February 03, 2020
By Dr. Jason Halfen
For many anglers in the Midwest, the bluegill reigns supreme during the hardwater season. This simple fact is revealed by the “bucket brigades” that prowl ice-capped lakes, and it’s supported by fisheries research data that tracks angler catch and harvest. For example, examining publicly accessible creel survey data for two northern Wisconsin lakes, one mesotrophic and one oligotrophic, winter catch and harvest rates for bluegill far exceeded any targeted bluegill pressure during the soft-water months. Indeed, on these two representative lakes, catch and harvest of bluegills through the ice represented nearly two-thirds of the total annual catch, and almost three-quarters of the total annual harvest.
What makes bluegills such a popular adversary through the ice? First, they are relatively abundant: When you find some, you will have likely found many, and that collection of scrappy fighters can rapidly fill an afternoon on the ice and capture the attention of even the most distracted young angler. Second, bluegills are predictable, typically found in areas that are easy to identify, and with appetites that conform to banker’s hours. Third, a background in biology is not needed to trick bluegills into biting. Indeed, bluegills are generally quite receptive to both live and artificial baits through the ice, just as they are during the warmer months. A modest collection of thoughtfully selected equipment is all that is required to capitalize on hardwater bluegills.
BLUEGILL LOCATION BENEATH THE ICE
Location is everything in the bluegill game. Remember those bluegills that hung around the dock all summer? They’re not beneath the dock anymore, but they haven’t gone far. At first ice, hardwater bluegills can be found by walking out to nearshore areas of thick weed growth. If those weeds are still green beneath the lake’s icy cap, there’s an excellent chance that they will harbor bluegills.
For the largest specimens in the area, focus on the deep weed edge, often found in 10 to 14 feet of water. In reality, this location is no different from the areas where you chased panfish during the heat of the summer, a useful parallel that connects the behavior and locations of many species during the mid-season “dog-days” of mid-summer and mid-winter. So, if your database includes a couple of prime July or August bluegill holes, don’t be afraid to visit them again this hardwater season.
Oftentimes, however, nearshore weeds are overrun with juvenile panfish that will briefly entertain, but ultimately frustrate, the intrepid ice-angler. This will frequently be the case by mid-winter, when the combination of thick snow cover and extreme cold causes previously green weeds to fade to a fish-repelling brown.
If this sounds familiar, leave the weedbeds in the rear-view mirror and head for mid-depth flats, 18 to 25 feet deep, that are often located between nearshore weeds and the lake’s deep basin. Soft-bottom flats are home to a wintertime bluegill’s favorite forage: larval forms of aquatic insects that live in the sediment, where the water is typically several degrees warmer than it is at the frozen surface. Large schools of quality-sized bluegills often roam these flats, grazing upon the insect life much like a herd of sheep would munch on mountain pastures.
These schools will not be restricted to a particular depth or be closely associated with structure; rather, they will travel to, and remain in, areas that are well-stocked with food. Once the bugs are gone, the bluegills will be too. Bluegills on the flats are highly mobile, so drill lots of holes and keep drilling and checking until you see evidence of bluegills on your fishfinder. Multiple, active sonar returns within 2 to 3 feet of the bottom are usually a good indication that bluegills are underfoot.
DIFFERENCE MAKERS FOR BLUEGILL WRANGLERS
Now that you’ve found some bluegills, let’s catch a bunch. With their primary forage being aquatic insects and larvae, focus on a petite presentation accented with live bait. A 4mm tungsten jig adorned with a couple of wax worms or spikes is a great place to start, as this compact presentation is an excellent representation of the bluegill’s favorite winter prey. Tie that jig to supple 4-pound-test fluorocarbon, like Seaguar Blue Label, using a double surgeon’s knot or other loop knot. Those knots dramatically reduce fish-repelling jig spin, an unnatural action that can significantly reduce bluegill catch rates.
Chase bluegills using ice rods engineered with panfish in mind, like the Croix Custom Ice CI24LXF from St. Croix Rod. This finesse panfish rod is built around a custom-designed solid graphite rod blank, which makes the rod hypersensitive and exceptionally light in the hand. When the bite becomes challenging during mid-winter, add a titanium spring bobber to detect even the lightest of bites. A compact, super-smooth reel, like the Daiwa QZ 750, is an excellent complement to the Croix Custom Ice rod. Its intermediate-sized spool keeps the supple 100-percent fluorocarbon line manageable, while six ball bearings ensure smooth operation on any hardwater panfish adventure.
Think carefully about your jig stroke, which should be more of a subtle shake than an aggressive motion of your jig through the water column. Indeed, the best jigging action is often a simple quiver, the kind that you might produce after that third cup of coffee. Keep your quivering offering at the same depth, or just a few inches above, the bluegill returns that you see on your fishfinder, and bites will follow in short order.
s you chase gills through the ice, recognize that hardwater sunnies are often harbingers of things to come. Indeed, you should be prepared for your bluegill hotspot to evolve into crappie town as the long shadows of afternoon approach. Crappies are drawn to the same food sources as the bluegills but are typically more active at dusk and through the night. Active crappies will usually appear higher in the water column than bluegills and are easy to miss unless your eyes are glued to your fishfinder’s display.
So, if you’re looking for a place to park your hard house for a long weekend, a mid-depth flat that is packed with bluegills by day will quite frequently be overrun by crappies under the cover of darkness, providing around-the-clock panfish action for you and the whole family.