Cult of the Bluegills
Trophy-size panfish—a contradiction in terms? Not at all.
By Noel Vick. Photography by Bill Lindner.
They live among us. He teaches ice fishing. Shes a line leader at a manufacturing plant. One guides. Theres even this First Avenue punker—nipple-ringed, gothic sort—who makes northbound pilgrimages. They gather at different altars, but they all worship the same thing. The object of their praise? The source of their joy? Bluegills. Plump, sassy, nasty, shouldered, knob-headed, and broad-sided bluegills.
Brian "Bro" Brosdahl, a passionate panfish guide, proprietor of Bros Guide Camp in Cass Lake, and deftest angler among the cult figures, once told me, "Ive got a bluegill lake thats so juiced with fish that Im afraid to take myself there. Its that good, that secretive. I cant risk mumbling its name in my sleep."
His gray matter is cluttered with the whereabouts of "bulls" (male bluegills 9 inches or longer), and its this knowledge that is so coveted yet hard to come by. Waters that harbor pieplates (giant gills) are rare. Their names are seldom uttered publicly, to anyone, anywhere, especially at bait shops, where the walls have ears.
How secret are such gems? On occasion Bro takes me to his lakes, but never reveals their names and locations. Instead, he coyly dubs them Stealth Lake, Double Stealth, Triple Stealth, and so on. I accept the code, fearing that asking for clarification might make the current outing my last. Sometimes I joke of being blindfolded prejunket, forcibly escorted into the truck, then whisked away. If Bro could, hed spin me like a game-farm rooster to disorient me, so I wouldnt know where I was. But Id gladly endure it to get a shot at Bros gill lakes.
Other cult members likewise guard their private stashes of ripe bluegill lakes. This secret-agentlike behavior may seem odd, possibly deranged. After all, bluegills are common, the commonest member of the sunfish family. Trouble is, most gills are puny fish, measuring only 2 to 6 inches long. Little bluegills are a bother. They steal leeches and dismember night crawlers. Most are even too small for filleting and frying. Theyre certainly not of the class that cult members seek.
Bluegill cultists are trophy hunters. They respect 8-inchers; marvel at 9-inchers; revere anything 10 inches and beyond—true pounders. Yes, on average, a gill must span 10 inches to weigh 1 pound. Catching one is a hallmark in freshwater angling, ranking with hooking a 10-pound walleye or 20-pound pike. Many claim to have hooked true pounders, but realistically, few have, aside from cult members and folks who pursued panfish during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, before electronics and the age of information.
"Bluegills," says Bro, "are the dodo birds of fish—theyre easily fished down. Any lake can manufacture dinks, but only a handful build big gills. Its difficult to fish down numbers, but easy to fish down size."
Sitting at the command-control center (kitchen table), Bro thumbs through Minnesota Atlas & Gazetteer, his north-woods manual. The well-thumbed, tattered guide isnt long from returning to wood pulp. Bro has marked its pages of forests and lakes indecipherably—in case it falls into enemy hands.
Randomly, I point to blue spots, lakes. With each gesture, he mutters things like, "Few slabs [big crappies] left from a partial winterkill in 98, some seeds [short for pumpkinseeds], but no decent gills." With my final finger motion, Bro becomes physically uncomfortable, uttering, "I dont talk about that one"—then shuts the book. I ask no more questions. Chances are good thatll be tomorrows target.
Occasionally, brawny bluegills show up in lakes having actual boat landings, maybe scattered cabins, and a resort. For these, bluegill purists possess hydrological maps, which they customize, penning more contours, undocumented structure, and spots. But more often than not, trophy gill waters are nondescript puddles deep in the woods. Places so remote and inaccessible that Schoolcraft and Hennepin wanderings never grazed them. I imagine Bro has penciled in a few blue spots that even satellites cant detect.
Passage to such wild waters is frequently arduous, certainly not for weekenders. Members of the Cult of the Bluegills willingly plod across terrain befitting the creatures of the woods and swamp. They drive down minimum-maintenance logging roads, johnboat or fish house in the truck bed, barely bungeed, while outstretched tag alders scrape paint and windfalls fix to crook axles. This is Outback Minnesota, where monster bluegills still flourish.
Just last winter, I visited one of these nameless, faceless hideaways with Bro. Our two trucks pulled off the highway onto an unmarked field, no road, no trail. We jerked and snaked behind a grove of aspen. Bro swore the land was public. The jarring ended before a vast bog, and beyond the last bastion of cattails sat a lake, bluegill nirvana.
Phase two involved breaking trail across a swamp, on foot. The supposed-to-be frozen bog soon gave way to my left leg, next my right. An hour of sweat and slushy boots later, we reached the promised land, a place where bluegills eat like lions and swell to Jurassic proportions. Id tell you the name of the lake, but then Id have to, well, you know, do that Mafia thing. Actually, I have no clue. Again, I dont ask.
Debbie Compton, longtime member of the Cult of the Bluegills, has a knack for tracking brutish bluegills too. Instead of hunting secluded venues, which dont exist in her suburban neighborhood, Compton angles on popular waters. She probes river backwaters, combing for the spot-on-the-spot—prime but overlooked bluegill habitat, well-earned through time and effort. And she releases everything over 7 inches long, the top-shelf breeders.
"We chase big bluegills," writes Dave Genz. A noteworthy member of this piscatorial cult, he is credited with modernizing the once-primitive sport of ice fishing. In his 1999 book, Bluegills, co-authored with Mark Strand, Genz writes, "Really, its part of what we are. Miles mean nothing when you set the hook on a bluegill and it takes some time to decide whos boss.
"Things dont always work out, and we drill lots of holes in plenty of lakes that end up having nothing but average fish. But its the spirit of adventure that keeps us going, looking for that next honest pounder—a fish that weighs 16 full ounces on an accurate scale."
Indeed, pounders are rare. Department of Natural Resources Fisheries research biologist Pete Jacobson says that most bluegills die long before reaching a pound. In his estimation, fishing pressure is the principal cause for the lack of big bluegills.
"Most lakes in Minnesota, except the northeastern corner, present excellent growing and breeding conditions," says Jacobson. "Theres no magic combination of factors that produces big bluegills. Truthfully, most lakes would hold sizable bluegills if angler harvests were reduced."
Jacobson spearheads a DNR initiative to bolster bluegill sizes. The state has instituted experimental regulations on a sampling of lakes near St. Cloud, Fergus Falls, and Hackensack. Each lake was chosen because of either its history of producing large bluegills and other panfish, or its potential to do so. The special regulations lower daily and possession limits from 30, the current statewide limit, to 10. (In an effort to improve sunfish size, the statewide limit will likely drop to 20.)
So far, in comparison with control lakes, results are promising. Jacobson is confident that future outcomes will reveal more positive data, ultimately creating a useful model for fisheries managers to apply elsewhere.
Jacobson adds, "Little lakes in the woods are protected from fishing pressure because theyre hard to access, but thats not the case with most lakes, including our experimental ones. Were trying to find ways to improve bluegill sizes on typical waters. Wed like 8-inchers to be more common."
Lakes large in acreage and bluegill stature, such as Minnewaska, Osakis, and Orrs Pelican Lake, are less susceptible to pillaging, because of their size, but would still produce more and bigger gills if catches were reduced. Smaller lakes, on the other hand, simply cannot support angler exploitation.
Code of Ethics.
Its late ice. Bro camps over a hole, a hot one, and likely the hundredth hes drilled. Gills are glommed all over the sunken island below. A twitch on the line and arc in the rod and Bros staring down at a bona fide pounder. He palms it, admiring its tropical coloration, age, and mass. He tips his hand, then hat, and sends her back. Not a keeper, but a breeder. To Bro, a man who makes his living on the lakes, bluegill conservation is foremost.
Although its not carved in stone or written in the stars, cult members maintain a code of ethics. Chief among these is the rite of release. Additionally, they dont litter, usually tidying up the ice and boat landings instead. They liberate bass, pike, and muskies, understanding their importance in the ecosystem. And when they do plunk a few fish in the bucket, its for a meal, not the freezer. Anyone who cleans a limit (or more) of giant bluegills isnt a Gill Master, but rather a pilferer, a poacher of what could be.
Outdoor writer Noel Vick, Isanti, recently published Fishing on Ice (Human Kinetics, www.fishingonice.com). Bill Lindner, Minneapolis, is a free-lance photographer.