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Bluegills and bluegill fishing in Indiana natural lakes

Jed Pearson, Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife

Bluegills, Lepomis macrochirus, are the most abundant and most important fish in northern Indiana natural lakes. Based on standardized data compiled by the Division of Fish and Wildlife at 197 lakes since the 1980s, bluegills averaged 45% of the number and 15% of the weight of fish collected in 387 fish population surveys. Electrofishing catch rates in June from 219 surveys at 125 lakes averaged 86/15-minutes of sampling (inter-quartile range: 36-123), including 8/15-minutes of 7-inch and larger bluegills. Although overall electrofishing catch rates declined since the 1980s (p = 0.02), catch rates of 7-inch and larger bluegills remained steady (p = 0.16) while the proportion of 7-inch and larger bluegills increased from 7% to 19% (p = 0.03). Bluegill growth rates also remained steady (p = 0.37) with age-4 bluegills averaging 6.2 inches long. Based on 118 angler surveys conducted at 52 lakes since the 1980s, the percentage of anglers who targeted bluegills declined from 47% to 35% (p = 0.03) but fishing effort directed at catching bluegills remained constant (p = 0.90), averaging 25 hours/100 acres/day. The harvest rate by anglers who targeted bluegills remained constant at 1.5/hour of bluegill fishing (p = 0.85) and harvest rate of 7-inch and larger bluegills remained steady at 0.7/hour (p = 0.38). The results document long-term status and trends of bluegill populations and bluegill fishing at Indiana natural lakes.

Comments: I have to admit that I found the results of this analysis fairly surprising. I expected a bigger decline in the overall bluegill fishery across that many lakes. Truly big bluegills are one of the easiest fisheries to decimate, in part by pressure, lax regulations, and the traditional 'harvesting' nature of panfishermen. My speculation is that perhaps the worst of the damage might have already been done to the fisheries by the time they started tracking the bluegill metrics in the 80's. I base this on some of the data that has come out of Minnesota. In Minnesota, DNR fisheries research biologists Donald Olson and Paul Cunningham analyzed 113,845 entries from 1930 until 1987 that were part of the detailed records maintained for the Fuller's Hardware Big Fish contest. Their work documented the decline of most all species of big fish over time. Included in their findings was that the weight of the average bluegill shrank by 25 percent from 1970 to 1987.

Regardless, I'm much more protective of a great bluegill lake than of any other fishery in the state. I'll share good crappie and good bass lakes, but really good bluegill lakes never get mentioned unless they're already restricted due to being private waters. Even then....

For further reading, see: "Cult of the Bluegills"

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Comment by Terry Marker on January 27, 2012 at 9:13am

Good information and a call to throw back those bulls we seek if we want some good fisheries in the future.

Comment by Jeffrey D. Abney on January 25, 2012 at 1:51pm

Interesting read B. W., many smart people think this is the way to go.....I admit I'm a work in progress, growing up in a state that still has no Gill limits, I was guilty of gorging when I found the big bulls.....Still to this day , I get an upset stomach early season from nerves and anxiety to find the bull gills.....I have been blessed to fish some great Bluegill states with many rewards for the dedicated bluegill angler.........It wasn't until my daughter blessed me with three grandchildren that I reflected on the future of this great sport....I have since got great satisfaction from catching , taking a picture which lasts forever and finally releasing the largest gills to breed for bigger gills....One reason, I personally believe that 6 to 8 inch gills clean easier and often provide a more consistent filet...My experience has been cleaning some of the larger males is a thinner filet.....bigger fish but big rib cage and less meat....Just a thought.......I have always followed fishing laws and never kept a fish that was wasted....but I decided I could do more and I have....I eat some great bluegill lunches and dinners but I have begun to value that big catch experience more, especially when I can share it with the next generation...my grandchildren who I am already teaching the art of CPR and quite honestly it feels good! I'm trying to embrace it because I'm starting to believe in this technique and I can thank several members of this site for keeping that theory alive.....

Comment by Leo Nguyen on January 25, 2012 at 12:26pm

Interesting research article and insight. Unfortunately, panfish are not full protected game species like bass or salmon, so, it's extremely hard to enhance the fish's biological growth based on population size control. If there is a regulatory approach in keeping the fishes a certain sizes (5" to 7"), while release the larger ones (7.5" and larger)  for trophy hunts later, the panfish population would grow rapidly after 25 generations to reach a critical size to prevent being harvested. This is based on natural instinctive response. But, it's not meant to be so until the panfish population reach critical, or a massive movement by the fishery management association, and anglers.

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