Do you love big bluegill?
Why Everything You Know About Bluegill Management is Wrong
BY MATT MILLER
OCTOBER 15, 2015
Bluegills are prone to overpopulation. This is accepted knowledge among many anglers.
If you don’t catch and keep a lot of bluegills out of a pond, you’ll often hear a fisherman say, the bluegills will overrun the place. You’ll soon have a pond full of runty, stunted fish.
This is why the bag limits for bluegills are typically very liberal – it is not unusual to be able to keep 25 fish a day. It’s the angler’s duty to catch and eat as many as possible – keep the herd in check, if you will.
It sounds good, but current research suggests it’s wrong.
In fact, research conducted by Andrew Rypel, research biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, suggests the opposite: that liberal harvest limits on bluegills actually decreases the size of fish.
“Fish Here Aren’t As Big As They Used to Be”
Bluegills are often the first fish many anglers encounter (including me). They are common in farm and urban ponds. They’re the fish kids catch with a Mickey Mouse rod, a bobber and worms.
In the spring, many anglers target them on their spawning beds, where the biggest males are often easy to catch (see yesterday’s blog for the full details on this spectacle).
Bluegills are also popular because they’re tasty. Anglers call them and similar-sized species – crappies, perch, other sunfish – panfish. They’re the perfect size to fit in a frying pan.
Rypel and his colleagues in Wisconsin noticed something over the years: Anglers reported decreasing size of bluegills and other panfish. Of course, conventional angling wisdom would suggest the solution to this would be to harvest even more bluegills. After all, decreasing size is a sign of overpopulation.
Research tells a different story.
Rypel analyzed size trends going back to the 1940’s, and found that bluegills (and other panfish species) steadily declined in size over a 70-year period.
Researcher Andre Rypel (right) first encountered bluegills as many of us do: as a young kid, fishing.
“The regulations are relatively liberal,” he says. “I thought one possibility might be that we were fishing them too hard. As we looked at the data, we found that evidence of bluegills becoming stunted because they were overpopulated was not as common as previously thought.”
Fishing pressure, particularly on spawning beds where bluegills are most vulnerable, can be intense. And that pressure may be decreasing the size of fish.
In response to the trend, the Wisconsin DNR reduced the bag limit to 10 fish on 10 lakes as a test. Researchers, including Rypel, analyzed fish size before and after the regulation.
They found that fish size increased on average a half-inch on maximum size and .8 inch on mean size.
That may not sound like much, but consider that a typical bluegill is six or seven inches, and a really large one is ten inches.
Rypel published the findings in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management.
A New Experiment in Bluegill Management
The next phase of the project is to implement new management strategies on 100 Wisconsin lakes. One third will have a reduced limit of 10, one third will have a reduced limit of 5, and one third will have a reduced bag limit only during the spawning season.
The management regimes will run for ten years. “We’re going to find out what different regulations can do for panfish size,” says Rypel.
The good news is that bluegill size rebounds when fishing pressure decreases. A study by Rypel in collaboration with researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Freshwater Sciences found that the reduction in size was not likely due to a shift in genetics, as has been shown to be the case in some other prominent studies on fishing pressure.
Anglers have, in general, been reluctant to embrace size limit reductions. Rypel points out that the limit reductions may actually result in more meat harvested. That may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. “As bluegills get bigger in length, they get exponentially bigger in weight,” he says. “So if you catch a few larger bluegills, you often get more meat than if you caught a bunch of smaller ones.”
There is still a lot biologists don’t know about bluegills. New research will likely call for more changes in fishing regulation, but Rypel acknowledges that science is only one part of fisheries regulation.
“Regulations are a blunt instrument,” he says. “They cannot account for all aspects of fisheries management. If they get too complicated, they become much more difficult to enforce. We want regulations that are easy to understand and easy to enforce. There are trade-offs. In this case, reducing the bag limit could help the resource tremendously while still meeting the expectations of anglers.”
And while the bluegill may seem an unlikely symbol for global fisheries management, what Rypel says applies to large commercial fisheries as surely as it does the local farm pond. Regulations are only ever partly about science, and they can never fully account for the complexity of a fishery.
The key for resource managers is to use sound science to create regulations that work best – for fish and for people.
“Bluegills have the opportunity to get bigger with a relatively minor shift in fishing regulations,” says Rypel. “Our research is providing the evidence that it benefits anglers, too. The findings seem counter-intuitive to many anglers, who have long believed that smaller bluegills was a sign of overpopulation. But perhaps our long-term studies can convince them that lower bag limits can mean better fishing, and bigger panfish fillets for the fish fry.”
TAGS: Field Notes, Fish, Fisheries, Nature + People, NaturePop, Weird Nature
Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt
What a great, informative thread!
So it sounds like, in addition to releasing the largest BG, thinning the herd of small ones may also help with BG size (more food available for those that are left, therefore, potentially faster growth?)
My home lake is kind of an interesting case. It has lots of bluegill, RES, and hybrids, as well as lots of bass, many of which are big (this is California, so by "big" I'm talking fish in the double digits). Most of the bass caught there are released, as is true for other lakes around San Diego. Unlike most people who fish there, I target panfish. Most others are after bass (always), stocked trout (winter) or stocked catfish (summer). I don't think I've ever caught a BG larger than 7 inches from this lake, and even those are not common in my catch.
RES are another story, because the lake has quagga mussels. Fat 8 and 9 inch RES are not unusual, and ones _much_ larger have been taken there (not by me).
Not sure, but think this may be a case of overpopulation. I don't think the BG are targeted that much here in this lake, even during spawning. It may also be a case of the really big bass eating some pretty large bluegill, when they can't get stocked trout. AFAIK there's no science out there on any of this; it's just my guesswork based on this being my usual lake.
Lots of interesting views and thoughts on bluegill management concepts and stadegies. Here's my two cents...
Every body of water is different...that is, some can tolerate more 'harvest' than others, and some can tolerate little, if any, harvest of top-end, adult bluegills. Generally, the smaller the water, the more vulnerable it can be to decimate the top-end size structure of any given specie...to include bluegills. I personally have witnessed 4 different public venues that have suffered greatly from the constant, day-in, day-out, month after month, year after year removal of 10-inch class fish to a point where anglers are now grudgingly accepting 7-8 inchers as the 'big' fish that currently occupy the system, and complaining all the while about how it was "back in the day.'
Many factors contribute to large bluegill existence. Small forage items that are abundant, at the right time of a bluegills life cycle, can certainly play a key role in producing larger fish. Other dynamics, such as winter weather patterns, water level drawdowns, seasonal storms, structural cover and predator -prey relationships can play key roles as well. Given that one or more of these factors benefits bluegill growth potential to what is considered 'large' in a given region, angler overharvest can often tip the scales to diminishing size structure over a period of time, which too, can vary from one water body to another.
Large here might not be large elsewhere. To me, I look for waters that have the potential to produce 10 inch fish...specimens that I personally consider to be exceptional sized fish. Some areas, like Jeffrey's Albermarle river systems, are so vast, intricate and huge that 10-inch fish are a common occurance, with many thousands of 9 inch fish all too available for harvest. Santee-Cooper comes to mind and smaller lake chains in Florida. Chris Salmons' catches often see fish from 1.5 to 2 pounds during prime times and in prime waters, while northern boys like Clayton Davis catch northern giants to 2 pounds through the ice. So everybody's idea of 'big' or 'trophy' fish will vary.
Ultimately, waters that have large populations of big bluegills are just rare, and once the word gets out it is almost like a 'gold rush' effect as anglers descend upon them, seldom practicing far-sighted catch and release strategies, which often leads to the demise of a great fishery that took many years to build, or just naturally developed. The whole concept of 'panfish management' theologies is in it's infancy, and in time, I hope that some more is learned for the future.
I had a great year fishing for gills this past year, my best ever. I had over 5,400 fish but only about 175 were over the 10-inch mark, but probably caught 3000 that exceeded the 9-inch mark. About 90% of those fish, believe it or not, came from three small public lakes that are within a 20-mile radius of my home. I kept about 100 fish this year, that's 200 fillets, and plenty of fish flesh for me and the family. I know it may seem selfish, but I keep a very low profile on these fragile, 'under the radar' venues as most of the panfishermen in my region simply will not take responsibility for the future of such fisheries, keeping as many as they possibly can, as often as they can and, usually, always the largest fish...only!
When Bass Pro Shops or In Fisherman asks me to do a seminar or write an article on panfishing, I always...ALWAYS...emphasize the importance of releasing the majority of the top-end fish to sustain quality or even world class fisheries for future generations. Sure, keep that hard-earned trophy and a few for the pan. But if you want good bluegill fisheries for years to come, I feel it is essential that good, skilled panfishers should practice sensible catch and release.
Catch and release panfishing, to include big bluegills, is the 'final frontier' in catch and release angling. I hope it catches on.
I really appreciate this thread! I am replying to your addition Jim as your thought process best suits my mind set. I limit how many fish I keep and which size on every body of water I fish. With every lake having a little different mind set for what size I keep to eat (if any) and what size goes back. I think we should become as knowledgeable as possible on our local lakes. Change will take time in most of our areas when it comes to implementing better state wide and lake specific limits (and slots if necessary) with intentions to help Blue gills flourish. We should be on the front lines educating the public as we continue to learn more from studies, other great fisherman and our own experience.
I think it is great that this thread is the first someone will see when visiting our web site. It is a good read and has a lot of helpful information. This web site is becoming a wonderful forum for the ideas and studies that not only make great fisherman but also help make for a better fishery. Lets keep the conversation going!
here is the results of a 40% creel reduction study showing positive results in Minnesota
This article and many others I've read are very interesting but I contend the overall results to a particular body of water are relative.........I've searched a lot of the North Carolina data and it appears that the majority of the general public are comfortable with the overall 30 fish limit on Bluegill.......studies seem to suggest that the fish are doing well in most waterways as compared to harvest surveys........Although not the largest nationally, I do fish a region with 2,900 square miles of surface water with 1.5 million acres of that being brackish water thus the amazing sunfish fishery. I do clean a lot of bluegill and crappie every year but I'm also selective and tickle both my thrill to catch trophy gills and my taste buds that say panfish are my favorite food........ I do stuff that may seem silly to others in that I will rest a certain location for an entire year before I return to fish despite most of the water I cover being public. So is it doing anything! I think so and for me that matters and I will continue to follow these patterns. But anglers with less water available may not be able to employ a similar approach. It was just something that came with age and understanding for me..........I don't target largemouth anymore but love to eat 12" class bass and below........That hurts bass angler's feelings but I also release hundreds of big bass every year because I just prefer the smaller fish.........I have a harder time cutting into a trophy sunfish than I did as a young angler.........I've released many trophy sunfish in recent years and even if I never see them again it makes me feel a little better about the water I fish.........just my two cents.......lot of great points by the members as always........
Right on, Jeffrey! I personally think that your waters are among the top bluegill waters in the nation, and they are so vast and lightly pressured that those coppernose will be in great shape for a long time. In my limited small lakes and ponds along the Mason Dixon, there are waters that are highly fertile and produce big fish, but because of such small waters, they are extremely vulnerable and fragile fisheries and could be over harvested very quickly, It is indeed relative to where, and how, people fish and view panfishing in general.
Excellent report, I have always heard and read in other reports on bluegills right the opposite from this report. I fish a small pond with my grandson in the summer that has nothing but small bluegills, and we have never caught anything larger than five or six inch gills. I do agree with the bag limit of 10 or 15 per day. Thanks for sharing
Hey guys maybe this as a thought for trophy BG. If one has the time, money land and desire, one could build 5 or 6 small ponds, fill one stock it with quality genetics BG.. Once or twice first year seine out smaller fish during fall and fill a second pond and stock with seined small BG. No fish out of the 1st pond for 3 or 4 years. 2nd year seine 1st and second pond and use small fish to stock 3rd and or 4th pond. See where I am going?!. After the 5th or final pond is stocked, one could fish the 1st pond when the BG are mature and closer to death than life. My understanding is a 5 and especially a 6 year old BG is getting out there as far a longevity is concerned.That would be the reason to have 5 or 6 smaller ponds with different year class fish. Kinda like one poster said if you leave the old trees and not harvest what a waste.
With multi ponds, aeration systems, feeders and all the chemical analysis,etc. if would be a labor of love for sure and probably costly.
I do not have the land for it but would think that is a interesting idea to have(after 5 or so years a pond to fish Big BG out of and just rotate a pond every year and restock the one that is the oldest and depleted of most of the old BG. I may try that if I win the lottery!
So in essence it's, "Keep Fewer, Keep Fewer Big One's."
Johnny Come Lately here, but I'm Back! I have recently moved from Montana to Texas. Got tired of trophy trout and decided it's time to return to my real passion...bluegill! I recently saw an article on releasing Bull Gills, large females as well, to improve the size of bluegills. Made sense to me when you are talking about fishing in areas of the country where sun-fishing is popular. Curious to know your thoughts on that one.
Since moving to Texas I have discovered something interesting. Although Ray Roberts lake is a large and fairly young reservoir just NE of Dallas, the one time bluegill stocking in the 80's was the only sunfish stocking in this body of water, and NO ONE fishes for them. I have yet to see or hear of one larger than 7 inches. There is no size record for adults and a standing record for a young lady of probably no bigger than 6 or 7 inches caught back when the reservoir was open to fishing in the late 90's. Attitudes here are, bluegill are no better than shad and used only for catching big cats. The elitist are of course the Large Mouth Bass fishermen; then come the Striper and their hybrid; followed by crappie, catfish and white bass or sandies as they call them. Even the mention of keeping or eating bluegill conjures up a disgusting look. Well no shame here folks...morgan is about to tic off some haughties!
I have eaten even small (5" to 6"), whole, bluegill with skin on since a small child and quite frankly there is no better tasting fish in my opinion. There are no limits on any type of sunfish in Texas waters either size or number wise, so over harvesting here should be of no concern, but I am curious as to why these sunfish have never seemed to get any larger than 7" according to the locals. The surface water temperature is never cold enough to freeze and there should be no real competition for food in this huge body of water. So maybe the theory on stunted fish seems to have missed something here, or the locals don't know how to catch the biguns..
As has been pointed out, not all waters are ideal, or even marginal, for producing quality sized bluegill. In a large , man-made lake like Roberts, it might be difficult to locate gills above 8 inches...because they just may not exist in that lake. Some huge reservoirs, like Kentucky & Barkley lakes, Santee-Cooper Lakes and others can, and do, yield high numbers of large bluegills and shellcrackers for a host of reason. Many factors are involved to produce big sunfish, ina any given size lake. If you see or hear of no evidence of large bluegills there then you might want to search for them elsewhere. Good Luck!
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