In Search Of Missouri's Alpha 'Gill

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

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Pound for pound, the feisty little bluegill is a real scrapper, and it can be found just about everywhere. Most waters will hold at least a few 'gills, but there aren't many where they'll top the 9- or 10-inch mark. A bluegill that can fill the palm of your hand is a beautiful sight.

What should anglers look for when they're searching for the Show-Me State's whopper-sized 'gills?

"A good bluegill lake will have a few things in common," said Tory Mason, a fish management biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation's Northwest Regional Office. "There's an 80 or 90 percent chance that a lake meeting all of these criteria will be a good one. The three elements of a good bluegill lake are a decent of amount of food, a really high population of largemouth bass and a watershed that doesn't allow a lot of run-off from the surrounding land."

The right amount of vegetation sets the stage for zoÖplankton production and a healthy food chain. Big bass keep the numbers of bluegills in check and prevent stunting. A watershed with no more than 20 acres of land per acre of water shouldn't have excessive siltation and poor water quality.

To organize the MDC's interest in establishing good bluegill fisheries, the "Increasing Angling Oppor-

tunities for Large Bluegill in Missouri's Public Impoundments" management plan was implemented.

"Quality bluegill fishing in public lakes seems to be declining," said fisheries management biologist Joseph Bonneau, "and good bluegill angling can be hard to come by. We found that only 3 percent of our lakes are producing bluegill that measure 9 inches. The problem is that we don't have many lakes that meet all or most of the characteristics that make for good bluegill waters, and every year more lakes are going in the wrong direction."

The MDC focused on lakes that showed promise, and went from there -- and it's working.

Bluegills usually start spawning in May or June when the water temperatures exceed 70 degrees. The nests are found in shallow along the shoreline, and there, anglers can target them with anything from good ol' earthworms to dry flies. Big bulls are guarding the nests during May and the early part of June and can provide some of the best panfishing of the year.

Here's a look at a few of the lakes that are holding lots of big 'gills for 2007.

OBACCO HILLS LAKE

"We do have some lakes that are producing very good bluegill fishing and Tobacco Hills is one of them," said the MDC's Bonneau. "This is a lake that produces some very good bluegill fishing."

At only 17 acres, Tobacco Hills is definitely small, but its bluegill fishing's big on quality. One of the 178 Missouri venues between 10 and 1,000 acres in area at which the plan has been implemented, the lake met the qualifications for becoming an excellent bluegill resource, and within a short time has become a model of the plan's success.

Fisheries management biologist Jake Allman can't say enough good things about the fishery. "The best place to go in our area for bluegills is Tobacco Hills," he offered. "We purchased this area in 1994, and it already had a quality bluegill fishery. We knew that if we just opened the lake with our regular statewide regulations that the larger fish would quickly be fished out. We decided to manage the lake for quality bluegill fishing and put on a 8-inch minimum-length limit with a daily bag limit of eight fish to protect the spawning males in the spring."

According to Allman, the bluegill population in Tobacco Hills has thrived as a result. "The fishing is better than when we first bought it," he said. "Stringers of 8- and 9-inch fish are common and several 10-inchers are caught every year. The largest reported bluegill was a whopping 11 1/2 inches."

Tobacco Hills has plenty of submerged vegetation and produces a lot of food. A large number of largemouth bass are maintained in the fishery to keep the smaller bluegills in check.

The local favorite is a fly rod in the spring during the spawn. Dry flies work, said Allman, but slow-sinking nymphs are deadly. Black and olive green are the colors of choice. Another effective way of taking big 'gills off the nest is with a float tube.

The water clarity is superb, such that being able to see 10 feet down is common in the early spring. "From a boat these fish can easily see you," cautioned Allman. "But it's not every day that you can catch a bluegill large enough to spin your float tube around!"

The bonus fish here are the bass. There is a 15-inch minimum-length limit on largemouth bass.

Once summer rolls in, try crickets in about 8 feet of water. The fish will still be hitting.

A great place to take the family, Tobacco Hills is part of the Guy B. Park Conservation Area. It's three miles north of Platte City off Highway 371 in Platte County. Only electric motors are allowed on the lake. A boat ramp and a fishing dock are available.

For additional information contact the MDC's Kansas City Regional Office at (816) 655-6250 or the Guy B. Park Conservation Area at (816) 858-5718.

MOZINGO LAKE

"Anglers can catch a limit of 9-inch bluegills here," said the MDC's Tory Mason. "There's good water clarity. The lake is fertile, and still at its peak."

Mozingo, built 15 years ago, is offering up excellent bluegill catches. "After the crappies are done spawning, the bluegill fishing is really good," remarked Mason. "From Memorial Day through early June, anglers can fish the bank just about anywhere and have a ball."

The lake is owned and operated by the city of Maryville in Nodaway County. Covering 1,006 acres and featuring numerous arms and coves, the long, narrow lake is part of Mozingo Lake Park. Bank-anglers can have their pick of spots along the 26-mile shoreline.

Artificial brushpiles have been sunk in the lake to add to the already good fish habitat. Woody stuff in the shallow water is the type of cover to hit on this lake.

The eastern side of Mozingo is privately owned, so your access to the shoreline is subject to the generosity of private landowners. The rest of the lake is fairly open where anglers can reach the water, but a boat is generally th

e best way to take advantage of the fishing. Although good fishing can be found just about anywhere, the northern shoreline is the best bet for finding nesting bluegills.

Bluegill anglers are apt to tangle with some of the lake's other offerings. The 12- to 15-inch-slot limit on largemouth bass has contributed to making Mozingo a high-quality panfish lake, and according to the results of an electrofishing survey done in 2005, its bass are big, over a fourth of them being at least 15 inches in length.

The crappie are whopper-sized, too: Specimens of up to 17 inches have been found in the lake, and good numbers of them are heading in that direction. No special regulations apply for the lake's bluegills.

Three boat ramps serve boaters. Boat passes are sold for a small fee. A handicapped-accessible fishing dock is available. The park offers camping and cabins for the visiting angler.

For more information contact the Northwest Regional Office at (816) 271-3100. Information about Mozingo Lake Park can be found at Maryville City Hall at (660) 562-8001.

LAKE SHOW-ME

"Lake Show-Me has been a good bluegill lake on a steady basis for years," said fisheries management biologist Darren Thornhill. "From an MDC fish survey completed in 2004, 10 percent of the bluegill in the lake were 8 inches or better. Those are really good sizes. The catch rates during the surveys were also good."

According to Thornhill, most anglers arrive at Lake Show-Me to tag the lake's hefty 9- to 11-inch crappie, a feat that isn't difficult to accomplish. But the word is also out now about the big 'gills.

According to Thornhill, anglers arrive with a fly rod in one hand and guide their boats with the other. Back in the coves, sight-fishing is a blast. The bluegills are thick in some of the backwaters during the spawn, and the action on a fly rod is fast and furious.

The 225-acre lake hosts an interesting combination of coves, lots of vegetation, and an underwater hump, which is a good place to try for some post-spawn fish. Two shallow arms extend northwest and southwest off the main body of the lake, and conditions are ideal for chunky bluegills.

Lake Show-Me has a healthy population of big bass that keeps the number of smaller 'gills under control. During a recent MDC survey nearly a quarter of the lake's bucketmouths were 15 inches or better.

Careful boating is called for when you move in close to the spawners. They'll scatter if a boater is reckless, but will eventually return to the beds.

The fish are very aggressive in the spring, and will take a variety of live and smaller soft-plastic baits dragged through the nests or drifted just above them. The big bull 'gills are within 4 feet of the surface this time of the year and have little trouble bending any light-action rod.

The redear population is as impressive as those of the bluegills and crappie. Thornhill recorded several 10-inch fish and longer during the MDC surveys

The lake has a no-wake restriction in place for motors over 10 hp. Two concrete ramps, one on either side of the lake, give easy access to the water. The ramp on the east side near the dam has a nice courtesy dock that can be used on a first-come, first-served basis as well as a city-owned campground with very reasonable rates.

Lake Show-Me, a water-supply reservoir owned and operated by the city of Memphis in Scotland County, lies near the Missouri-Iowa state line west of Memphis off Highway 136.

For more information, contact the Northeast Region Office at (660) 785-2420.

STOCKTON LAKE

"Stockton is a pretty good bluegill lake," said fisheries management biologist Tim Banek. "Seven-and-a-half-inchers are considered keepers, and the larger fish run from 8 1/2 to 9 inches."

According to Banek, only 1 percent of the pressure results specifically from targeting bluegills; not a lot of people are fishing for them. Panfishermen can take advantage of a lake like this.

The big 'gills hang out around large number of brushpiles, riprap shoreline and the bridge pilings, said Banek. After the spawn, the bigger ones will sometimes spend time over open-water pilings and bottom structure, so locating them is a matter of randomly checking several areas.

And there are several areas to check on this 25,000-acre lake. The sheer size of the reservoir seems to disqualify it as a good bluegill water, and it exhibits few of the other characteristics considered favorable for bluegills, but it's not a problem.

Bluegills find plenty of shallow spawning areas scattered around the lake, and have relatively little fishing pressure put on them. Once the big bulls finish their parental responsibilities, they slip back into the depths, where they're difficult to locate throughout the summer. Bigger bluegills hold on submerged cover in deeper water in loose schools of several fish around sunken points, deep outside weed edges and rocks where insects can be found. If you tag one of these thick-sided 'gills in the hot-weather months, you'll probably find more in the same spot.

"I've fished Stockton in May and June and had good success, but I catch most of them in July and August," said Terry Dalton of Horsecreek Outfitters. "It seems that the hotter the weather, the better. On the shady side of the mile-long bridge is my favorite spot, and in warmer weather I fish about 30 feet down. The bridge heading into the Sons Creek Arm is also a good spot. I like crickets, but worms will work well, too."

The two best ramps are the Ruark Bluff ramp near Arcola and the Cedar Ridge ramp north of Dadeville. Other ramps include the Greenfield Access near Greenfield, Mutton Creek off Highway 215, the Stockton State Park access, the High Point and Aldrich ramps near Aldrich, the Masters ramp off Highway 245 and the Stockton, Orleans Trail, Crabtree Cove and Hawker Point access sites near Stockton.

A map of artificial brushpiles made primarily of sunken trees is available online from the MDC's Web site. These piles of woody cover are scattered along much of the lake's shoreline.

For more information, contact the Springfield MDC office at (417) 895-6880 in southwestern Missouri, or Horsecreek Outfitters at (417) 682-1951.

TABLE ROCK

Another lake that bends the rules, Table Rock offers some outstanding bluegill fishing and is one of the better waters in southwestern Missouri, according to fisheries management biologist Mike Mauck.

Table Rock is better known for its outstanding white bass, largemouth and walleye fishing, which is great news for bluegill anglers. Most anglers aren't there for the pugnacious little panfish, the result being little pressure and good numbers of fish. "Bluegill from 8 to 10 inches are common in Table Rock," said Mauck.

The fish prefer to fan out nests in the pea-gravel lake bottom, said Mauck. The smaller embayments and pockets off of the main coves are the primary spawning areas. It's not unusual to find nests as deep as 9 or 10 feet, which is much deeper than on most other waters.

The spawn will peak at the end of May and the fish will move out onto the tapering points with the same pea-gravel bottom, often as deep as 25 to 30 feet.

"Anglers from the resort start catching bluegills in May," said Sue Deems of the Hide-Away Resort. "The fishing will be good all summer long and into September. The larger bluegills are caught with crickets, wax worms and night crawlers in from 5 to 10 feet of water in the small cutbacks along the bluffs. On the James River Arm, near the resort, the good spots are along the Morris, Stallion, Oswald and Virgin bluffs."

Bluegills can be 20 feet down during the summer months, and finding them is definitely a hit-and-miss proposition. The larger bluegills generally hold deeper than do their smaller counterparts along the edges of weedbeds to feed on the insects.

Several launch ramps serve anglers at this huge impoundment. For more information contact the MDC's Springfield office at (417) 895-6880 or the Hide-Away Resort at (417) 538-2992.

OTHER OPTIONS

"There are many other lakes producing very good bluegill fishing now," said fisheries management biologist Mason. "These include the Harrison County Reservoir, Bilby Ranch Lake, Happy Holler Lake, Indian Creek, Lone Jack, Bushwhacker and the Odessa City Lake, among others."

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