Bluegill - Big Bluegill

Do you love big bluegill?

Dave Genz is the father of modern ice fishing. He invented the flip-style ice shack and his tireless efforts, which still continue, have made ice fishing the highly effective, technical, active pursuit that it is today.

When I interviewed him for the Recycled Fish "12 Questions" series a year ago, he said, "Not over-harvesting panfish is important...Some say, “they’re only panfish,” but we’ve disrupted the natural balance of so many lakes, that we don’t get many large panfish any more. Most of our waters are managed for the larger predators – especially the walleye and musky up here in Minnesota. Everybody up here wants to say they’re a walleye or a musky fisherman, but at heart, we’re all pan fishermen."

I know what he's talking about. In my first outing on hard water this year, I had the good pleasure of hitting a private pond with my friends Chad and Bo Abresch from Nebraska Fish & Game Association.

The body of water we were fishing was chock full of spunky largemouth bass in the 13" - 15" range. I don't care who you are, a bent rod with a leaping bass is fun. When you jig them up with a vertical spoon through a hole in the ice, it's just as exciting.

But better yet, those densely populated bass make for some bruiser sunfish, and we found out that day. The bluegills were biting light - almost undetectably so - but when one would inhale a teardrop and waxworm, the fight was on.

These fish weren't the 10" specimens of lore, but once a 'gill breaks the 8" mark it starts to get respectable, and these 9" class fish certainly had our respect. They all went back into the lake after a brief photo - none were out of the water for more than a minute, most less than that.
A friend of mine from Illinois is just getting in to ice fishing. He's struggling out there because he's chasing walleye, pike and bass. My advice: the bluegill is DESIGNED for ice fishing. In the winter, what we're after is action and bluegill provide it.

Because of the cold, clean winter water and the fact that fish are on ice as soon as they come out of it, their meat is firm and clean tasting. It's hard to beat a few ice-caught bluegill in the pan.

But the 'few' does require mentioning. While selective harvest is an important management tool and keeping a few to eat is an important part of the legacy of our sport, keeping the 'selective' in 'selective harvest' makes sense too.

That's why I love this website - it seems to have struck the perfect balance in stewardship of these amazing fish. This post says it best, in my mind.

We've got a couple months left of 'hard water' depending upon where we live in the Ice Belt, plenty of opportunity to meet some big bluegill yet this year.

Teeg Stouffer
Recycled Fish
Anglers living a lifestyle of stewardship both on and off the water, because our lifestyle runs downstream

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I think we often underestimate our state fisheries people. Like most of you I practice conservation by releasing the fish I do not plan to utilize but I don’t believe that it is my responsibility to protect the fishery, that is their job.

Having said that, I know it is possible to fish down bluegill populations so that larger year classes seem to disappear, but I think a bigger problem is over fishing the predator fish. I have seen it happen many times in Michigan. Start taking out large numbers of pike and bass and the bluegill population explodes.

On the other hand, there are so many bluegill fishermen, it is odd that more lakes are not managed for large size bluegills. I have been told that a well balanced lake has good numbers of big fish of all species so since I am not a biologist, I wonder what it would take to manage a lake for large bluegills.
Very good read Teeg!

Great to hear of others practicing conservation and/or selective harvest for bluegill. Unfortunately I believe this concept is foreign to many anglers when it comes to any pan fish species. There is some work to be done and this is a great place to share ideas and practices. Thanks Bruce.

In the Sandhills of Nebraska, ice fishing is one of the most effective ways to catch huge bluegill. The thing few people realize is bluegill, as well as many other species, tend to group in larger schools during the winter and are very susceptible to over harvest.

My sons and I implemented selective harvest practices several years ago on all private and public lakes we fish. Lakes we know the species structure and what size/species of fish is dominate, we may harvest enough for a meal. On lakes we do not know species dynamics, all fish are release until that information is obtained. Our most common bluegill harvest practice on Sandhill Lakes is 10 gills/angler with a keeper slot of 7 - 9 inches. Everything above or below is released. Sandhill Lakes are unique in the fact that most are so fertile, an unbalance of top end predators has little effect on bluegill growth rates. That is why releasing big gills is so important to us in these lakes.

Undoubtedly the most important factor is getting some idea of the dynamics on each lake before harvesting a fish. If it's a lake you frequent often, then you already have an idea. Most DNR's have lake reports every year for public water. With this said, how they obtained this information may not always or accurately report each species status. But it is a place to start, and the only information you may have to begin with.

Another great way to check dynamics in your frequented lakes is by keeping a journal on each outing. This is my most valued resource in checking lake status dating back 15 years. I find it amazing comparing things like drought and exploitation over an extended amount of time, in different lakes that may only be a few miles apart.

The more I learn, the more I don't understand.

Don Cox
Mullen Ne
I think you are going the extra mile and I can’t find fault with that. I used to keep records of everything, weather, water temp., time of day, barometer readings, previous few days weather conditions and anything else I could remember.

Most of the time these days, I just take enough fish for a meal. Since I can usually catch enough to eat on a given day, why freeze them?

I fish one lake in Canada that is 8 miles long and 1 to 3 miles wide and it is full of bluegills. Seldom do you catch one less then 9 inches or over 10 ½. They don’t like bluegills much in Ontario. Each year they have a fishing contest and the locals use big floating cages sometimes 4' X 6' and fill them and then tow them to shore where the bluegills, sunfish and rock bass are dumped into 55 gallon drums. The winner last time I was there about 8 years ago filled almost 3 drums.

The use a crane to lift the drums into trucks and the fish are taken to a land fill and un-ceremoniously dumped.

A total waste, but they look at them like trash fish and the lake just keeps on producing. Think I am going to go this summer. First week in June is best, because in an average day 500 slab gills is not unusual and in addition you will hook 30 to 40 smallmouth between 1.5 to 5 lbs. It’s a blast on a bluegill rig.
Good stuff Don that's what Monte and I think too and we always enjoy fishing with you and Dave.

Scott Mares
Ray Danders says:

"I think we often underestimate our state fisheries people".

Bruce Condello says:

"Amen to that". :-)
Teeg, excellent article that spawned even better dialogue. I agree with your Dave Genz assessment....very nice man. I fished a NAIFC qualifier event last February and after our fish were weighed, Dave would congratulate the participants and take the time for pictures. While guys were pre-fishing the lake, Genz was moving about the teams on his snowmobile and talking with the folks. Like Bruce, I have read just about every article and book that Genz has been a part of. That's where I really learned about being selective on what you keep and throw back. Like other posters, my target for table fare is 7.5" - 8.5".

I live in southeast Wisconsin...between Milwaukee and Chicago, Il. Musky Mod can attest to the fishing pressure that our lakes experience. On most lakes in Illinois, there isn't a panfish can keep as many as you want, regardless of size. I was fishing on Channel Lake in Illinois yesterday and I was amazed (and saddened) as to what folks were keeping. I bit my lip because it is their right. In Wisconsin, the state regulation is a daily limit of 25 and possession limit of 50. This summer, on Lake Delavan, I would see the same guys pounding their "honey hole" day in and day out. I feel some folks really don't care but they'll be the first to complain when a lake isn't producing nice fish. I would love to see a reduced daily limit on some of these lakes in harmony with size restrictions. We, as today's anglers, have the responsibility to ensure future generations have the opportunity to enjoy fishing as much as we do. Fished out or stunted lakes will eliminate that enjoyment.

Thanks again, Teegs. If you ever fish in a NAIFC qualifier, let me know....I know you would enjoy it and you can learn a lot by doing so.
I used to live in Shorewood on the North side of Milwaukee in the early 70's and did a lot of bluegill fishing around there and even back then, Delavan was a well known big bluegill lake. I fished it several time with a friend who still guides on Muskego lake for pike I think.

Lake Geneva is a terrific bluegill lake with lots of 10 inch fish, but it is hard to find them. Wisconsin is a better big bluegill state than my home state of Michigan, and the best fishery might just be the Mississippi river and a thousand lakes in between.

The biggest bluegills I caught while living in Wisconsin were found in Lake Mendota. It is about a 10,000 acre lake compared to about 2,000 for Delavan and almost impossible to fish out. Mendota has lots of bluegills over 11 inches but again it took a lot of time to find them and even when you did, you didn’t catch many.

My buddy Jim is about as good a fisherman as you will find, but just because he can catch fish, like Dave Gentz doesn’t mean he knows what is best to maintain a terrific fishery. I’m not putting Dave down, because he has done more for ice fishing bluegills than any other guy I know.

If we are going to take responsibility for any fishery, the first thing we need to do is start a dialog with the fishery people and ask what it takes to produce a big bluegill fishery. While I also believe slot limits are a good idea, I believe that is only one part of the puzzle. I wish all we had to do is reduce the limit to 10 and return all the fish over say 9 inches and bingo it’s done.

I know the habitat has a lot to do with maintaining big gills, alkaline levels, types of weeds, oxygen levels, spawning area and much more. I’m not an expert, but I will start to get a list of what it takes from the experts I know and try to build a profile of a good bluegill lake.

I know there are thousands of us that care and if we can organize and get that message to our fisheries people and work with them I think we can make a difference.

I am mostly a trout guy, and in Michigan some waters are conducive to growing trophy brown trout. (Brown trout over 15 inches) On a few of these rivers they have imposed trophy regulations. Brown trout have to be a minimum of 15 inches and you can only keep two fish. We know it is good to take some of the excess fish out in order to allow other trout to move into the best areas and grow perhaps even bigger the next year. Catch and release studies show that if you are not allowed to keep any, the numbers increase and the size decreases. As bluegill fishermen we can relate to that.

We have over 100 rivers in Michigan where people have organized to help restore them to pre logging days. Stopping the sand from washing in, narrowing the river, building fish hides, installing rip rap and wood, planting trees and other little things to assure success. In our area we start out with a non profit conservation group who has an in house wildlife biologist.

We partner with our fisheries biologists, county road commissions, agriculture professionals, private groups and many others. We develop a plan with input from the specialist and then find the money from private donations, public grants, our state fisheries funds and go to work implementing what the experts have suggested.

This kind of effort started in my part of the state in about 1992 on several rivers and the fishing has improved 5 and 6 fold on some of them and the fishing is even better today than when I was a kid.

It isn’t an easy thing to organize, and it takes a lot longer, but it will work a lot better than taking the responsibility individually and telling people to return fish of a certain size when each lake is different and on some lakes it just might be the exact wrong thing to do.
Hi Gang!
I am new to this sight but old to pan fishing. I really like your insightful comments and such. I am still navigating around this site and like what I see. I am a avid ice fisherman and I compete in the NAIFC tournaments. I have been to (Osakis) Minnesota already this season and am preparing to pre fish Delevan WI this week. I'll be up there thursday thru sunday. I have a green Arctic cat with the American flag flying from it. Stop by and say High if your in the area.
Thanks and tight lines!!!
Very great post! Thanks Teeg and Ray!!!
Blackhawks and Rocky - I'll see you guys at Delavan this week. The Recycled Fish "On Ice" tour comes to that NAIFC event on Sunday. Stop by the hospitality station and say hi!

Ray, I think that the work you're doing and the ethic you've taken on - and espouse - are powerful, and powerfully positive.

I'll clarify something though. Recycled Fish advocates taking responsibility individually, but that doesn't mean complete C&R or a one-size-fits-all approach. Taking personal responsibility DOES mean finding out how your actions impact the waters your fish - including your actions when you're NOT on the water - and making decisions that are in the benefit of our fishery.

To your good point, that individual decision might be to join a local conservation group, because great things do happen in community and we're unquestionably more effective when united. But these groups form as the result of people making individual choices to step up, and I think that's what we're trying to get to.

Thanks for your insightful comments, and for those that everyone has shared here. When I wrote this piece, I did not anticipate that it would spawn this excellent level of conversation, and I admit to being delighted that it has.

Teeg, it was nice meeting you out on Delavan this past Sunday during the NAIFC qualifier. Keep up the good work. I would love to hit some of the frozen Iowa / Nebraska waters with you some day. My partner (Brian Moe) and I qualified for the National Tourney with a 7th place finish. On to Channel Lake on 2/22. Musky Mod, are you fishing that tourney on your "home water"?
Question: do the ice jigs work under a float when the ice is out? Are they limited to the winter season only? What is your opinion?


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