Getting The Blues

Getting The Blues

You usually don't want to get the blues - particularly in the springtime - unless, that is, we are talking about bluegills! Join the author in exploring some panfishing possibilities in South Georgia.

By Bob Kornegay

He was the first fish I ever caught - a bluegill. Just two eyes and a rear, as my grandfather earthily put it. No matter. George Perry's 22-pound, 4-ounce largemouth couldn't have made that angler any happier than the three-finger fish I caught over 40 years ago made me.

My fish appeared on my plate at supper that evening, the flesh lovingly picked from his little bones by my mother. He instantly transformed me. I became a 4-year-old fisherman, putting meat on the family table. I was proud.

I also became fast friends with the cousins of that fish. We often shared school-time Saturdays and summer afternoons at the little creek behind my house. They lived there. I was allowed to visit, provided I always told mom where I was going. Back then, mothers seldom feared for the lives of their sons and daughters when the children were out of sight. The creek and the fish were safe and wholesome company.

I was winding down my fourth-grade year when a bluegill first landed me in trouble - the first of many times one has gotten me chided or punished.

"Any final tests tomorrow?" my grandfather asked.

"Why?" I queried.

Redbreast sunfish also turn up this month on the Flint River. Photo by Gordon Whittington

"Driving down to Big River in the morning," he said. "Thought you might like to come along."

"Oh, no, sir! No tests," I was quick to reply.

The next day, we floated the Big River and caught a good-sized bluegill - bigger than the one I had pulled from the water at the age of 4.

Back home that night, the phone call came. Why, asked the teacher, was Bobby not in school for his final arithmetic test?

Why not indeed? wondered mom and dad.

Before you ask, let me tell you that heck, yes, it was worth it. You can make up tests and get over spankings. You can't make up grandfather/grandson fishing trips. I went to sleep smiling, dreaming of sinking cork bobbers and frenzied tugs on my line.

The bluegill has gotten me through some tough times, most notably periods of loss, everything from fickle childhood girlfriends to the permanent void left by departed loved ones. Somehow the fish helped me cope. Even today, grief is somehow easier to handle with a fishing pole in my hands. The bluegill, and where he lives, never fails to comfort me.

The bluegill has helped me forge great friendships. He was there when Tom and I were the best of grade-school buddies. He figured mightily in the good times Curt and I once had sitting on the bank of the Chattahoochee, drowning crickets and swapping lies. He fried up golden brown over open campfires as Benny, Jim and I planned great things back when the world, and we ourselves, were young. Today, bluegills are a welcome change now and then, a pleasant respite from chasing big bass and big stories on big water in big boats.

Lord, how wonderful to leave the camera and tape recorder behind in favor of a cage of crickets, a hank of line and a pocketful of No. 10 hooks. It all comes back - my granddad, my 4-year-old grin, a missed exam and wonderful memories.

And happiness - sublime happiness - all because of a fish: the bluegill. God bless him!

Whoa, there. I'm getting carried away. Can't help it, though. The bluegill just makes me feel that way. He makes me a little boy again, and even if you won't admit it, I strongly suspect he affects a lot of you the same way. After all, I've been seeing a lot of grown folks bream fishing lately and most of them were grinning.

May is a prime month to introduce or reintroduce yourself to the bluegill. By the same token, Georgia is a prime state in which to encounter him, and South Georgia in particular is excellent for that purpose. I happen to know three good spots.

When your cap is set for bluegills on big water, think about a trip to Lake Seminole. This storied South Georgia reservoir is more than just a legendary bass destination: It is not only the best big-water bream fishery in the southern Peach State, but arguably also the finest panfish factory in the whole state.

Since its impoundment in 1957, this 37,500-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir, formed at the junction of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers, has earned reputation for producing excellent panfishing. Very good populations of bluegills and their relatives abound in the lake and the bream habitat is excellent. Fisheries biologists sing Seminole's praises, pointing out that the waterway is a lake where you don't have to be any sort of expert to catch a good mess of bluegills at any given time. If conditions are right, the fish are easy to find and catch. Also, Seminole is largely a local fishery as far as bream are concerned. While bass fishermen journey to the reservoir from near and far, Seminole is something of a well-kept regional panfishing secret and can be a really good out-of-area destination for a lot of bluegill anglers.

Aquatic vegetation on Lake Seminole supports a wide variety of invertebrate life that provides a smorgasbord of panfish forage. The prolific plant growth is largely due to the lake's overall clarity, which contributes to an exaggerated life cycle among the fauna varieties that inhabit the reservoir's vast plant colonies. There are huge mayfly hatches during the warmer months, and there are many other species of insect larvae and nymphs for the bream to feed on. There is a good variety of snails and other mollusks, as well as a large population of freshwater shrimp. In short, the bream in Lake Seminole are not going hungry, a fact that makes for good growth rates.

The species ratio among the bream is traditional on Seminole, and typically the bluegill is the fish found there in the greatest numbers. Bluegills go through the usual flurry of spawning activity in April and May and then continue to bed as long as the weather remains warm. This is in contrast to the shellcrackers, which bed for about a five- or six-week period in spring and early summer.

Average bluegill sizes in the lake range from 6 to 8 inches, and individual fish generally weigh between 1/4 pound and 1/2 pound. Mixed in with the average-sized fish are numerous larger individuals. According to the scientists and veteran Seminole bream anglers, there are some "monster" bream in the reservoir that show up on the bu

siness end of a fishing line with more frequency than one might think.

Bluegills habitually inhabit the grassy edges of the many islands found on the Chattahoochee River side of the lake. During bedding season, anglers should seek shallow pockets of clear water that are protected by dense mats of vegetation. When not bedding, the fish may continue to use these and similar areas for feeding early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

For an area that is equally good, if not even better, look to spots around Spring Creek on the Flint River side. This locale often harbors the largest bluegill concentrations, particularly after hard bedding activity ceases.

Pole-fishing is generally the most efficient bluegill angling method on Lake Seminole. With a 14-foot pole, fishermen can reach into the open-water pockets in the grass more readily and they can cover a lot of water very accurately. This is by far the favored angling technique, and worms, crickets and tiny grass shrimp are the preferred baits. Use a bobber or tight-line, as you prefer.

Accurate casters will find ultralight spin-fishing with these same live baits to be just as efficient. Bottom-fish with a lightweight "fish-finder" rig while the bluegills are actively feeding. With this method, there is the added advantage of maintaining a maximum distance from the spooky fish in clear, shallow water.

Additionally, there is an excellent seasonal fly-fishing period on Seminole this time of year and into early summer. When the mayflies (called "willowflies" by Seminole locals) take wing, bluegills readily snap up popping bugs and foam spiders fished beneath and around overhanging limbs where the fish await the occasional fall of an insect into the water.

The best access points for the Georgia side of Lake Seminole are via the Flint River near Bainbridge or out of Wingate's Lunker Lodge at the mouth of the Flint. The lodge can be contacted by phone at (229) 246-0658 regarding water and fishing conditions.

Seminole State Park can be reached at (229) 861-3137 regarding similar information on the reservoir's northern end and also provides good boat-launch facilities.

A lot of bluegill anglers just plain don't care for big-water fishing. They find the cozy, more intimate confines of a small lake or pond much more to their liking.

With acreages measuring in the single digits all the way up to several dozen, these smaller waters beckon the fisherman who wants to relax and take his bream fishing slow and easy.

There is certainly nothing wrong with that, and South Georgia features some prime spots where such an angling experience can be accommodated. In fact, if there is an ideal small-water panfishing destination in the state, Paradise Public Fishing Area (PFA) just may be it.

At Paradise PFA, there is something for panfishermen of all ages and levels of experience. A pleasant day's bluegill outing may be had by boating anglers with an arsenal of sophisticated equipment, while there is also a place for those who prefer just to sit on the bank and drown the occasional cricket or worm. There are between 70 and 80 small lakes and ponds at Paradise, totaling between 500 and 600 acres of water. These range in size from tiny to boat-worthy. A selection of these lakes are open to fishing year 'round and provide quality angling waters to boat and bank anglers alike.

Owned and managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), Paradise PFA is a well-maintained public-use facility located in Berrien County east of Tifton. It began as Patrick's Fishing Paradise, a large-scale pay-to-fish operation owned by the late Winton Patrick, who began building ponds on the property in the 1940s. The WRD purchased the area in 1989 after determining that it was an ideal place in which to establish as a public fishing site. From a management standpoint, the number of lakes and ponds makes it possible to control the fishing pressure on any one lake while providing very consistent seasonal angling opportunities.

Two lakes on the area that offer good bluegill fishing are 112-acre Lake Patrick and 61-acre Lake Bobben. Both lakes are large enough to provide an ample amount of varied bream habitat and small enough to be easily navigated and fished by anglers in small watercraft under trolling-motor power.

Lake Bobben produces good numbers of healthy bluegills of average size. The water is quite clear, so stealth and quiet serve a fisherman well. Longer casts using ultralight spinning tackle consistently boat more bluegills than pole-fishing.

Crickets fished shallow beneath a lightweight bobber produce well. In the deeper areas of the lake, try an ultralight Carolina rig and fish live wigglers or pond worms on the bottom.

Drift-fishing is normally the way to go on most days, except during bedding times, when anchoring near a large bream concentration may pay dividends.

Lake Patrick provides a more traditional South Georgia dark-water bluegill fishing scenario and also contains some larger individual fish to complement the good number of average-sized bream. Here, there is surface vegetation and wood structure in abundance, as well as sheltered shallow-water areas that hold bream during seasonal bedding periods and daily warm-weather feeding times.

Ultralight spinning tackle using crickets under a bobber seems to be the most productive method. During this time of year, cloudy-day and late-afternoon bluegill fishing can be excellent. Target pockets in the lily pad patches and stay on the move for the best results.

Lakes Patrick and Bobben, as well as the other small waters of Paradise PFA, can be reached by traveling east out of Tifton on U.S. Highway 82. Drive eight miles to Brookfield-Nashville Road near Brookfield and follow the signs leading to the area. For more information regarding fishing and special PFA regulations, call (229) 533-4792 or (912) 285-6094.

To be honest, I discovered bluegill fishing on the lower stretch of the Flint River quite by accident during a flathead catfishing trip between Albany and Newton. My host and I were hunting bait, namely bluegills and redbreasts ranging from hand-size on down.

Bream that most fishermen consider worthy keepers make excellent live bait for the gargantuan "appaloosas" that abound in the Flint. I couldn't help noticing on that late-April morning how we were having ourselves one fine bream-fishing outing. The bluegills we took from the river were fat and sassy, and many of them were sizable enough to show off unashamedly. Alas, however, we were flatheading and stopped ourselves after a dozen or so bream were tossed into the livewell.

Sometime later, I repeated this activity with another friend on the river north of Albany and south of the Lake Blackshear Dam. Once was intriguing, but twice seemed somehow scriptural. I began to look at the lower Flint from a serious bluegill fisherman's standpoint.

When this rocky and shoal-filled South Georgia river shows good clarity and is not subject to drastic fluctuations of current flow and water-level changes, the bluegill fishing can be outstanding. Once the weather begins to warm, the bream become consistently active from the tailwaters of the Blackshear Dam to the mouth of the stream where it empties into Lake Seminole.

While the Flint's hard-fighting shoal bass and heavyweight flathead cats draw the bulk of the anglers from spring through late summer, a float-fishing expedition down the river for bream is not to be sneezed at and provides loads of fun, not to mention the elements of a very enjoyable fish fry. Flint River bluegills are typical flowing-water panfish. Basically, they are leaner, more aggressive and - one has to think - slightly better-tasting than their more sedentary still-water cousins. At any rate, to a dyed-in-the-wool bream fisherman, they can be more than worth the effort and minor aggravation of navigating through the rocky structure of this unchanneled stream.

Look for the best bluegill fishing this time of year to be found in bends of the river and eddies where the swift current slows against a steep-walled bluff or breaks across a relatively deep sandbar. It is not uncommon to catch a bluegill or one of its redbreast sunfish brethren on nearly every cast when conditions are favorable. Among the smaller bream will be an ample number of keepers, though these seldom compare to any really large bluegills one might take from a lake or pond. River bream just don't, as a rule, reach huge sizes. Their fight and culinary attributes, however, generally make up for that.

Of course, fishing live bait on ultralight spinning gear is a popular angling technique. Crickets are the No. 1 offering, with earthworms being a close second.

Artificial lures, such as small in-line Rooster Tail spinners, also produce some good bream action, and flyfishermen can have a good time drifting nymphs, Wooly Buggers or the like in some of the deeper holes.

Access to the Flint is plentiful but often a bit "remote." A good contact for directions to some of the more accessible landings, as well as general Flint River fishing information, is the WRD Region 5 Fisheries office in Albany. They can be reached at (229) 430-4254.



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