February 23, 2012
Remember Sea Hunt, with Lloyd Bridges? Probably not. Unless you're older than dirt, like me. Lloyd was the father of Jeff Bridges. Certainly, you remember him? (Tron. The Big Lebowski. Sea Biscuit.) The underwater world was "the next frontier" in Lloyd's hey days. It quickly gave way, in the 1950s, to the Space Race — the "final frontier."
We've more-or-less forgotten frontiers recently. Challenger is in moth balls while Mars and ongoing deep-water explorations are being assigned to robots. People seem most interested in cell phones and the deceptive "marvels" of new apps.
One of my frontiers, something that's intrigued me since the age of 9, has been the quest for trophy bluegills. We call them bulls, when they broach the 1-pound mark. At 9, and for several years thereafter, my grandmother marched me deep into the woods to hunt for them. I assume I was there to carry the bait can, and to haul the catch back to her cleaning table.
We carried cane poles over our shoulders for a couple miles. Our destination was a swamp. At least, it looked like a swamp. Trees grew out of the water on the fringes. It had no roads or two tracks leading to it through the forest. We waded in through ferns and tall grasses. How my grandmother knew what was in that "swamp," I have no idea. But she did grow up in that area. Back in 1890 something. And she was very good at keeping secrets.
The bluegills we pulled from that "swamp" were blacker than chunks of coal, with multiple bulges on their foreheads. Having been accustomed to catching mostly 5- to 8-inch bluegills from the dock in front of her cabin (which I now own), I was bowled over by these creatures from the black lagoon.
We had no catch-and-release ethic back then. What my grandmother caught, she cleaned and ate. The "swamp" has since been dammed. It's now a lake, with cabins and houses lining the shore, filled to the brim with bluegills 4 to 6 inches long because most people continue to behave like my grandmother did when it comes to bluegills. The big ones keep going in the bucket.
I like to eat bluegills, too. In fact, I've posted a few recipes for them right here. So I harvest a few. Oddly enough, I have no idea what the legal limit is — because it's never been so low as five (except on those rare lakes with special regs) and that's all I ever keep. My self-imposed slot for harvest is 6 to 8 inches. Anything bigger goes back in, to pass those bullish genetics on. Most days, all the fish go back in. I probably harvest once every 3 or 4 trips I make for 'gills.
I've been doing that for many years, in hopes of maintaining a few places where the words "bull hunt" have some meaning. I began searching in Northern Michigan 40 years ago, and now I'm looking all over the Midwest. The biggest bluegills were always in remote lakes and ponds. Seldom is there a cabin or home on the shoreline. Most of them are no longer worth driving (or hiking) back to.
I have a few lakes left where we can walk in and count on catching a few bulls. They all have something in common: The only old holes we find were made by us, days or weeks earlier. When the word gets out on one of these lakes, and it begins to look like Swiss cheese from countless old holes left by the "crappie mafia," its days of producing bulls are already over. Very few of these lakes, over the past 40 years, have bounced back. And the ranks of big-bluegill lakes have thinned considerably. What happened to all the big bluegills? "They went home in buckets," says bluegill pioneer Dave Genz.
I somehow managed to overcome my grandmother's adamant "catch-and-fillet" philosophy. Probably happened as early as 1973, when I first realized one of my favorite big bluegill lakes suffered from a severe case of over harvest. I don't think anybody's caught a bull in that lake since.
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.