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Blue-Chip Bets For Iowa's Alpha 'Gills

Blue-Chip Bets For Iowa's Alpha 'Gills

Feisty, abundant and relatively easy to catch, bluegills offer the chance to catch a lot of fish and have fun in the process. Access these 10 Hawkeye hotspots for some panfish pleasure. (May 2008)

'Gills tend to prefer clear water with a favorable distribution of submerged vegetation and a balanced predator-prey ratio.
Photo by Jeff Knapp.

By all available accounts, it was massive, that first bluegill.

Snatched from the clear comfort of a small municipal pond on a cloudless summer day, the 5-inch "monster" learned well -- too well -- the meaning of hook, worm and bobber.

The young angler clutching the pushbutton Zebco reel also gained from the exchange, it would seem. The thrill of landing his first fish, of course -- but the greater payoff took the form of a single spark, a tiny hint of what was to become a lifelong passion for fishing.

This account could apply to any number of rod-and-reel enthusiasts whose interest in fishing was first born by a bout with a bluegill. This small but scrappy game fish -- among Iowa's most common species -- has long offered rookie anglers their first taste of fishing and afforded old-timers a trot down memory lane.

In the Hawkeye State, bluegill fishing appears to be coming of age. Studies and surveys have shown that this spunky little game fish is thriving in our waters -- and its prospects are only getting better.

What should you look for when it's time to choose your bluegill destination? A few things merit consideration.


"Bluegills are fish that like clear water, and they seem to do well in lakes with good water quality," said James Wahl, a fisheries biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Clear Lake Fish Management Unit.

Good bluegill waters typically have a distribution of submerged vegetation that seems to help promote better growth among the species, said Wahl. Another factor for which to look is a balanced predator-prey relationship between bluegills and largemouth bass. Without a healthy population of medium-sized bass, bluegills reproduce far too quickly and can easily overpopulate a lake. Bass in the medium-size range are aggressive and can consume enough bluegills to keep the density low and allow the surviving bluegills to grow large.

Here's a look at Iowa lakes that should produce well this year, as well as a snapshot of the Mississippi River fishery. These waters are coming on strong for 2008.

"Twelve Mile Lake in Union County was renovated in 2005, and (some) bluegills are already up to 8 1/2 inches long, with most being from 6 1/2 to 8 inches," said Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Gary Sobotka. "There's a lot of new habitat on the west shore, including five new fishing mounds. Most of the jetties have had gravel spawning areas added to their sides. All of these would be excellent places to fish for bluegill in the spring."

The diet of mature bluegills consists mainly of aquatic insects. The small mouths of bluegills limit the size of the species that they eat, and dictates that baits used by anglers be just as small. Try fishing with small jigs or a No. 8 long-shanked hook tipped with a piece of night crawler. Suspend this bait under a quarter-sized bobber when fishing bedding bluegills on Twelve Mile in May and June. If you're looking for a fishing trip with your kids, this is the time of the year to go.

Twelve Mile Lake covers 640 acres four miles east of Creston. For more information contact the IDNR's Mt. Ayer Fisheries Unit at (641) 464-3108.

"Lake Icaria was renovated in 2004," said the IDNR's Sobotka, "and the growth and abundance of bluegills has been very good. Most of the bluegills are from 6 to 8 inches and should be very easy to catch. The lake has a dozen new fishing mounds with gravel tops that frequently hold bluegills."

Motoring into the shallows to fly-fish over the beds in early May can be exciting. Big males will rise to hit the flies as they move over the nests. If the fish aren't rising to the surface, use a small streamer and pull it through the beds. The spawning activity is weather-dependent but will produce some of the best fly-fishing action of the year.

Normal baits will attract big bluegills as well. Small larval baits, tiny jigs or even small minnows for the largest 'gills will fill the stringer.

Four miles north of Corning, Lake Icaria covers 665 acres in Adams County. Call the Mt. Ayer Fisheries Unit at (641) 464-3108 for more information.

"The 2007 fisheries survey showed bluegills in a variety of sizes with good numbers of fish between 7 and 9 inches," said biologist Wahl. "The bluegills are in excellent condition due to the abundant food supply. The extensive weedbeds provide a lot of invertebrates that bluegills can readily take advantage of. And they're big: The 7-inch fish weighed in at three-quarters of a pound and the 9-inchers were between 1/2 and 3/4 of a pound."

During the spawning season, most of the 'gills are caught in between 4 and 8 feet of water over sandy bottom bays, said Wahl. The beds are protected by larger males that will hammer a small bait dragged through the nesting areas. After the spawn is over, the fish move to the outside edge of the weed lines and suspend in the water column. A 1/32- or 1/64-ounce black jig tipped with some sort of insect larvae is the preferred bait. A small piece of night crawler or a garden worm under a float or a bobber will also take plenty of fish.

Two miles north of Webster City, Briggs Woods Lake covers 59 acres in Hamilton County. For additional information, contact the IDNR's Clear Lake Fish Management Unit at (641) 357-3517.

"Swan Lake is a new lake in the sense that it was renovated in 2004," said Lannie Miller, a biologist in IDNR's Black Hawk Fish Management Office. "It's a 100-acre lake that, as of last spring, had hundreds of bluegills in the 8- to 9-inch range. Most of the anglers use small tube jigs or black leadhead jigs under a bobber on this lake. They usually tip the jigs with wax worms, wrigglers or Berkley Crappie Nibbles."

According to Miller, fishing last year was hot, and this spring should be just as good.

The eastern shoreline, a favorite spawning area for bluegills, can actually be seen from the trail just south of the East Shelter beach, reported Carroll County Conservation B

oard Director Mark River. Post-spawn 'gills can be found along the dropoffs on the jetties. PVC structures have been sunk around the fish house and should also make for good angling.

Swan Lake is part of the state park operated by the Carroll County Conservation Board. The lake is three miles southeast of Carroll and covers 100 acres. A cement boat ramp is available, though most of the shoreline is accessible to terrestrial anglers.

For more information, contact the IDNR's Black Hawk Fish Management unit at (712) 657-2638 or the Carroll County Conservation Board at (712) 792-4614.

At just 62 acres, Crawford Creek Lake is tiny, but it has good numbers of bluegills in the 7- to 9-inch range. There aren't many smaller waters that both are open to the public for fishing and support bluegills of that caliber.

Miller noted that the bluegill bite usually begins in May, when the fish are spawning. During summer months, a lot of anglers drift for them using small leadheads tipped with live bait. Mealworms, crickets, night crawlers and any larval bait can be productive.

As the water continues to warm in the summer, the lake will stratify at about 15 feet. Once the lake stratifies, the bluegills will hold above the dividing line, no matter how good the deeper structure looks.

The lake offers a cement boat ramp. Motors of any size are allowed, but a no-wake restriction is in force. Cabin rentals are available at Crawford Creek for a family fishing getaway.

Brittle naiad, an invasive submergent herb, has been documented in the lake, Miller reported. Anglers should wash their boats and trailers before putting in at another lake.

Crawford Creek Lake covers 62 acres in the Crawford Creek Recreation Area about 3.5 miles south of Battle Creek. For more information, contact the IDNR's Blackhawk Fish Management Unit at (712) 657-2638 or the Ida County Conservation Board at (712) 364-3300.

"For really great bluegill action in northwestern Iowa, Spirit Lake and West Okoboji have been red-hot for the last several years," said IDNR fisheries biologist Mike Hawkins. "Bluegills can be caught throughout most of the year on these two lakes in the Iowa Great Lakes chain. Most of them are caught through the ice during winter, from under docks in the early summer and on the deeper rockpiles on West Okoboji from mid to late summer."

According to Hawkins, the fish start to move towards the docks on the main lake in West Okoboji in May and June. At West Okoboji especially, it isn't difficult to cruise the docks, drop a line and find schools of nice-sized 'gills. The best baits are very small flies under a small casting bobber. Tipping the hook with a small piece of insect can help, but it isn't necessary, Hawkins advised.

At 5,684 acres, Spirit Lake is Iowa's largest body of water. It's extremely productive not only for bluegills but for a host of other game fish as well. West Okoboji covers 3,847 acres and is second in size only to Spirit Lake.

Access points are abundant, and boaters shouldn't have any problem locating one of the area's numerous ramps.

The Iowa Great Lakes are about 45 minutes from Emmetsburg in Dickinson County. For more information, contact the IDNR Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery at (712) 336-1840.

Lake Anita is on the rebound following a yellow bass takeover and complete fishery renovation in the fall of 2003.

IDNR biologist Brian Hayes called Anita a "tight" watershed, meaning that the lake doesn't leak a lot of sediment and nutrients. It's considered a model of good water quality, and that's contributed to development into an excellent fishery in recent years.

Fisheries surveys in 2007 indicated that 8-inch bluegills have returned to Anita, and plenty of 6-inchers are following in their footsteps. The lake drawdown provided an opportunity for additional fish structure to be added, including gravel and sand spawning beds that will likely be used during May and June. These beds are located on shallow flats in between 2 and 4 feet of water.

Submerged rock reefs will attract pre-spawn and post-spawn bluegills. The reefs are in 8 to 12 feet of water and rise to within four feet of the surface.

Hayes noted that the combination of good bluegill fishing and a pleasant state park setting makes Lake Anita, which covers 182 acres in Cass County a half-mile south of the town of Anita a favorite choice for local anglers. For more information, contact the IDNR's Manchester Fish Management Unit at (563) 927-3276.

"Greenfield is another good bet for bluegills in May and June," said Hayes. "The lake has good water clarity and a nice ring of aquatic vegetation around the shoreline. Bluegill sizes are excellent. Anglers will find fish up to 8 inches, with a few 9-inchers mixed in."

The dry years between 2004 and 2006 allowed fisheries personnel to add pea gravel spawning beds around the shoreline. Fish these beds in the late spring and you're likely to go home with a bucketful of 'gills.

Cast a small brown or black jig to the edge of the vegetation and retrieve it slowly to catch the males guarding the nests, said Hayes. Once the water warms up and the 'gills are finished spawning, they'll move to the outside edges of the weeds to feast on the abundant insects and other small organisms. They'll also be tougher to catch.

Following the spawn, bigger bluegills tend to hold in deeper than their smaller brethren. If you're catching only small fish in several feet of water, increase the size of your offering or weight it a bit and plummet it down past the little guys to reach their larger cousins.

Only electric motors are allowed at Greenfield City Reservoir, which is located a few miles south of Greenfield. Additional information is available from the Manchester Fish Management Unit at (563) 927-3276.

"Lake of Three Fires in Taylor County was renovated in 2005 and the fish growth there has been excellent," said Gary Sobotka. "The bluegills should be very abundant and between 7 and 8 1/2 inches."

Sobotka offered that the more popular spots to wet a line on Lake of Three Fires are the corners of the dam, the edges of the jetties and the fishing mounds along the campground shoreline. Some bank fishing is feasible, but a boat makes exploring these areas a lot easier.

Once the bedding 'gills have moved off the nests, they'll spend a short time in shallow water taking advantage of the insects before moving offshore. A jig tipped with a waxworm below a slip bobber can be fished along the edges of structure and is too tempting for post-spawn bluegills to r


Three Fires covers 95 acres of water three miles northeast of Bedford in Taylor County. For more information, contact the Mt. Ayer Fisheries Management Unit at (641) 464-3493.

"Right now bluegills seem to be doing very well on the river," said IDNR fisheries biologist Scott Gritters. "The abundant aquatic vegetation we've experienced in recent years on the Mississippi seems to spur on fish like bluegills and yellow perch."

In the springtime, bluegills move out of the more limited winter habitat in the deep backwaters that had little or no current. Dissolved oxygen is in short supply during the cold months, and these fish are ready to roam as soon as the temperatures start rising.

Warm weather finds the bluegills accessible to anglers just about anywhere that shallow cover and good bedding areas are to be found.

Pool 9's best spots to fish are in the Minnesota Slough near New Albin and in the Lansing Big Lake complex, especially the areas of Shore Slough and Philippi Bottoms. In Pool 10, the bluegill angler will do well to try Joyce Lake and Mud Hen Lake near Harpers Ferry, as well Methodist and Norwegian lakes near McGregor.

For fishermen near Pool 11, the Bertom Lake, south of Cassville, Wis., and Mud Lake, just north of Dubuque, are tops. The latter is the site of a recent habitat development project, and the bluegills have responded. It seems that these super survivors are willing to take advantage of every bit of habitat enhancement undertaken.

According to Gritters, bluegills in the Mississippi River tend to be slightly smaller than their counterparts in the lakes and farm ponds around the Hawkeye State. To make up for it, their numbers are high, and they're eager biters.

"With that said, the largest 'gill I've seen taken from the Mississippi was 10 1/2 inches," said Gritters. "The average keeper is around 7 inches. The great thing about fishing the Mississippi is that you never know what else you might catch. With over 100 fish species in the river, you're liable to catch just about anything with a hook and bobber."

Special restrictions apply to the Mississippi River and its backwaters. The daily possession limit is 25 crappies, with an overall possession limit of 50 fish.

For additional information, contact IDNR's Guttenberg Fish Management Unit at (563) 252-1156.

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