father, In-Fisherman Senior Editor Steve Quinn, seen over his shoulder. Mary and I were also happy to be in the company of Tony Roach, Gary Roach, and guide David "Shoggie" Shogren (218/765-3197). Pretty talented assortment of ice anglers. Seven, in all. One bluegill.
We were victims of circumstances. But what would the circumstances be, that could turn something so "easy" into something so difficult?
We searched high. We searched low. Big ol' bluegills. Where did you go?
Factor #1: We were faced with dark, stained water on a cloudy day. Our underwater cameras could see nothing down there. "I hope it's sunny," Shoggie said, when we planned ahead. It wasn't. But, why did the crappies and toothies bite so well? And why did the one bluegill we caught bite at 3:30 p.m., on the dark outside edge of the usual daily window for good bites? Hmmm.
Factor #2: Weather was warming. Bluegills generally bite better during warming trends in winter. Hmmm.
Factor #3: What was the key depth. We drilled holes from the 5-foot contour out to the deepest water in the lake (22 feet). In 8 to 10 feet of water, we all had multiple experiences with fish that would slowly move through, never really following or staying on our jigs. But the only bluegill caught came out of 21 feet of water, 4 feet off bottom. Hmmm.
Factor #4: Size matters. I tried everything from 1/500-ounce teardrops with size #16 hooks to small 1/32-ounce spoons. The one bluegill we caught bit one of those spoons.
Factor #5: Bait. Dan is a devout believer in plastics. "I never use bait," he said. He stayed with some prototypes of new TriggerX baits that will hit the market next year. Most of us used maggots, waxworms, or both.
Bluegills continued to evade everyone, but crappies bit all day. And flags were popping. Maybe that's why the bluegills had lockjaw. They were on the lamb. "We watched bluegills on a brush pile with our underwater cameras one day," Tony said. "Most of the time they were a couple feet away from the wood. But, when a pike cruised by, they ducked back into the wood pile."
You can see Tony pull the rest of that pike out of the hole tomorrow.
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.