From one section of a lake to another, winter water clarity differences can be detected, says Dave Genz. Subtle, but noticeable. Riled-up water leaves clues about possible presence of shallow ‘gills.
More and more, this series of ice fishing articles will feature the latest thoughts and theories developed by Dave Genz as he spends darn near every winter day on the ice somewhere. No one ever has, or ever will, fish as much through the ice in as many different states and provinces – and nobody will ever have the impact on the sport that Genz has had.
What sets Genz apart goes beyond the sheer number of days, weeks and months he spends seeking and catching fish through the ice. He’s a one-of-a-kind talent, blessed with the instincts and creativity of an inventor, the tenacity of a real-world tester. He’s not just out there for another day of fishing. His mind is constantly whirring, like that distinctive sound of a Vexilar flasher, taking a mental picture of what’s going on down there under the ice. Constantly calculating what today’s fishing means when overlaid on every other day of fishing.
Dave’s theories are worth hearing even in their early stages, but he usually doesn’t bring something up until he’s seen it happen enough times that he’s starting to rely on it.
Such is the case with his latest discovery leading him to shallow-water bluegill bites.
Conditions for Shallow Gills
In his book, Bluegills!, Dave described his simple and surefire method of predicting bluegill location. Water clarity and weeds are everything, he says. Bluegills (and other sunfish) are found in natural lakes, manmade reservoirs, rivers, ponds, pits, and anything else that’s wet. No matter where they’re found, the most important factor controlling bluegill location is water clarity.
Think of all bluegill waters as clear, dirty, or something in between. If the water is dirty, there can be some shallow weed growth, but usually only extremely shallow. Often, if the water is dirty, there are few or no winter ‘gills in shallow water.
If the water is clear – even relatively clear – there can be good weed growth in shallow water. In some fisheries, you’ll find winter weeds standing upright down to 8-12 feet. Those are the prime candidates to hold shallow-water bluegills in winter. But even if weeds are dying, laying down, perhaps only rising a foot or so above the bottom, they can still provide effective cover and abundant food.
Whether nice bluegills are using shallow water and available cover depends on several factors. Here’s a huge one: anywhere ice remains for more than about a month, and snow piles up on that ice, limiting sunlight penetration, formerly good shallow weeds can die off, water temps can become too cold, and oxygen levels can dip to the point that bluegills and other fish scoot on out to deeper water.
But where the potential exists for bluegills to be holding in shallow weeds, how do you know for sure that they’re there? The traditional plan has always been to drill eleven million holes in the ice, look down into them, fish your brains out, keep moving, take a breather when you can’t do it anymore, and find what you can find.
But what if there was a way to make an initial assumption about whether ‘gills are currently using shallow weeds?
If you could make an educated guess about that, you could go forth with more confidence, knowing that there are likely rewards to be had if you stick with the shallow water. It would give you more energy to drill those eleven million holes, which would help you avoid giving up before you find a good pod of nice biters.
The Riled-Up Water Theory
In his travels, Genz has seen a connection between waters with varying clarity from one section to the next, and the occupation of shallow water by big bluegills.
“Something I’ve experienced quite a few times now,” he begins, “is noticing a difference in water clarity from one end of a lake to the other. I can think of numbers of lakes where this has occurred. It might be a lake that’s two miles long, and you have one whole end of it that’s a big flat, relatively shallow. Based on the clarity of the lake as a whole, you know what to expect when you start drilling holes (and looking down them).
“But if the bluegills are in there using those shallow weeds, the water in those places seems to be dirtier (than it is in other areas of the same lake). Even when the weeds are mostly down, the fish can be in there, using them, hiding in them, feeding in them.
“The bluegills can be running around in what’s left of those weeds. They get chased in and out by the pike, and that riles up the water and causes it to be dirtier that it would be if those fish weren’t in there.”
It’s not the difference between super clear and super dirty water, stresses Genz. The differences are subtle, but noticeable if you’re paying close attention. “That slightly lesser clarity,” he notes, “is a clue that shallow bluegills are in that lake.”
Timing the Bite
We talked about this in our most recent episode, but it bears repeating so you begin to really put the puzzle together and maximize your time on the ice: certain weather conditions lend themselves to good shallow-water bluegill bites.
Once you know or suspect bluegills are using shallow water, pick a day with low barometric pressure to search for catchable fish. When those high-pressure, bluebird days come along and you’re squinting to see anything, “they bury down in the weeds farther,” explains Genz, “which makes them less accessible.”
If you’re going to drill eleven million holes and hope to come away with a good catch, choose one of those softer, cloudier days of low pressure. Under those conditions, working hard across vast riled-up flats, your efforts are much more likely to be rewarded.