Chasing Those Late Season Bluegills In Clean Water

By Steve Weisman

For years and years ice fishermen from across the Midwest have headed to northwest Iowa’s West Lake Okoboji to sight fish the finicky bluegills which West Okoboji is famous for. Late ice toward the end of February and into March can be incredible.

Once in a while, for whatever reason, the water clarity just isn’t there. In that case, it’s time to break out the underwater camera like my Vexilar Scout or go with the flasher to mark the fish. It’s still an awesome sight fishing game, but not quite as fun as peering down the hole and watching the fish with the naked eye. I consider this to be the “greatest video game on earth!”

What makes it so much fun is that, these clear water bluegills are the most finicky fish around. Plus, there are lots of fish from 8-9½ inches in length. Yup, I consider these bluegills to be pigs. Clear water + finicky nine-inch gills are what bring anglers from across the Midwest to fish the late ice on West Lake Okoboji.

It is so much fun figuring out what will induce those darned fish to bite. I think that’s it…there is nothing embarrassing about getting “schooled” by a big bull bluegill. When you get one to actually bite, it’s time to celebrate. Anglers who target these fish have their own strategy, and I’m not here to say my way is better or anything like that. This is just what I’ve found works for me over the years, and as a result I have confidence in my strategies. Whatever you do, you have to have confidence in what you are doing. Here is what I have learned over the years.

• First off, I have gone to mono that is as small as one-pound test, but more often I use two-pound test until late in the winter. For years, I used a spinning reel, and ultralight rod and a spring bobber. However, with the coils from the spinning reel, I had trouble with my lure spinning. I could get it to stop, but it was a pain to be working on that when a big gill was sitting down there. So, I’ve gone to a Dave Genz Spooler Gravity Elite reel matched with a 22” ultra-light action rod. The spooler, like a fly reel, releases line out the front which helps alleviate the lure spinning.

• There are lots and lots of lures out there. I like the tungsten jigs because they are heavier, yet smaller and fish light. There are lots of choices, but I’ve had great success using the Clam Drop series. During much of the winter, I can use the 1/32-ounce Clam Dingle Drop. I think the little chain is a great attractor. Glow red is my favorite color. However, when the gills get really finicky, I go to the glow red 1/64-ounce drop jig.

• Early in the season, I can put 2-3 silver wigglers or maybe a wax worm on the end and they work well. Late season, though, I often will go to a piece of blood red Maki Plastic Polli. However, I adapt it a little by taking off the head and thread it over the hook up to the head of the drop jig and then have it come straight off the end of the hook shaft, leaving the barb of the hook free. I will even take off some of the end, if it hangs too far off the hook. Too much and the gills don’t get to the hook. Sometimes, to add a change of pace, I will keep the plastic on and tip the jig with one wiggler. This combo can often trigger a difference.

• As for presentation, I’ll be fishing anywhere from 8-20 feet of water – wherever I can find standing or partially standing weeds. They offer important habitat and protection. There are both pike and some big muskies roaming these bays. So before fishing, I will punch some holes and use my Scout Underwater Camera to survey the bottom looking for those patches of weeds. If I’m lucky I might find some bluegills in the distance. Emerson Bay, Millers Bay, North Bay, Haywards Bay, and Smiths Bay are all areas that contain these types of weeds. It’s a matter of eliminating water to find the best weeds.

• Now, it’s time to set up. Remember, the water is very clear, and I can see everything. So can the bluegills, and that’s what makes it so crazy. Bluegills can appear at any level and come from any direction. Once the lure is down in the water column, make sure the lure does NOT spin. Usually, a consistent subtle jiggle, jiggle, jiggle is my normal presentation. If a bluegill enters the picture, keep doing what you are doing. Any change, slip up or stop, and the bluegill will move away. You just have to continually be watching for responses from the fish.

• There certainly are levels of frustration. I’ve had huge gills bump the jig with their nose-mouth closed and then watch it dangle there. I’ve had them take just the tip and hold it in their mouth. No way I can set the hook. Then, I’ve had them put the head of the jig in their mouth, hold it there and then just spit it out. But that’s the fun of it!

• Several times late last winter after I had found my “honey spot”, I would guess I would see up to a 100 bluegills each time out. Some were just moving through heading somewhere else. Some would pause to look and then moved on. Each time out I would catch a mix of smaller 5-7 inch fish, along with gills ranging anywhere from 8½ to pushing 10 inches! I might only catch a few of these “pigs,” but it was so worthwhile. Each trip was a learning experience. Certainly, I would miss some really big fish by setting the hook too soon or a little too late or they would get off at the bottom of the hole…that’s always normal for me. That’s what keeps me coming back.

• If you are interested, these areas are largemouth bass areas, and they will readily bite those tiny baits. I’ll often let them go after the bait, lift it up and then drop it on their head! Sometimes, I’ll be a little off, and they will inhale the jig. Oops! My grandson loves to fish for these big gills and also targets those bass!

I know there are other ways to fish these bluegills, and that those presentations work well. This is just the way I do it. And, wow, is it ever fun! It is truly the greatest video game that ever existed!