In Search Of Iowa's Alpha 'Gill

In Search Of Iowa's Alpha 'Gill

You can catch bluegills out of nearly every pond, lake and stream in the Hawkeye State -- but we'll show you where to go to take the really big boys. (May 2007)

Darrin Marcure poses with a bruiser bluegill.
Photo by Ted Peck

Imagine catching a bluegill so big that it sticks out an honest 2 inches from either side of your outstretched hands. I caught three 'gills with roughly these dimensions on West Okoboji Lake one afternoon. The experience honestly and profoundly changed my life forever.

These were my very first fish. The year was 1955. From that point forward, I was hooked on fishing -- decades before the cliché became a national catchphrase. More than a half-century later, West Okoboji is still a destination for big bluegills. If I should catch one there this summer that sticks out an honest 2 inches from either side of these freckled, weathered paws, the next stop will be at a taxidermy shop.

This fish would be the "alpha 'gill" -- probably a new state record, destined for the den wall rather than a dinner plate. I've never caught a foot-long bluegill, although many thousands of smaller specimens have flopped around at my feet on the ice and in the boat since 1955.

Two years ago an 11-year-old girl from Wisconsin wrestled an 11 5/8 inch 'gill into my Lund over on Mississippi River Pool 9. This whopper hit a chrome/blue Rat-L-Trap that was intended for a bass below a wing dam.

It wasn't Stacy's first fish, but that bluegill will certainly be one she remembers for a long, long time. The smile on my face was almost as broad as the Cheshire-cat grin that the kid was wearing as she ran to ask everybody at the boat launch to look at her fish.

The Mississippi certainly has the potential for putting your name in the record books with a broad-shouldered bluegill. Old Man River is by far our best all-species fishin' hole. Pools 9 and 10 certainly rate in the top 20 fishing spots in the continental United States -- but on most days, you may have to move a half-dozen times, and sort through 100 bluegills to catch a mess bigger than a man's hand.

Catching 100 bluegills of any size is better than a sharp stick in the eye any day of the week. This feat is possible on countless waters across Iowa. We have more bluegills than cornstalks. The key is finding those places and employing tactics with the best potential for producing a bucketful of bulls.

A good place to begin would be to understand how this prey species plugs into the hierarchy of a typical watery ecosystem. Bluegills are prolific breeders, with an adult pair laying almost a quarter-million eggs per spawn. Spawning can occur two or even three times over the course of a summer, always in conjunction with the full-moon period.

We don't have much in the way of high and low tides in the Hawkeye State, but even as tides are influenced by the moon, so are spawning and angling success -- even this far from the ocean.

This year, May's full moon arrives on the 13th at 2:51 a.m. CDT. Bluegills in the southern part of the state will be actively guarding moon-crater clusters in community spawning areas downstate by the 10th. By midmonth the females will slide off into deeper water, with males remaining for a couple of more days to guard the nests.

The next full moon is June 11. By mid-May, the water in the northern counties probably won't be warm enough for 'gills to move shallow and spawn en masse. In June, we're really gonna pound 'em on the Iowa Great Lakes and in backwaters of the Mississippi in Allamakee and Clayton counties.

Bluegills in the southern tiers of counties will spawn again, too. We may see another spawn in slightly deeper water from July 7-10, the next full moon period. But after the year's initial spawn adult 'gills tend to vacate the nests the day of the full moon.

Bluegills tend to school by size throughout the year, with some fisheries supporting four to five year-classes of this tastiest of panfish. Larger fish tend to hold in deeper water than do their smaller kin. The schools are smaller, because predators have thinned the ranks, and those still in the gene pool tend to be much more cautious and pensive about biting.

The whopper that young Stacy caught was an exception of sorts. For cold-blooded creatures, feeding is a study in effort expended for energy gained. This alpha 'gill thought the Rat-L-Trap was a shad -- which was the reason that it was hanging in the slack water below a wing dam on that sultry August afternoon.

A bluegill has to grow some truly broad shoulders before feeling confident enough to venture far from escape cover. This is why weedbeds and woody structure are good places to look for bluegills just about anytime -- again, with the largest specimens almost always holding deeper.

That last is somewhat cryptic. On West Okoboji, Center Lake between East and West Okoboji and fisheries like tiny Casey Lake, a small population of alpha 'gills will move offshore and cruise the thermocline layer throughout most of the summer, feeding primarily on zoÖplankton, 10 to 15 feet down in most cases.

The best way to target these fish is in a controlled drift with ice-fishing jigs or small tube jigs, sometimes anchoring up if there is a concentration of 'gills relating to some anomaly on the bottom.

A major key to success lies in staying in front of the fish. Sometimes this can be accomplished with two jigs tied 18 inches apart. Sometimes you need to peg a split shot 18 inches above your hook. Under extreme conditions -- have you ever heard of a "bluegill chop"? -- you may have to employ a driftsock or tie a bell sinker below the baits in essentially a mini-downrigger ball configuration.

Until a few years ago, I believed that a couple of redworms or waxworms were the ultimate bait for alpha 'gills. The new genre of soft plastics has changed my thinking, perhaps forever.

Live bait will probably always be the best way to catch bluegills, but if you're looking for those big, snorting bull pigs, soft plastics like the Lindy Munchie Teeny Tails and products like Berkley's Gulp! or PowerBait lines are the only way to go -- even through the ice.

Leaving that can o' worms on the dock requires a leap of faith. The issue is clear: Do you want to catch fish -- or do you want to catch big fish?

Plastics don't freeze in the winter, or die and stink in the summer, or sit cattywampus on a hook after being tested by a bluegill anytime your line's in the water. Even with bluegill metabolis

m at a peak for the next few months, going after these fish with a feeding presentation still requires fooling all five senses.

With the new soft plastics, you're trying to entice a strike -- behavior that bluegills are capable of even with a full belly.

Big Bill the Bluegill knows the perils of live bait. He's seen countless brothers and sisters jerked out of the picture after inhaling natural foods. That little piece of plastic pulsing inches from his nose tends to taunt, rather than alarm.

The superiority of artificials over live bait is clearly illustrated in the easiest of bluegill scenarios: fishing the spawning beds.

Selective harvest of panfish is good for almost every fishery. A management rule of thumb for ensuring balance in farm ponds involves removing 5 pounds of panfish for every pound of bass.

A major key to catching bluegills on the beds is to work your way from the outside of those moon crater clusters inward. If your ice-fishing box isn't stowed in the boat already, toss it in a compartment when you're done with this article. A little ice jig under a tiny ice-fishing float will beat the daylights out of any live-bait presentation for softwater 'gills known to man.

Ramping up this game to the optimum level means switching to a 4-weight fly rod and a little black rubber spider. The nicest thing that anybody ever said about my fly-fishing attempts was: "They have medicine that can help with all that flailing." Imagine a guy with poison ivy wearing a wool sweater and no T-shirt being attacked by a battalion of hornets: My form is somewhat more animated than that. But if the little rubber spider manages to hit the water within 3 feet of an active spawning bed, a bull 'gill will find it in seconds.

In lakes with more than 2 feet of visibility, finding bluegill beds is a simple matter of a slow cruise with the trolling motor along protected shoreline flats and in the back of coves looking for those telltale moon craters. A pair of Polaroid shades will cut glare and work as the best "fishfinder" technology available.

Because of visibility, finding spawning beds in riverine environments like the Mississippi is a little tougher. By this time of year, a large percentage of bigger bluegills will have moved out of wintering areas back in the sloughs and taken up residence near current in running sloughs and close to rocky structures like wing dams out in the main river.

During May and into June, the river can run bellyful with run-off from both snowmelt and rain. Water temperatures will have warmed to the point that 'gills are ready to spawn as the full moon period approaches.

A great place for finding spawning beds is on the downstream side of wing dams within 5 yards of shore. In many instances, several of these rocky fingers will have been placed quite close to one another in order to help channel the current.

If the river's running full, the backside of the wing dam farthest downstream will be a good place to start looking. Once the Mississippi drops to normal summer pool levels a good way to fish 'em is anchoring up just above a wing dam and offering a half-crawler on a small hook about 8 inches below a split shot. If you don't hook up in 10 minutes, move a little bit. Fish are usually holding within a foot of the bottom.

The summer connection between bluegills and rocks on the Mississippi is undeniable because of the logical progression of the predator/prey relationship. Rocks hold tremendous numbers of mayflies, caddisflies and similar fare. Big bulls are seldom far away.

By mid-October, Iowa Department of Natural Resources surveys indicate, a major panfish migration heads into deeper sloughs with low current flow and good oxygen levels; there the fish will remain throughout the winter. Cordwood Lake and Fish Lake near my home in New Albin are hotspots in cold weather; Minnesota Slough holds fish year 'round.

IDNR fisheries manager Scott Gritters reported that Swift Slough and Bertom Lake are good bets down on Pool 11. Pool 10 hotspots include Bussey Lake near Guttenberg, Ambro Slough near Prairie du Chien, Methodist and Norwegian lakes across the River near McGregor and Joyce and Mud Hen lakes near McGregor.

According to IDNR biologist Jim Christianson, 2007 should be a banner year on West Okoboji. "This water has been giving up some really big bluegills the past three or four years," Christianson said. "The bluegill fishery here is pretty close to a peak."

Christianson pointed to Center Lake, between East and West Okoboji, as another worthwhile destination in the northwest part of the state. Dickinson County is second only to the mighty Mississippi as the epicenter of Iowa angling opportunities.

West Okoboji, on the northwest edge of Arnolds Park, has a potpourri of species swimming its 3,847 acres. At 264 acres, Center can be mastered in a day.

Sometimes big 'gills come in small packages. This is certainly true on well-managed farm ponds on private lands across the state. At just 36 acres, Casey Lake in Tama County is not much bigger than a large pond, but according to IDNR biologist Bryan Hayes, this neat little multi-option lake on Dysart Road about 10 miles south of Waterloo is a perpetual producer of 8- to 9-inch bluegills.

There is a good boat ramp here, with electric-motors-only rules enforced. Casey is a wonderful camping destination with cabins and both primitive and modern campsites available.

The southwestern corner of the state has three lakes that should produce nice sacks of alpha 'gills this summer, reported IDNR fisheries manager Chris Larson. Only one of these -- 48-acre Greenfield Lake in Adair County -- practically screams bluegills.

Water clarity here is usually greater than 24 inches. A tremendous population of 12- to 14-inch bass keeps the panfish numbers in these waters in check. This water clarity is conducive to weed growth. When coupled with a gradually sloping shoreline into the main lake basin, prospecting anglers are virtually assured of finding prowling 'gills at this time of year.

Around Greenfield, shoreline access is fairly good; the boat ramp is adequate. Watercraft are restricted to electric motors.

Larson called 16-acre Orient Lake in Adair County and 70-acre Littlefield Lake in Audubon County to the northwest "real sleepers" when it comes to producing alpha 'gills. "Like Greenfield, both Orient and Littlefield are capable of producing good catches of 8- to 10-inch bluegills" he said. "This is somewhat amazing, as both lakes are turbid, with low visibility, little weed growth, poor water quality and not much of a predator base to keep prey species in check."

At waters in which visibility is limited, bluegills rely on scent and vibration along their lateral lines to home in on dinner. These lakes offer one scenario in which live bait may have an edge over artificials.

Baits with bigger profiles also tend to produce better results than a waxworm or two, with fish generally active higher in the water column and more aggressive on bright sunny days.

Crickets are probably your best bait choice for Orient and Littlefield, but aren't easy to find. The next best bet is a small "crappie" minnow hooked under the dorsal fin and suspended about 18 inches below a pencil-style float.

Because of its size, Orient permits electric motors only. Littlefield allows outboard motors. Both lakes have decent boat-launch facilities.

Anglers working these waters need to come prepared, as bait shops are rare commodities in this part of the state. Wood's Sport Shop in Council Bluffs has good bait, but is 45 minutes to an hour away from any of these lakes. The phone number at Wood's is (712) 366-0444.

The IDNR lists 243 lakes across the state in its Iowa Lake Fishing Guide. A companion publication, Iowa Stream Fishing and Canoe Guide, has detailed maps and access points covering more than 18,000 miles of streams. Both are available online at www.iowadnr.com.

Two other publications that should also be tucked away in your dusty old truck are the DeLorme Map Company's Iowa Atlas & Gazetteer and the Iowa Sportsman's Atlas, which published by the Sportsman's Atlas Company, Box 132, Lytton, IA 50561. Both of these references are available for $20 or less each, and between them you'll find details that are a great boon to success in any hunting or fishing adventure in the Hawkeye State.

Little reference material was available when the water first called my name over 50 years ago. What was available was portable, enjoyable, instructive and all-around wonderful -- and wrapped up in one package called "Dad." If that job title is part of your life resume, know that the most important job you'll ever do is teaching a youngster the passion for the pursuit of Iowa's alpha 'gills.

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