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Iowa's Icy Bull 'Gills

Iowa's Icy Bull 'Gills

If you're willing to make the extra effort, some mighty big bluegills wait for you under the ice of the Hawkeye State's top panfish waters. Next time out, bait up for bulls.

By Dan Anderson

Read no further if you're satisfied with average-sized bluegills. This story isn't for ice-anglers content with a couple of dozen 6- or 7-inch bluegills piled frozen beside the ice-fishing hole.

This story is for hardwater enthusiasts who target bluegills large enough to be lipped - big enough to produce hand-sized filets. It's for anglers willing to drive a few extra miles and to spend a little extra time in pursuit of Iowa's top spots for midwinter's mega-bluegills.

It's no surprise that farm ponds are the premier place for catching big bluegills through the ice. Iowa's reigning state-record bluegill - a 3-pound, 2-ounce specimen 12 7/8 inches long - came from a Madison County farm pond in 1986, and most of the annual entries in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Big Fish Registry come from farm ponds.

"Not every farm pond has big bluegills," said Cedar Rapids ice-angler Dave McClure, who specializes in gaining access to and fishing in ponds across southeast Iowa. "I fish in a lot of ponds. I also keep records of which ponds produce the biggest fish through the summer, and target those ponds when I go ice-fishing."

Finding midwinter bluegills in a pond is as easy as locating the pond's deepest point. Drill a series of holes over that point and you'll be on top of the majority of the pond's bluegills.

"They move around a little under the ice," said McClure, "but not a lot. If you drill a series of holes over the deepest water, you can move from hole to hole to find them, or switch holes as they move around in that deepest area."


Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

Anglers who aren't proficient at gaining permission to fish in private ponds can enjoy success similar to McClure's if they target small county-owned ponds and lakes. Iowa's county conservation boards have done a stellar job of creating and maintaining such small lakes and ponds all across Iowa.

"We had several smaller lakes that turned up some really nice, big bluegills in our surveys last year," said IDNR fisheries biologist Gary Sobotka. "Some people may not have ever heard of the lakes, because they're not much more than ponds. But they could provide some really nice bluegills through the ice this winter if people take time to check them out."

According to Sobotka, a lot of people don't even know that little Grade Lake, an 8-acre lake on the south side of Osceola, exists. "We found a lot of 8- to 9-inch bluegills in that little lake when we surveyed it last summer," he reported. "It should be dynamite this winter."

Not 20 acres in size, Chris Cove is another small lake that yielded a lot of hefty bluegills in Sobotka's late-summer surveys.

"Chris Cove would be easy to cover in an afternoon," he said. "The way it lays, just about anywhere you drill a hole, you're going to be within 20 yards of bluegills. We found a good population of large bluegills when we surveyed it last summer. It shouldn't be hard to find a lot of 9-inchers in that lake."

Sited in Madison County southwest of Winterset, Chris Cove lies on the west side of Highway 169 at its intersection with county road G61.

Farther south on Highway 169, Walnut Creek Marsh, lies five miles west of Mt. Ayr. Sobotka recommends that anglers take advantage of the cyclical situation there. "It's actually a waterfowl management area, with a maximum depth of 7 feet," he said. "It goes through cycles where it has some dynamite bluegills in it, and last summer we found a lot of 7 1/2- to 9-inchers in there."

Most of the fishing action at Walnut Creek Marsh will be found in less than 4 feet of water, so the fish tend to be easily spooked by anglers moving on the ice. Sobotka suggests drilling a series of holes and allowing the fish to "rest" before dropping your line. "Be careful not to clomp around on the ice, drop your bucket or make a lot of noise," he said.

McClure, the ice-angler from Cedar Rapids, puts thin squares of plywood over his ice holes when fish are spooky. "On a sunny day, on a pond with snow on the ice, every hole lets sunlight down into that dark water like a spotlight," he stated. "I cover my holes with plywood to keep the sunlight from spooking the fish. When I get ready to fish a hole, I move the plywood just enough to get my bait and line down into the hole without letting any more sunlight into the hole than necessary."

Fogle Lake, another small-scale water, showed up throughout the summer on the IDNR's weekly fishing reports as a hotspot for big bluegills. Sobotka predicted that the Ringgold County lake will stay hot throughout the winter.

"Fogle has a tremendous population of bluegills in all sizes," said the IDNR biologist. "You'll have to sort through some smaller ones, but there are some real dandies in there. The best place to drill a hole is probably over the big brushpile that's straight out from the dam.

"If you're looking for a lot of bluegills, with enough really big ones to keep it interesting, Fogle Lake would be worth a trip from Des Moines or Council Bluffs."

Windmill Lake, three miles east of New Market, in Taylor County, also impressed Sobotka with its big bluegills. "It's only 6 acres," he said. "Just a big farm pond. We found a lot of bluegills in there that were 9 inches, maybe larger. It's so small that if you drill a half-dozen holes over the deepest water, you'll probably be right on top of them."

Little lakes aren't the only places in southern Iowa in which anglers can find big bluegills, Sobotka says. Green Valley Lake, a 360-acre body of water in Creston, produced solid numbers of 9- to 10-inch bluegills in last summer's surveys.

"We did a major renovation at Green Valley a couple years ago - put in a lot of habitat - and the bluegill reproduction and recruitment has been excellent," he said. "The only problem is that all the brushpiles are in shallow water, and the deepest part, the main basin, is just a big bowl. The bluegills will be in that deep water through the winter. The trick is to find them when there's no brush or bottom features to hold them in one place.

"It could be a challenge to find them at Green Valley, but if you do, you're probably going to be very happy with their size."


Anglers in the Des Moines area have a couple of options for mega-bluegills. Badger Creek Lake, near Van Meter, and Big Creek Lake, north of Des Moines, will be the place to drill for biggies this winter.

"Badger Creek may not have a ton of monster bluegills, but you've got to love that lake for the way it keeps churning out nice eating-size fish," Sobotka noted. "For a lake that's only 15 minutes from the biggest city in Iowa, it's pretty impressive that it's always such a good ice fishing lake. Fish around the old roadbed that runs between the east and west boat ramps, or along the old creek channel east of the bridge that runs across the northwest end, and you'll probably find plenty of nice bluegills."

Big Creek Lake gets an even more glowing recommendation from Bill Dearden, owner of Polk City Bait and Tackle, (515) 984-6711. Dearden - respected by local anglers for giving no-nonsense fishing reports on when fish are (and aren't) biting - expects last summer's bluegill boom at Big Creek to continue through this winter.

"They've been spawning and growing like wildfire since the shad winter-kill a couple of years back," he said. "Shad and bluegills compete for the same food, and now that the shad are gone the bluegills are making up for lost time. There's quite a range in sizes, from 5-inchers up to 10-inchers, so you'll have to do some sorting. But in a day's fishing, one-pound bluegills are pretty common."

In Dearden's opinion, a Dave Ganz ice jig and a slow start make for the most effective way to put Big Creek's big bluegills on the ice. "All the serious ice-anglers have portable sonar units, so finding fish isn't hard," he said. "The trick is to get them to bite. Sometimes they want a lot of jigging; sometimes they get spooked by too much jigging. My suggestion is to watch how the fish respond on your sonar. Start out with the least possible movement of your bait. If they aren't interested, increase the movement until they respond. Use just enough motion to get them interested without spooking them."

A tremendous amount of brushy structure was added to Big Creek during a renovation in the early 1990s. For several years anglers were frustrated, because Big Creek's bluegills were spread thinly across all the newly available habitat. Now that they no longer must compete with shad, the bluegill population has expanded, and now thrives in all of the lake's habitat.

"Early on (in the ice-fishing season), guys do well in the Lost Lake area because it freezes up first," Dearden observed of Lost Lake, which is at the top of Big Creek's spillway into Saylorville Lake, at the end of the channel that runs from the southwest end of Big Creek's dam. "Once the main lake freezes, they start fishing the brushpiles in the middle section of the lake. Drill a hole over a brush pile at Big Creek and you're going to find bluegills. We've got some older retired guys who fish it every day, and they know what's going on. A lot of people just follow them around on the ice. Just look for where everybody is fishing and you'll know where the fish are biting."

Brushpiles also help Nate Sadewasser - a sales associate at Iowa City's Fin and Feather store - find big bluegills in eastern Iowa.

"If you aren't losing at least half a dozen hooks every time you go (ice-fishing), you aren't fishing close enough to the brushpiles," said Sadewasser. "I'll fish right down in the branches, if I can get it there. The trick then is not to mess around when you get a bite. Get them moving, don't play them, and pull them right up out before they have a chance to wind around a branch and get you snagged."

Since snags are inevitable when fishing in brushpiles, Sadewasser uses 2-, 3- or 4-pound-test monofilament line. "I tried the braided super lines, and they're nice, but if you snag up, you tear up the brushpile trying to get it loose," he said. "Yanking around on the brush spooks the fish and pretty much kills the fishing in that spot. With 2- or 3-pound line, you can pull steady and usually break it without creating a big commotion."

Sadewasser is fond of the tried-and-true Schooley ice-fishing rods. "For $8 or $10, you can't get a better, simpler ice fishing rod and reel," he asserted. "Schooleys have those spring bobbers on the end that really help detect bites. They're better than using regular floating bobbers, because a lot of the bites through the ice are so soft that it's more of lightness to the line than an actual bite or tug."

To deliver a wax worm or maggot to bluegills hiding in the brush, Sadewasser favors the Demon brand of ice-fishing jigs. "It gets down there pretty quick, has a nice motion, and comes in glow colors that really seem to help. White glow has probably been the best color for me."

According to Sadewasser, several lakes in his region have bluegills notably larger than average. Lake Sugema, near Keosauqua, had a reputation several years ago for small bluegills, but largemouth bass length limits have helped prune the bluegill population and produce bigger 'gills.

"You still have to sort, but there are lots of 8- and 9-inchers in there," he offered. "That lake is nothing but trees and brush, so there's no single spot that's better than another. I'd just see where everybody else is drilling holes and work in that area too."

Lake Geode also produces bluegills that impress Sadewasser. "They might be a tad smaller at Geode on the average, but there are enough 9-inch or bigger ones in there to make it worth a trip. I'd drill my first holes across from the boat ramp, where there's a sudden dropoff down to 8 or 10 feet. There are brushpiles around that dropoff, and I fish right in those brushpiles."

Lake McBride, near Solon, might also be worth checking out this winter. Sadewasser said that McBride's bluegills have flourished since the lake's shad population was reduced during a major renovation several years ago. Look for McBride's bluegills in any of the brushpiles added during the renovation.

It's a fact of biological life that bluegills do better in the artificial lakes and ponds of southern Iowa than they do in the natural lakes in the northern third of the state. But that doesn't mean that northern Iowans can't enjoy a meal of thick bluegill filets in midwinter.

"In the Iowa Great Lakes, it all depends on the perch cycle," explained Jim Christianson, IDNR fisheries supervisor for northwest Iowa. "The Great Lakes were originally a perch-walleye fishery, but in the past decade or so, bluegills and bass have started to come on pretty strong. That works pretty well, because when the perch population is down because of the natural perch cycle, the bluegills step in and fill the gap to provide some nice fishing."

Christianson noted that the current perch cycle is on the wane, meaning that bluegills will be on the resurgence this winter. Bluegills in West Lake Okoboji will range from 6 to 10 inches. Finding them in the big, clear lake is only the first step in catching them, as West Okoboji's bluegills are notoriously finicky.

"The Vexilars" - sonar units for ice-fishing - "have made it easy to find the fish, but getting them to bite is another matter," said Christianson. "Maybe it's the clear water in Okoboji, but it seems like traditional jigging turns them off. You've got to have some motion to attract them, but too much motion doesn't work, either. Some of the guys have gone to slowly twirling their line between their fingers rather than jigging. That seems to be just enough motion to get (bluegills') attention without spooking them."

Several smaller lakes in northwest round out our survey of Iowa's best lakes for big bluegills. Christianson pointed to Lake Pahoja in Lyon Count and Dog Creek and Mill Creek lakes in O'Brien County as artificial lakes well suited to producing the big bluegills more commonly found in southern Iowa.

"You'll probably have to do some sorting, but you'll probably find enough 9-inchers in those lakes to make it worth drilling some holes," he said.

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