First Ice Bluegills

by Tom Huggler, Michigan Editor

My fishing buddy, Joe Zikewich of Lake Orion, Michigan, really knows how to rub it in. A few years ago he invited me along to Harsens Island on Lake St. Clair's Muscamoot Bay for some bluegill fishing.

"As soon as the ice freezes, we get a run of 'gills here that you can't believe," Joe had promised. "This is nine-and 10-inch stuff, and if you know what you're doing, you can fill a pail."

Well, things came up and short-circuited my plans to go. Guess what Joe did? He sent me a letter containing a piece of paper torn from a grocery sack. On it he had traced the outline of a monstrous bluegill (a tad shy of 11 inches!) and penciled the note: "Most were about this size. You should have been here!" Ouch! Like I said, that hurt.

Burying the hook in the bait helps.

PHOTO: TOM HUGGLER

I just had to experience such fishing, and so when Joe's offer came the next year, I told him to count me in for sure. The date was December 21, the thermometer was 5 degrees, and the wind was howling like an animal. This wind had surely lowered the temperature even further, probably to about -25 degrees. The early ice on Muscamoot Bay was clear but already six inches thick. We crawled like crabs over its slippery surface.

Turning our backs to the knife-slicing wind, Joe and I bored a half-dozen holes with my power ice auger. Then we slid waxworm-baited teardrop spoons into the dark holes and settled down to some serious fishing. By mid-afternoon we had three dozen keeper perch, a half-dozen jumbo 'gills, and 10 or 12 colorful sunfish.

Although we didn't clean up on those monster bluegills, like we had hoped, I at least got to catch a couple. More importantly, I observed Joe's techniques. He often visits Muscamoot Bay during the winter, and on a later trip last year he and three partners caught dozens of 'gills from 7 to 10 inches (the Michigan limit is 25 fish per angler). 

Here's how Joe gets his share:

First off, through several friends he keeps tabs on developing ice conditions on Muscamoot Bay. That's where the best bluegill fishing occurs in Lake St. Clair although Snyder Bay is also rated. Some early trips are dry runs, though, because ice is not strong enough to support anglers. Joe carries chest waders during early and late ice conditions and wears them if the ice might be unsafe.

Jumbo bluegills move in and out of this wide, shallow bay at these times, looking for food and favorable water temperatures. At the right times ice anglers pick them off in water as shallow as three feet. It's pretty hard to drown in Muscamoot Bay, at least up to a mile offshore where Zikewich fishes.

As the ice thickens, hordes of other anglers invade Muscamoot Bay to build a shanty town that grows bigger every weekend. Shanty spearing for northern pike is a big sport here in January and February although old-timers claim it used to be even better. Perch fishing remains good throughout the winter.

PHOTO CREDIT: TOM HUGLER

But big bluegills are the real prize, and they are easily spooked. All the ruckus from snowmobiles, ice drills, and the sheer number of ice anglers scatters them further into the bay. By fishing the thin-ice periods of both early and late season, though, anglers get less company and, consequently, more bluegills.

"Bluegills are highly sensitive fish," Joe explained. "In this area they seem to be on the move all the time. We'll work at a nice school and catch maybe a dozen or two in a quarter-hour. Then, bingo! The action stops as soon as it had started." An hour or two later the scenario may well be repeated.

When the 'gills are coming fast, Joe frequently uses two rods (legal in Michigan). He discreetly drops fish into his seat bucket to avoid a curious crowd.

Zikewich claims that bluegills are often spooked by motion on the ice, as well as noise. This is especially true in shallow water and when early ice is window-pane clear. For these reasons Joe cuts holes for the day all at once. He chooses places where the ice has trapped oxygen to form milky patches.

"It's like camouflage, you might say," Joe explained. "If you don't move much, fish right underneath you will never know you're there."

Another tip the veteran uses is to fill his fishing hole with slush and ice chips. This blocks the light. For the same reason he will often hunker over the hole, working his bait through a tinier hole made by his rod butt.

Many times I've noticed Joe's rod lying across his Mickey Mouse-style boots. He slowly rolls his foot left and right, ever so carefully, all the while intently watching his line.

Such concentrated, deliberate angling can give a fellow a headache. I earned one that day last year when I copied his methods. Although I didn't come close to Joe's tally, I still caught more fish than normal.

He uses small teardrops in orange, hot-green, yellow or chartreuse. Sometimes a black dot on the tiny lure helps trigger the subtle strikes that bluegills are notorious for. Bait must be kept fresh, and care must be taken to ensure that the hook barb is completely covered.

"When the bluegills quit biting, it means one of two things," Joe said. "Either they've moved on or the hook tip is showing."

He uses neither lead weight nor bobbers and insists on light line down to two- or even one-pound test. Winter bluegills are very fussy eaters, probably due to their slowed-down metabolism. On cold days Zikewich will allow an ice bead to form on his line which he slowly lifts up and down, jigging lightly.

"Sometimes all you'll see is a slight kink in the line. That's a bluegill sucking in the bait," Joe said. "They bite that soft in winter."

Spring bobbers help anglers to register 'gill hits, too, and the new graphite ice-fishing rods are fast catching on, especially with light line. Joe's ice-angling techniques should work on bluegills anywhere they are found. However, if you happen to try the early or late ice in Muscamoot Bay off Michigan's Harsens Island, you might run into him. But you won't see any 10 inch bluegills flopping on the ice around Joe Zikewich.

Just tell him I said to give you a peek in his bucket.

Note: Ferry service to Harsens Island from M-29 runs year-round although severe cold can shut it down temporarily. Bait shops in the area give up-to-date ice and catching conditions.

Huggler Bar