April 15, 2012
By Matt Straw
Supposed to snow tonight. Temperatures are going to dip into the 20°F range again, with snow squalls and gusts up to 40 mph.
That will send the spring bluegills and crappies scurrying back to the "elevator." Do you know where the elevator is on your lake or pond? It's the sharpest drop between winter and spring habitat. In lakes, it often connects a main-lake basin to a large, shallow shelf or bay. The earliest shallow movements tend to take place in bays, where water warms fastest, and in those cases, the elevator tends to be just outside the bay, near the steepest slope into depths of at least 15 feet.
Typically, after a massive cold front, we find crappies stacked and suspended, about 12 to 18 feet down over depths of 20 to 25 feet, just off the sharpest drop in the area. That is, we know they're crappies because we can see them with our Aqua-Vu cameras, not because we're hauling them into the boat. They tend to develop a serious case of lockjaw.
But for the past few days, we've been lucky enough to experience stable, warming weather with air temperaturess topping 70°F and water temperatures reaching 54°F. As mentioned in the last post, we needed Thill Shy Bites to detect most of the strikes. Even though the water is warming fast, bigger bluegills in lakes around here are wary creatures. The long, thin profile of a Shy Bite allows it to shoot through the surface tension like a dart with the merest touch. We use 1/80- to 1/64-ounce TC Tackle ball-head jigs (406/683-5485) that we paint ourselves with nail polish. Our leaders are composed of 4-, 5-, and 6-pound fluorocarbon lines, 18 inches to 3 feet long, depending on how deep we find them and how heavy the cover is. The main line on our reels is 4-pound Berkley FireLine, which is easily tougher in weeds than 8-pound mono, and it casts much farther. And it floats. As far as I'm concerned, coated braids are the only lines to use when fishing floats.
The small barnyard animal Mary holds in the photo was way out on a huge shallow flat, relating to the last stands of green cabbage left over from last year. We had to work the entire flat to find them because the cabbage was too deep to see, and the water wasn't extremely clear. We then used the GPS function on my Humminbird 958c to outline the area with waypoints. The area was 4 to 5 feet deep and heavily infested with both live and dead cabbage stalks. Obviously, we've been using the heaviest leaders we can get away with, and in this instance used Toray Super Hard 6 pound.
These big saucers turn their side to you and dig into the cabbage. Nothing you can do about it. Every battle is touch-and-go, reeling down to the fish then lifting the 7-foot St Croix Avid AVS70ULF as high overhead as you can reach to tear them free. Then the battle is on for a half minute or so before they bury you again. The problem is accentuated by the fact that they absolutely will not tolerate having the boat within 20 feet of them. Even when turning the depth finders and trolling motor off and anchoring, in six trips to this Flat of Pigs this spring, we have yet to see a float go down within 20 feet of the boat. These are extremely wary fish. Catch two and it's over. You have to move about 50 feet to catch two more. Typical, too, for the float to sit in one spot for over 4 minutes before anything will touch the bait.
Yesterday, the fish were just beginning to reach shore. We caught 4 or 5 right up in the wood, old reeds, and shallow boulders, where we're accustomed to finding them this time of year. My guess is the mild winter left more green weeds out on the shallow flats than ever before. Whatever the reason — they haven't been bound to the shoreline as they have in years past in these temperature regimes. Now we can look forward to the whole process reversing itself again while we clean snow and ice off the windshields. Ick.
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.