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BIG GILLS WITH POPS
By: Jonn Graham

Anyone that is a regular reader of my column is well aware of my passion (some call it a scary obsession) for the smallmouth bass.  While it is definitely true that the river smallie takes up a large majority of my time, I still sneak away from the pesky bronzeback now and then and get in a little ice fishing.  Of course down here in Central Illinois our ice fishing season fluctuates year to year.  This winter has been a good one with February ice totals reaching eight inches around the Peoria area.  Because of this, I knew I better step up to the plate and go after some tasty panfish.

Undoubtedly my best ice fishing partner is my dad.  He introduced me to this type of fishing many years ago.   He showed me that sitting on a bucket on a cold and windy day can be some of the most fun any human should be allowed to enjoy.  Sure we had our rough days when I was younger, but I can also remember having so many bluegills to clean it would take us into the wee hours of the morning to complete the task.   Needless to say, I was able to fillet a bluegill at a fairly early age.

I must also admit that old dad is much more fond of panfish than I am.  In contrast, he is not as crazy about smallmouths as I am.   Both of us enjoy both types of fish & especially if they are larger than normal.   Such an ice fishing day occurred just last month when dad and I were treated to some of the best ice fishing of our lives!

Dad and I were lucky enough to hook up with Nate Herman of Herman Brothers Pond Management Service.  Nate and his brothers have started a business where they take care of a multitude of private ponds.  They do everything from fish stocking to weed management and sophisticated GPS mapping.  It is a real neat operation.  Of course with all their work comes some really nice perks.  Nate and his family have access to countless ponds scattered throughout central Illinois.  Nate asked Dad and I what type of fish we wanted to pursue and we both told him big bluegills were our intended prize.  Nate relayed that big bluegills would not be a problem, and with that, we were off to tangle with the tastiest of all panfish.

We met Nate and his dad at our predetermined location and found out that our plan would be to fish two different ponds.  The first pond we would go after those big gills and then we would probably go to another pond and try to tangle with another tasty fish, the perch.   We arrived at the first pond just minutes after leaving our meeting spot.  This was a small, unassuming pond only measuring five acres.  You know, you can't beat real small ponds.  The size works to the angler's advantage as the smaller the body of water, the easier it is to find fish.   Because of this, I felt very confident as we began to unload our ice fishing tools.  Nate and his father do not fish from the seat of their pants.  They had a plan to dissect this pond systematically.  We started about twenty feet off the bank in eight to ten feet of water.   Nate drilled a bunch of holes and we were off and running!

The Herman's don't go ice fishing without electronics.  We were equipped with a Vexilar unit and found it to be very helpful.  The first set of holes only produced a few VERY NICE bluegills.  That term, VERY NICE would be theme for the day!  After trying that relatively shallow water, I decided to break from the pack and head to deeper water.  Nate had instructed me that the deepest part of the pond (around 20 feet) was nearer the earthen dam constructed on one end of the pond.  I decided to move half-way in between my initial spot and the dam.  After drilling one scout hole, I immediately caught three or four jumbo gills and then action stopped.  So, of course, I picked up my auger and moved closer to the dam.  Upon drilling that hole, immediately I was back into what my buddy Todd calls, Boone & Crockett sized bluegills.  But, unfortunately, once again the bite seemed to die after three fish.

By now the rest of the crew had begun to follow me to deeper water.  My fellow anglers were discovering the same thing, drill a hole, catch a few gills, and then drill again.  Finally, I moved as close to the dam as I was going to go.  I drilled a hole and began to hit the mother-lode!  This particular hole was hot!  I began catching the gills as fast as I could get my bait down to the fish.  The jumbo gills were relating very close to the bottom and were striking with reckless abandon.  As you might guess, I was having the time of my life.  It was just like the good old days with dad spent on some of my childhood ponds.   Needless to say, dad, Nate, and his father were closing fast.  They drilled holes close to me and we were all on fish!   The gills were showing up all over the Vexilar and life was good!

We stayed in this particular area until we had filled the creel quota Nate had established for the health of this particular pond.   All told, I think we had around eighty fish total amongst the four of us.  Ninety percent of the fish were bluegills and those gills were of the GIANT variety.  We had one channel catfish and a couple of small bass that Nate wanted to remove from the pond.   Dad and I carried an extra five gallon bucket for fish and it was brimming to the top with tasty bluegills.  Nate and his pop also had a bucket that was half to three-quarters full.

What a morning! We had fished about three hours and ended up with the nicest mess of panfish I have caught in many, many years.  Of course, my dad was ecstatic. He just loves catching big bluegills from farm ponds.  Nate and his father had really given us a great treat.  If the day ended right there, we would have been happy, but Nate informed us we would take a crack at some perch at his father's personal pond.  So off we went with fish in tow to a new pond with a new, heightened level of excitement.

My dad and I had only caught a handful of perch in our life.  We had encountered some on the backwaters of the Mississippi river near Fulton, IL.  By no means did we know anything about the ways of the wily perch.  Nate's father had a pond where they had stocked perch and they had grown to epic size.  "Jumbos" as they are called by regular perch hunters.

We arrived at the Herman homestead and once again were enthralled by the neatest small pond right in the middle of the yard.  Once again we removed the equipment and started searching.  Nate showed us the best spots for perch and we rigged up with small ice jigs, waxworms, and minnows.  Nate and his dad headed into the house to cook us up some fresh fish.  Thirty minutes later Nate appeared back on the ice with a plate full of tasty fillets.  Talk about a treat!!!  There we are ice fishing and eating fresh fish. It does not get any better than that!

Unfortunately, the luck we had catching Boone & Crockett sized bluegills did not translate over to perch.  We struck out on the perch but were able to catch plenty of bluegills including my first ever hybrid bluegill.  It was just nice to be able to fish a different pond and try to solve the fish-catching puzzle.  All-in-all we had an unbelievable day.  My dad has not stopped talking about the trip.  He is chomping at the bit to return to Central Illinois and fish with the Herman's.  Next time we go we may try some winter, open water trout fishing.  Nate has a spring fed pond that is growing Rainbow Trout up to six pounds!  Sounds fun & stay tuned!  If you wish to learn more about the Herman Brothers operation, check out www.hbpondmanagment.com.

Don't forget also that I am booking Camp Smallmouth trips for the 2008 season right now. Call early to get the date(s) you prefer. I can be reached at 309-399-7055.

AS ALWAYS, HAIL TO THE SMALLIE

 
 
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