Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 29, 2012

Bob Gwizdz: Bluegills already hitting

Sports columnist

THREE RIVERS — Tim Shaffer piloted his 16-foot Lund into approximately the same spot I would have chosen had I been at the controls. It was mid March, we were gunning for 'gills, and he'd shut down the outboard and gotten on the trolling motor as soon as we arrived at the mouth of a canal on this small southwestern Michigan lake.

Everyone knows that in early spring, the canals — off the main body of the lake — are the first place to fish for bluegills. It's pretty basic fish sense. Relatively shallow, protected from the wind, and generally dark-bottomed (to soak up the solar rays) canals warm faster than the rest of the lake. And fish, being cold-blooded, are more apt to bite when they're in their comfort zone.

We started catching fish almost immediately. Shaffer had rigged the line with an ice fly (tipped with a spike) about two feet below a pencil bobber. The near-weightless terminal tackle wouldn't even make the bobber stand up. But it didn't have to; we didn't need to see it go down to tell us we had a bite. The bobber either started moving or it stood up. Either way, it signaled a fish had found our offering.

We didn't stay where we'd started for very long, however. Fewer than half the fish we caught would keep (we were looking for fish in the eight-inch or better range) and that we weren't finding many spelled trouble, Shaffer said.

"The big ones move in first," said Shaffer, a veteran salmon/steelhead guide who has branched off into inland lake bluegill fishing in recent years. "When the little ones start moving in, the big ones start moving out. And little ones are already in here."

That the traditional post-ice pattern had already run its course shouldn't have surprised either of us. A look at the surrounding landscape — the juneberry trees were in full flourish, by my guess, a good month ahead of schedule — would have told us this wasn't a typical mid-March day. No, it was more like May.

We backed out of the canal and began fishing along the edge of the weed line in five or six feet of water, catching a fish here and there. They weren't stacked up, by any means, but the fish were running bigger than the specimens we corralled in the canal.

So we started moving around the lake like the bass guys do, running to the mouth of a canal, dropping the trolling motor, and pitching our baits around any kind of vegetation we good find — either edge of the coontail, which was already extending several feet up off the bottom, or around emergent vegetation. There were already lily pads lying flat on the surface. In mid-March! We'd catch a few, it'd slow, we'd move to another location.

We did this for about an hour until we stopped out in front of one canal and the bites just kept coming. It was one after another.

"Could this be any more fun?" Shaffer asked.

I don't see how.

As we were regularly putting nice fish — honest eight inchers along with a few smaller ones that took the hook too deeply to turn loose — in the box, Shaffer decided to experiment. He replaced his fly with a small gold hook, swapped out the spike for a chunk of earthworm, and really started catching them. The bobber never sat for more than a few seconds before it started moving.

Funny thing, though. I was catching 80 percent keepers on the fly and spike. Shaffer was catching 80 percent throwbacks.

"Well, you'll catch them faster with that worm today, but you're not going to get any more keepers," said Shaffer, a 40-year-old angler with whom I've shared a boat a day or two a year for more than a decade now. "I don't know what the explanation for that is — you'd expect those little ones to run in and grab that spike just as quickly as they would that worm. But for whatever reason, they're on that worm in no time."

After we had a good batch of fish — maybe 90 minutes after we'd started — Shaffer stopped fishing to count. We had 28 — 22 short of a two-man limit. It took less than 30 more minutes for us to finish up.

There was no magic to it, Shaffer said.

"This is the sixth lake I've been on this spring," he said. "And this is the sixth time I've caught a limit."

The pattern will last right up until the bluegills head for the beds, Shaffer said, which would begin in late May or early June in an ordinary year, he said, but could start next week this year for all we know. (Though when we cleaned them, there were few females and none of them were ripe.)

Shaffer said the steelhead run petered out much sooner than usual this spring — a 10-day stretch of 80-degree weather will do that, he said — so he just started fishing bluegills. Usually, he's busy on the river until the Coho start biting on Lake Michigan, when he switches to the big-lake boat. But he's rethinking his strategy. Why bother?

Indeed, he's asked the appropriate question earlier: Could this be any more fun?

And like I'd said earlier: I don't see how.