Few contrasts are as startling as the tropical orange-yellow-blue-green of multi-hued bluegills against deep snow. When the snow gets deep, it piles up on pine boughs, covers roofs and fences, hides roads, and paints the sides of trees. Gray-white skies complete the colorless chiaroscuro. The world is composed of gradations between blinding white and dark shadow. The bright coloration of a bluegill, pulled from a dark hole, shadowed in a deep tube of snow, becomes an almost shocking denial of the surrounding black-and-white reality. A punctuation mark worth celebrating.
It's like mining for color. And we found a little color, after trudging out to a series of humps a hundred yards off shore on a huge mesotrophic lake. Our vehicles were left beside the road. The spaces between a series of snow storms have been filled with light snowfall. Dustings on top of each heavy, wet, deep layer cover the ice roads, bending the ice down. Cracks form and water rushes up to create pools and lakes of slush that can bog down any kind of vehicle. While it's possible to drive out, the end result is more energy lost than walking out, if you select good spots near shore.
Location is modified by the slush. Instead of driving around to multiple spots, we pick one good one close to shore and stay there. Instead of covering every likely spot, we stick to the areas where we can keep our feet dry. And instead of drilling 100 holes on the spot, we drill 30. Then we look around for some activity, pull a Fish Trap over it, and settle in.
Fishing becomes hard work. Not surprisingly, nobody else was around. Just shouldering a rod and carrying a Vexilar 25 feet through heavy, knee-deep snow to the next hole is enough to make you start breathing a little harder. Walk to too many holes and it becomes impossible to roll out of bed the next day.
Luckily, the lack of pressure, and perhaps the lack of a steady food supply, had bluegills up off bottom and biting in 18 feet of water. The deep snow turned off the lights down there, and the lack of sunlight killed the deep weeds we've been finding in 12- to 15-foot depths in recent years on this spot. Plankton production slows dramatically. When burrowing insects become harder to find along those hard-to-soft transitions, bluegills attack the first thing they see.
The jig pinned to my classic Thorne Brothers Panfish Sweetheart rod is a TC Tackle Grindle Bug (TC Tackle: 406/683-5485). I've written a lot about the Grindle Bug over the past few years for a lot of reasons. It was the answer the other day because of the heavy ice, slush, and snow cover. In the darkness that ensues in those late-ice conditions, the Grindle Bug fishes small at 1/80-ounce (it's available in several sizes up to to 1/16-ounce), but creates far more displacement than a plain ball head that size. The tail and rubber legs on the Grindle Bug push a little more water, create some vibration, and build a bigger profile that panfish can find a little easier down there in the murk. Tipped with a couple wriggling maggots, the Grindle Bug comes alive from one end to the other.
Most anglers prefer fluorescent shades in dark water. Make mine fluorescent white. After pushing the envelope in stained, muddy, floodwaters for fish like steelhead, crappies, and smallmouth over the decades, I think white is the most visible color in a lot of conditions. Glow, of course, is even more visible, and we always try orange glow in almost every condition. The other day, white worked better. Who knows why? Every attempt to explain it is mere speculation. I like to experiment with color. Almost every day on the water you can find a color that at least seems to be working better than any other.
Looking out the window right now I see another dusting in progress. The Ides of March. Heavy snow and tough sledding. With aching back and cramping legs, my thoughts turn to warmer climes and pre-spawn crappie bites.
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.