After extreme warming trends, we've had a week of comparably colder weather. The last week of April included snow accumulations of a foot or so in some parts of Minnesota. But, when the weather stabilizes, panfish respond, even though it feels cold to us. After 3 or 4 days in a row of the same kind of weather, river-backwater bulls and slabs were on fire.
River fish are tough customers. When the panfish in lakes are shivering out in the basins, river crappies and 'gills are having a picnic in the wood-infested shallows. Mississippi River crappies, besides being among the most beautiful I've found anywhere, fight harder than their local cousins in lakes. The bluegills fight like bass, and today we had plenty of opportunities to compare. Bass were on fire, too. Everything was biting. The first three fish we encountered were northerns, including a healthy 8-pounder that somehow got hooked right on the end of the snout. A bigger northern or muskie grabbed one of our struggling bluegills and almost held on too long — we had it alongside when she shook opened her big maw and let loose.
The gear we're using can handle some really portly customers. The rod I'm holding above is a Fenwick Elite Tech ERR76L. Mary's holding a St Croix Avid AVS 70UL. These rods can rip 4-pound Berkley FireLine through pretty heavy weeds and bring 5-pound largemouths out on the other side. The lack of stretch and thin diameter of the line combine to create slicing power. Move these quick sticks and you move the fish.
For stealth and abrasion resistance, we add 1 to 3 feet of Raven 5.6-pound fluorocarbon leader material, depending on the depths we're fishing. We tie the leader on using tiny Raven swivels, to eliminate line twist and create a strong connection for landing big fish in heavy cover.
Mary was using a slip-float setup. I was using a fixed Thill Shy Bite. Today we caught both species of panfish with Berkley Gulp Panfish Leeches, real leeches, minnows, and waxworms on TC Tackle Jigs (406/683-5485), and that's another link in a strong chain. The hooks on TC Tackle custom-made jigs won't straighten out.
As usual, the crappies showed a decided preference for minnows, the bluegills opted for leeches, and Gulp caught both. Strange, though, how the Gulp would fail to catch fish for long stretches of time then outperform livebait for an hour or so. Is Gulp better than livebait? Depends on when you ask the question.
What a dramatic day. As bright shafts of sunlight speared through the clouds, an osprey dove into the water nearby, dragging a struggling fish aloft. Loons were calling, eagles soaring, swans flying overhead, and various species of turtles were making up for lost time after sleeping through winter. We made our way home through several rain squalls, slipping through the shadows of the forest, rich with the ethereal echoes of horned owls calling through the dripping pines.
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.