Bluegill - Big Bluegill

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    Man, this winter sure is starting rough. I told myself while I was out hunting the third weekend of November in 2013. It was one of those days where walking was the only way to stay warm.  -5 degrees isn't great hunting weather but when your time is limited you take what you can get.  At least this will get the ice started and we can get fishing sooner, I consoled myself.  As it turned out it was one of the earliest starts to ice fishing in recent memory. There were reports of brave fishermen hitting the ice on Thanksgiving weekend. As optimistic as I was to get out early a snow storm hit the last week of November dropping enough snow to make the Ice conditions way too slushy and dangerous. But come Christmas, I was able to get out with my brother in-law on Grand Lake and we had our best Ice fishing outing together ever, catching dozens of pike and crappies for hours....but it was cold. As we watched the sun set that evening, temps dipped below zero (again), but winter in Minnesota, It's suppose to be cold.....right?

    Grand Lake had proven itself over many years of fishing it consistently to be one of the best panfish/bass lakes I have ever come across. I felt blessed there was a world class fishery only 10 minutes from my front door and didn't take if for granted. It was one of those special places that had a large population of quality Blue Gills (8.5"-9.5"), Crappies (9"-12") and Large mouth bass (16"18" with 5-6lb bass being caught often through the summer). It was also known for producing 20+ pound Northern Pike.  Did I mention that I didn't take the lake for granted?

   Fast forward to May 2014, it had been one of the coldest winters my 90 year old Grandma could remember with long standing records falling. First it was the most days in a row of the lowest daily temps being recorded in the sub-zero's (23). Then came the most days total in any winter of temperatures being recorded at some point in the sub-zeros (74+). Lake Superior froze over for the first time in nearly 20 years.......and then there was the snow. When the last snowfall came through in early may the total for the year was 130.2 inches which was the 3rd most ever recorded for our area. 

   We had already endured a long snowy winter in 2012-13 with some of the latest Ice outs ever recorded in most of our lakes (Lake Vermilion ice out date was 5/17 in 2013) which pushed everyone's opening fishing plans out 2 weeks. I can't believe this is happening again, I thought as we pushed our opener plans out again this year because Ice out wasn't projected to happen in time.  The problem wasn't the thickness of ice, our area always max's out at around 36-40" thick. It was the snow......the more snow on the ice, the more it insulates and slows down the melt. As it turns out there was a difference between the two years, 2013-14 had way more cold (record cold) with the snow (a record amount of snow), translation?  The snow didn't melt. It covered the ice much longer and thicker then most years. 

   Why does all this matter?  May 15th, 2014 I get a txt from my cousin at 6:30am “Did you hear about the fish kill?”  My heart sank as I read it…..fish kill…..dreaded words for a fisherman. No one who loves to fish any species likes to hear those words. I didn’t want to answer because I was afraid of the answer….”No,” I responded. ”Where?”  His answer was like a train running me over. ”Grand Lake, they have an article about it in the paper.”    An article?  Could it really be that bad?  I went strait to the report and read it with trepidation…..then I saw it. The estimated amount of fish dead, 35,000……wait 35,000?!  That can’t be!  It must be a typo, there is no way! I got in my car that morning and drove to my favorite lake to see for myself……

   The smell of dead fish was unmistakable as I drove up to the 1,658 acre Lake. I was grieved with the amount of dead fish I saw along the shore. They were spread out as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t help but shed a tear.  I guess I did take the lake for granted, I thought.  I always assumed the fish would be here. Maybe one day the bass fishing would not be as good or the Crappie population would come down or the average size blue gill in the lake will get smaller but never could I have predicted or imagined that they would be gone.   I started to take inventory, there’s a few gills….a few more, some crappies over there, some bass….northerns….on and on it went. Not just dozens but hundreds of fish on this small shore line of the lake. I couldn’t stay there anymore, I was to upset. Selfishly I thought, This was supposed to be the lake that would produce the first locally caught 10” bluegill for me!  Last year I caught a couple at 9.75inchers  so it was only a matter of time, right?  The thought trailed off, just a matter of time. I was bewildered…….

  June 7th 2014, I was able to talk myself into giving my favorite lake a try. Reports through my connections confirmed that the lake was hurt bad from the fish kill but I had to know it for myself.  I only had a couple hours but that was enough time to fish the two spots I knew panfish would and should be. They had been my go too spots, the places I took my family and close friends to because we were guaranteed to have a good blue gill outing.  A lot of good gills had been caught from bobber fishing to fly fishing in these areas and I knew if I could pull out a few gills or crappies my hope would be restored. 1 hour went by…..2hrs….3….4, nothing. There was no pan fish to be seen or caught just 2 small northerns and 1 perch. Nothing, unbelievable.

  The sadness doesn’t end….. Recently we learned that the Minnesota DNR plans to stock millions of Walleye fry in the lake and manage it as a Walleye lake for the unforeseeable future. The problem?  It isn’t a Walleye lake.  They had long abandoned managing it as one due to the lack of natural reproduction along with the health of the other species. Those primarily being Bass and Panfish.  The local folks I have talked to that care about this agree, it will just prolong the inevitable making the recovery harder and longer for the other species this lake is really good for. I am hopeful that a dialogue can be created with the DNR to talk about the lake so those that really care about it can be listened to and give input, only time will tell if they are willing to open that line of communication.

  Conclusion?  I’m not sure there is one. The only thing I know is that the lake’s lack of oxygen this winter, created by the lack of light that wouldn’t penetrate the snow covered ice, killed the weeds, which in turn ate oxygen as it decayed and created one of the biggest fish kills in this lake/area’s history.  Will it ever return to the Panfish/Bass/Northern grandeur it once was?  Maybe, in time, but the DNR’s plan to manage it as a Walleye lake could delay that recovery. Sure Walleye fishing may be good for a time but when they naturally reproduce is known to be minimal in the lake how long would that last? I believe the reality will be that the new competition created by introducing a large Walleye population will only stunt the other species potential and make their recovery take longer. Since the lake wants to be a Bass/Panfish lake I remain hopeful.   

  My heart hurts for the loss of a great fishery, for what appears to be the lack of wisdom to help it recover properly and for the many years of patience that pan fishermen will need to have in waiting for the lake to come back. The hard truth is, it's "recovery" may only be a shadow of what it once was and It's known potential could fade into memory as the “good ‘ol days”.  I remain hopeful that this will not be so. 

   Grand Lake, you held a special place in this fisherman’s heart. For the many great memories with my children, wife, family and friends, I thank you. I believe one day we will catch pan fish together again my friend, just like the "good 'ol days". 

   

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Comment by Jim Gronaw on July 12, 2014 at 8:22pm

I sure hope that Grand Lake can return to glory in a decade or a little more. And it is indeed a shame that the bluegill is low on the totem pole when it comes to fisheries management.

I send fishing reports , weekly, to the Maryland DNR website for public review and info on panfish and bass fishing conditions in central Maryland and Mason Dixon area public and private waters. I encourage anglers to seek small, under-the-radar public lakes and ponds that often have trophy largemouth bass and panfishing options. Indeed, fishery management strategies seldom focus on bluegill, or other, panfish management enhancements simply because its not considered a 'money' fish. They are always grouped with 'opportunities for children' or 'begining ' anglers. Yet when I teach my fishing classes at local parks for pole and line panfish for new anglers, it is often the older parents getting hooked, more so than the children!

Hopefully, this can change and we can work together to create a 'Bluegill Dynasty' for those of us who just never 'grew up.' 

The bluegill and close kin just deserves better, and so do we.

Comment by Nathanael Deloach on June 20, 2014 at 8:11pm

I'm with you Tony. My conversation with Dan eventually went to educating the public but that will have to be driven by an entity outside the DNR I'm afraid. Until people learn of the importance of all species being managed (not just one or two) then the DNR won't be in a position to allocate funds else where without a fuss. Hmmmm, I wonder what we can do off this website that could be a spring board for more public awareness on the "lesser" species of gamefish? :) 

   Thanks for the comments Mr JB, going through a major change with one of your favorite lakes is no fun.  It sounds to me like your lake has more than one factor working against the gills.  The spawning you mentioned could definitely be one. Another could be not enough predation (bass and Northern are notorious for eating gills), This in turn could lead to the dreaded "stunted" gill by over population problem....There could be other factors tho since the crappies are struggling as well. They aren't as susceptible to the over population that gills can fall into. I hope your lake can have another major shift and help our favorite fish make a come back! 

Comment by Tony Livingston on June 20, 2014 at 5:28pm

I hear you Nathaniel, and applaud your efforts. I've also had conversations with some state fisheries biologists here in Indiana, and it sounds like our two governing bodies think alike. That's not to say I don't approve of their methodology, as I realize that they are doing the best that they can....they are simply understaffed, and underfunded.

And while I too would love to see my state take on an active management role where growing large bluegills is concerned, I know that it simply boils down to money, and public interest. And in most cases, the public want their money spent on the more prominent gamefish, not bluegills.

What we need is more public awareness of what bluegills are capable of. All of us here know that they are a superb gamefish in their own right, but much of the angling public still envisions them topping out at 8-9". As a matter-of-fact, my state considers a harvestable bluegill to be 6" in length. This mindset needs to change.

Comment by JBplusThuy on June 20, 2014 at 2:53pm

I'm really sorry to hear about your favorite lake, and I know how you feel. My favorite lake in San Diego County (although it's a bit of drive, at over 50 miles from my house) had to be drained for a seismic retrofit of the dam in the 80s or 90s, and while there is good fishing there again now, one thing that has not recovered is the bluegill and redear fishery. There is a decent amount of bluegill (no redear, AFAIK), but like the crappie in Cuyamaca, they are small. A typical Cuyamaca crappie is 6 inches long.

Cuyamaca is probably the best trout lake in the county, and the only one that has trout year-round and it's also a decent bass and catfish lake, but the panfish are small and seem stuck on staying that way. This may be a case of what Tony mentioned in another thread recently - that with no large males to keep the small males out of prime bed location, the little ones matured early and that's about as big as they're ever going to get :(

Comment by Nathanael Deloach on June 20, 2014 at 2:21pm

We live in an area where natural reproduction in our lakes for walleyes are very common and the norm. This lake has very low to no reproduction most years with the walleyes because it has very little habitat for them to spawn adequately. So the conditions need to be just right. There is a very high focus in our state to stock and manage walleye more than any other fish but it isn't necessarily because the DNR thinks it's the right thing to do (and in some cases they don't want to do it). It's mainly because of the public support and even high pressure that they receive to go the walleye management direction.

    I spoke with a DNR fisheries biologist today for an hr and had a really good conversation with him.  He acknowledged there is a risk of the panfish and bass recovery being slowed down due to the stocking plans for the lake but it won't stop them from proceeding because it's what the public wants. To be fair, there is also a chance it could speed up the recovery of the other species by providing a good food base to gorge on (this is the scenario I'm hoping for anyway...:) He felt that based on the lakes history with fish kills (there have been many documented since 1956 tho they were a lot smaller) the lake should rebound and come close to what it once was, no matter what they do with walleye stocking. I was encouraged to hear that. I am also very thankful to have had a very good, productive conversation with someone on the inside. This will open the doors of communication and will hopefully give our favorite fish a voice in this area (albeit a small voice).  The reality for me is that I'm in walleye country so it will be slow going to get anywhere. But now I have someone to talk to on the inside who is willing to hear input, which could lead towards better management to blue gills, crappies and bass. When I asked Dan with the DNR how they currently implement "managing" panfish and bass (because Grand lake has been targeted for that management by the DNR), his answer said everything we need to know about resource allocation in this state, "we monitor the fish."  I asked him to explain and he said." We perform surveys on various lakes recording what fish we find and their health, then check the lake again in a few years."   So basically the management for species other then walleye, in the greater Duluth area at least, is very limited, this is something I hope to change one day....

Comment by Tony Livingston on June 20, 2014 at 7:10am

And there will most likely never be any signs of walleye recruitment. Walleyes are primarily a put and take fish when placed in ponds and lakes, although there will always be exceptions in some bodies of water. They definitely reproduce in the great lakes! Walleyes are also a money draw, as unfortunate as that sounds....they bring in revenue in the form of licenses, bait, lodging, etc. Far more than bluegills will.

So you have a state body who wants to create revenue by stocking a fish that anglers will be spending money on, in order to catch...in this case, walleyes. The problem, is that walleye fry, while cheap, do little more than form a quick snack for the existing predators already in place. This means that they have to stock fingerlings instead, which are very expensive, and take a huge bite out of the potential profit...in many cases, making it unfeasible.

Now however, the fishkill has eliminated the predator issue, at least temporarily. Now it is feasible to stock the much cheaper fry, which stand a better chance of survival, and create the fishery that anglers are willing to spend the money on. It's all about capitalizing on the moment.....now is the time to do it, even though it is most likely temporary.

It's usually about seeing a return on the money.

Comment by Nathanael Deloach on June 19, 2014 at 10:29pm
I agree with them following thru with their agreement Tony but the problem is that they quit stocking in 2011 because there were no signs of recruitment. When there's no natural reproduction it's going to be a lost cause, they admitted that when they stopped stocking...... I am hoping to get some more clarifications on a few things, I called and left a message today with the gentleman that responded to my email. He invited me to do so, I look forward to the conversation....
Comment by Tony Livingston on June 19, 2014 at 2:22pm

I agree. It sounds like they are trying to make good on a promise they made earlier. And I also agree with their logic. Stocking walleye fry into a BOW with an existing predator base is shooting for the stars. This way, the fry have a much greater shot at survival.

Comment by Nathanael Deloach on June 19, 2014 at 1:55pm

That's why I contacted the DNR, I wanted to know their rational. For the most part I trust the DNR. They do a lot of research and have their pulse on almost every lake in the state but I admit, this decision from an envirionmental stand point, doesn't make sense.....Here is an excerpt from the DNR email I recieved regarding the walleye stocking decision.... 

"As far as walleye management, this is primarily an issue of opportunity and fostering positive public relations with our stakeholders.  Because of the current void of fish biomass in the lake as a result of the fish kill, we have a great opportunity to create some exceptional walleye fishing (in a few years) as survival of stocked fry should be very good with ample food resources and a corresponding lack of predation by bass/bluegill/northern pike.  From a fiscal perspective, the cost/benefit ratio on this is very favorable since the cost to stock fry is nominal compared to the potential benefit of creating exceptional walleye fishing, even if it’s a short term benefit (before bass/bluegill populations rebound and suppress walleye production).  On the public relations side, the recent failure of fry stocking in the 2000’s and corresponding increases in bass and panfish populations led us to discontinue biennial walleye fry stocking in 2011.  Many anglers were not happy about our decision to discontinue walleye management on Grand Lake, even though it clearly wasn’t working.  One way that we were able to gain pervasive public support of the revised management plan was to include a walleye stocking contingency.  For all these reasons, the Grand Lake management plan was written to have walleye fry stocked at a rate of 500 per littoral acre (755,000) in the spring following a major documented winterkill event." 

From these comments it would seem that the stocking of walleye is coming from public pressure of walleye fisherman and fullfilling a compromise made when they  decided to discontinue stocking in 2011...

Comment by Ben Seay on June 19, 2014 at 1:36pm

That's a nice heartfelt story pal! I can't say I am really "attached" to any particular body of water mainly because I have a lot of other choices and I mostly river fish. One thing you have to realize is that the DNR would have HAD to have talked with a biologist or someone extremely experienced regarding the fish kill. The DNR is not just going to say "Well, let's just throw Walleye in there just for the heck of it". There is justification behind what they are doing. Well, at least there is supposed to be anyway.... 

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