For many, perhaps, their availability, willingness to bite or sweet-tasting fillets; yet for others, catching thick-bodied bulls approaching the magical 10-inch mark becomes a legitimate, noteworthy challenge.
While fish this size are caught, boasts of such specimens are often of questionable measure, stretched long in both spun yarns and upon rulers, alike.
The truth is that these fish are elusive, so those who experience success are often innately tight lipped. Aside from knowing of a seldom-fished pond, finding systems truly capable of consistently producing trophy bluegills requires masterfully understanding the right amalgam of variables necessary to grow large fish and sustain a well-balanced size structure. Then you must identify such waters currently supporting a favorable population and approaching them with a strategic, “big fish” mentality.
The ability for bluegills to rapidly proliferate, especially in environments where ample cover exists to hide from predators, often causes burgeoning populations to result in stunting. Such waters are great for providing action, but not viable targets for those seeking a trophy.
Choosing systems managed or recognized for species other than bluegills and supporting only marginal populations restricted to isolated slices of appropriate habitat, or kept in check by limited resources, dominant predators or good management and sustainable harvest, offer favorable starting points.
Some of my best waters are relatively deep, with fast-breaking contours and minimal area comprised of densely vegetated littoral zones. Instead of having carrying capacities occupied by large numbers of smaller fish, such systems produce a healthier, beneficial “checks and balances” equilibrium capable of consistently producing quality over quantity.
With that being said, unless you have a trustworthy source willing to share such prized information, finding suitable waters requires time, and often, painstaking research. Paging through journals documenting professional fisheries studies, reviewing creel census tabulations and visiting with local fisheries managers can all provide excellent clues. Just be careful to note data collection dates, as bluegill populations can transform rather quickly based on a number of delicate variables.
Once you have identified potential systems, each must be carefully evaluated, as large bluegills do not necessarily behave the same as their smaller, more gregarious counterparts.
Mid-depth sand, marl or rock bottom points and humps offering plots of healthy green weed cover are always worth noting. In lakes with little natural structure or cover, fish cribs can be good, too. But understand that smaller pods of suspended, loosely roaming fish cruising open water is a common phenomenon in either situation.
Depending on the lake and competitive species present, you will often find larger bluegills cruising deep edges of cover or hovering just above, suspended off sharp breaks and roaming nearby over open water basins where they feed on plankton and small minnows. The larger and deeper the water body and greater the diversity of available forage, the greater the challenge — and frequently — the greater the potential rewards.
Select waters that offer the best mix and save coordinates of locations that provide the most desirable combinations of structure, cover and forage. Then be open-minded and use sonar to probe each noted waypoint. Success often depends on identifying narrow secondary points or fingers stretching between elongated shoreline points or mid-depth reefs, and extending toward deeper, soft-bottom basins. Then you need to locate outlying fish relating to or loosely suspended out from such features.
Be alert — and patient. Small, loosely held pods will often circle repeatedly through specific areas or zones. I am a firm believer in getting into those prime areas and drilling clusters or staggered lines across target areas early in the day to quietly settle in and hole jump. Then mark fish and monitor position shifts using sonar and underwater cameras.
At times, there will appear to be little rhyme or reason, but given two holes spaced just a couple feet apart, one will consistently produce while the other barely an arm’s length away remains a void. Discern the good ones so positioning and movement patterns can be noted and, assuming they exist, routes revealed.
Once fish are marked, the ability to get down efficiently and reach them before they move is critical, thus fast-dropping tungsten jigs are often the lure of choice. Tipped with a seductively undulating plastic tail or wriggling maggot, small-profile, heavy-bodied tungsten jigs of various design and color sporting #8-6 light wire hooks are excellent choices for this application, because such presentations can be quickly and precisely lowered into position. Once there, they offer a tantalizing, easy-to-control presentation that can be fished slowly. Non-twist, loose-bodied designs like HT’s Marmooska Tungsten Dancer are also advantageous, especially when fishing deep.
To maximize presentation control and sensory perception, my preference is a well-balanced, fast to extra-fast action light-power ice rod that feels good in your hands and allows continuous and intimate contact with your chosen presentation. Match that with a smooth, well-balanced reel — many select anglers are choosing higher-gear ratio in-line models to reduce line twist and the resulting undesirable lure spin without sacrificing retrieve speed. Regardless of the system being used, always spool with the thinnest, lowest-memory line you can find.
Stiff, coiled lines ruin sensitivity by losing the ability to sustain close contact with your presentation — and even more critically, erasing the capacity to use your line as an effective strike indicator, thus significantly reducing your ability to detect light takes, but more on that soon.
Getting to Work
To start, lower your presentation and use sonar or an underwater camera to monitor fish reactions. At times, fast drops will tease reaction strikes, but more often, lowering your bait a foot or two above the target fish, then pausing before beginning to shimmy the bait upward, attempting to tease targets into rising for it, offers a good read into fish activity. If there is no response, pause again briefly before starting to slowly jig down while imparting a gentle rocking motion to tempt interested fish.
Experiment with varied drop speeds, always pausing to pound, shake, shimmy or “swim” your lure in mixed fashion, while S-L-O-W-L-Y jigging up, then down, to see what motion does or doesn’t gain attention. Should a fish engage, continue to work the bait in that same mode, attempting to coax a committed move toward your bait.
Once a fish commits and begins closing in, try working your lure with slight, continual vibration to close the deal. You may need to hold the presentation in place, but more often slowly lowering your bait within specific time variations and depth zones will trigger bluegills. Other times, slowly working your lure all the way to the bottom and jiggling it there may also induce strikes.
Subtle details, such as using loop knots to produce increasingly life-like actions, or sliding your knot to the front of the eyelet so your jig will jump and kick with the hook pointed up (a particularly deadly tactic when working the bottom) can be key variables, too. Clipping your lure to vary its weight, fall speed or produce modified actions can also be deadly, and tipped with various types, sizes and colored plastic tippers sliced into irregular configurations may help generate new wrinkles and subtle, difference-making movements.
Live bait may also be desirable — usually spikes, but some days waxworms, mousies, poppers or wigglers may be better. Using colored spikes, multiple grubs, varying colors or select combinations may help turn tricks, too.
Lightly tail-nipping grubs and holding your presentation nearly still while simply allowing them to wriggle naturally may work. But “wacky worming” or mashing them on the hook and jigging actively may perform equally well. There will be times when a combination of methods may be necessary to obtain consistent results.
Just be observant and keep experimenting.
Most importantly, anglers must understand that big bluegills can be notoriously dainty biters. Fine-tuned levels of presentation control and a supremely heightened sense of feel is compulsory; if you are not in constant contact with your lure and laser-focused, you will miss strikes, or at minimum, mis-time hook sets.
There are various ways to achieve this, but all are based upon meticulous presentation balance. Careful selection of a precisely weighted lure that properly loads your rod tip and pulls your line straight enables establishment of a distinct, consistent jigging rhythm, and concise feel for exactly how your presentation is responding to each imparted oscillation. That way, even the slightest hint of interruption or tiniest aberration within the finest pulses can be unmistakably noted, then reacted upon appropriately.
Once such a rhythm is set, your line becomes the best indicator to reveal even the faintest inconsistencies, because it will tighten when a fish strikes, then move away or slacken whenever a big bluegill overtakes and deftly rises with your bait, relieving the usual weight. Ultimately, the key to achieving this level of unsurpassed strike detection is by meticulously studying your line 4 to 6 inches beneath the surface of the water.
Begin a regular motion, closely watching how your line responds to each movement, and continue that set pattern. If your line does anything unexpected — twitch, float up, slip sideways, go slack when it should be tight or straighten when it should go slack, drop your rod tip slightly, reel down and set the hook!
Seeing such miniscule line movements relayed or minute losses of contact when a fish inhales and moves upward can be detected above water, yes. But as these strikes are being transmitted through to your rod tip, the line conveying them is subject to icing, wind and other sense-deadening disturbances. These cause a loss of connection to varying degrees and creating split-second delays transferring these delicate movements. So even when they do visibly register, the ensuing sensory loss allows cagey old bulls ample opportunity to spit out your lure before you even perceive a take, much less react appropriately.
Watching your line below the water line, however, eliminates such interference, ensuring only movements you instill or those instigated by a fish will be readily exposed, providing the ultimate advantage.
If line-watching is not your forte, super-sensitive spring bobbers are secondary viable options, but again, subject to disturbances not present under water. So when using spring bobbers, sharpening your ability to attentively watch for nearly imperceptible variations in movement is critical.
Attaining the goal of finding and catching quality bluegills is among the greatest challenges in ice fishing — one seldom easily earned. Complicating matters is the fact that those successful in accomplishing this feat are a largely unspoken brotherhood not willing to reveal many secrets.
However, the precepts presented here will help you earn the distinction of joining this elite group, and ultimately, enjoy all the revelries thereof.
Tom Gruenwald is a fisheries biologist, an angling writer and author of four books on ice fishing. Look for him on his television program, “Tom Gruenwald Outdoors.”
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