Bluegills North and South
November 11, 2015
The Mason Dixon Line wasn't so clearcut. Yes, by and large, the Civil War's line in the sand was drawn across America's midriff. Minnesota was plum rotten with Yankees. Portions of Illinois were cotton-gin laced with Confederates. Boundaries were Grey (Blue to some) and shifted throughout the ill-fated altercation.
On a dumbed-down level in our American history, but still consequential to those of us who wage a sort of war against fish through the ice, there's a conglomeration of 14 contiguous states—plus Canadian provinces—that constitute what's known as the Ice Belt. Essentially, if your state or province yields even precariously walkable ice, it's part of the Belt.
Within that politically unrecognized geographic, there are further north-to-south divisions. To the north, unshaven jackpine savages crisscross the ice in Suburbans and literally jig out truck doors. Pretty common behavior in the upper reaches of North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other climes where winters are long and unforgiving. Down south, in states such as Illinois, Iowa, and colonized communities like Vermont, New York, and the like, ice fishing is equally omnipresent but a 4-wheeler is about as massive a machine as you see traveling a frozen lake. Hoofing it often is the best option.
Part and parcel to this climatic discrepancy between northern and southern reaches of the Ice Belt is the material fact that the fisheries are different. Up top, where glaciers seem only weeks removed, the waterways are characteristically deeper, cooler, and laced with features like rocks, reefs, and ridges. Down yonder, south of the Ice Belt Equator, bodies of water tend to be more fertile, shallower, and spend less time under the oppression of Old Man Winter.
Because of these divergences, the lakes fish different, too. Just like a Yankee can't go down to Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama and bust out bottles of Labatt Blue, doubt that a Rebel wouldn't get sideways glances rolling into Cass Lake, Minnesota, behind the wheel of The Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee, while flicking boiled crawdad exoskeletons out the window.
Speaking of General Lee, down below—well as southerly as the suburbs of Chicago—lives a general of another stripe. He dons serious brass and wears the wounds of many battles fought on the ice. This southern gent is Tony Boshold, a decorated North American Ice Fishing Championship conqueror and member of USA Ice Team, an elite squad that battles overseas.
Around home base, and across the Ice Belt for that matter, Boshold is recognized (feared by the enemy) for his bluegill fishing skills. A strategist, as well as a tactical field general, Boshold picks apart his quarry with the intuitiveness and composure of a natural-born leader.
To the north reigns another leader supreme. His wartime strategies consist of dissecting woodland waters and taking prisoners with the effectiveness of General Ulysses S. Grant. He is the legendary Brian Brosdahl, known throughout the ice fishing territories as Bro. Like Bono, Prince, and Elvis, Bro has single-name stature.
So it's war on. Boshold endeavors to uphold the integrity of the South. This, while Bro defends the honor of the North and shows you how Yankees get things done.
Gentlemen, draw your rods.
First-Ice Free For All
We begin with Bro and his pine-needle lakes with all their northerly depth and clarity. With dozens, actually hundreds of lakes at his driving-distance fingertips, Bro must develop a shortlist of targets based on battlefield experience, his determining factors being bigness and basins.
"Probably get tired of me saying it, but, 'go big or go home.'" Bro's penchant for size is based on total carrying-capacity or biomass of fish. That, and bigger bodies of water simply breed bigger specimens. "More food, more space, and more predators to thin the weak and weary. That's how you build bull bluegills."
Now "big" isn't the first to freeze. So Bro goes to the bays—monstrous weedy bays with plenty of basin area. "I'm looking for bays with mid-depth basins, bottoming in the teens and twenties, not the midlake abyss or a 40-foot 'crappie hole.'"
He prefers basins with humps, too, 2- and 3-foot knobs, or taller structures with weeded crowns. "Depth is crucial, as is having a soft to sticky bottom composition, but what really gives the boost to a basin is structure. Anything. Bluegills like features to work with, especially early in the season."
Weeds are crucial to his plan as well. "Heavy vegetation is a must," he levies. "Weeds up or brown and down, vegetation is a sign of fertility, and food. Not that you're always going to find coontail beds in 20 feet, but knowing they exist, or were around, matters."
He's picked the lake, bay, and earmarked a primo hump or two. Next, the Paul Bunyan of bluegills peppers the apron of the hump, a loose mob of holes from the base of the break out 100 feet or thereabouts. Humminbird in hand, he strikes out on foot, checking holes while swinging the transducer looking for the faintest sign of life. "It's ice fishing's version of Side-Imaging. Swaying the transducer in the hole opens the flasher's field of view. All I need to see is a blip to know quarry is close."
Inaugural hole selected, Bro bypasses small-arms fire and busts out the heavy guns—jigging spoons. In the greater hierarchy of spoons, the 1/6-ounce range is small, but not when bluegills are in the crosshairs. "Remember, I'm searching, not to mention stalking big fish. Spoons are built for both."
Specifically, Bro dunks a 1/16-ounce Northland Forage Minnow Spoon, color preferences being Glo Perch or Glo Chub. The clankety-clank of the o-ring hung treble smacking the spoon is an attractor, he says. Forged single hooks are far less dynamic. Other proven jigging spoons include Demon Jigging Spoons by Custom Jigs & Spins and the Lindy Frostee Spoon.
Rigged "Medusa style," with as many writhing red maggots on each hook point as possible, he drops to the marks on the flasher and shimmies the rod tip. Not a stereotypical jigging motion, but a nervous shake. Underwater, well, it looks like a lure going through drug withdrawal.
Now imagine the fish are nonresponsive or just pecking at the meat. He serves something off the lighter lunch menu. "It's Bro Bug time," he says referencing his namesake jig from Northland. "Three maggots on an Army Ant patterned Bro Bug and it's back to business as usual." Meaning, the shimmying continues, just with leaner fare and fewer calories.
When spooning, Bro operates with a 26-inch light-action Bro Series combo from Frabill. He developed an entire collection of premium species and technique-specific rods for that company. When sizing back to a Bro Bug, he swaps for a 27-inch Bro Series Quick Tip spooled with 2-pound Northland Bionic ICE. The Bro Series Quick-Tip, he says, transmits just the right amount of reverb during the shimmy. The tip, itself, is sensitive enough to reveal the slightest tug.
So that's his first shot over the bow. And how does Boshold react? By dishing up his own recipe for first-ice bluegills, southern style. "Our lakes are different than Bro's pretty pine, tucked-in-the-middle-of-nowhere stuff. Our lakes and river backwaters are shallower, usually darker, and get a lot more fishing pressure. There just isn't as much water to work, so you have to play smart and fish with finesse and flexibility to stay on bites all winter."
But first ice doesn't arrive all that much later for Boshold. "About the time the St. Paul Ice Fishing Show gets cranking in early December, somebody is fishing somewhere down here," he says, knowing it's usually someone from his posse, the chancy tiptoe guys. Bro says that it happens nearer Thanksgiving when the nights get morbidly cold after the last whitetail deer falls to a bullet.
Like Bro, Boshold gets busy on the bays and their basins. But from that central commonality begins a great departure. "The basins are shallow—5 feet or less—and weedy as all get out." Boshold describes a farm field of submerged vegetation like cabbage and coontail, always centering his energies on pockets and blended spots. "Weed mixtures are best—some of this, some of that. Bluegill like a diversity of cover and foodstuffs."
Along with heavy vegetation, he says that bluegills prefer soft to sticky bottoms. Not sand. Not rock. Not mush, but rather that clayish substrate that's often peppered with gravel and pebbles. With that he also assigns premium value to minor rises or dips in the bottom. There, without fail, the scenery changes. Maybe more or less weeds, or a weed-species change, even a bottom-content transition. In both the ice fishing Union and Confederacy, this is agreeable: bluegills crave transitions.
Often snow-free, Boshold spies said greenery and clearings right beneath his feet. But along with the Windex-clear ice comes the curse of spookiness. "Bluegills can make tracks in a hurry. So if you find a primo looking spot, drill it out and sneak up to it later."
Weed investigation doesn't end when snow falls or the ice thickens and clouds. Boshold trades the naked eye in for a MarCum underwater camera. It divulges information even the lake mightn't know about itself. "With the MarCum, I can see everything, and from a fish's perspective," he says. "Pockets appear. Bluegills poke their noses out of the weeds. Bottom composition is verified, as are the types of weeds I'm dealing with." The more you know the better you play, it's said.
River backwaters. Now there's something unique to Bosholdville. Never disavowing his river-rat roots, he seeks bigger backwaters with average depths of 4 to 6 feet. There he tackles a true basin bite, free of weeds or just spattered with them. Still, he locates sticky bottoms and gets jazzed about depressions and mini-mounds. Backwaters deal the wood wildcard, too. And he plays his hand well. "I drill through the stumps and branches right up to the bank." Docks and pilings are fair game as well. Cover is cover. Edges are edges.
Mirroring Bro, he fishes feverishly, ice never growing under his feet. "No sense trying to make stubborn fish bite. Somewhere they're going."
Alas another variance. Whereby Bro bombs the 'gills, Boshold opens with small-arms fire. He dabbles small, leaden, horizontal jigs—his signature tungsten offerings coming later. "I want a slow fall and a bait that flows and hovers naturally in place." Achieving that result, he "agonizingly moves the jig up and down inch by inch." Like Bro, he wiggles it, no double-dutch hopscotch jumps.
Literally, Boshold's assortment of arms is too expansive for itemization. He owns jigs by the hundreds, not dozens, and fishes them all. Colors, shapes, and sizes change faster than forecasts. Whichever specimen he selects, it's fitted with either a single live spike or micro-plastic.
His top-producing plastics are Little Atom's Micro Nuggies, which look like sperm to humans but apparently fish fry to fish. Boshold's other pick is the Yankee Bro's Bloodworm, but with a modest modification. "The length on this soft, fluid plastic is versatile. I pinch it down to the right size for the jig at hand and then also experiment to see what the fish seem to prefer that day. Bloodworms are versatile."
For as wordy as the discourse on first ice, midwinter directives shorten because they don't differ all that much. To the North, where Bro is better fed and cloaked than the actual half dozen Union soldiers, his pick of lakes remains largely the same: large with jumbo bays and generous basins and abundant vegetation. Where the switchover occurs is depth and proximity to structure, not to mention alterations in presentations.
"I'm ranging deeper, maybe into the 20s, and moving farther from structure. In these wider-open spaces bluegills are less fixated on structure, and wander more searching for food." True, but there are a couple of outwardly insignificant deviations that do matter. "Depressions, and what I've coined 'dimples in the depression' hold fish—even a 1- or 2-foot depth change on a flat. Add a dimple, a smaller hole within that depression, and I fumble-finger with my rod trying to get a bait down fast."
He notes, too, that seemingly featureless and endless flats are the "most underutilized bluegill factory" on the lake. The classic "crappie hole" draws the masses. Panfish are ubiquitous, but come midwinter the fat fish have been plucked or driven out by traffic. "Flats fishing demands a commitment to drilling holes until you're out of breath or the gas tank dries up," he says. But it's worth it. His biggest baddest bluegills are always flats fish.
Techniquewise, he might wield that same miniature jigging spoon, but for a limited time. And that time is early in the day, like get-your-sorry-backside-out-of-bed pronto, time. "Better be out there predawn unless you want to miss the fastest flurry of the day." The bite continues for the next few hours, but with a noticeable decrescendo.
Holes cut. Spoon goes crashing down. No takers. He gives it the gas on a few more holes. Still fishless, he reaches for a Bro Dropper. Using the same 1/16-ounce spoon, he strips away the treble, leaving the naked o-ring. To the o-ring he ties a 6-inch stretch of leader line, typically fluorocarbon. Now the doozy. He ties in a #18 or #20 fly hook. On it goes a lone maggot. The weight of the spoon puts him square in the money, while the doomed maggot awaits its death sentence by bluegill. If a fish even breathes hard it's hooked.
Option two is the now-classic Bro's Bloodworm in either Bloodworm red or Armyworm, which emulates the core coloration of aquatic insects. No livebait necessary here, just a dainty shimmy and the manmade material comes to life. "Give it the shimmy test just below the surface," he says. "Impart just enough action to get is squirming. Surprising how little rod movement is required. Now do the same thing down deep in the fish zone."
Meanwhile, on the southern front, Boshold is pulling his troops off the river backwaters. Either the fish have moved out for lack of oxygen, or been pounded into submission. Either way, there are bigger fights to pick.
Broken in like a good pair of jeans, he moves to weedy bays on natural lakes. Some manage to hold weeds all winter long. Others, during years when there are multiple freezes and thaws, reoxygenate and revitalize from the fresh melt. When the ice returns, he's there, guns blazing.
If the weeds aren't giving up fish, or they've browned and gone to meet their maker, Boshold takes a spread-the-field approach. Like Bro, that entails plugging holes like the dickens. As well, he creeps deeper, scouring flats in 6 to 8 feet of water. If that doesn't pan out, he applies the same system to another bay, one that hasn't been pummeled. Secondary, off-the-beaten-path lakes provide other options.
Contrary to Bro, now's when Boshold lays down the rifles and loads the cannon. "On my lakes, come midwinter, bluegills respond better to bigger baits and even faster action. More bouncing from hole to hole as well."
With that, he underscores the importance of keeping a "scabbard of 5 or 6 rods prerigged and ready for deployment." Plenteous shapes and sizes of baits, again, all tied and ready for action.
Certain lakes have different personalities. "On one lake they only eat 'school-bus orange' and on another red glow," he says. "Maybe purple or another dark pattern in clear water. And when the bite's slow, hotter, more aggressive patterns can heat up the action."
That goes for shape, too. "I carry a collection of jig styles from weensy horizontal teardrops to vertical, more crappie-looking baits. I can't stress enough being willing to change and change and change until you nail the perfect jig. That's what winners do."
Speaking of winners, it brings us back to the War. History knows that on April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered the Confederacy to the Union's General Grant in Virginia. And thus started a long healing period for a nation once divided.
Fortunately, there's no bloodshed amongst the Ice Belt states and provinces—that's if you don't count minnow and maggot casualties. The war wages on with no foreseeable end in sight, though. Bro's troops of forest fighters continue plying spruce-skirted natural lakes. Boshold's supporters perpetually claim river oxbows and consider 10 feet deep.
It's a stalemate. Both camps claiming victory. Both camps celebrating daily with Facebook posts and a few for the fryer.
*Noel Vick, Isanti, Minnesota, is a long-time In-Fisherman contributor. He's the president of Traditions Media.
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 'œEarthquake 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.