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Sunfish aren't just kid stuff

7/24/2003

It might be the perfect fish for kids — sunfish (a k a bluegills), but it's also great game for dads and grandfathers.

And the recent Father's Day weekend was no exception, as lake shallows come alive with sunnies. It happens every Father's Day.

Mid-June is when some sunnies are spawning, some are thinking about it and some just seem to be hanging out, if that's what sunnies do. In this mode, sunnies are very catchable.

You can watch 'em bite sometimes. All of which makes these panfish the perfect fish for kids. But what about finding and catching sunnies that are bigger than a dollar pancake?

Well, lunker bluegills are a rare fish. It's no secret, state fish and game agencies will tell you, that we have a stunted bluegill problem or an overharvest issue … that is, we anglers tend to catch and keep any bluegill that reaches 7 inches.

Yet, there are a few lakes that, somehow, are capable of producing bluegills that are bigger than a logger's hand.

Most of these lakes are well-kept secrets, of course, and for good reason. If the word gets out, we'd all go there to catch the giant bluegill slabs until they're gone. That's our history, biologists say.

So, I cannot in good conscience reveal the lake where I spent Father's Day, but it's one of those lakes that seem to be teeming with fish, including a good supply of bluegills in the 7- to 9-inch range. And did we have Father's Day fun.

I say we because my brother, Robert, who also is a father, was in the boat, along with my son-in-law, Don Gonse, who is an expectant father.

Big bluegills don't simply jump into the livewell, of course. A few things we noticed: Like perch, bluegills will occupy a wide variety of water depths, ranging from a few feet to 20 feet or more. Often, the largest bluegills roam the deepest.

When it comes to bait, think small. Unlike its relative, the largemouth bass, a bluegill does not have an appetite (or a mouth) larger than its stomach. Bait offerings that are too big and hooks too large will mean slow catching.

Some of the best small baits, especially in the Midwest, are inexpensive waxworms, available at almost any bait shop. Bluegills love waxworms. But the downside is waxworms are easily swiped from the hook.

Pieces of night crawlers and earthworms are a traditional offering, but worms are even easier for a bluegill to steal from a hook.

What about artificial baits? One of the best I've found is a bait introduced last year by Berkley, called PowerNaturals. It has a powerful odor, too.

I used the earthworm formula of PowerNaturals, a secret concoction shaped like a brown worm but strong enough to stay on a hook. And bluegills go for it. Just a tiny piece at a time.

However, a bluegill's idea of a gourmet meal must be live, baby leeches. These small leeches, no more than 2 inches in length, wiggle and jiggle on a hook and a bluegill simply cannot resist.

Since leech hide is tough, it means you're apt to catch more than one fish per leech. To celebrate Father's Day, expectant father and we fathers utilized the entire bluegill arsenal.

However, we each did not keep a limit of 15 bluegills. In fact, we kept just enough fish for a meal of fried bluegill fillets.

Yes, we could've filled the boat with bluegills but we didn't. We knew who would have to clean them all? It wasn't going to be a mother or a child. It was gonna be a father.

Ron Schara may be reached at ron@mnbound.com.

Schara's new 250-page book, "Ron Schara's Minnesota Fishing Guide" (Tristan Outdoors; $19.95) is available by clicking here or by calling (888) 755-3155.

July through September 2003, Ron Schara's short feature, "Backroads with Ron & Raven," airs Saturdays on ESPN2 at 7:55 a.m. ET. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.