Pothole Potential – Monster Bluegills!
Traveling light with bucket in hand and being willing to hike a few hundred yards down a trail can pay huge dividends.
By Greg Bohn and Scott Richardson
Ice fishing for bluegills can be slow on major lakes and reservoirs when blue-bird skies signal that high pressure has arrived. Picture a huge hand on top of the hard surface. Just like when it’s warm, the hand presses downward as high pressure arrives. Fish hunker down and don’t move around so much. Small baits have to be put right on their noses or forget about it!
Ice fishing also can slow down as winter wears on. Weeds die and sap the oxygen out of the water. Fish become lethargic and slow to bite.
But, stay at home? No way. When fishing gets tough on the big water, the tough get going. They make their own paths to small potholes that dot the countryside.
Many potholes are public waters. They may be only a few acres in size. But, most have bluegills in them, and some can be dandies. Some potholes host stunted fish that will never reach more than 5 inches or so. But, the picture becomes brighter when predators like otters or bass control bluegill numbers and reduce competition for limited food. Fish can grow big. We’re talking 9-inch ‘gills. Some will reach 10 inches and more. Yet, many anglers overlook the pothole potential.
“The bite is always there, but finding the right pothole with the right-sized bluegills is the trick,” said Greg Bohn, a top Northwood’s guide from Minocqua, Wis., who’s made a study of potholes “Catching a bass should turn on a switch, it should excite you. The bluegills should be big.” Largemouth Bass keep the bluegill population in check!
We’re also talking about a winter experience that creates memories. Boots crunch across the snow leaving the first evidence of humans amid hundreds of animal prints. Surprising a white-tail or two on your trek is common.
“It’s always an adventure. The scenery is often unbelievable,” Bohn said. “I’ve been burned on potholes before But, I’ve also had bluegills that have snapped my 3lb test line.” Were talking Bull Gill’s!
Finding the right potholes can be as simple as keeping your eyes peeled as you drive down the highway. Or, check out a county map or a Gazetter for the area. A tiny speck of blue in an out-of-the-way place can translate to big bluegills.
Other guys want it easy. They want to drive their truck or ATV or snowmobile out on the ice with their shanty in tow. They want to fire up a heater, lower a bait and catch fish. But, traveling light with bucket in hand and being willing to hike a few hundred yards off road, or down a trail can pay huge dividends. Some potholes are located in deep down in steep ravines. Getting there can work up a sweat. But it also keeps angler traffic to a minimum.
Potholes are exactly what their name implies, holes. Don’t expect any major structure to analyze. They simply start shallow at the edge all the way around and end in a deep hole in the middle. Bluegills will be deep in the middle of the day and move toward the edge where they do most of their feeding in the afternoon and evening.
Bohn said the timing of their movements means anglers should be on the ice drilling holes by noon. The water color on potholes is brown, but fish will spook in shallow water nonetheless, so holes should be drilled all at once. A few in the middle will keep you busy enough mid-day. Water can be as deep as 25 feet or more at the maximum. But, having holes already drilled will let you follow the fish from deep, to shallow water where the real action occurs before dark. Don’t leave too early. The action may come fast and furious in a 15- to 30-minute burst just before you need a lantern to see. Bohn says the biggest bluegills in the pond will wait until its almost dark!
Don’t bother drilling holes in less than 10 feet of water. The most productive range is usually 11- to 14 feet. Once you reach that point, spread holes along the edge rather than drilling more closely to shore.
During the day, they’ll be suspended slightly off the bottom over the deepest water in the pothole. By 3 p.m., poof, they’re gone. They are making their way to dinner. A Good sonar like my Humminbird Ice 55 is a necessity to keep pace. The unit has a digital LED read-out of the depth right at the center of the screen. When you put a cursor on the fish marks, the read-out tells you exactly how deep the fish are. It has a fully-adjustable zoom function that lets you zero in on a specific range. You can set a color palette that turns one color when the bluegill is at the edge of the sonar cone and then changes colors as it moves to the center of the cone to attack your jig. The Ice 55 also allows you to choose between a 19-degree angle, which is a wide view best for bluegills in shallower water, and a 9-degree angle that is great for focusing on perch or walleyes in deep water.
Use standard medium rods and don’t get hung up on paying a lot for them. I personally use the Dave Genz Stick, which makes a great durable bluegill rod. The trip across country can claim rod tips as you maneuver through the tree branches. Forget the spring bobber. These fish are anxious and bite hard. Stick with 2-pound Berkley Cold Water line and make certain you keep the holes clear of ice or the circling action of a big fighting ‘gill will cut you off.
Given the brown color of the water, bright jigs are best. Try brighter colors li
ke the K&E jig brands. Orange glitter and white glow, reds and chartreuse. Lindy Frostee jigs in the size #8 come in chartreuse/orange glow. Bohn commented that’s a big fish lure. Lindy Fatboys in the Techni-glo pink and Techni-glo chartreuse down to size 10 and 12 are killers. Use a small ice jig snap so you can change up easily without having to retie in the wind with cold wet hands. Never try to fix a tangled line when the bite is hot. Save that mess for home. Just pick up another rod and keep fishing.
Wax worms are the best live bait by far. Thread it on the jig and pinch it lightly to get some body scent into the water. That’s very important. Leave one on after catching a fish or two. They actually seem to do best when they are torn up.
Plastic baits work, too. In fact, on cold days, they seem to do better. Lindy’s Pintail, split tail and mini-spade come in Techni-glo colors like glow red, glow chartreuse and moonlight that add to the attraction. When using plastics, turn to “rockers.” They’re longer and thinner than a teardrop jig and have a slight bend to them. Thread the plastic on so the tail end points up at 2- to 3 o’clock. The bait will look much like an “L” when it’s done right.
It’s always best to start your jigging technique on the bottom. Silt creates a small space between the actual bottom and the bottom line on the flasher. That’s where the big gill’s hangout. I’m amazed at the Ice 55’s ability to pick out bluegills holding tightly into the silt. The LCD Flasher technology is priceless to panfish anglers. Bluegills hold so tight to the bottom they might not appear until you lower the jig to the bottom and then slowly raise it up a foot, two feet and three feet at the most. Twitch the jig while going upward and stop, and they’ll nail it.
“You can spark a feeding frenzy where two or three fish will follow the jig up to fight over the bait. That’s when it gets fun,” Bohn said.
Unlike larger lakes and flowages where the “bluegill bite” might extend beyond darkness, the coming of night to pothole fish is like turning off a switch. It’s over! Time to head home for a winter evening fish fry and remember how much fun it was to tap the pothole potential.