Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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It’s bluegill season

Visual predators that can see in color, bluegills also have numerous taste buds that help them decide if they’ll simply mouth, or ingest, your bait. (Photo by Bill Lindner Photography)

By Russ Mason
Contributing Writer

Every spring, it’s the same. I start thinking about fishing when the daffodils bloom and there are strings of sunny, 60-degree days. Such thoughts probably aren’t unusual, but in my case, they certainly fit a description of insanity. To wit, I do the same thing again and again and expect different results. 

With trout back West, I usually caught a limit of fish each spring. Here in the Midwest, I’m never very successful. That’s because I’m chasing panfish. 

Daffodils may be colorful harbingers of spring, but the flowers bloom at air temperatures substantially below the water temperatures needed to initiate spawning and aggressively nest-protecting bluegills. 

Notwithstanding, because I like unproductive fishing more than I dislike unproductive spring turkey hunting, I’m always on the water sooner than I should be. Besides, the fish I catch always taste better and not because they’re “first” fish. There’s no geosmin in the still-cold water, so there’s never any need to soak fillets to leach off-flavors.

The advantage of slow fishing is that it gives me a chance to consider conditions associated with the occasional strike. Generally speaking, the important variables seem to be local water temperature in some combination with a fish’s sense of taste. 

When it comes to temperature, my experience and the scientific literature indicate that spring bluegills choose warmer water over higher apparent food densities. Of course, if warmth and food are occurring in the same place, then we should consider the type and size of whatever the bluegills are eating.

A corollary is that bluegills will select colder water if overall prey densities are low (presumably to match intake with metabolism). Surprisingly, experiments suggest that bluegills are (almost always) food resource-limited (i.e., fish in the lab consume greater than 8% of their body weight daily, while wild fish consume 1.4 to 4.0% of their body weight daily.)

Naturally, bluegill fishing is best during spawning when water temperatures approach 60 to 70 degrees. This occurs in shallow water first, even when the mean water temperatures are still in the 50-degree range. 

Depending on the spring, this means that spawning areas may shift around (provided there’s adequate substrate) from one year to the next. So my strategy is to scout, which usually means glassing shorelines from the truck for carp spawning (carp also spawn at 55 to 75 degrees). As an aside, carp don’t feed during spawning, but they do act dumb and that can make for some pretty spectacular bowfishing.

When it comes to sense of taste, while bluegills are visual predators and have color vision, much of what happens when they nose a bait has to do with its taste. 

Bluegills, like most fish and unlike all mammals, are covered with taste buds. Receptors are spread across the body surface, with highest concentrations on the dorsal fin and tail. In other words, fish have a three-dimensional sense and can use chemical concentrations to move in the direction of potential prey leaking chemicals into the water.

When it comes to mouthing (versus ingesting) bait, bluegills have receptors in the oral cavity and esophagus that can operate separately from one another. From an angling perspective, what this means is that fish can be attracted to mouth potential foods on the basis of oral taste receptors but repeatedly spit them out because they’re rejected by other taste receptors farther down the throat. 

As someone who fly fishes almost exclusively (but also someone not above a little modern technological advantage), spring is one of those times when I sometimes use amino acid sprays (products containing a mixture of L-alanine, L-glutamic acid, L-arginine, and glycine) because these substances are likely to get fish to mouth nymphs for a little bit longer than they otherwise would, and to occasionally swallow them (i.e., the attractants dent the spit-it-out reflex). Essentially, the attractant mixtures are the same combination of L amino acids found in power baits.

Anyway, after a long gray winter, it’s fishing season, as my kids used to say (for completeness, there also were two other seasons – hunting and Christmas). It’s time for bluegills and a fresh pot of fish chowder.

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