Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Bluegills on the beds: vulnerability begs for angler restraint

Former DNR Fisheries intern Chris Kluzak holds a female bluegill (l) and a male bluegill. Note the showy spawning colors and longer ear tab of the male. The female’s colors are more dull, and it has a smaller ear tab. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR)

By Joel Nelson
Contributing Writer 


It’s that time of year again, when the biggest bluegills in a lake congregate in trailer tire-sized depressions along the shores of your favorite lakes. 


It’s an exciting time to fish for bluegills, because some great action for big fish is relatively easy to find. Motor around and look for the beds. If bluegills are present, cast to them and hold on. It’s that simple.   


Yet, like so many seasonal high points in fishing action, the net result is often a period of high exploitation of the resource. It’s why some folks won’t target any species during the spawn, especially when they’re visibly guarding nests and going about their biological business. Truly, their vulnerability brings about our opportunity, or does it? Long term, the effects of overharvest, specifically of large bluegills, has been well documented.  


In a particularly revealing study from the Park Rapids area (Olson and Cunningham, 1989, “Sportfishing Trends Shown by an Annual Minnesota Fishing Contest over a 58-Year Period”), big-fish contest entries from the local paper were examined over a 58-year period for panfish. Research showed a strong decline in average weight of both black crappie and bluegill species over each decade that the contest took place up to current day. 


If you look at the Minnesota records for both of these species, you’ll see they’re both from the 1940s. Overharvest is the likeliest culprit as to why we are where we are today, as angling pressure both in terms of effort and technology have only increased despite the lowering of limits, including special regulations for some lakes. 


A few years ago, I had a slight confrontation with some folks in a boat. They appeared to be picking off the larger fish only – and keeping them – as they made their way down the shoreline of the small lake where my kids and I were fishing. 


My goal wasn’t to harass or scold them, but I’d hoped to inform them that bluegills at this time were particularly vulnerable, especially as it related to the fish size structure in the less-than-100-acre lake we were fishing. 


Keeping limits of bluegills during the spawn is certainly a legal activity, and the last thing I wanted to do was to upset anyone or prevent them from enjoying the outdoors. 


That said, keeping just the bigger fish is something that’s gotten our bluegill fisheries in the most trouble during the past few decades in Minnesota and elsewhere. 


How can we make a difference? Simply by releasing big male bluegills. Here are a few well-studied fisheries that demonstrate that point.  


“Large parental males protect nests, sexually mature at 7 to 8 years (Gross, 1982, “Sneakers, satellites, and parentals – polymorphic mating strategies in North American sunfishes”), and grow faster. Cuckolder males sneak in to fertilize, provide no parental care, grow slowly, die young, and sexually mature in 4 to 5 years (Mackenthun, 2012, big-bluegill seminar and discussion interview).” 


Males often are identified by a larger ear tab and brighter spring spawning colors, while females have a yellowish, almost drab appearance. Their ear tabs are shorter than those of male counterparts, and while they certainly serve to drop eggs on the beds, their harvest doesn’t as readily contribute to the problem of cuckolder males and stunting.  


That said, with the biggest males in the lake being on beds, willing to hit almost anything presented properly, this is one of the most vulnerable periods of the year as it pertains to the overall health of the bluegill fishery in any lake. Please release these fish to carry on their duties, and to be around for all of the other times of year you choose to fish them.  


Not only does overharvesting them reduce the overall high-end size of bluegills in any given lake, but it also can genetically push down those upper limits for years to come, affecting the upper-end potential for that lake moving forward. Irreparable damage can be done if we’re not careful as anglers.  


Looking for other ways to have your fish and eat them too? We know to release the big males, but we can also avoid keeping the largest of the large as mentioned. 


Better yet, vary your take from a number of lakes if you enjoy eating bluegills. Though it’s tempting to park on community beds, challenge your fishing skills and look to figure out fish on a variety of waters. It not only makes you a better angler, but it also spreads your take.

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