Tuesday, January 31st, 2023
Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

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Go deep for bull ‘gills

By Mike Gnatkowski

Contributing Writer 

The absolute best time to catch bluegills and sunfish is happening right now. Panfish flock to the shallows to spawn in June, and anglers take advantage of this movement for great action. The panfish converge on locations where the fine gravel bottom provides suitable spawning habitat. “When” depends on the body of water, its clarity, and depth. 

Panfish bedding in the shallows are easy to spot. With polarized glasses, the saucer-shaped beds and the attending bluegills and sunfish stick out like a sore thumb. The attending males are aggressive, and before long they get picked off and end up going home in a cooler. The key to making consistent catches of big bluegills and pumpkinseed sunfish, however, is to find spawning fish other anglers can’t or don’t see. 

Before COVID, we made a bi-annual to Rice Lake in Ontario. Rice Lake is recognized as the Bluegill Capital of the World. People come from all over the Midwest to partake in the lake’s incredible panfish fishing. We typically went right around the Memorial Weekend and usually our timing was perfect. The big bull ’gills were just going on the beds. One cold spring the bluegills were not in the shallows. The water temperature was 70 degrees in the shallow bays, but we could not find the bluegills. 

Friend Larry Clontz and his son, Chris, happened to try in 15 feet of water right out in front of the resort and located the mother lode of bluegills. Other anglers at the resort had no idea why we were fishing 200 yards from shore. 

Not all panfish spawn at the same time and not all panfish spawn in the shallows. Some of the biggest specimens spawn in deeper water. 

In clear lakes, panfish may spawn in as much as 20 feet of water. Decades ago friend Fred Hook took me on Union Lake in Oakland County. Union Lake is extremely clear and deep. It has a two-story fishery. Its reputation as a trout fishery is fairly well known, but the deep-water bluegill fishery isn’t. We caught lots of fish that day angling in 15 to 20 feet of water using a split shot, an Aberdeen hook, and half of a night crawler. No one else knew what we were doing. 

I just shake my head when I see anglers anchored casting into the shoreline when they are sitting on top of where the best fish are. The shallows are the first to warm and attract the early spawners and anglers. The biggest of those fish quickly get plucked off the beds leaving nothing but small ones. Not all the fish spawn at the same time. Panfish spawning in deeper water may spawn up to a month later totally unbekonwnst to most anglers. Bluegills may spawn as early as mid-May or as late as July depending on the lake. Generally the fish spawn later in clear, deep colder lakes the farther north you go. “Deep” is a relative term. It could be eight or 10 feet in some southern Michigan lakes and 20 feet or more in others. 

Finding bluegills and sunfish bedding in deep water can be relatively easy if the lake is clear. Using polarized sunglasses on a sunny day and with the light at just the right angle beds will stick out like a sore thumb. Look for beds along weed lines and gently sloping contours where you find the right substrate. If you’ve fished the lake before, the ’gills will be bedding in the same area; it’s mainly about timing then.

If it’s a new lake, using new side-scanning electronics can be a godsend and a huge time saver. Satellite imaging can help pinpoint lighter sandy area on the screen, too. Also look for openings in emerging weedbeds that might indicate hard-bottomed areas and potential spawning areas. Deep water doesn’t have to be far from shore either. Wind and waves scour break walls and expose prime bedding substrate. Marinas with slips where large boats dock can be potential areas to prospect, too. 

Because you’re going to be fishing for panfish deeper than you normally would, two tactics seem to work best: slip bobbers and drop-shotting. Generally, you can’t use a fixed bobber or float set deeper than the length of your rod so slip-bobbers are the ticket when targeting deep water. Long, slender floats are easy for gills to pull under. Many times all you’ll see is the float move sideways. If the fish are active, you can catch plenty with an ice-fishing teardrop or 1⁄64 or 1⁄32 ounce jig adorned with scent-enhanced plastic. The great thing about modern plastic besides the smell is the fact they can imitate worms, insects, leeches, and a host of other creepy crawlers. 

If it’s windy or the panfish are unusually finicky, drop-shotting can be slick. A finesse tactic used by bass anglers, drop-shotting presents live bait or artificial bait right in the face of bedding, deep-water panfish. You can seductively quiver and twitch the bait in front of them. Usually it’s more than they can stand. If there’s a breeze you can set up a drift and slowly drag the bait across the beds. A wriggling leech is guaranteed to entice some of the biggest bulls. Specialized drop-shot hooks make rigging easy and prevent line twist. 

Once you find bluegills on deep beds you won’t have to go far to stay on them all summer. Look for 69-degree water temperature and cover in the form of deep weeds or contours, and the catching should continue. 

Finally, remember that practicing catch and release is important with bluegills, too. Natural resources departments in some states even are implementing size limits and lower bags to protect big ’gills. Keep a few for a meal, but leave the larger specimens to spawn and help keep panfish populations from stunting out. 

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