God's rose garden. Those pastel orange-pink-purple sunrises painted across non-descript stratus clouds — the kind of sunrise that promises nice weather and light winds. Late winter. An atmosphere overburdened with moisture makes for a spectacular sunrise. With little or no snow, the heavenly display reflects across the expanse of ice stretching out ahead. That's the time to be on the water for shy-biting bluegills.
The shyest bluegills of all live in gin-clear water. It's not uncommon to have reluctant bluegills in cloudy water, but fish living in clear water tend to be much spookier. Since they can see long distances in all directions, they can see danger in all directions. Jurassic pike constantly spoil the view in some direction. Bass can be spotted here and there. People dropping lines down to them are visible, too, with no snow on the ice. No wonder low-light periods — even nighttime — are the best windows of opportunity for bite-shy bluegills under the ice in clear water.
Pressure is increasing in many areas, and that definitely curbs aggressive behaviour (if only by culling it out of the gene pool). Even on lakes where bluegills typically double the rod on the strike, finnicky behaviour can take over when the weather sours or water conditions change. Best be prepared for light-biting fish wherever you go.
If a lake has the right size bluegills in it, those fish I like to catch, use as the subject of a photo or two and release right away, I'm not leaving to find a hotter bite if I think I can find the right trigger. I might move around the lake quite a bit, but I tend to stay longer than I should sometimes. It pays off big, though, when I find the right fish in a new spot or get them to bite on something new, delivered in a unique fashion. I start off by rigging two rods for aggressive biters and two rods for shy biters wherever I go.
The two shy-bite rods have five things in common: Tiny reels; thin, tightly-woven spring bobbers; 2-pound fluorocarbon line; several bits of "dust"on the leader; and a jig weighing 1/80-ounce or less. The spring bobbers are made with the same small springs used in Bic lighters, which are tight enough to actively jig with, yet sensitive enough to reveal the lightest inhalations of a hovering bluegill. The rods are Panfish Sweethearts by Thorne Brothers with the spring bobbers built into the rod tip.
The rod is fast but light. A thin, sensitive blank with a quick taper to a fast but forgiving tip is the key. The tip can't wave around like a flag when you wiggle the rod, yet it needs to be thin and sensitive enough to protect 2-pound fluorocarbon when a freshly-hooked bull sounds for bottom. The reel can be as small as you like, but it has to have a smooth drag because 2-pound fluorocarbon can't take much of a hit.
Though monofilament generally outperforms fluorocarbon in the 2-pound arena, fish can€š see it better. Fluorocarbon has a refractive indeFor really finnicky, pressured fish, 1-pound mono works better than 2-pound mono. But 2-pound fluorocarbon results in more bites than either
The "dust" is composed of teensy split shot smaller than a BB. It's available through fly shops, from Lindy-Little Joe, most of the major catalog stores and any European tackle outlet. In Europe, it's size #6 or #8 soft shot. Over here we suffer from chronic lack of standardization. But you can make your own by cutting grooves into tiny bird shot with a snip. Somewhere between 4 and 7 dust shot will be just right for any depths bluegills use in winter . I find that a short string of dust spooks fewer panfish than one or two big BBs. And I need shot on the line because the jigs I present to wary, finnicky bluegills are even tinier yet.
One of the first jigs I tie on when the bite gets really tough is a tiny teardrop in the 1/200-ounce range. That's a mighty small range, where jigs have size #12 and smaller hooks. Which leaves room for one maggot (Eurolarvae). Maybe two, if they're small. The next jig on my line will be a standard ballhead weighing 1/100- to 1/250-ounce. The teardrop, of course is vertical and the ballhead horizontal. With the horizontal presentation I prefer plastics to bait most of the time.
The reason for having such tiny jigs is simple: Panfish can inhale them. Finnicky panfish won't bother to swim over and bite jigs they can't inhale. Opening their flaps and vacuuming water through their gills seems to be their acid test for potential edibles. If it doesn't move, it won't be on the menu.
The ice will be packing it in none too soon up here in Sgt. Preston country (if you're too young to recognize the reference, just Google it). It's still between 2 and 3 feet thick and pretty hard in a lot of places, but the snow cover is melting fast. We'll analyze the end game on ice scenario for panfish pretty soon. Or not. Maybe I'll go chase steelhead in my new waders. Or out on the ice.
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.