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Gronaw: The quest for a foot-long sunfish

Earlier this week I was fortunate to catch and release this 11 3/4 inch female bluegill that had a girth of 14 inches. The fish took a simple garden worm fished below a bobber.
Earlier this week I was fortunate to catch and release this 11 3/4 inch female bluegill that had a girth of 14 inches. The fish took a simple garden worm fished below a bobber. (Jim Gronaw column)

There are very few anglers who have not gotten their start in fishing by going after the common bluegill sunfish, perhaps off an old dock at a local lake or maybe under the shade of a willow tree at a local pond.

Times and years pass and most fishermen graduate to bass tournaments, fly-fishing for trout or maybe trolling for stripers. Other yet cling to seasonal runs of shad, yellow perch or perhaps nighttime forays for giant catfish. And then there is that segment of the angling society that remain mired in the sticky sunfish situation, constantly seeking bigger, better bluegills and sunfish of all species.

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These men and women are known as “Certified Sunfish Freaks,” and are telling their stories on various outlets of social media and other web options. I am just such a freak.

It all started way back in 1957 when, at the tender age of five, I caught my very first fish, a bluegill, off the shoreline in Middle River in the Upper Chesapeake Bay. All of six inches, it became my trademark and favorite specie and has remained such to this very day. I haven’t been the same since.

Despite having caught the majority of all the most popular species of both fresh and salt-water, I must admit that chasing, and catching, monster-sized bluegills and sunfish remains my favorite angling passion. The term big, extra-large and “monsta” sized bluegills may vary from one region of the country to the next.

A 10-inch bluegill is considered a trophy in many parts of the nation, while other regions, such as the desert southwest and southern California, often sees 12-inch class coppernose bluegills and 15-inch red ear sunfish as weekly catches in prime reservoirs. Deep South lakes, swamps and backwaters have hidden giants that more than bend the pole for those willing to seek and slay the mammoth panfish in Dixie.

But for me, I like it around home, “home” being any number of several dozen small public and private venues that dot the county side anywhere from 50-miles north or south of the Mason Dixon Line and ranging from Hagerstown, east to York, Pennsylvania. That’s a lot of “blue dots” on the Google Maps app and easily a lifetime of fishing opportunities exists in this region.

This area not only is famous for quality trout water, smallmouth bass streams and largemouth bass lakes, it also has an abundance of prime waters capable of producing bluegills, and close kin, that will approach, even surpass, the 12-inch bench mark … a size that would likely be deemed as a “lifetime catch” for the great majority of anglers, nationwide.

To put it all in perspective, a 12-inch bluegill is comparable to a 10-pound largemouth, 7-pound smallmouth or in some scenarios, a 50-inch musky. There just isn’t many of them out there. And in those rare and precious few waters where they do occur, they are susceptible to over harvest and considered by most, in most waters throughout the country to be literally a freak of nature. In waters of the north — the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan — giant northern bluegills do occur from certain chains of lakes and many are so rotund and obese that they never make it to the 12-inch mark, yet pack on the weight where a 10- to 11-inch specimen might weigh as much as two-pounds, an incredible weight for any panfish of such a short length.

These fish are stunning, saucer-shaped “pie plates” with elongated fins and snub-nosed facial features that make it look like they ran into a wall. Many anglers who routinely fish for them hope that one day they might catch one — yes, one — that looks like a Frisbee with fins.

In my home waters, and in a lifetime of fishing since that fateful day in 1957, I have caught a grand total of 14 sunfish that have touched or surpassed the 12-inch mark. However, all of those fish were bluegill hybrids, actually bluegill X green sunfish hybrids, a stocked specie that can grow very quickly and quite large under optimal conditions.

And all of those fish came from one incredible 2-acre private fishery over a course of about 6-7 years. At famous Richmond Mill Lake in North Carolina, I have caught 19 “coppernose” bluegills, a southern sub-specie, that have exceeded foot-long dimensions.

Richmond Mill is a world-class managed fishery that offers top-drawer food, events and other tourist attractions. The bluegills are just a part of the package. But I had never caught a true northern bluegill of that size.

This past week I came dangerously close to the foot-long standard on bluegills on the home front. Fishing another private venue, I found big bluegills along a shaded shoreline that, over the years, had produced quality, even trophy fish. I had taken several 11-inch class bluegills from this same area on different occasions, so I knew the genetics were possible for an exceptional fish.

Using a simple bobber, hook and worm rig on ultralight gear, I set the hook to an amazingly strong fish that took several powerful runs and made me believe for sure that I had a large bass. However, the classic “tight circle” fighting tactic gave the fish away as a huge female bluegill came into view. This was indeed a fish I did not want to lose. As soon as I eased it into the shallows, I put the grip on the fish, but could hardly get my hands around the rotund fish. Wow, what a bluegill!

I later would notice my action camera video showed my nervousness and excitement as I unhooked, photographed then released my largest ‘home water” bluegill to date. The heavy female was 11¾ inches long with a girth of just over 14 inches. I did not have a scale, but she may have weighed two pounds, another milestone in the bluegill fishing world.

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With a searing overhead sun and 92 degrees, I worked quickly to get her back in the water for a safe release and filmed her swimming off to perhaps hit that magical 12-inch standard in the future. Maybe next year I’ll see her again, next time just a little bigger.

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