Show Me Our Dozen Panfish Hotspots

If we listed just one great place for catching big bluegills and redears, you might not be able to visit it this year -- so that's why we're giving you 12. Now you've got no excuse!

By Gerald J. Scott

Don't bother reminding me that Webster's definition of a panfish is: "any small fish that can be fried whole in a pan." By that definition, a 2-year-old blue cat, flathead or spoonbill would be a "panfish," and this article is not about any of those species.

But then, we won't be discussing crappie, or the various species of stream-dwelling sunfish that anglers call "goggle-eyes," either - despite the fact that all but the largest individuals of any of these worthy angling adversaries would fit neatly within the confines of a large cast-iron skillet.

For the purposes of this article, I'm going to throw conventional wisdom to the winds. In fact, I'm going to stuff the definition of panfish into an old-fashioned lard press and turn the crank until there's room for only two species: bluegills and redear sunfish. Then I'm going to grab the handle with both hands and give it another full turn, leaving nothing behind but bluegills more than 8 inches long and redears more than 10 inches long.

About now some of you are thinking: Old Scott has finally taken complete leave of his senses. At the very least, he's "rendered" himself out of being able to write about anyplace I can catch bluegills and redears that big.

I won't waste time arguing about how tenacious my grip on reality may or may not be. What's more, I'll freely concede that the overwhelming majority of Missouri's waters can't be said to yield significant numbers of mega-panfish. That said, a few private farm ponds, federal reservoirs and state impoundments do foster exciting numbers of trophy panfish. So which of these types of water should be your primary focus? And more to the point, what individual body of water should you choose?

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

There's not a doubt in my mind but that at least 100 Missouri farm ponds offer better angling for trophy bluegills than do any of the 10 "hotspots" I'll describe later in this article. Moreover, by virtue of their size, farm ponds allow an angler to present every imaginable bait or lure while using anything from a custom-built fly rod to a hand-cut willow pole.

What farm ponds lack is universal access - bad news for most anglers, maybe, but the best possible tidings for the fortunate few willing to put forth the effort necessary to gain permission to fish these mini-meccas. I have access to two such ponds, and, speaking from personal experience, let me assure you that the rewards are well worth the work.

Bluegills are present in every federal reservoir in Missouri. Unfortunately, only two have bluegill fisheries worthy of an honorable-mention addendum to our best-bets list, and then only subject to several provisos.

Table Rock's managing biologist characterizes the lake's bluegill fishing as "excellent." He adds, however, that very few people know how to find bluegills at Missouri's deepest and (usually) clearest reservoir.

If you choose to challenge "The Rock," late May to early June is the best time to go, because the lake's bluegills will be spawning at that time. Look for spawning beds between 10 and 15 feet deep along protected shorelines with gravel bottoms. Fish near or on the bottom with live crickets.

The bad news: Table Rock has miles and miles of shoreline that meet the above description. The good news: Large numbers of bluegills will gather in a small area during the spawning season, so one good bed may be all you need to find.

Bluegill fishing pressure on Stockton is described as "light," and the lake's bluegills are described as "large." Local experts, who say that summer is the best time to fish for bluegills here, recommend using crickets or worms at depths ranging between 12 and 20 feet.

Stockton's neither as large nor as clear as is Table Rock, but it's got a lot of water that's between 12 and 20 feet deep. Trying points and cove mouths may help to narrow your search.

Bluegills are part of the stocking mix in every MDC impoundment, and an ever-increasing number of these lakes are being stocked with redear sunfish as well. For a variety of reasons, equal beginnings have not produced equal results. Be that as it may, the following lakes are worthy of being listed among Missouri's best bets for trophy panfish in 2004.

It's been said that 440-acre Council Bluff has the best redear sunfish fishery in the Southeast Region. Since that's probably another way of saying the lake has the best redear fishery in the entire state, anyone who enjoys panfishing should take notice. Add the facts that redears approaching the 10-inch mark are abundant and 12-inch fish not uncommon, and it's time to start planning a visit.

Although this is essentially a year-round fishery, spring and summer are the best seasons. Redears are a deep-water fish wherever they're found, and never more so than in clear-water lakes like Council Bluff. Even during the spawn, look for redears off points and cove mouths in 4 to 15 feet of water. They'll be deeper still during the summer months.

An expert flyfisherman using a sinking line and weighted wooly worms or streamers can catch redears at Council Bluff. Even so, conditions on this lake and the nature of redears make ultralight spinning gear and live bait a more practical choice for most anglers. Worms and crickets are the most popular baits, but don't overlook small minnows and crayfish.

Council Bluff Lake lies in the Mark Twain National Forest, south of Potosi. Facilities include boat ramps and a campground. Some shoreline fishing possibilities exist, but most of the banks are steep. For more information, call (573) 290-5730.

If you love catching trophy bluegills (as opposed to merely fishing for them), Missouri isn't big enough to make 280-acre Harrison County Reservoir too far from home. Bluegills between 8 and 10 inches long are abundant throughout the lake and can be caught throughout the year. Worms and crickets are the top live baits; small jigs, wet flies and poppers top a long list of artificial lure possibilities.

Harrison County Reservoir is southwest of Eagleville. Facilities include a boat ramp, boat dock, fishing jetty, fishing dock and primitive camping. Bank-fishing opportunities abound. This is a good bet for both ser

ious flyfishermen and exuberant children of all ages. For more information, call (816) 271-3100.

Admittedly, visitors to this 220-acre lake may catch more 7-inch bluegills than they do 8-inchers, but they'll catch plenty of both. Then, too, anglers who keep their baits or lures near the bottom will add 11-inch redears to their stringers. Late May is time most favored by anglers, because the spawn will have trophy fish of both species within reach of bank-anglers. The lake's deeper waters are the place to try during the summer months.

Hunnewell Lake is sited in Shelby county, east of Shelbina. Facilities include boat rentals (private boats are prohibited), a fishing dock, a fishing jetty, a picnic area and primitive camping. For more information, call (573) 248-2530.

This 157-acre lake offers something unique in the universe of panfishermen: catch-and-release angling. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the lake boasts good-to-excellent angling for bluegills and redears in the 7- to 9-inch class, panfish (bluegills, redears, green sunfish and their hybrids) are subject to an aggregate 15-fish daily creel limit. Moreover, only five of those fish can be 8 inches or longer in total length. (Hint: If you're fish-hungry, anglers are encouraged to harvest six-fish daily limits of largemouth bass below the 12- to 15-inch protected-slot limit.)

Bushwacker CA, which includes the lake, is located in Vernon and Barton counties south of Bronough. Facilities include a boat ramp, three fishing jetties, a fishing dock and primitive camping. For more information, call (417) 876-5226.

You might want to tighten your grip on this magazine before you read the next sentence: This 95-acre lake's bluegill average 6 to 9 inches, and its redear sunfish average 7 to 10 inches. Just think how large a bluegill or redear would have to be in order to rate trophy status at this lake!

There are, however, flies in Cypress Lake's ointment, namely very clear water and ultra-abundant vegetation. Except when deployed by true experts in their use, artificial lures take a back seat to worms, crickets and the other live baits ordinarily fished wherever sunfish are found. Long rods - "jigger poles" - are the most practical means of making the vertical presentations down through holes in the vegetation that are vital to success here.

Cypress Lake will be found within the Otter Slough CA in Butler County. Facilities include a boat ramp, a fishing jetty, picnic areas and primitive camping. For more information, call (573) 290- 5730.

This 30-acre gem reaffirms that good things can come in small packages. Not only are its fisheries for bluegills and redears rated "excellent," but the former commonly reach 8 inches, while the latter often exceed 10 inches. This is a superb lake for a chest wader-clad flyfisherman to ply his craft. It's an equally good place to spend time with an ultralight spinning outfit and a tube of crickets.

Jamesport Community Lake (not to be confused with Jamesport City Lake) lies northwest of Jamesport. Facilities include a boat ramp. For more information, call (816) 271-3100.

In 2002, MDC sampling indicated that over 60 percent of this lake's bluegills were more than 6 inches long, with many over 8 inches long. Just think how big they'll be this year!

A physically fit angler could walk or wade more than half of Manito's shoreline, and doing so might be a smart tactic during the late-May through early-June spawn. Nevertheless, it's the wealth of standing timber offshore that's home to the lake's biggest bluegill most of the year. Vertical fishing with crickets or worms is the most reliable tactic.

Manito Lake will be found south of Tipton in Moniteau County. Facilities include a boat ramp and two fishing jetties. For more information, call (573) 884-6861.

At 1,000 acres, this is the largest state impoundment on our list. And it made the list because it gives up some of the largest bluegills to be found anywhere in the Show Me State. Specimens topping 8 inches are common here, and 10-inch fish a real possibility. When fishing this lake, don't forget that plus-sized bluegills are deep-water fish. Points are prime structures.

Mozingo Lake is near Maryville, which is responsible for many of its amenities. Facilities include several boat ramps, a boat dock, a covered fishing dock, picnic areas and a campground.

If bluegills were this 41-acre lake's only attraction, it might not have made our list. However, the lake's bluegill fishery is improving each year, and 8-inch fish are possible. The northeast shore and the shore across from the dam produce the most bluegill action, especially during the spawn.

Sims Valley Lake's redear fishery is definitely something to write home about. Not only are the fish abundant, but three out of four are more than 8 inches long, and 11-inchers are definite prospects.

Sims Valley Lake is sited east of Willow Springs in Howell County. Facilities include a boat ramp, a boat dock and a picnic area.

Lying as they do in the shadow of the St. Louis skyline, these areas seldom if ever offer solitude as a side benefit of visiting them. Even so, thanks to some amazing feats of fishery management by MDC biologists, it's possible to have a good time fishing here for a number of species including trophy bluegills and redears.

The best bets for large bluegills are lakes 6, 9, 10, 11, 19, 22, 34, 37 and 38. Fish with crickets, worms, wet flies or poppers around brushpiles and weedbeds.

Redear sunfish can be found in lakes 6, 20, 21, 30, 34, 35, 37 and 38. Redears aren't as numerous as are bluegills, but there are fish greater than 10 inches long in all of these lakes. As elsewhere, keep your bait on the bottom when fishing for redear sunfish.

Anglers should keep in mind that the daily creel limit on sunfish has been reduced to 10 fish, with no size restrictions. This action was taken in an attempt to increase the number of large bluegills available to anglers.

Those are my choices for Missouri's best bets for panfish in 2004, and I'll stand behind them. However, fairness demands that I admit that some of my choices eliminated other waters by the slimmest of margins. My advice is to use my list as a solid starting point, but don't ignore other lakes in your area.

One of the most interesting things I learned while researching this article was that, with only a few exceptions, bluegills and redear sunfish

are largely ignored by anglers. Since many of these same anglers would agree with the assertion that it wouldn't be safe to go swimming or water-skiing if bluegills grew as large as blue cats, I don't have a clue why this should be the case.

As for me, I'm off to catch a mess of panfish.

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