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VIDEO: Bluegills are an often-overlooked species in North Dakota

Give Jim Job a choice when it comes to fishing, and he'll opt for chasing bluegills. Hands down. Every time. "It's the fight," said Job, Grand Forks, an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "To me, they're kind of lik...

Jim Job of Grand Forks shows off a chunky bluegill he caught during a recent outing to a North Dakota lake. North Dakota offers a variety of opportunities for fishing bluegills, Job says. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Jim Job of Grand Forks shows off a chunky bluegill he caught during a recent outing to a North Dakota lake. North Dakota offers a variety of opportunities for fishing bluegills, Job says. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Give Jim Job a choice when it comes to fishing, and he'll opt for chasing bluegills.

Hands down. Every time.

"It's the fight," said Job, Grand Forks, an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "To me, they're kind of like a trophy fish. I guess my biggest thing is I get hooked on things that don't get a lot of pressure.

"Bluegills are not really a sought-after fish."

That's certainly the case in North Dakota, at least, with the possible exception of Lake Metigoshe. The north-central North Dakota lake has earned a reputation for big bluegills in the past decade or so, drawing anglers from across the region in pursuit of the scrappy sunfish.

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"It's very well-known (with) lots of ice fishing tournaments," Job said. "I went to Metigoshe three years ago, and that was something else.

"They were just giants. They don't even look like bluegills."

Testing the waters

On a recent March afternoon, Job and his 4-year-old daughter, Kinsley, and district game warden Blake Riewer of Grand Forks took advantage of nice weather and a day off to chase bluegills on a lake Job had heard about through word of mouth and by surfing the information the Game and Fish Department publishes on its website for all of the state's known fishing waters.

The inaugural trek the previous afternoon had produced a daily limit of 10 bluegills each for Job and his four fishing partners. It's a small lake that can't take heavy pressure, so its name is being withheld at Job's request.

The fishing wasn't fast and furious, he says, but staying mobile and being persistent yielded a bucket of bluegills that all were 9 inches or larger.

Any way you measure it, that's a decent bluegill.

"You'd catch one or two here and there, and after a couple of hours, you'd have 10 of them," Job said. "We just tried a fairly small area where we were catching them-probably 100 yards of ice in a couple of different spots. I don't think they're relating to anything. I think it's just a mud bottom, and they're roaming through."

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Ice fishing on a weekday in March offers the opportunity to beat the crowds, and the lake on this sunny afternoon is nearly vacant, with the exception of a couple of anglers perched outside their trucks enjoying the ice and sun.

The ice is 3 feet thick, or awfully close, but a K-drill ice auger powered by a cordless power drill soon has the previous day's holes reopened and ready for action.

If not for the brisk north wind, the afternoon would have been downright pleasant.

Finicky fish

For whatever reason, the fish are more finicky than they were the previous afternoon, Job says. All three of the Vexilar flasher units in use on this afternoon betray the presence of fish on the screen, but they don't always cooperate.

That's often the way with bluegill fishing through the ice, Job says.

"They're picky," he said. "You'll mark them, and they'll just sit there and sit there. One thing about a bluegill is if you miss them, sometimes they get mad, and they'll come back and really nail you.

"I missed one yesterday five or six times and finally caught him."

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Gearing up for bluegills requires light tackle and an ultrasensitive rod that's able to detect even the lightest of bites. Job's bluegill arsenal includes two lightweight ice fishing rods made by Coon Rapids, Minn.-based Tuned Up Custom Rods that retail for upwards of $100 each.

That's a lot of money for a panfish rod, but the sensitive tips on the rods can make the difference between fish and frustration when it comes to finicky bluegills, Job says. He rigs the rods with Pflueger President spinning reels, 2-pound test line and tiny jigs made from tungsten, a metal heavier than lead that allows the jigs to sink faster than lead jigs of the same size.

Waxworms or maggots are go-to bluegill baits, but tiny soft plastics also work well and stay on the hook better than live bait, Job says.

Many times, the fish bite so lightly they would be undetectable if not for the ultrasensitive fishing rods Job uses.

"With a bluegill, they do two short bites (you'll see) on your rod tip," he said. "The first one, they're grabbing the bait, and the next one they inhale it."

Waiting for the second bite is the tricky part, Job says, and if the fish at the other end of the line is a crappie, it will spit the hook for anglers who wait too long.

"(With crappies), if you wait for the second bite, the next thing you feel is them spitting out the hook," Job said.

Ample opportunities

Bluegills might be a secondary species in North Dakota lacking the angler appeal of walleyes or perch, but the state has great panfish opportunities, even though bluegill waters are somewhat limited, Job says.

He got the bluegill bug about four years ago, mainly by testing the waters of North Dakota lakes known and marketed for the scrappy panfish.

"There are quite a few lakes that have 8- to 9-inch bluegills," Job said. "You get a 10-inch bluegill in North Dakota, you're looking at a pretty good-sized trophy. But we've got lakes with bluegills all the way up to 11 and 11½ inches and the occasional 12."

In the June 2017 issue of North Dakota Outdoors magazine, Scott Gangl, fisheries management section leader for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said the best bluegill fisheries in the state also have good largemouth bass populations.

Bass occupy the same habitat and keep the sunfish numbers in check, which in turn reduces the risk of a lake full of stunted bluegills, Gangl says in the article, "Fishing for Options."

That's something to keep in mind when checking out the Game and Fish website for bluegill fishing opportunities, says Job, who also catches a handful of 12-or-so-inch largemouths on this March afternoon.

And while bluegills can be finicky through the ice, they often are aggressive in the summer, Job says.

That likely explains while his 4-year-old daughter already is hooked on fishing. Kids and bluegills, you might say, are a match made in fishing heaven.

"They're easy to catch in the summer with just a bobber and hook with a little worm on it, which makes it kind of a cheap deal to get started," Job said.

As with the previous afternoon, persistence pays off, and there's a respectable batch of bluegills in the bucket by the time the sun dips toward the western horizon, and the road home beckons.

Plenty of other bluegill waters await exploring.

"You just look for a lake that has some bluegills in it and go out and try it," Job said.

• On the Web:

For a list of North Dakota fishing waters and the species they contain, go to gf.nd.gov/fishing/where-to-fish.

PULLOUT

ONLINE EXTRA: To see a video of Jim Job talking about bluegill fishing in North Dakota, go to gfherald.com.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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