Time for Big Gills

By Steve Weisman

If you are a kid at heart like I am, now is the time to get after those big bluegills on Iowa’s lakes. It starts a little earlier in the south because the water warms sooner, but it always happens this time of year. About the last week in May through about the middle of June, the bluegills move into their spawning areas, and the fishing action goes crazy. North, south, east and west: Iowa’s bluegill lakes offer outstanding action. I love to fish a lot of species of fish, but nothing gets me fired up as much as bluegill fishing during the spawn.

Be on the lookout
It is truly about location. Most often the bluegill spawning beds are going to be in the shallow sandy areas of quiet bays or protected shallow flats. There might be some lily pads or bull rushes or scattered weeds for protection. Sunny calm days are best or at least on the protected side of the lake. The males will make the spawning bed, usually depressions 1-2 feet in diameter. I always use a good pair of polarized sunglasses to find the beds, which often appear as dark spots on the bottom. One male bluegill can build several spawning beds, so when you find a spawning area, you might find dozens of depressions. The clearer the water, the more the beds will stand out to you.

I fish the Iowa Great Lakes of Minnewashta, Upper Gar, East Okoboji, West Okoboji, Spirit Lake and Center Lake. Although these lakes are all good, a common focus point for me is checking the shallows around the docks. Docks, especially wood docks, are great “manmade” structures that provide both protection and shade. The key is not all docks are created equal! So, it becomes a matter of scouting out the docks and watching for either bluegills around the docks or those dark spots on the bottom. In addition, look for some weed growth nearby and a good sandy bottom for the bluegills to be able to make their spawning beds.

I’ve been doing this for so long that I have several areas (bays) that I know hold bluegills on these lakes. This helps when the wind blows, because the best fishing occurs during sunny, warm days with calm waters. Even if the wind blows, I have found areas that we can always get out of the wind. The thing about the docks on say, West Okoboji, is that many of them end up with their platform in 8-10 feet of water. Luckily, the water is clear and you can still see everything, and on West, the beds might be out as deep as 15 feet.

Quite often, it is clear enough that you can actually see the fish go after the bait. It is important to get the bait down to the bluegills this time of year. Right before the spawn, they are hanging near the spawning area, but as we head into the spawn, you need to get the bait in their face. Once the females lay their eggs, the males guard the nest. At this point, you must get the bait right down within an inch or so of the bed. If you don’t, the male (bull) won’t chase after it.
Sometimes we clip a bobber to keep the bait suspended so that it is just off the bottom and cast in and around the docks and over the beds. Yet, there are times when the gills want a slowly falling bait, so we will take off the bobber and cast the bait so it slowly falls to the beds below.

Using the anchor
Obviously, this type of fishing means sticking on a spot. Years ago, I gave up using an anchor. Pulling the anchor up is definitely a backbreaking job. So, I now use a Minnkota Terrova I-Pilot as my trolling motor and also as my anchor. Deploying and raising the Terrova is a much easier task. Now, we do shift a little bit and won’t hold me in one exact spot, but I can cast to the beds or sit above the beds and stay relatively steady.
Now, here is something interesting. During the pre-spawn some docks will have primarily females around them, while others will have primarily males. When that happens, we try to avoid harvesting the big females. They are so heavy with spawn and with their size, I like to see them complete the spawning cycle.

Lures and baits
First of all, light line is the only way to go, preferably 3 to 4-pound mono that won’t spook the bluegills in that clear water. For lures, we go small like a #12 Rat Finkee or a small tungsten Clam Drop jig. The key is we want a jig that will slowly float down, not drop like a rock!

Now the bait. At other times of the year, we will use wax worms, silver wigglers or powerbaits. This time of year we go to a wiggling, fat juicy worm. Not nightcrawlers and not garden worms…no, these go by a variety of names: Belgian, trout, live worms…but they are way more active and tougher than regular garden worms…like worms on steroids! There is just something enticing about a wiggling, fat juicy worm that bluegills can’t resist. Don’t thread the worm on the hook; just hook it by the tip. Feel the tick or watch the line: when it moves, set the hook. The battle is on!

Invariably, we will have our encounters with both largemouth and smallmouth bass, and maybe even a walleye or two. It seems as if all fish love a fat, juicy worm this time of year.

Protecting the fish
This, too, can be the time of year when we can literally catch five-gallon buckets full of big bluegills. That’s the reason for the 25-fish limit. These fish are so aggressive this time of year, that on an all-day trip you might catch hundreds of fish! When they are those 9+ inch bluegills, I encourage you to keep enough fish for a good meal, but let the rest go for another day. Here on the Iowa Great Lakes, my family and the friends that I fish with try to follow this. Our hope is that letting some of those big bluegills go will help the fishery. We do it for walleyes, largemouth and smallmouth bass and musky, so why not our big bluegills?

It’s a great time of year to catch fish. I encourage you to take a youngster or a senior citizen out. I’ll bet the “kid” will come out in you as you reel in these feisty bluegills. Oh, and nothing beats a good meal of crisp bluegill fillets!