Bluegills? In January? In Pennsylvania?
The ubiquitous panfish is not first on the minds of anglers this time of year. But with recent weather running hot and cold, and considering that any excuse to break cabin fever is a good one, it's worth taking an unseasonal second look at the abundant bluegill.
Even now they're everywhere, holding deeper and moving more slowly than in summer. During the last several weeks anglers using shiners and jigs pulled some nice-sized bluegills through the ice at High Point Lake, Somerset County. When the mercury passed 50 degrees, bluegills were caught from shore on maggot-tipped jigs at Pymatuning Reservoir, Crawford County.
The state record bluegill was a 2-pound 9-ouncer caught in 1983 at Keystone Lake in Armstrong County. The hunt for big bluegills is complicated and difficult because the larger they grow the fewer you will find together.
"The biggest misconception that people have is thinking they're going to catch [bluegills] over 8 inches every year. There are ups in downs in the fishing population as well as conditions that will alter that," said Rick Lorson, a fisheries manager for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
This time of year, when weed cover is sparse, Lepomis macrochirus avoids the shallows.
"Although they are in deeper water they are still mostly hidden under some cover, whether it be a log or in the plants," said Lee Murphy, owner of Lock 3 Bait and Tackle in Cheswick.
The best way to catch bluegills in winter is with small jigs fished slowly and deep. If water is iced over, use an ice jig tipped with small live bait. When there's no ice, target steep drop-offs within casting distance from shore, or use a boat to access deeper water.
In early spring, bluegills begin moving closer to shore to prepare for the spawn. Keep in mind that bluegills will go only as deep as necessary to find security cover, said Lorson, and "they certainly move into shallower water during the spawning season."
Early spring is a great time to look for big bluegills as they come out of the depths of lakes and ponds and begin to feed more often and aggressively in preparation for the summer months.
"The pre-spawn time is really good, and with the mild winters here, it really gives you a chance to get started earlier," Lorson said.
In the spring a male takes every opportunity to feed, building strength for nest building, attracting a female and protecting the nest. During this time, male bluegills become very aggressive and will take a bite out of anything that is cast near them or the nest, making them relatively easy to catch.
Bluegills tend to inhabit plant beds. The beds make the fish feel comfortable because they can dart in and out and often blend in with the foliage. In the plant beds bluegills find fly larvae, midges, dragonflies, minnows and other small prey.
Bluegills generally spawn at least twice a year beginning in May and ending in August. The male builds a nest with a well-marked territory, which is sometimes visible in clearer water. The female lays around 40,000 eggs and leaves immediately. The male watches over the nests, aggressively chasing intruders.
Usually, the best baits are live earthworms, wax worms, maggots or paste baits. Use small minnows, about 1 inch, to target larger fish. Effective artificials include jigs, spinners, dry flies, wet flies and streamers.
Children's spincast rods and other ultra-light tackle will catch bluegills, as will cane poles. Suspend live or paste baits under a bobber rigged about 1 foot from the bottom.
Big bluegills can provide two palm-sized fillets; a bucket of them can provide a family meal. But it's important to resist taking too many big bluegills out of a specific area during the spawn -- maintaining the oldest and biggest survivors within the gene pool will keep the population healthy.
Smaller bluegills are plentiful, so it's always great to bring a friend fishing.
"First thing would be to take a friend or your kids along," said Lorson. "[Bluegills] are usually plentiful enough for everyone to catch one. You might have to catch 20 of those small ones before you catch one of harvestable size."
First Published January 20, 2013 5:00 AM