October 27, 2017
I remember the day as if it happened last week. It was late May of 1969, warm, sunny, and humid, and I was walking along the bank of a one-acre private farm pond that was only a mile from my central Maryland home. As I gazed at the weedy shoreline, big, rotund bluegills scurried about, doing their hectic spawning chores. At that young age, I knew nothing of bluegill biology, spawning habits, or if they were males or females. All I knew is they were the largest sunfish I'd ever seen, and I wanted desperately to catch them.
There was only one thing that stood between me and the largest bluegills of my young life—a single strand of electrical wire that circled the pond to keep cattle out. The wire was too high to step over and too low to crawl under. If I were to hook one of those giants, I'd have to give it the heave-ho over the fence wire to assure victory.
I tied on the smallest hook I had and threaded it through a whole garden worm. Casting was clumsy with tightly coiled 10-pound monofilament and cautious movements around the electrical fence. Coming up short, I clipped on an oversized red and white bobber for casting weight. I managed to cast the primitive setup near one of those big, dark shapes.
It didn't take long before the golf ball-sized float dipped and the raging bull took off all over the small spawning area of a dozen beds, spooking its kin in the process. Quick and chaotic, the fight was over almost as soon as it started, culminating with the triumphant hoisting of a massive male bluegill, almost 11 inches long, up and over the electrical wire.
To many anglers, it would have meant nothing, but to me, it was epic. I don't know that I've been quite the same since. It started a lifelong quest and love affair with small private waters and monster panfish. I only caught a couple more of those bull bluegills that day, but it was enough of a taste.
Fast forward to May of 2016, to a 4-acre private pond along the Mason-Dixon Line. My brother Tom and I are again after outsized bluegills. We have 7- and 8-foot ultralight rods and 2- and 4-pound-test line. We're tossing tiny hair jigs tipped with bait for prespawn bulls and hens that haven't started to bed yet. The casts are long, the bobbers sensitive, and the fish are big. Our rods double over from the surges of heavy 'gills and we miss as many as we hook. In two hours we land 26 bluegills, none weighing less than a pound and several approaching 11â'„2 pounds. In the mix are several 10-inch pumpkinseeds. Still, some wouldn't get too excited about these fish. But to us, it is, again, glorious.
PRIVATE vs. PUBLIC WATERS
Private-water fishing has its pros and cons. Anglers tend to shy away at times from seeking these lakes because they fear being turned down by the pond owner. Some feel that you must seek special graces to acquire access to them. True, most of the private venues I currently fish are owned by long-time friends and people I grew up with and worked alongside of. But I've found several outstanding fisheries through word of mouth and a polite request. The benefits of peaceful and natural settings often overshadow the fishing.
To many anglers, "private" waters conjure up visions of easy pickings of huge fish. Some of them view private-water fishing as "cheating" or that the catch "doesn't count." There's also a misconception that all private waters offer sensational fishing and that the fish are so easy to catch that practically any angler, with any degree of skill, can catch huge fish all season long.
To get a handle on sizes of bluegills caught from public and private waters, I studied 112 waters over a 12-year period from 2001 to 2013. The study covered both private (52) and public (60) waters in the Mid-Atlantic region that ranged from 2 to 3,900 acres. Species analyzed were largemouth bass, bluegill, and other sunfish species. My goal was to determine what percentage of lakes and ponds consistently produced quality fish over time. During that 12-year time-frame, we fished these waters and took notes on sizes of quality (8 inches and longer) and trophy (10 inches and longer) bluegills. I only chose bodies of water that consistently yielded fish of these sizes and not just the occasional large or trophy specimen.
For all waters, both public and private, 62 (55 percent) consistently produced bluegills equal to or longer than 8 inches. Thirty-two (28 percent), routinely produced bluegills that reached or exceeded 10 inches. For Mid-Atlantic waters, I thought that 1 in 4 venues yielding 10-inch bluegills was impressive. Only 15 lakes (13 percent) produced 11-inch bluegills. Only three lakes, all private, produced a 12-inch bluegill or hybrid sunfish.
Further analysis indicated that although 63 percent of all private waters supported bluegill populations with 8-inch or longer fish, only 34 percent of those held viable numbers of 10-inch fish, as opposed to 25 percent of public lakes. Only nine (17 percent) of water bodies contained 11-inch bluegills, slightly higher than 13 percent for public waters containing bluegills of this size. Overall, the results indicated that the often touted "private water theory," with giant fish in every private pond or small lake, is more false assumption than fact. According to my findings, about 1 in 3 private venues offers exceptional panfishing, while 1 in 4 produce similarly in the public domain.
One can argue that higher angling pressure on lakes open to the public could skew these findings. Additionally, some of my better public options are small, club- or company-owned lakes that require either permits or have strict catch-and-release regulations. Hence, they fish much like lightly pressured private ponds. But some pond owners are so accommodating that they allow many anglers to fish. Two of my very best panfish lakes are like this, yet still continue to produce numbers of large, even trophy-class, bluegills and crappies.
MANAGING FOR TROPHY PANFISH
Although most of today's pond and small-lake owners manage their waters for quality or trophy largemouth bass, there is a growing number of pond owners seeking to build exceptional fisheries for trophy-class bluegills, redear sunfish, coppernose bluegills, or hybrid sunfish. Their desire is to have quality fishing quickly for family fun and food, with options for growing trophy-class panfish.
Texas-based fishery biologist and lake management guru Bob Lusk has assisted hundreds of lake owners during his long career, with more than 50 of them growing bluegills over the 2-pound mark and crappies in the 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-pound range. He was the mastermind in refurbishing the world-class bass and bluegill fishery at North Carolina's famous Richmond Mill Lake. As the editor of Pond Boss Magazine, he remains a leading expert and consultant in small-lake management. He's raised crappies to over 4 pounds and bluegills over 3. I've had the pleasure to fish with him a few times and recently quizzed him on the most important factors for creating quality fisheries. He points out four important considerations.
"First, creating quality panfish fisheries in small lakes and ponds starts with habitat," Lusk says. "If panfish have a happy home they can thrive and grow to their potential. Habitat for panfish varies according to species, but they have things in common. They all need suitable areas to hide, feed, and congregate. They need safe spawning areas, with good substrate and proper wind and wave action at just the right depths for the species.
"Secondly, they need the right types of food at the right time. I've seen some panfish grow naturally to quality sizes, but rare is the beast that grows without a nudge from the pond manager. Over the last decade, fish-food manufacturers have created outstanding products. In my opinion, growing huge bluegills entails a feeding program, even if it only supplements what nature has to offer. I've seen lakes go from average panfish producers to trophy lakes with a thoughtful feeding program," he explains.
"The third factor is good, local genetics," he says. "Too many times I've seen pond owners go a long way to buy fish from a reputable hatchery, only to end up with under-performing fish because they didn't thrive in that geographical environment. Additionally, with panfish, a predator species is needed to control panfish overpopulation. Most people plan for overcrowded bass to do that. I'd rather have a balanced bass fishery with a bluegill feeding program."
The process of raising trophy panfish in a private setting can be daunting and time consuming. "The most difficult challenge is having a consistent food supply and recruitment of fast-growing, young fish into the system," Lusk says. "Bluegills generally only live 6 to 8 years and if you don't have a hearty junior varsity, your superstars disappear over time."
An often-overlooked management tool for smaller water bodies is harvesting panfish of specific sizes. In several of the small lakes and ponds I fish, the owners enjoy an occasional fresh meal of bluegills or crappies. Fish are nutritious and delicious, and harvested wisely, renewable resources. This long-standing In-Fisherman concept of selective harvest applies to private waters, too. By targeting more abundant, mid-sized bluegills and crappies for eating, the larger, genetically superior specimens remain in the system and help to provide an ongoing trophy fishery that can span many years. If your top-end sunfish are 9 to 10 inches, then the ideal "keepers" should be in the 7- to 8-inch range.
Keep some eaters and release most of the larger fish.
Not all private waters are neatly manicured and postcard perfect. Some are "off the beaten path," secluded in backwoods settings with little or no shoreline access. Others have been silted in from decades of sediment build-up, yet still offer remnant populations of quality panfish. Some require a substantial hike to reach them—they're not all ramp-and-bass boat ready. You may have to sweat a bit, get scratched up, and swat deer flies and mosquitoes.
Many small shallow private lakes can suffer from droughts, resulting in low water that can adversely affect fishing. Although the "fishing in a barrel" mentality may seem to apply here, it's often not the case. Low water can cause low dissolved oxygen, dense algae blooms, and lethargic fish, and sometimes fish kills. I've witnessed kills on several prime lakes that devastated those fisheries, never again to return to their glory days. Cattle or other livestock with easy access to the water's edge can create muddy conditions and destroy habitat.
In addition to carrying excessive sediment, runoff from farm crops could contain pesticides or fertilizers. Although some affected waters may still have good fishing, those panfish may be contaminated in some way. Use discretion on what to keep and eat.
Some of the best private waters I've ever fished were out-of-the-way gems that weren't mowed and were shrouded by thick growths of brush and briers. Vegetative growth along the shorelines and in the lake made both access and fishing tough, at times almost impossible. Only a determined effort, coupled with the promise of trophy panfish, keeps me pressing on for small-water adventures and visions of huge bluegills and crappies.
*Jim Gronaw, Westminster, Maryland, is a big-bluegill aficionado and frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.