Iowa's Best Bets For Bluegills

Pound for pound, the little bluegill takes a back seat to no fish when it comes to fight on the end of a line or taste on the dinner table. Get in on the action by fishing these hotspots.

Photo by Michael Skinner

By Rich Patterson

The lake was flat calm as Dave Novak and I wormed the canoe through fallen trees and drowned brush up Pleasant Creek's largest cove. Bluegills were nearly ready to spawn, and we thought that this May evening would be productive up in the brushy water too thick for powerboats to penetrate.

I steadied the canoe as Dave cast toward a partially submerged log. No sooner had his worm plunked against the log and plopped into the lake than a fish grabbed it and darted back under the wood. Dave hauled back, and the fish fought in the circular pattern of a bluegill. A husky 9-incher was soon in the cooler, and, in the next half hour, we caught a dozen more that looked like clones. They made a few delicious dinners.

Bluegills are America's ideal fish. Ask nearly any angler to name the first fish he or she ever caught, and nine out of 10 will answer, "A bluegill." Although few books have been written about them, tournaments aren't held for them and seasoned anglers rarely target them, bluegills are the best of fish. They live nearly everywhere, are rarely fussy about biting, fight hard and are as tasty as anything that swims. And bluegills are so prolific that an angler can keep a mess of them without worrying about depleting the resource.

Although I've had the good fortune to catch many of North America's freshwater and saltwater fish and earned a degree in fishery management, bluegills remain one of my favorite species. Pound for pound, they'll outfight a bass or trout, and few fish are more attractive than a big spawning 'gill. To me, a 10-inch bluegill is a trophy in the league of a 5-pound bass or a 7-pound walleye.

Iowa is a bluegill state. Although they aren't common in flowing water and generally shun the state's big flood-control reservoirs, bluegills live in just about every other water. They thrive in small ponds and large lakes in every nook and cranny of the state. Anglers can catch of mess of them in giant Lake Okoboji or in the smallest pond tucked in an urban park.

Bluegills can be caught on nearly any kind of tackle. Flyfishermen with $500 rods can catch a mess on tiny flies, but they likely won't outfish a 10-year-old kid tossing a worm on a cheap spincasting outfit. This is especially true in May, when spawning bluegills are near shore. That's when bank-anglers can outfish those sitting in $20,000 boats.

Bluegills live in so many Iowa waters, in fact, that it's tough to boil a list of 2003 hotspots down to just a few lakes. There are hundreds of lakes and ponds that offer outstanding fishing for 7- to 9-inch fish. A good information source is printed in the Iowa hunting, fishing, and trapping regulations booklet. It's available free in places where licenses are sold. The booklet lists about 100 public lakes that are scattered about the state. Most list bluegills as a major species, and the chart indicates whether each lake has a fishing pier, boat ramp, campground and boat rental.

East and Central
Iowa Department of Natural Resources fishery biologist Paul Sleeper has some general information that might help anglers locate good bluegill fishing waters.

"Bluegills in my territory of eastern and central Iowa sometimes fluctuate in the bigger public lakes," he said. "For example, Pleasant Creek near Palo was loaded with big bluegills in the early 1980s, when there were enough submerged weeds for the young fish to hide from predators, but grass carp ate up the weeds. Bluegill populations took a nose dive and are now just recovering." Part of the reason for the recovery is a recent reduction in grass carp numbers and some regrowth of the weeds that shelter tiny bluegills.

According to Sleeper, gizzard shad are direct bluegill competitors. They eat the same plankton and other invertebrates when young, and larger predators favor shad. As a result, bluegill numbers increase and stunt for lack of food. Lake Macbride is an example of the impact that shad make on bluegills. For many years the Johnson County lake produced quality bluegill fishing, but shad numbers increased and bluegill fishing deteriorated. "Shad numbers are now way down, and bluegills should grow well this year, but they're on the small side. Macbride's looking real good for 2004," he said.

"Bluegills in smaller lakes, like Diamond near Montezuma and Iowa near Williamsburg, seem to do the best and produce great fishing year after year. Those are the lakes I'd head for in Eastern Iowa, and they are easy to fish from the shore. Diamond Lake would be my very first choice this year. It has lots of 7- to 8-inch fish with some 10-inchers. Iowa Lake may have even more fish, but they run a bit smaller. As an added bonus, both lakes have good populations of large redear sunfish, and in May these usually challenging fish are easy to catch."

Some other smallish lakes that Sleeper recommends are Central Lake, a few miles East of Anamosa in Jones County, and Hannen Lake, near Blairstown in Benton County. Each offers outstanding bluegill fishing, especially in May. "Another one is Cedar Lake in the industrial part of Cedar Rapids. Because fish in this urban lake test high for chlordane, it is catch-and-release only, but it's a great place to take a kid fishing. A trail winds all around the lake, making access easy. The lake's banks are riprapped, and in May bluegills hang right off the rocks just a short cast from shore."

Biologists in other parts of Iowa also steer bluegill anglers to the generally smaller public lakes that have few shad and plenty of cover to shelter young fish from predators.

Fishery biologist Steve Waters keeps track of angling opportunities in a vast stretch of southeastern Iowa. His turf includes some of Iowa's best all around public fishing lakes.

"We have very good bluegill angling in southeast Iowa," he recently said. "Lake Keomah in Mahaska County may be the very best for bank-anglers. Wapello Lake near Drakesville in Davis County is also a great bluegill fishing lake for anglers without a boat. It has good shore angling, and a boat rental concession is handy there," he said.

According to Waters Lakes Sugema, Geode, Hawthorne, and Miami will also produce good bluegill fishing this year. "They all have shore fishing opportunities, but fishing from a boat gives anglers much more access to the lake," he said. Sugema is a great example. Near the many boat ramps, bank-fishing is very good, and the

re is a pier for anglers with disabilities, but most of Sugema's best fishing is out in the flooded timber where a boat is essential to reach fish. Walking along the shoreline in the upper part of this lake requires a constant battle with rose bushes, nettles and all sorts of other prickly plants. It's just not well-suited for bank fishing.

Biologist Andy Moore is based in the southwestern comer of Iowa. He rates Three Mile Lake near Creston as the best in his region. This 880-acre IDNR lake has jetties for bank-anglers and a fishing pier for anglers with disabilities. But it's not alone. Big Creek, Ahquabi, Meadow, Nine Eagles, and Badger Creek all look good this year. "Big Creek, Ahquabi and Nine Eagles are the best for bank anglers, and Ahquabi also has a good population of redear sunfish," he said.

Cedar Rapids angler John Tucker agrees with biologist Moore. "Three Mile is a great place for lots of big bluegills. It has very clear water, and fish run 7 to 10 inches. I also do very well on big slab bluegills in Little River Lake near Leon. For some reason, not too many people seem to know about that lake, but it offers excellent fishing," he said.

Northwest Iowa also has its share of good bluegill fishing opportunities. Biologist Tom Gengerke is based in Spirit Lake and rates two lakes in Crawford County as being tops for bluegills this year. "Nelson Park Lake has plenty of 8- to 9-inch bluegills, and it's easy to fish from the bank. Nearby Yellow Smoke Lake has plenty of 9-inchers," he said. He also rates Briggs Woods Lake near Webster City as a hotspot this year. "There are plenty of bluegills in the Great Lakes area. Some of the best fishing in that area is in Minnewashta and Gar Lakes," he said.

IDNR fishery technician Mark Winn is based in northeast Iowa. "One of the best bets for lots of 7- to 8-inch bluegills is in Alice Wyth Lake in George Wyth State Park," he said. "It is the smaller of the two lakes in the park and has a ramp for anglers with disabilities. Nearby larger George Wyth Lake has far poorer bluegill fishing, so anglers should target the small take." Other good takes in northeast Iowa include Casey Lake south of Waterloo, Lake Meyer in Winneshiek County and Kounty Pond in Buchanan County. This 12-acre pond is actually a borrow pit created during the construction of nearby Interstate 380. It's loaded with 7-inch 'gills.

Anglers interested in catching trophy bluegills anywhere in Iowa should focus on ponds. The state-record fish weighed 3 pounds, 2 ounces and was caught in a pond. Nearly all the state's biggest 'gills have come from tiny bodies of water. Although most of them are on private land, not all are.

A recent trend in suburban development has been creating detention basins to hold floodwater. Often they hold water all the time. So do golf course ponds and decorative ponds around public and private office buildings. Many of these are tiny, or anglers assume they're off limits to fishing. Some may be. In others, fishing is perfectly legal. It never hurts to ask if fishing is permitted.

Cedar Rapids angler Dave Novak worked near Coralville for several years and spotted a small pond near an office building. He noticed a few other folks fishing there and gave it a try. "It was loaded with bluegills," he said. Other urban ponds include one on the DMAC campus near Ankeny and the Manhattan Rink area of Ellis Park in Cedar Rapids. Known mostly as a winter ice-skating rink, it's actually a Cedar River backwater that boasts a healthy bluegill population. Similar ponds abound in many towns and cities. They are far too numerous to list. Some have few fish. Others are loaded with them.

Bluegills are the archetypical panfish. They are delicious and productive. There is no limit on how many an Iowa angler can keep. According to fishery biologist Paul Sleeper, some states have bluegill limits, but the regulations are mostly to prevent a few fish hogs from taking home buckets of panfish. "Twenty-five to 30 percent of a lake's bluegill population will die every year whether or not anglers take them home. I don't think fishing mortality puts much stress on their populations," he said.

Nearly any kind of tackle can effectively take bluegills. One of the best rods for weedy ponds is a long cane pole with a length of line and hook tied on the end. A reel isn't needed. Anglers simply dab the bait down to hungry fish. A simple outfit like this is especially useful when fishing from the bank where a row of cattails makes it hard to cast traditional gear.

Unfortunately, many novice bluegill anglers make a mistake that costs them plenty of fish. They use line and tackle that's way too heavy. Bluegills have small mouths and most of their diet is zoöplankton and small insects. Anglers using heavy line and a bobber as big as an apple with big sinkers and a large hook dangling below aren't likely to catch many fish. It's more effective to fish a small un-weighted hook beneath a bobber the diameter of a nickel. It's a rig that tends to not spook fish, and bites are easier to see. Sometimes it is more effective to avoid the bobber and let the bait slowly sink. Small pieces of worms are the best bait, but during spawning season, bluegills aren't picky. Even dough balls work well, and they'll attack tiny lures and flies.

Although most Iowa bluegill anglers keep searching for big slabs, too many of them toss small fish back into the water. Many lakes have stunted populations of slow-growing 5- or 6-inchers. Small bluegills are easy to clean and make delicious eating. And, keeping small fish will reduce stunting and help the survivors grow.

Bluegills and crappies are the best known of Iowa's panfish, but the state boasts several other species of small panfish known generically as "sunfish." All spawn in May, although some spawning continues through the summer. Many lakes and ponds have several sunfish species. They'll all bite on the same types of bait or lures, and they often are in the same places. Knowing how to tell them apart makes a fishing trip more interesting. Here's a rundown of the most common Iowa sunfishes.

Bluegills are the most common Iowa sunfish and the most widespread. A monster could grow to a foot long but most Iowa fish are in the 7- to 8-inch range. Most bluegills have vertical bands and all have the characteristic blue gill flap that gives the species its name.

Green sunfish are probably the second most widespread and common sunfish in Iowa. They are usually smaller than bluegills and occasionally reach pan size. They are very aggressive, have large mouths, and are more bass-like in shape than other sunfish. Green sunfish love rocks and other heavy cover and often live right next to the bank, especially in riprap. Many anglers fishing from jetties cast out into the lake where large green sunfish may be lurking in the rocks immediately below their rod. Try fishing close to shore. Husky green sunfish make delicious eating.

Redear sunfish are a Southern species

that does well in some Iowa lakes, sometimes growing bigger than bluegills. Redears, which usually hug the bottom, feed almost exclusively on snails (they're called "shellcrackers" down South). Easy to catch on worms during the spawn but challenging at other times, they have a bright orange or red spot on the gill flap.

Orange-spotted sunfish are more common than anglers realize. They are the tiniest and most colorful of Iowa's sunfish. A lunker would barely be 5 inches long, and many anglers think they've caught a small bluegill and toss it back in the water.

Pumpkinseeds, rock bass and warmouth live in Iowa but are uncommon and are but rarely caught.

Hybrids are often stocked in private ponds. Produced in hatcheries, they are for the most part sterile and tend not to stunt in small bodies of water. They grow quickly to impressive size and make for good eating.

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