In Search of Indiana's Bull Bluegills

From Hovey to Patoka lakes and beyond, here are prime places to find quality bluegill angling in our state this season.

Photo by Michael Skinner

By Phil Potter

What has an appetite like a piranha when it's a juvenile, then becomes a selective feeder as it matures? The correct answer is Indiana's most plentiful panfish: the bluegill. From the time the fry hatch until they reach about 7 inches in length, bluegills make a game of trying to consume everything that looks edible.

Their voracious appetites translate into rapid growth, providing a number of caveats don't enter the picture. Bluegill fry can become stunted if they don't eat enough zooplankton. Unfortunately, fry of most fish species compete for the same resource. The biggest competitor is the gizzard shad, which out-spawns bluegills. This allows hordes of young-of-the-year shad to muscle the bluegills aside and start the downsizing process.

The bluegills' fecundity can also be their undoing. These panfish can produce uncontrollable spawns when predator species numbers dwindle. This bit of biological unbalancing caused fisheries biologists to hypothesize that the best thing would be to pound these prolific procreators with heavy angling pressure. Many states, including Indiana, rushed to do their part in reducing bluegill ranks. After more than 30 years, many state biologists are beginning to recant their decisions.

Studies done in Illinois have shown that once too many big 'gills get creeled, it triggers a size reversal on the survivors. So much for the adage: "Keep the big ones to let the little ones grow up."

So what portion of mature bluegills may safely be removed without causing a lake's population to become unbalanced? At this time, studies cannot determine what approximate proportions of bigger male bluegills may be safely removed to maintain the proper balance of size. In some test lakes, the removal of more than 15 percent greatly alters the size of the surviving population.

Big bluegills are particularly prone to angling pressure when spawning, but they also get whacked and stacked by ice-fishermen. Studies show that during lengthy ice-fishing years, the number of suitable spring spawners is greatly reduced. In southern Indiana, it is a rare year when the lakes are iced over long enough for anglers to affect spawning survivors, but in northern Indiana it is a factor to be dealt with.

Biology aside, anglers yearn to tangle with sumo-sized sunfish both for sport and excellent table fare. Some of those who want to see bigger fish have begun asking that Indiana place limits on bluegills. Indiana once had established seasons and daily creel limits on bluegills. Examine any resident Indiana fishing license that dates back into the 1940s and 1950s and you'll see them printed on the back.

Apparently non-flowing, clear and deep bodies of water produce the biggest bluegills. While each year a few 2-pound-plus bluegills are taken from the upper stretches of the Mississippi River, the majority of truly big 'gills come from lakes larger than 10 acres and deeper than 20 feet.

So why can't bluegills be grown to giant size using regular heavy feedings? In a word: genetics. Nature never intended bluegills to outsize their close cousins, the largemouth bass. In fact, bluegills are a principle prey source for largemouths. And while somewhere there may be a couple of 'gills topping 5 pounds, they have yet to be found.

So does that mean the really big 'gills are freaks of nature? Consider this: How many men do you see over 7 feet tall? Nationally, their numbers are quite small compared to the number of men of average height. So, yes, pure-strain bluegill giants are rarities of nature.

Not all panfish called "bluegills" are true bluegills. The race has many subspecies that to the untrained eye appear to be one and the same. Fliers, long-eared sunfish, orange spotted sunfish, red-breasted sunfish, pumpkinseeds and hybrids caused through natural happenstance add to the confusion. So how can the average angler identify what's what?

It is difficult, but one marker is the gill flap. Note the color of the "ears" on the flaps. Pure-strain bluegills don't have blue ears. True bluegills should be called "blackgills" because the earflap is black, not blue. True bluegill "ears" are also slightly upturned and well rounded. Another clue is a well-rounded heart-shaped tail and long pectoral fins.

So how did diminutive strains of bluegill family members come into prominence? In the "Good Ol' Days," ponds and lakes were stocked by seining creeks, sloughs and rivers. That's why many of the older strip pit lakes and Depression-era make-work projects don't hold big bluegills. Fish identification was primitive, so anything that looked like a true bluegill was called such.

So where in all of Hoosierdom are the premier bluegill waters and when is the best time to fish them? At one time, Patoka Lake in southern Indiana was the state's best bet. Bluegills up to 10 inches long were there by the legions. But someone, and biologists suspect disgruntled anglers hoping to grow larger bass, tossed gizzard shad into the big lake.

Within three years a burgeoning shad population and extra huge harvests of big bluegills sent Patoka Lake's panfish population spiraling downward. Still, state fisheries biologists target the big lake as a great place to be year 'round. They say creel studies reveal there are still lots of 6- to 8-inch 'gills for the taking.

Patoka, like most southern Indiana lakes, has a three-stage bluegill spawn. The peak spawn traditionally starts in mid-April and finishes by late May. Nature dictates that to ensure the survival of the species, two minor spawns also take place in late June and early July.

Patoka is easy to fish during spawning runs. Anglers should look for "moon craters" in shallow bay areas or on underwater humps off the main channel. These are spawn holes and each hole contains one to three male bluegills. Without seeing the fish, their size can be determined by the circumference of the spawning bed. Males stand on their noses and use their tails to brush these beds out. They work in a widening circle, so an 8-inch-long fish makes a hole about 14 to 16 inches wide.

Fishing during the spawn is fairly academic and most anyone can catch bedding fish, especially if they start fishing the outside bedding perimeter and move steadily inward. Veteran anglers will avoid casting their body shadow, or their boat's shadow, over bedding fish to avoid spooking them. They fish with light line and avoid using floats the size of hand grenades. They also have conscience enough not to remove too many fish from an area.

Most anglers soon find using a flo

at of any size is a detriment, but those who do fish with a float usually prefer a small porcupine quill or a European type that has a natural wood finish. They avoid brightly painted floats in the belief that if you can see it easily, then so can the fish.

Fishermen who shun the use of floats elect to clip a small split shot about 14 to 24 inches above the hook to get the bait down to the bottom. The shot hits bottom first, then the bait flutters down enticingly. Veteran 'gill anglers know a slow-sinking wiggly bait gets hits when all else fails. To get maximum action, they'll hook a medium-sized garden worm through the middle and let the two ends wiggle freely.

Worming for bluegills works well at Dogwood Lake located in the Glendale Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA) near Washington. Here some really big bluegills and whopper redears have been taken during the major spawning periods. In summer, fish in deeper water a few yards from the spring spawn sites to continue catching panfish. Expect to catch a decent number of bluegills ranging close to 1 pound.

Naturally, the best time to fish Dogwood is through the week when angling traffic is lighter. However, when the spawn is on, weekdays can also be crowded.

The best part about fishing in the southern half of Indiana is there are lots of places to try and most are fairly close to each other. So don't overlook West Boggs Lake, which is a good producer of panfish. The downside is the lake is popular with local anglers who know and love it. Mark your calendar and get amongst them when the spawn is on.

Hovey Lake, near Mt. Vernon, used to be the pick of most panfishing anglers in and around the Evansville area. In recent years the big lake has lost some of its followers because many say fish numbers and size are decreasing due to a new damming device on the lake's drain that flows into the Ohio River. Hovey anglers can still find all-day action if they are willing to move around until they locate the bedding areas.

At Hovey, local anglers have perfected "dipping," which is a technique that means sculling up to the shady side of a cypress bole and slowly lowering a red worm or bee moth grub down the side of the tree trunk. Some set a tiny cork about 3 feet above the hook and lower the bait until the cork rests on the water.

Fish until you get no bites, then move on. With this technique you may want to use a small split shot set about 10 inches above the bait to ensure the bait rolls down the tree trunk without becoming hung in the bark.

If this style of panfishing doesn't suit you, then head for Oakland City and fish the very public Oakland City Lake. This is a good place to try drifting for panfish.

Oakland City Lake is an old strip pit that has some whopper 'gills along with a plethora of midsized ones. Due to water clarity, this can be a tough one to fish, but here locals employ long casts with light line or wait for windy days to drift across the spawning areas.

To properly drift a baitfish behind the boat, let the wind push the boat over the area. Usually, after the shadow of the boat passes over the beds, your bait will be nabbed by a zealous bluegill. Use 6-pound-test line, a garden worm and small split shots anchored 18 inches above the bait for best results.

Near Oakland City is another popular strip pit lake called Snaky Point. Don't let the name scare you, it is a large lake studded with buckbrush and loaded with bluegills. The drawback here is an old lake where fish sizes and species are very mixed. Snaky Point regulars coax baskets full of 6- to 8-inch bluegills out each year. Most anglers use the cork-and-cast method because the lake's bottom is snag filled and anglers can expect to get hung up if they misjudge how deep to set the cork.

Just outside of St. Croix, along state Route 37, are Celina, Tipsaw and Indian lakes. These lakes are located in the Hoosier National Forest. At one time these waters were literally loved to death by anglers. These lakes get the brunt of southern Indiana's limited ice-fishing, so overall bluegill size has been decreasing. Angling action runs hot or cold at these lakes depending on how many suitable size fish survive the winter angling action.

In central Indiana, try the Greene County strip pit lakes. At one time, these were rated as the places to be if you wanted 1-pound-plus panfish. While some of these pits are private, enough remain open to the public.

Turtle Creek Reservoir near Terre Haute used to be hit hard in spring and summer. In recent years panfish numbers and sizes have declined. Still, it is a reservoir to be reckoned with. Those who do fish it regularly manage to find pockets where decent numbers of slab-sided bluegills hold court. While the best action here takes place in May, so do some of the heaviest storms. The lake can turn mean when winds get strong, so leave if storms approach.

Northern anglers know that from Indianapolis up to Michigan City the public waters are fished hard. They also realize that waters such as Salamonie and Mississinewa reservoirs, along with lakes Shafer and Freeman, give the most angling elbowroom as well as decent chances at tangling with good numbers of bluegills in the 5- to 8- inch range. At these waters anglers creel 6- and 7-inch fish and brag about anything that tops 8 inches. This doesn't mean there aren't bigger fish; it means they are harder to find in big numbers.

Farther north, Big Chapman, Wawasee and Tippecanoe lakes are good bets to find reasonable numbers of fair-sized panfish. Their downside is they are fished long and hard, so while they hold some 1-pound-plus panfish, they are the exception and not the rule.

A way to find the bigger 'gills at these waters is to fish deeper water, away from known shoreline bedding areas. To hit the mother lode of bigger fish, find a deep dropoff or submerged hump behind a shallow bedding area. Use your depthfinder to locate humps just off main channels and drift baits across them.

Another way to tempt picky panfish is to hook two large garden worms through their middles and have four wiggling ends to catch attention. Another way is to use a single, medium-sized night crawler and hook it through the collar. The trick is to bounce it through deep bedding areas. Oftentimes, bigger fish want bigger meals while spawning.

Urban anglers may find great panfishing close to home. Many times, apartment complex lakes hold an untapped source of excellent angling action because often they got properly stocked but go virtually unused. That goes ditto for some of the ponds found near highway overpasses as well as small lakes in national and state forests.

If you are willing and able to take long hikes to get away from crowds, then buy some topo maps of state lands to pinpoint secluded lakes that are at least a half-mile from the road. Chances are good you'll find p

lenty of panfish that rarely get tested by other anglers.

The best thing about this type of fishing is that bluegills can be very predictable and at times very gullible. This makes them a kid's fish, so when times are right, take a kid with you or ask your dad to take a trip and relive the first time you ever battled a belligerent bluegill. Please remember to use restraint and toss back some of the bigger ones; keep the smaller ones for the table. This really does give credence to the statement that, "little ones taste better."

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