There's such a difference between settling for those aggressive little bluegills that rush up and bite anything, and going in search of big slabs. But finding the lair of big winter bluegills isn't easy, and enticing a bite if your approach isn't right is one of the biggest challenges in fishing.
Finding Big Bluegills
Bluegill guru Dave Genz has enough hours on enough waters to arrive at a new way of classifying bluegill waters. Learn his system in order to develop a solid sense for where bluegills will be, in any type of water, at different times in winter.
€¢ Whether it's a big lake, small lake, pond, river backwater — anywhere bluegills swim — it's the same story. Water clarity and weeds dictate everything.
"That's why it's impossible to make general statements about whether bluegills are shallow or deep at some point in winter," Genz says. "It depends on whether the water is clear or dirty and whether standing weeds are available for the fish to use. It also depends on length of winter (in any given region of the ice belt), and how severe (how cold, how much snow).
"In a lot of cases, the bluegills begin winter shallow, in the weeds, then are forced deeper due to oxygen depletion. But that's only true in lakes with enough weeds to hold the fish shallow early, and only where the winter is long enough to cause oxygen problems. In midwinter, shallow shorelines are a dead spot on many lakes, but certainly not all."
How To Catch Big Bluegills
To summarize Genz's formula for predicting bluegill movements, regardless of lake type:
€¢ Determine whether the water is clear, dirty, or somewhere in between. Then, weeds or no weeds? How deep do they grow? Are they standing green weeds or brown, dead weeds lying on bottom?
"These are the (physical) factors that usually determine whether bluegills are shallow or deep," Genz says. "In general, when good patches of standing green weeds are present, bluegills will use them."
€¢ Conditions can change drastically, in the same lake, at different points in the iced-over period. In a clear lake, for example, you might find bluegills in 15 feet of water in the weeds at early-ice. But later in the winter, if the weeds die off and the water gets cloudier, bluegills often abandon these spots.
€¢ Learn to find "sticky bottom flats" for hidden groups of big 'gills. Food always is a huge factor in bluegill location (oxygen and water temperature, too). Prime providers of bluegill food are areas Genz refers to as sticky bottom flats. They're often in deeper water and may attract the biggest bluegills in the system.
"Look at a contour map," Genz says. "Find places where the contour lines are relatively far apart, indicating a flat between drop-off zones. If the flat is shallow and the water's clear, you might find weeds on the flat. In deeper water without weeds, flats often are full of burrowing insect larvae." This isn't the type of spot most anglers look for, but they're often one secret to finding fish.
The best way to determine whether bottom consistency is right is to clip on a heavy weight. Send it down, and if it "thunks" hard, the bottom is too hard. If it oozes into gooey, organic matter, the bottom is too soft. But if it "sticks" temporarily, causing your rod tip to bend before breaking free, it could be just right.
"Again, these spots can have no weeds," Genz says, "and still produce nice bluegills. In dirty water without good weedgrowth, they can be prime spots."
Catching Big Bluegills
You can't catch big 'gills if you can't find 'em, but you also can't catch 'em if you can't catch 'em.
Clarifying mobility: One key to catching more big bluegills is to move until you get over the fish you want. But the word mobility has been hammered into the minds of ice fishermen to the point that some feel guilty for sitting down at all.
"To clarify what I mean by mobility," Genz says. "Everybody thinks it's necessary to drill a hundred holes, like that's a magic number. A lot of guys tell me they sometimes drill a hundred holes before they begin fishing. If I did that, I'd have to go home, because I'd be too tired to fish.
"Mobility is about movement, but it's also about fishing every hole you drill. I usually drill three or four holes at a time and fish them all. Mobility is about moving miles, but it's also about thoroughly covering tight areas to pinpoint the bigger fish. You're best off if you fish in a group. Three people can each drill five holes and fish them, and you'll know a lot in a short time. Don't just make major moves to new sections of the lake. Also spend time, once you find weeds or a sticky-bottom flat, combing it thoroughly. Find thicker clumps of weeds, or where the drop-off slides into a nice inside turn."
The right line: Low-stretch lines are important for ice fishing for bluegills. Lines that are too limp and stretchy rob you of feel and hooksetting power. Your line also needs to be thin enough to allow your jig to hang straight.
Genz's latest choice is Berkley Micro Ice in 2-pound test (.0053). It's soft and pliable, with low-stretch properties. His thinking is that any lure too light to make 2-pound line hang straight is too light to fish with, especially in deeper water.
Line color is another consideration. Some line-watchers, like Michigan bluegill angler Mark Rosecrans, prefer high-visibility fluorescent yellow mono for their main line, with a short section of clear leader. One trick is to deliberately pinch a slight kink in the line where the line meets the water. Watch for the kink to tighten or slacken, indicating a lift bite. But generally speaking, clear is the favored color, especially in clear water. And some anglers now swear by fluorocarbon leaders.
Horizontal verses vertical jigs: One of the hottest presentation topics in winter bluegill fishing is horizontal verses vertical jigs. "It doesn't make much difference at prime time," Genz says. "When the sun's hitting the trees, bluegills are on the move and feeding. But at midday, detail can make a difference. When it comes to jigs, I have a strong preference, in a lot of cases, for a horizontal presentation. Especially in clear water, where bluegills can examine potential meals, a horizontal swimming action appears more natural and fools more fish.
"A horizontal presentation catches bluegills that examine your bait. A vertical presentation can trigger fish that can be forced into hitting aggressive jigging. I always fish aggressively with a vertical-hanging jig. I keep it moving so the fish can't get a good look at it."
After many hours of practice, Genz and his buddies have developed a presentation they call the "Horizontal Rock," to trigger finicky bluegills. Start with a horizontal-attitude jig, such as the Fat Boy. Strive for a kicking motion, with the eye of the jig as the pivot point and the tail portion (usually maggies or a waxworm) kicking up and down like a horse's legs bucking.
You don't want the entire jig to bounce up and down. The pivot point is just that; it doesn't move up and down much. You want that rocking, kicking motion while maintaining an overall horizontal attitude.
How you hold the reel is vital. Different people have different size hands, so this favored grip doesn't work for everyone. Curl your index finger over the top of the rod and grasp the shaft of the reel with your other fingers and thumb. It's more of an overhand grip, compared to the traditional manner of holding a rod.
Don't fish right on bottom: Bluegills often are close to the bottom, sometimes just inches off. They're usually more willing to come up rather than move down to hit a bait. "When I sight fish in clear, shallow water (usually less than 10 feet deep)," Genz says, "I usually fish about halfway between the top and the bottom. I don't bury my jig in the weeds, or pound it off the bottom. I may work it up and down, occasionally bouncing it off bottom. But most of the time, it'll be about halfway down."
In deeper water, note fish depth on your depthfinder. Fish at the outer edge of the cone angle appear to be deeper than they actually are. Bluegills appearing to rise up to the jig, may in fact be swimming in from the side. Don't get your jig below the fish.
Jig color is less important than depth and presentation: Jig color, often debated at length, is rarely as important as depth and how the jig is worked. "Color is a refinement you consider after you have the other two factors under control," Genz says. "It makes no sense to change colors if you're not fishing over fish. But I do like air-brushed jigs, because of their blending of colors and shades. All things being equal, I usually have my best luck with orange and chartreuse, green and chartreuse, and glow for deep water and dirty water."
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.