Muscle-bound thugs with bent noses hover at the deep edge of the jungle as ice begins creeping across the surface of their world. Where will they go? That depends on what the sky holds in store, and dozens of other factors. Like: Where do you live?
If you live in the southern portions of the North American "ice zone," and the lakes you fish are clear enough to have vegetation at 8 feet or deeper, you may not see bluegills leave the deep weededge all winter. If you live in northern Minnesota, Manitoba, or North Dakota, finding bluegills 25 feet deep or so after the vegetation fades is common.
Bluegills may move several times during an average winter. But not always. In fish behavior, certainty is too much to ask for. But, north to south, the places we find bluegills at first ice are remarkably similar, lake-to-lake. Healthy plants offer food, oxygen, and cover. Dead weeds fall down and create anoxic conditions. What we think we know is that bulls keep their bent noses tight to plants that stay green, until something forces them to move. When they wither, they find cover shallower or deeper, depending on conditions.
Some lakes have very few aquatic plants. Bluegills can thrive in sandy deserts, rocky substrates, and glacial kettle lakes, where the bottom plunges directly from the bank to depths where plants don't grow. In murky lakes, plants can grow only in shallow water. No matter the type of lake, the largest bluegills seem to respond to similar events in similar fashion, and they tend to be the first to move when moving becomes necessary. Bluegill experts throughout the "ice zone" reveal where bluegills are at first ice in their areas, and wrestle with the reasons for movements that occur afterward.
First Ice South
This arbitrary ice zone describes a region where ice fishing takes place almost every year. The southern portion of the zone has safe ice some years, no ice in others.
Walt Matan, Custom Jigs & Spins lure designer, lives near the southern edge of this zone. "At first ice, we head directly to shallow weedy bays and canals (boat channels)," he says, "mostly shallow, 2 to 5 feet. The biggest bluegills relate to the weededge. In lakes with sparse vegetation, we look for fallen trees and brushpiles in that shallow zone. We fish docks and other vertical structures in canals. In heavily stained water, like the Fox Chain in Illinois, plants only grow down 5 feet. Around Peoria, near the southern extreme of the ice-fishing world, we get 6 inches of ice during a typical winter. During most winters plants eventually die, but there aren't many in those lakes."
Without vegetation, Matan looks for other cover like wood, brush, boulders, or rockpiles. "If a lake has vegetation, before the plants die, on a typical day when weather is stable and warmer than average, the biggest bluegills hold on or beyond the edge of the plants," he says. "After cold fronts and storms, they bury deep in the foliage. When you drill a hole and plants pop up, drill several holes nearby and use an underwater camera to find a pocket to fish. Tungsten jigs work great to drop down through the plants. Bluegills don't want anything big, and tungsten jigs have a small profile yet they're heavy."
Around vegetation, Matan depends on Custom Jigs & Spins Majmun (My Moon) and Chekai Tungsten Jigs. "When the shallow plants die back, I look for the first drop-off adjacent to them," he says. "If we find a deep weedbed, we fish that first. I often use a Slender Spoon, which flutters, and attracts from a larger distance. Then we go with a smaller Chekai and Majmun jig. If plants are absent, big 'gills move off to the base of the drops or they find mid-bay humps, but they stay in the bays. In our southern lakes, they move out of the channels after first ice, but remain in the bays."
Michigan's Lower Peninsula is surrounded by weather-making, temperature-modifying Great Lakes, forming the Middle Earth of the ice zone. Eric Plant, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources technician, and a pro staffer for Mark Martin's Ice Fishing Vacation School, lives in Bay City and says he'd rather fish for bluegills during winter than anything else.
The last two winters buried Middle Earth with snow. "Everything moves deeper during these heavy, snow-laden, prolonged winters," Plant says. "I look for green vegetation at first ice. In most lakes here, the deep edge is 13 to 25 feet deep. We have a lot of big predators and bluegills want to hide in cover as long as it lasts. In the lakes I've been fishing, plants may remain green into mid-winter — even in these last two winters."
The farther north you traveled, the worse the last two winters were. "We caught no fish shallow at first ice," he says. "When daily temperatures are way colder than usual, big bluegills move deeper. Deep water around humps can be very good, down to 30 feet or so, but you can't know that until you go and fish it."
Plant helps set nets for lake surveys. "We find some outstanding bluegill lakes," he says. "Sometimes the locals say there are no fish in the lake, or no big ones left, and our test nets come up with lots of big fish. Some of the lakes are full of bluegills over 10 inches. Apparently, local anglers aren't finding them. Some of those lakes have a low density of walleyes and bluegills are largely left alone. I'd rather fish for panfish the whole day on those lakes. Net results can be eye opening sometimes, especially when you hear the lake is fished out. Location is important when setting nets and we learn a lot about seasonal movements as we fish them."
To stay on big bluegills under the ice, you must be willing to move with some idea of where they went. "They won't be around small perch," he says. "That's one indicator. I like to take the map and look for large, isolated flats with depths where vegetation can grow. Last winter we found a gorgeous 40- by 40-foot area. It was a flat in 15 to 20 feet of water surrounded by scattered vegetation with a steep drop along the edge. When we got there, we could see panfish on the graph, holding on and around these patches of weeds. One of the locals attending the school lived on that lake and said it was the best spot he ever fished there. But even there, we had to drill a lot and move hole-to-hole. Each hole provides different opportunities with bluegills so we drill lots of holes, making a Z pattern back-and-forth across the weededge and the nearest break."
Big bluegills can be spooky. "I drop a jig down slowly along the edge of the vegetation and into pockets," he says. "If I've been catching big ones, I halt the jig 2 or 3 feet above the marks on my flasher and feather it down the rest of the way. If you drop right down on them, they may leave and not come back. The bite is totally different from small fish. When the tip of the rod drops slowly, it's a big fish. Little fish make the tip bob up and down."
"I live in Northfield, Minnesota, near the Twin Cities," says walleye pro and winter bluegill enthusiast Ross Grothe. "South of the cities, thick, powerful bluegills inhabit several lakes around Owatanna, Fairbault, and beyond. It's a prairie pothole area — fertile lakes with agricultural runoff. Water isn't clear, so weedlines end at about 11 feet. First ice is the best time to target bulls. The first guys out there reap the benefits. On thin ice, I walk to the deep vegetation closest to the deepest water. They're putting on the feedbag and when you find them, they're moving."
Like so many first-ice bull riders, Grothe sees the sharpest drop closest to dense green weedlines on the biggest flats as a key starting point. But don't become planted there. "It's tough to stay on top of them," he says. "The biggest bluegills are like a pack of wolves. They crop down an area and move. Sometimes you move several times in a day. I do a grid pattern, 4 feet by 4 feet, going across the weededge for hundreds of yards, staggered from a few feet beyond the plants to a few feet inside the edge. Weather and snow cover determine whether bluegills hold inside or outside the weededge."
Cold fronts and low pressure drive bulls into vegetation. "Snow cover cuts light penetration," he says. "Bulls stay outside the weeds a little longer under dense snow cover — not just during the early and late hours of the day. In heavy snow, we make less noise that carries down to the fish, too — so they stay outside the weeds longer."
Like Matan, Grothe sees tungsten as the key to successful maneuvers around vegetation. "We target them around weeds with VMC Tungsten Tubby Jigs tipped with maggots or waxworms on 2- to 3-pound mono," he says.
"Tungsten drops fast and gets through weeds better, but has a small profile. For bulls, I stop it a few feet above and work it down to them slowly. But if you don't get it down quickly, those nomads are gone."
How long is first ice? "It depends on how cold it gets, but it's about a two-week window before the masses arrive and the bulls scatter," he says. "I'm convinced the increased fishing pressure drives them off. Sound transfers down early in years with little snow, and it's hard to catch up with the fish again. Around here, winter bluegill fishing is highly popular."
Just before plants die, big 'gills are the first to evacuate. "There can be some vegetation into January in these lakes," he says. "As plants die, bulls move down the breakline and out to rocks in 12 to 15 feet of water where they feed on small crayfish. They're less aggressive, probably because they have to be in the open more."
Farther north, fishing with panfish Guide David "Shoggie" Shogren in central Minnesota, we watch bluegills on camera as they dart back into woodcover when big pike swim by. "One second the screen is full of panfish, the next it's blank," Shogren says. "In these lakes with lots of pike, bluegills and crappies tend to hang together near woodcover all winter."
Most years, Shogren finds bluegills in 8 to 12 feet at first ice in lakes large and small. "Just like everywhere else, they're on green weededges," he says. "Tall cabbage is the favorite. In stable weather, the biggest bluegills cruise around anywhere from the tops of those plants to just under the ice. People often make the mistake of fishing below them. After fronts, bulls move to the base of the plants, away from the edge, and you have to go in after them with heavier line. Jig action is less important after a front. When the vegetation dwindles, we suddenly find bluegills out with the crappies in basin areas up to 30 feet deep."
In the northernmost lakes of Wisconsin, Guide Chris Beeksma (Get Bit Guide Service) finds big bluegills shallow. "At first ice, I look for vegetation in 6 feet of water," he says. "In early November, just before first ice, the biggest bluegills show up right off the end of my dock and stay there for about a week or so after the ice forms. They crop off the food, or light penetration changes, or something. They then move to deep weededges, especially cabbage. When the plants die, 'gills move out to main-lake bars that have vegetation and gravel on top and they go down to the base of the bars in 10 to 14 feet of water."
At first ice, Beeksma loves the TC Tackle Girdle Bug with no bait. "It's the best jig for bulls I've found," he says. "I let its rubber legs and marabou tails do their thing. Bait gets in the way. When the bulls move deeper, I think larger plastic tails help fish find the jig, and may better imitate the crustaceans bluegills switch to."
Some patterns are common everywhere. Like weededges at first ice. When the greenest plants are about to expire, the bulls are the first to move and the least afraid of larger predators. But when the ice is about to leave, the biggest bluegills tend to be the first to move shallow, too.
At first ice, the best bull riders everywhere roam the edges, looking for muscle-bound thugs wherever the jungle remains green. They start where the green rolls up close to a sharp break and hunt deeper when the jungle turns brown.