In recent months I have highlighted at least a couple of national publications or organizations that have mentioned some of the excellent fishing opportunities we have in Nebraska (e.g. McConaughy Makes Top 10!, Nebraska Waters Make Top 100!). I was surfing the web recently and found another one!
That title caught my eye, and I had to read the entire article. If you are talking trophy bluegills, fish that honest-to-goodness weigh in excess of 1 pound and maybe as much as 2 pounds, then Nebraska waters must be on the list. They were, Nebraska’s sandhill lakes were mentioned!
Our sandhill lakes are unique, amazing habitats. They are relatively shallow and incredibly productive–perfect conditions for growing panfish like bluegills very large, very fast. Several Nebraska sandhill lakes are known for producing bluegills as large as any that can be found anywhere. Typically, those waters do not produce numbers of bluegills, and they literally scatter through ideal habitat that stretches from one shoreline to the other. Those big panfish do not come easy, but “Oh Baby” when you catch one, it is all worth it.
Why mention this now, at the end of our open-water fishing season? That is easy–the best time to catch those bluegills as large as your face is coming up. Fishing for trophy-size bluegills in Nebraska’s sandhill lakes has always been best through a hole in the ice. Sure, those big ‘gills are present all spring and summer, but remember our sandhill lakes are relatively shallow and very productive. Typically, those waters are “wall-to-wall” aquatic vegetation during the warm-water months. That habitat is very much why they are such productive fisheries and why they produce big panfish, but as I said earlier, the fish scatter throughout that habitat during the spring and summer and can be difficult to find and catch. It can be done, but usually the fishing for larger predator fish is better during the open-water season and most anglers shift their focus to big, beautiful largemouth bass and toothy northern pike. Once winter comes, the “pound-rounders” are scattered underneath the ice too, but at that time the submerged aquatic vegetation thins and it becomes easier to fish with the precision needed to locate and sit on a good bluegill spot. If you want to experience Nebraska’s best trophy bluegill fishing, get ready for ice season–“I wanna ice-fish, baby”!
Traditional spots like the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge have produced big bluegills for as long as I have been drilling holes there, and that has been awhile. Sure, as with any fishery there are some years that are better than others. Fish populations are dynamic, ever-changing, and there always have been, and always will be ups and downs. But, you can do a lot worse than spending as much time as possible ice-fishing the Valentine refuge every winter. However, those are by no means the only sandhill lakes that produce big bluegills. There are definitely others, keep an eye on the annual fishing forecast as soon as it comes out every January, and plan to do some exploring.
That brings me to one more thing that I mention every time I talk about the big ‘gills in Nebraska’s sandhill lakes. A genuine 10-inch or larger bluegill is as rare, and as special, as a 40+-inch muskie, or a 22+-inch largemouth bass, and those fish should all be treated with the same respect: ‘Gills in excess of 9 inches and for sure those larger than 10 inches should be released! They are hard to catch not because they are so smart, but because they are so rare. At the beginning of this blog post, I pointed out the list in In-Fisherman on-line, let me quote one of their frequent contributors, Matt Straw:
This is a game that puts big fish on the ice. So put them back under it. Let the big ones go or you’ll go directly to hell. No more kid gloves with some of you. We teach you how to catch panfish, and how are we repaid? Every year we have to hunt for new bluegill holes because somebody discovers the old ones and hauls everything out but the trash littering the shorelines.
Harvest fewer fish, get more kids involved, and guarantee us all a worthwhile future for panfishing.