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Bluegills are not just another panfish

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Ice on the lakes was just beginning to melt and the surface of the ice was just starting to get soft when much of the Bemidji area received at least 20 inches of snow, with more snow possible today.

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The snow has been heavy and wet and has flooded the ice on most lakes. With boot-high water on top of the ice in many areas, anglers are having difficulty getting on the ice.

Depending on how fast the snow melts, anglers may be able to get back on a few lakes after most of the water has drained off the ice.

It is a shame the heaviest snowfall of the winter had to fall right when the ice fishing was getting really good.

Perch in many lakes had already moved shallow and were feeding aggressively. Once the shallow perch are located, anglers are able to sight fish down their hole and watch the perch bite.

Crappie fishing had also been very good before the big snowstorm hit. Crappies have been holding off the shoreline break, close to where they will go when the ice is off the lakes.

Many crappies were suspending well off the bottom, often located only a few feet below the ice. Anglers can use sonar to see how high the crappies are riding or keep their baits in the upper half of the water column to have their bait at or above the eye level of the feeding crappies.

Bluegills in many lakes had also moved shallow, with the key areas often old weed beds with mud bottom. The shallow mud holds insects, which are key forage for sunfish.

Bluegills are different from crappies and perch. Both crappies and perch will grow big in any lake that has the right combination of spawning habitat and food.

Bluegills only grow big in lakes with the right food and a stable population of larger fish. Once most of the larger bluegills are removed from a lake by anglers, the population of bluegills will become stunted and the lake will no longer produce large fish.

It is very important anglers don't harvest the large bluegills. A bluegill larger than 9 inches in northern Minnesota could be older than a 30-inch walleye.

The majority of the growth in sunfish occurs while they are juvenile fish. Bluegills only need to get as big as the adult fish already present in the lake before they mature. Once sunfish reach maturity, their growth potential is limited.

In order to grow big bluegills in a lake, the mature bluegills already present in the lake have to be large. If all the bluegills in the lake are stunted, the juvenile fish will mature at the same small size. The potential to grow large bluegills is lost and population stays stunted.

The term panfish can be unfortunate for bluegills, because all bluegills shouldn't be destined for the frying pan. Bluegill populations are more fragile than most anglers realize, that's why trophy fish are so rare.

Liberal limits and anglers targeting the largest bluegills have ruined most of the trophy bluegill fisheries in Minnesota. Once a lake is over harvested, they almost never come back unless the lake freezes out and kills off most of the stunted fish.

Many of the remaining lakes with quality bluegills have had a five- or 10-fish regulation put on them. Unfortunately, many anglers are sorting through the bluegills to harvest the largest fish possible and once they leave the special regulation lake, they put the five bluegills towards their statewide limit of 20.

Future bluegill regulations may include lower bag limits statewide and a "one over 9-inch" slot to try and protect the few remaining lakes capable of producing trophy bluegills.

Anglers can voluntarily help protect their favorite bluegill lakes by releasing all bluegills over 9 inches and harvesting only smaller bluegills for the table.

Anglers interested in walleyes can fish the spring walleye season on the Rainy River until Monday. The Rainy River is open past the Frontier access and fishing for walleyes has been very good in the last few days.

Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by calling 218-759-2235.

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