Michigan is blessed with outstanding angling for many of the glamorous game fish species. Steelhead, Chinook salmon, walleye, smallmouth bass, muskellunge. . . I could keep going. But when it comes to actually fishing, bluegills are probably closer to more hearts than any other fish in the state.
There are a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that they're nearly ubiquitous — everywhere from farm ponds to the state's biggest inland lake (Houghton Lake, which is fairly famous for bluegills) — and running through a handful of other attributes, including their culinary characteristics.
So when my buddy Chris Freiburger suggested we get together for a Saturday ice excursion, I had a pretty good idea that bluegills were on the agenda.
"That's what I grew up on," said Freiburger, a fisheries biologist who works on dam issues for the Department of Natural Resources. "That's what my grandfather did, that's what my dad did, on small lakes in northern Indiana.
"It's an esthetic, tranquility kind of thing for me. I can get on small lakes and watch the wildlife and just relax." But Freiburger readily admits there's another reason he likes bluegills. They're pretty willing.
"From a fishing standpoint, relative to other types of fishing, you typically have some sort of action right away," he said. "It's not waiting around for something to happen." We kicked around the possibilities and settled on a small mid-Michigan lake that we'd both fished a couple of times in the past, but not in recent years. (And because it's a small lake, it shall remain nameless.) It has a good population of nice, but not especially large, bluegills and pumpkinseeds and some crappie.
We got out at good light — I'm not big on going on uncertain ice in the dark — and drilled a half dozen holes in what we guessed was 10 or 12 feet of water.
Freiburger dropped a tiny teardrop into the hole, let it down and almost immediately shot his rod skyward. They were there.
One of the pleasures of bluegill fishing is that it doesn't take sophisticated gear. You can get all fancy if you like — one of my favorite ice fishing rods is a whippy little graphite number with a deer femur handle — but Freiburger typically uses a cheap fiberglass rod with a simple spring-tension spool for holding his line.
We fished a hole until the bite slowed, then moved to another, rotating from hole to hole, sorting through a bunch of little ones to keep the seven inchers (or better), though we dropped the deeply hooked ones on the ice, too. We had our best luck in the deeper holes.
"Early ice, you can usually find them shallow, say six feet to 10s feet," Freiburger said. "Later on they go deeper — 15 to 25 feet. Then at last ice, they go shallow again. You can get them in four feet.
"I don't know if that's an issue of warm water coming in from the thin ice on the edges or if it's what they're eating. One thing I know, looking at their stomach contents, is late in the winter they're full of Chironomids — what people call blood worms. They're in the substrate. Not in the water column. Earlier in the winter their stomachs are full of other macro invertebrates. There are all kinds of larvae out there and as winter goes on, I think a lot of bugs are getting picked off by fish." We were using both spikes and wax worms. Both produced, but I stuck largely with spikes because they're tougher; you can catch several fish before you have to rebait. The softer wax worms get used up a lot more quickly.
"I'm a spike guy," Freiburger said. "I use both, but it seems like since I downsized my poles and line and lures, the bait was the next step. I have more confidence that if the fish are finicky, they're going to opt for that smaller bait. Spikes are about a quarter the size of wax worms."
We kept at it, rotating holes, catching and sorting. After about three hours, Freiburger announced that he had 25 and was done. I had 24—23 'gills and pumpkinseeds, and a single, nice crappie.
I asked my partner to give me another minute to finish up. But my next three were all throwbacks and I decided I'd had enough.
I suggested to Freiburger that we should do it again. He isn't convinced we're going to get another chance; after last weekend's rain and this week's warming temperatures, the ice may not be all that accommodating in southern Michigan.
And even if it, Freiburger said, the fishing may not be.
"I think we're going to be out of it around here," he said. "We haven't had great ice this winter as much as it's been on and off. And my experience is, once the ice opens up this late in winter, even if it refreezes, the fishing's not as god as it was. Why that makes any difference, I couldn't tell you." Now that's refreshing, isn't it? A fisherman — and a fisheries biologist, to boot — who doesn't pretend to know everything.