So lately I've had the bug to catch some big bluegills, or bullgills as the panfish aficionados call them. Not your normal eating size fish, the trophies, the ones that make the other guys out freezing in the cold jealous. I had a pretty good idea where they would be, all I had to do was catch them. After I released a dozen or so and posted the pictures online I got some messages asking how I caught them.
So here's a few tips to help you catch a couple of your own.
- Leave the Crowds Behind.
- Find the Secondary Weed Lines
- Downsize Your Bait
- Learn Bite Detection
- Limit Your Catch, Don't Catch Your Limit
Let's take a look at the first tip, Leave the Crowds Behind. I ducked out of work a little early the other morning (1 hour before sunrise) and headed for the lake. To my surprise all the parking lots were already filled to capacity. The bay I planned to fish however wasn't full, everybody was fishing in the same general area. They were all in the first section of weeds right off of the shoreline. Seriously, everybody was fishing right next to each other. Could you imagine what all the commotion on top of the ice must have sounded like to the fish below? All I know for sure is that the anglers I talked to on the way back to the truck didn't catch what I was catching. I'm guessing the crowds and all the noise that comes with them had something to do with it. So leave the crowds behind when trophy hunting, big fish don't get big by being stupid.
Next up is Find the Secondary Weed Lines. It was pretty obvious that everybody knew where the weed line was coming off the shore. What I was shocked by was how many people didn't know about the secondary weed line farther out in the bay. This weed line was 6-8 feet down and as it turned out, was holding a TON of fish. When I showed other anglers where I was fishing they asked how I knew where to fish so I pulled out my phone and opened up the Navionics Boating App. I still don't know why more people don't take advantage of this app when out on the water. You have a $280 Vexilar to tell you if fish are under the ice, why not spend $14 to make sure you are at the right spot to begin with.
Third on the list is Downsize Your Bait. This is kind of a no brainer on heavily pressured waters this late in the season. Small marmooska and ratfinkee ice jigs are my favorites. I like to keep color choices simple and find that I have the best luck on black, green, or purple jig color variations. I have also made the switch to all tungsten jigs since they allow me go small in size while staying heavy in weight. When you find a school you need to get back down quickly, tungsten will make that possible. Plus it's better for the environment. Don't believe me? Check out this paper about what all that lead we've introduced into our waters over the years is doing to the native wildlife.
Learning Bite Detection is next and is probably the hardest thing to teach when chasing bullgills. The fish may be bigger, but their bite is often much more subtle. In fact the take can be mindbogglingly delicate. I used to keep a few bluegills in an aquarium and I was always amazed at how fast they could take a bait in and spit it back out. So you need to be able to detect a bite quickly. I personally use St Croix Ice Rods with the spring indicator system. I like these rods in ultralight and light actions for my bullgill excursions. They are great rods for detecting a light strike, but I've came up with another good way to determine if a fish is on the line. I tell clients they need to keep the rod moving and feel for the weight. Don't let your rod stop moving, it should be always jigging. Not necessarily jigging aggressively, but just enough that you can feel the jig. If you keep it moving you can feel the rod get heavy. It will start to load up when the fish has the bait in its mouth. You can't see it, even with the spring indicator system, but you can feel it. Practice this until you understand what I'm talking about and your catch rate will double when out on the ice.
The last tip should be an easy concept to grasp, Limit Your Catch, Don't Catch Your Limit. However I still see photos of people that seem to take pride in catching a limit on every trip. If you want to catch bigger bluegills consistently, let the big ones go. The big fish you catch through the ice this season are going to be the ones that are breeding this spring. We want the big ones passing on genetics, not the little guys. Trophy bluegills should always be put back in the water, eat the average size fish and take only what you need for a meal. Nobody needs 25 fish for dinner every time they hit the ice. I put back every big fish that I pulled through the ice that day. So do us all a favor and Limit Your Catch, Don't Catch Your Limit. There's nothing like a big bluegill swimming in circles under the ice. Let's make sure every angler gets a chance to experience the rush that keeps us all coming back each winter.