Bluegills are (finally) prowling through shallow water in the small, local lakes I haunt in spring. When the winds die, and the incessant, ambient conversations of geese, cardinals, and red-wing blackbirds fill the air, it's pleasant, here, on a sunny day.
Paradise for spring bluegills is just that. Paradise for them. They love soft bottoms full of burrowing invertebrates that support weeds full of epiphytes next to rocks covered with tiny crayfish. We just get to find that paradise and participate in the bacchanal. The best time to do that is on the afternoon of a sunny day during a warming trend. They come alive, dimpling the surface as water temperatures broach 50°F. That particular temperature seems to be an important demarcation. For one thing, panfish leeches ball up in temperatures any colder than that, and it's hard to make them do anything else. And bull bluegills love panfish-sized leeches in the spring.
But 50°F also seems to describe the point at which bluegills actually pull the float down. At 48°F the bobber may never move at all when a bull takes jig and all entirely down its throat. When you can find 50°F water in a bay predominantly registering 48°F — you'll find yourself surrounded and circled by Midwestern piranha.
Today we were using Thill Shy Bites and (ironically) Red Wing Blackbird slip floats. The Shy Bite, weighted correctly, goes down before they can swallow the jig, and a good slip float becomes necessary when a slow drift in a slight breeze takes your craft in range of fallen trees. The smaller package pitches into tight spots best, and drops the rigging straight down for better efficiency around branches.
But the Shy Bite was the primary tool today. It was more sensitive and indicated light bites extremely well, but not only that. The big fish were in open water and depth was a fascinating part of the equation today. The porcine warthogs we truly cherish were out on the deep weedlines, outside the dead stands of last hear's cabbage, in 6 to 8 feet of water — nowhere near the shallow wood, inside weedlines, and grooves created by wind-driven ice they often inhabit this long after ice-out.
But ice-out came early. This has been a strange and eye-opening spring. The lessons are quite clear. Ice-out, temperature, and stable weather don't determine the timing of early bluegill movements so much as day length — also referred to as photo period. We often dismiss the "pea-sized brains" of fish, but those tiny brains hold an amazing amount of data. Biologists keep discovering parallels between the movements of fish and the length of time between dawn and sunset. Certainly, nothing the panfish are doing this spring would conflict with those observations.
A better understanding of the amazing relationship between bait and jigs makes catches like this more consistent, and results more predictable. Grist for tomorrow's blog.
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.