When bull bluegills invade heavy cover, pulling them out means pure toe-to-toe infighting. In summer, anglers have always probed the edge of pads, fallen trees, and other shoreline-related cover to find bluegills, with little desire to investigate farther back into that big mess of pads and weeds near shore. And for years, In-Fisherman editors have instructed that finding the biggest gills, especially in highly pressured lakes, often calls for exploring offshore structure like rock piles and humps in deeper water, sometimes deeper than 50 feet, but more commonly 15 to 35 feet down in main-lake areas.
In most lakes, of course, a variety of patterns establish by midsummer -- some deep, some shallow, and some in between. Panfish also suspend at various depths in open water. In all likelihood, though, one overlooked pattern for bull gills remains -- heavy, shallow cover, aka the slop.
Bluegills in Heavy Cover
Bulls use heavy cover as bass do, hiding under pads and mats of algae, using reed stalks or cattails where heavy cabbage or coontail mixes in, to hide from the sun in water over 80F while making use of one of the most forage-rich areas in the lake. These are tough fish to extract. Fouled hooks on cast after cast and broken lines left dangling from reed stalks discourage anglers from invading the slop, which is one reason the bulls tend to live in that shadowy domain, away from direct sunlight and away from fishing pressure. There they remain, waiting for someone with tackle capable of taming saucer-sized muscles that swim through aquatic jungles.
Two principles point to general areas in most lakes. Most lakes can be divided roughly in two, with a shallow half and a deep half. Most bluegills will be in the shallow half, where most of the food is. Sometimes a lake drops off quickly into 15-foot depths or deeper all around the lake, but a few shallow bays hold most of the panfish. Sometimes the entire lake is dish-shaped and shallow, but a similar principle applies. Just look for the largest shallow flats (5 feet deep or less).
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Put the map away and zip over to those big flats. Start cruising along the shoreline, looking at the vegetation. Pass right on by long stretches where vegetation is thin. Keep going past long stretches of just pads or just reeds, where the vegetation is homogeneous. The best areas offer a mix of flora -- such as pads, cabbage, cane, and reeds all coming together in one spot. That's the second principle -- look for areas where a variety of weed types come together.
Diverse weed types coexisting in a relatively small area usually indicate a variety of substrates as well, where clay, sand, marl, silt, gravel, or any number of bottom types come together. All of this variety provides a more diversified forage base.
On huge flats with a number of good-looking spots, concentrate first on areas where deeper water (20 feet or so) bends in closest to the outside weededge. Remember, many patterns exist through summer, and bluegills can move deep or into open water. Having access to deeper water nearby is a bonus, especially for larger gills.
Sometimes these areas are smaller than a living room, but some key spots are expansive. One way to find the exact location of bulls in pads is to listen for them. Lots of leeches and insect larvae cling to lily pads, and the sound of a bluegill belting bugs off the underside of a hubcap-sized pad sounds like a cork popped from a champagne bottle. A tad muffled, perhaps, but distinct on calm days.
Bigger bluegills tend to position on the outside edge of the slop, but far enough in to feel safe, usually within 5 to 20 feet of the edge, depending on the size of the flat. Bull bluegills seldom push all the way into the slop, back under the heaviest mats of algae and junk weeds, as bass sometimes do.
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.