Since the dawn of our current Ice Age, hardwater sages have known that factoring forage into fishing plans is key to consistently catching broad-shouldered bluegills. Simply put, the way to a bull's bite is through its stomach. Same goes for the chunkiest members of the 'gills' next of kin, including plump pumpkinseeds, green sunfish, redears, and various hybridized second-cousins of the centrarchid clan.
Since day one, In-Fisherman has preached this gospel and explored its tenets. In fact, the book Ice Fishing Secrets, added to the company library back in 1991, offered the first detailed take on panfish diets, along with insight into how the findings apply on ice. The revelations were far from a flash in the pan. A well-worn copy resides on my bookshelf, and mint copies still grace the shelves of outdoor outfitters such as Cabela's. Even today, the book provides excellent reading on many icy good topics, including planktonic "micro foods" such as Daphnia and copepods.
One notable passage, well ahead of its time, delves into how the type of zooplankton panfish are feeding on helps determine the proper lure and presentation. For example, how slow-bobbing Daphnia dictate a near-constant 1/16- to 1/8-inch bobbing motion — which stands in stark contrast to a copepod's darting locomotions, and the hop-hold jigstrokes needed to mimic them.
With such a long and well-documented history on sunfish food factors, it's tempting to consider the subject fully vetted. But such is not the case. First of all, the Ice Belt's food chains are dynamic — changing from lake to lake, even on the same lake in succeeding winters and, often, throughout the winter on the same body of water. Where 'gills dine on Daphnia in one lake, the menu may differ in another fishery a few miles down the road. So learning the forage ropes is an ongoing process.
Plus, each season, legions of winter warriors push the envelope in search of promising new strategies. Add it together and you have a recipe for food-borne discoveries lasting from this Ice Age well into the next. Following are a few of my favorite revelations, from some of the sport's top guns.
Much has been written on targeting bluegills that are filling their bellies on tiny prey wriggling in, emerging from, or hovering over soft bottoms — and rightfully so. Such scenarios produce countless catches every winter. But the quest for slabs calls some anglers, like veteran guide and Lindy promotions manager Jon Thelen, to take an alternate tack. "You won't find trophy bluegills under a pack of houses set up over soft bottom," he says. "Bluegills get big by spending time away from fishing pressure, in areas where minnows are the main course."
To tap the baitfish bite, he looks for oversized, predatory 'gills prowling hard bottom, especially along minnow-attracting transition lines where silt or muck meet rock and gravel. Such areas are prime hunting grounds for larger predators, too. But fear not. "There comes a time in a bluegill's life, when it reaches 9 or 10 inches in length, when it isn't scared of being eaten by bass or anything else, and it moves out into hard-bottom areas," Thelen says. "These bull 'gills might not feed at the same time as walleyes or pike, but they aren't afraid to hang out in the same areas."
Full disclosure: the pattern doesn't pan out everywhere. "Everything is based on a lake's primary forage," Thelen says. "On shallow, fertile prairie lakes, bluegills root forage from the mud because that's the only game in town. And, if you look down the hole and all the minnows are 3 inches or longer, chances are they won't attract many bluegills. But when you have good numbers of minnows up to about 1½ inches in length roaming hard-bottom areas, it's worth checking into."
Thelen's baitfish arsenal hinges on spoons and hardbaits, namely Lindy's 1/16-ounce Rattl' N Flyer Spoon and the 1.33-inch hardbodied Darter. The latter flies solo, but spoons need sweetening. "A minnow head can be a little much, but I pack the trebles with larvae for added scent and attraction," he says. "Jiggling and fluttering attracts fish and triggers strikes. With the Darter, the most important point is slowing things down once a fish moves. Bluegills aren't slashing predators like pike. They like to examine their prey. So when a looker moves in, jiggle and wiggle the Darter — always keeping the bait above the fish, where it's easier to fool it."
Under the right conditions, the harsh underwater world sparks unspeakable dietary choices, including cannibalism. In-Fisherman has documented the habits of hand-sized bluegills eating young-of-the-year 'gills and other panfish, commonly called "flats." The pattern most often occurs in eutrophic to mesotrophic waters throughout the Midwest into the Northeast, where flats serve as one of the primary fall forages. And it continues well into winter, wherever flats hide in still-green vegetation.
Bob Bohlund, who spends a lot of time on pressured pans in the Twin Cities metro area, says that predatory green and pumpkinseed sunfish also target flats in weeds, a pattern he follows from early winter until the weeds die off. "Giant green sunfish love young-of-the-year bluegills," he says, "and big greens and 'seeds stick around vegetation after the mature 'gills move on to deeper pastures."
To play the cannibal card, he bounces hole-to-hole, hunting for active fish. He drops a 1/16-ounce holographic-sided jigging spoon such as Lindy's Frostee, tipped with plastics or waxworms, to bottom, then raises and shakes it to attract nearby fish. "If I don't get any takers fast, I move on," he says.
A ceaseless student of sunfish behavior, Bohlund also tests the boundaries of one of ice fishing's last frontiers — the bluegill night bite. "They're considered daytime feeders, but night bites happen on big, clear lakes during winter," he says, admitting he's still in the process of cracking the nocturnal code. "It's sporadic, sometimes happening at 8 p.m., other times 2 in the morning. All of a sudden big bluegills turn on and start hitting baits I'm fishing for crappies." He suspects a zooplankton connection, and notes that active presentations get hit, while deadsticks languish.
Northwoods ice-fishing icon Brian "Bro" Brosdahl also flirts with the bluegill night life, which he links to major insect hatches. "A huge mass of insects coming up in the water column gets 'gills running and gunning, picking off midnight snacks," he says. "This is a great time to catch the biggest bluegills in the lake." Like Bohlund, he favors animation once darkness falls, though he may anchor a crappie minnow on a dead line close by, to hold fish in the area. Go-to baits include a Northland Gill Getter or Bro Bug tipped with waxworms or a Bloodworm tail.
Other Brosdahl forage maxims include targeting insect-rich, ultra-shallow weeds early in the season. "Where there's food and cover, there are bluegills," he says. In the jungle, bulky baits get the nod. Think bug-style heads dressed with a plastic body. Conversely, when weed die-offs shutter the shallow buffet, Brosdahl rides herd as the bull migration moseys out to the muddy edge at the base of a break. Here, he ties on smaller but fast-falling jigheads that mimic bloodworms and zooplankton.
No look at the bluegill diet connection is complete without a word from the father of modern ice fishing, Dave Genz. Co-author of Ice Fishing Secrets, (along with In-Fisherman founder Al Lindner, and Editor In Chief Doug Stange), Genz has enlightened legions of followers on the importance of striking the right location, depth, and lure color. But he also believes, now more than ever, that moving the bait in manners similar to those of the forage — or in a way that attracts curious panfish — is key to consistent success.
"People are too hung up on lure color," he says. "It's important, but matching the hatch doesn't have as much to do with catching fish as the lure's speed, or of its cadence — which is a repetition of the same movement. Years ago, when I started fishing the shallow, clear waters of Iowa's West Lake Okoboji, I was amazed at how local anglers could sit in one spot and fill their buckets while I couldn't, no matter how many holes I drilled. Other visiting anglers got frustrated and never came back. But I stayed, and kept trying. And eventually I discovered that the secret was drawing the fish in to the bait with a rhythmic repetition of motions."
Years later, he believes even more strongly that a bait's speed and cadence has to "feel right" to a big bluegill's lateral line, especially in tough situations. The theory is backed by biology. Michigan State zoology professor Dr. Gary Mittelbach, also an avid fisherman, says when bluegills adapt to whatever's on their home water's menu — be it zooplankton, shrimp, or minnows — they form a search image for that prey. Such an image no doubt consists of all the sensory cues available, including those that stimulate the lateral line system.
Genz encourages us to think hard about the motions we give our baits. "A hard pound is like the tight wobble of a lipless rattlebait in open water, while the bobbing of a spring bobber is similar to the wide wobble of a minnowbait," he explains, warning that ever-changing environmental conditions and the mood of the fish mean that there's no single, killer cadence that works on every occasion. "Don't fish the same way all the time," he says. "Change it up and experiment until you find the right movements for the conditions at hand." It's just one more great tip for ringing the dinner bell for bluegills all winter long.
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, masterswalleyecircuit.com.