In Search Of The Alpha 'Gill
September 24, 2010
Bigger is always better, especially when it comes to bull bluegills! Follow these experts' advice to find slab-sided success. (January 2006)
Dave Genz is the founder of Ice Team. He and his posse are on the cutting edge of ice-fishing knowledge.
Photo by Noel Vick
Freakishly large creatures are intriguing by nature. A 25-pound wild turkey does it for some folks. For others, it takes 300 pounds of white-tailed deer. But I dare say, a genuine pound of bluegill lights up the eyes of anyone lucky to see it, let alone catch such a beast.
That's the fish of dreams -- 16 ounces of slab-sided bluegill. It barely fits in your palm. Heck, it barely fits in a dream!
So what's an angler to do? Spend the next umpteen years chasing the white elephant? That's not to say you'll never catch a "pounder," because they are out there. But on the average outing to the average lake, it's a long shot.
With that said, however, Ice Team's Brian Brosdahl submits his criterion for building better bluegills. First and foremost, Brosdahl endorses diversity, as in where they live. Brosdahl looks for lakes with features unimaginable: a fusion of emergent and submerged weeds, deep basins, offshore rock structure, sprawling flats and plenty of food, some of which can be unorthodox.
For example, scuds -- also known as freshwater shrimp -- quickly add to a bluegill's waistline, as do small young-of-the-year yellow perch. Brosdahl says that juvenile perch are a link in an important but seldom-acknowledged food chain. Small perch eat bluegill fry like they're going out of style, in turn culling overabundances of bluegills that would otherwise be in competition. On the flipside, alpha bluegills munch down tiny perch like cocktail wienies. Yes, broad-shouldered bluegills are quite carnivorous.
Brosdahl can't say enough about weeds and overall lake fertility. Sterility and "bluegill-ity" don't go hand in hand. The littoral zone -- water less than 15 feet deep -- constitutes 50 percent or more of the acreage on the typical Brosdahl-targeted lake. More shallows translate into more weeds, and normally more "waterlife," namely edible zooplankton. By winter, depending on the lake, the bulk of the weeds could be down, but they played an important role during every minute of their existence. On a clear lake where the weeds grow deep, some if not most may make it through the winter, providing sanctuary and foraging grounds.
Weed variety is beneficial, too. Brosdahl speaks of places yielding a blend of surface hardstem bulrushes, wild rice and lily pads, all living in harmony amongst cabbage, coontail and even sandgrass. But when the rubber meets the road, he's got a weakness for cabbage, nasty, thick beds that are as big as a garage and that rise to or near the surface. They're best when linked to other beds, thus creating a colony.
When asked whether predators factor in, Brosdahl said, "Absolutely!" Herds need to be thinned for select bluegills to grow. Brosdahl likes lakes with giant pike, small- to medium-sized largemouth bass and -- sorry to say -- dogfish. Adult pike eat their fair share of "average-sized" bluegills, infrequently swallowing wide-bodied bulls. Non-trophy-class bass eat a lot of smallish bluegills, too. Again, the school is sacrificed for the growth of some, and those relics that time forgot -- dogfish -- also consider small- to medium-sized bluegills a delicacy.
And this brings us to "your" lake. She's plump full of bluegills, but is not known for giving up size. "Big," then, is a relative term. If half-pounders are at the top of the curve, they're your alphas. Don't settle for smaller fish. Leave the dinks to the weekenders, and plan to catch two fish for every pound of bluegill.
Before throwing out a list of possible spots that may or may not match the lake in question, it's prudent to consider windows, or time frames. What's the best time for plucking bulls? Brosdahl says early ice and late ice, with an emphasis on the latter. Full moon? It's a big deal to Brosdahl. With complete decisiveness, he claims that the moon's power when full or nearly fully beckons big bluegills to bite. The morning and evening splurges are strongest. On a clear night when the moon is whole, Brosdahl stays the course and catches fish deep into the darkness.
Okay, say it's midwinter, and the moon is weeks from being full. Throw in the towel? Nah. Now it gets down to spots, big-fish spots. First amongst them are rockpiles, as in the walleye-looking stuff. Don't go to the rocks looking for numbers, though. It's quality over quantity. Brosdahl prefers rockpiles that sport weeds over their crowns, but vegetation isn't mandatory. He also favors loose, chunky rock bottoms over round, symmetrical boulders. He theorizes that more crayfish and insect life reside amongst the busted pieces.
The best rockpiles, in his experience, sprout from 15- to 25-foot flats, rising to depths that are still fishable but aren't poking through the ice. If you find one, fish patiently or don't bother at all. Bull bluegills in the rocks seldom travel in schools.
Another "non-typical" alpha bluegill spot is what Brosdahl terms "hard-bottomed humps." Instead of being rock-based, these elevated areas are constructed of gravel, sand and sometimes clam or snail shell parts. In Brosdahl's world, prospective hard-bottomed humps occur in 8 to 20 feet of water, sometimes only rising a few feet. The best ones, he says, feature some weed growth. Typically, that means some coontail or scattered stalks of cabbage.
Humps really cook in the morning and evening hours, especially the weedy crown areas. By day, however, big bluegills can be tracked between the base of the hump and the nearest deep-water escape. This shows the desirability of fishing structure near a plunge into the basin.
Now check a hydrological map of your lake. I bet there's either a rockpile or a hard-bottomed hump, possibly both, possibly many of them. It doesn't end there. Brosdahl adds underwater points to the list. It's not the obvious shoreline point with the red cabin, either. He's talking about subtle underwater points that reach into the lake. Weedy ones rank highest. Weedy ones with inside turns steal the show. Brosdahl says bluegills will follow a straight line, such as a weedline, but seldom will hold for long. Inside turns or "hooks," conversely, tend to corral fish.
"I don't know the bus schedule, so it's hard to pick bus stops along the way," said Brosdahl, "but I do know where the bus station is. Everything will eventually end up there."
And that's a good enough illustration for me to look for a hook.
Now I know your lake has an underwater point, right? Well, if not, Bro
sdahl has one more arrow in the quiver for river channels. More lakes than you may think have river channels in them. Consult a map or ask the locals. A lot of "natural lakes" feature ancient current-cuts along the basin. Easily observable channels could already be picked clean, so Brosdahl suggests searching for hidden specimens.
The masterminding of bluegills doesn't end there, however. Big-fish and little-fish spots aren't always exclusive. Commingling occurs. With that in mind, Brosdahl advises getting to the bottom of the school in a hurry. You'll almost always find the biggest fish at the bottom of the bunch.
According to Brosdahl, the school's biggest members also hang close to the deepest water available. They will position literally on the outside of the school, assumedly giving themselves preeminent access to safety, and thus their existence.
Besides, trophy-class bluegills are known roamers. Brosdahl says they'll cruise open and flat expanses, hanging near "classic" bluegill territory, but maintaining a distance from the ankle-biters and potato chips.
To beat the bothersome fish, Brosdahl fishes quite large, or at least heavy to the bottom. He first blasts with a jigging spoon, not the normal measly teardrop. His go-to spoon is the 1/16-ounce Lindy Techni-Glo Perch Frostee Jigging Spoon smothered with wax worms or maggots. Bold bluegills welcome the young-of-the-year pattern. Plus, the lure's backside is gold, and Brosdahl says gold is a personal favorite for big bluegills, citing their carnivorous desires.
Plan B is slightly more traditional. His choice is a heavy-for-its-size horizontal jig like the Lindy Fat Boy. It also imitates finned quarry instead of the typical insect stuff.
Don't measure your personal success by the 1-pound bluegill benchmark that's carelessly thrown around town coffee shops and taverns. Most of that talk is utter "smack," as they say nowadays. Judge your fish against the largest fish in the system. If that means half-pounders, then a limit of 8-ouncers is an achievement. If by chance you do pop that freakish and elusive "pounder," take a picture with a scale in the fish's mouth and then throw the photo on the bar to prove to your buddies that they do indeed exist!