Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Following the fish: Summer schools of bluegills are angling fun

For kids used to catching lowly creek chubs and overgrown shiner minnows in Cleveland’s Rocky River, brother Dave and I thought we were in heaven when Dad took us bluegill fishing Saturdays at Findley Lake State Park in Lorain County.

Dad would row us out to the deep end of the lake, up near the dam, and anchor over some deep holes. On hot summer afternoons the ‘gills would be schooling down deep, and we had a ball hauling them up, one after another, as they eagerly smacked our garden-worm baits.

Bluegills are expert at twisting and turning their narrow, slab-sided bodies to produce maximum resistance to the tug of light fishing tackle, and that, no doubt, was part of the magic for two young, learning fishermen.

The memories of bluegills on Findley Lake are many years old but fresh as today, for bluegills have a way of bringing out the kid in most every angler. Pity the poor adult fisherman who sneers at landing "just another ‘gill," for he has lost the magic.

Still, every fisherman wants to catch a big one, whatever the species, and therein lies the challenge with bluegills and their several similarly shaped cousins — the green sunfish, hybrid sunfish, longear sunfish, pumpkinseed, redear sunfish, orange-spotted sunfish and warmouth sunfish. Not to mention the variations caused by cross-breeding or hybridization among species. Big ones are uncommon.

Many anglers casually refer to all of them as "bluegills," though the true bluegill has a classically small mouth and a long pectoral, or belly, fin. Its colors will vary according to water chemistry and food supply, but the ear-flap is always black. True bluegills also have a black spot or blotch near the end of the dorsal, or top, fin.

They generally are 6 to 10 inches long, though the Ohio record is a 12-3/4-incher that weighed an unbelievable 3.58 pounds. It was taken in 1990 from Salt Fork Reservoir, a state park impoundments in southeast Ohio.

"The thing about bluegill is that it is frequently hard to find good size in public water areas," said Larry Goedde, fish management supervisor for Ohio Wildlife District 2. The state record, of course, is an exception.

On public waters, predators such as largemouth bass frequently are cropped off too heavily, and bluegill, a favorite bass food, become overpopulated and stunted. Too, those big bluegills that are available usually are kept when they are caught.

Which is one of the reasons the Ohio Division of Wildlife has gone to such restrictive management lengths at its prized Lake La Su An lakes and ponds in Williams County. Regulations include variable catch-limits, seasons, length limits and so on, and they are changed as needed to maintain consistent production of big ‘gills. One of the management tactics, too, is to maintain high numbers of moderate-size bass, which most aggressively feed on small bluegills, through slot-length or minimum keeper-length limits.

Reservations are required to fish most of the more productive La Su An lakes. Call the area check-station, 419-636-6189, Mondays between 8 a.m. and noon, to reserve fishing days for the week. For other details, call Wildlife District 2 at Findlay, 419-424-5000.

About 20,000 bluegills are taken from the La Su An waters annually, and about half are eight inches or longer. Ten percent are 10- to 11-inch trophies.

Special youth fishing opportunities also are being offered now at La Su An. The last Saturday of each month is set aside for anglers ages 15 and under, and youth groups can arrange to fish there during the week, catch-and-release only, by calling District 2 headquarters for a reservation.

Lake Us, a deep, two-acre impoundment at the La Su An area, is closed to fishing and is under restoration this summer. It is intended for use by young anglers only beginning next year, District 2’s Goedde said.

"We really weren’t getting the growth rates we wanted under the management regime at Lake Us," he explained. So managers stocked a hybrid bluegill, which are being artificially fed to grow more quickly. Plans are to continue to annually stock nearly catchable-size hybrids and continue the feeding.

Elsewhere, consider Oxbow Lake in Defiance County, which may offer the best public-water ‘gilling outside La Su An waters. Beaver Creek Reservoir near Green Springs in northern Seneca County also is a decent bluegill producer, and Findlay Reservoir No. 2 occasionally produces good catches, Goedde said.

Bresler Reservoir near Lima in Allen County and Veterans Memorial Reservoir near Fostoria in Hancock County also have fair bluegill reputations. Of course, most farm ponds are a natural for bluegills, though the quality of the fishing varies widely, depending on the bass ratio and fishing pressure.

Goedde said that Pond No. 33 at Killdeer Plains State Wildlife Area, about 20 acres in Wyandot County, is under rehabilitation and should be a good bluegill water — "if we can keep gizzard shad out of there." Shad may be good largemouth bass forage, but they often outcompete bluegills.

After bluegills leave late-spring spawning beds, look for them in deeper waters. They are a school fish, so finding one means finding more. They love structure — boulders, dropoffs, edges of weedbeds, dropoffs, sunken trees.

Light or ultralight spinning tackle and fly fishing gear are top tackle choices for bluegill. Waxworms are the hands-down favorite live bait, followed by red worms, and grasshoppers or crickets in season. Use a small hook, a piece of split shot, and a slip bobber adjusted to the depth where the fish are suspending.

Small spinners and mini-spinnerbaits are effective artificials, and so are tiny jigs and plastic tails or tiny ice-spoons with dropper flies. For fly rods, try small popper-bugs or such insect imitations as ants or crickets.

Bluegills usually are eager, unfussy, even aggressive feeders, which makes them so popular and reliable and such great kid fish. Speaking of which, be sure to include a kid or two on your next bluegilling trip. They’ll remember you for it.

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