Growing Giant Bluegills

Growing Giant Bluegills

Secrets You Don’t Know

By Bob Lusk


There’s a significant wave rolling across the nationwide pond management world.

Waves of interest in big bluegills. Actually, giant bluegills. Coast to coast and border to border there’s a fast-growing niche.

If you spend much time on social media looking at fish pictures, you’ll inevitably see pictures of giant bluegills. Heck, there are social media pages dedicated specifically to these panfish. More and more, I get questions from interested pondmeisters about producing truly big bluegills.

In pond management, bluegills have always been considered the backbone of the food chain for Largemouth bass. Still are.

15-20 years ago, when I’d give a speech to a group of pond owners, I’d say something like, “I’ve held fewer than 10 two-pound bluegills in my career. I’ve maybe held 20 that weigh a pound and a half. But I’ve held hundreds that weight a pound to a pound and a quarter. You can raise one-pound bluegills”.

Not anymore. In the last fifteen years I’ve literally held thousands of bluegills bigger than two pounds.

What’s the difference between now and not so long ago?

Fish food. Fish food has become a significant element to grow giant bluegills. Better, more complete nutrition.

But digging deeper into the subject, there’s way more to it than just tossing out some healthy nuggets of high protein, fish-meal based nutrition.

Long time Pond Boss subscriber and good friend, Dr. Bruce Condello, from Lincoln, Nebraska has long had a hand in growing true trophy bluegills as well as fishing and studying lakes known for growing the huge slab-sided panfish.

He’s selectively fed, groomed, and hand-picked bluegills from his own farm ponds to develop fish for growth rate and ultimate size. He’s caught bluegills bigger than three pounds in Richmond Mill Lake in North Carolina. He’s studied ponds in Arizona that produce huge fish.

From those lakes and his own experience raising dinner plate-sized bluegills, Bruce has drawn some significant conclusions about what it takes to grow the best-of-the-best fish that push to that holy-grail-size, topping two pounds.

I rang his number recently for a conversation about what we both think it really takes to produce numbers of big bluegills. He dug deeper into his first-hand experiences of what it really takes to do just that.

We started with the basics. Bruce said, “Make sure, at no point is a bluegill starving…it must have something to eat at all times”. As we discussed the merits of that comment, we both agreed that diversity of the bluegill food chain is crucial. He said, “Diversity of things to eat makes for better growth and more natural micronutrients make them healthier and more disease resistant”.

What about the role of fish food? That’s a must—should be high-quality, targeted to bluegills, and fed consistently. Condello takes feeding to another level, “Have the right size of feed. Start with fry feed, then increase sizes of feed as the fish grow”.

But, don’t look at great fish food as the sole source of nutrition. Richmond Mill Lake has grown thousands of huge bluegills because of constant, year-round feeding. However, as much as feeding was a key part of bluegill growth rates in that lake, that entire 125-acre ecosystem played an even bigger food chain role. With its 5.3 pH, tea-colored black water rolling over the spillway at 6,000-plus gallons per minute, a number of things came together to offer the opportunity to grow bucket-list fish. The extensive feeding program also produced waste byproducts the water couldn’t possibly produce itself. With its flow rate, over-feeding wasn’t a big biological issue like it is in almost every other lake in America. Richmond Mill has a unique ability to grow tall grasses in its shallow sandy bottom areas. Mats of those grasses would become buoyant, break loose and float around, housing tens of thousands of aquatic invertebrates, many of which start off on the lake bottom, feeding on nutritious-to-them waste byproducts. So did a variety of small fish and bottom-feeding suckers in that lake. During years of studying that lake, I found more than 20 species of fish using most every niche available in that otherwise sterile water.

For your lake or pond, focus on feed use in combination with a good ecosystem. Feed should fill in the gaps. Condello suspects high quality fish food, “…provides 20%-60% of total nutrition”. He rightly pointed out, “There’s a polyculture of aquatic invertebrates in lakes and ponds that grow big numbers of huge bluegills”. As we talked, Bruce made another huge point about bluegills. “Our Arizona friend and Pond Boss subscriber, Aaron Matos, says bluegills are piscivorous”. Bluegills are predator fish, limited by mouth size.

Condello has an underwater green light shining beside his dock and sees bluegills constantly pecking away at small fish attracted to the night-time shine. Bluegill chase and eat larval fish, but are not likely to chase bigger ones.

Here’s where that concept becomes tricky. Larval fish are seasonal. Heck, they aren’t even seasonal. In normal pond environments, larval fish happen maybe two to three weeks per year…unless you are the one who can figure out which fish to stock to change that natural paradigm.

Condello says to stock gambusia, if you don’t already have them. Avoid golden shiners if big bluegills are a goal. Golden shiners compete. They are predators, too. Fatheads are an option, but they’ll need to be augmented, if you are using a predator fish to control reproduction.

Ah, reproduction. Ironically, that’s one of the problems trying to grow numbers of big bluegills. We want recruitment, but only want to keep the best of the best. That’s a tough task for most fishing lakes. Bigger lakes depend on overcrowded bass to keep prolific-reproducing bluegill numbers in check to assist fewer numbers to grow to those larger sizes.

That’s a Catch-22. At Richmond Mill, we recruited great bluegills by using hatchery ponds. Yearly stockings of young bluegills by the thousands ensured survival rates of the fastest-growing hatchery fish. I’m convinced that was one of the keys to that lake growing the fish it did.

But, like the great entrepreneur and TV marketer, Ron Popeil, said, “But wait, there’s more.”

While a well-managed, whole natural food chain of invertebrates with a consistent feeding program partly handles the food-every-day concept, we have to peel the onion back another layer.

Bruce said, “Eliminate stressors, keep oxygen levels well above lethal levels”.

He uses a surface aerator part of the time. It looks like a short fountain, churning the water with a cone-shaped flurry of water. During summer months, he runs it from midnight to 8:00 am. He also has a circulator that mimics a natural stream current, pushing water horizontally, sometimes adjusted diagonally. His circulator runs all the time. If you follow the concept that “moving water is happy water” the circulator takes a static pond and creates a riverine system. Bruce said, “Fish will use currents and eddies like they do in the river, making the water column diverse. It offers a triple threat; food, oxygen, and current. There’s always an out-bound current which also creates an undercurrent. This is a key piece of the habitat plan. Moving water offers vertical and horizontal habitat as transitional zones”. Moving water attracts a diverse, natural food chain.

Here’s another key component of moving water. Keep in mind, when you use your muscles, and make them better, we have to exercise and breakdown the muscles to improve them. Big shoulders are much better than big bellies. Same with your fish. Making the fish move is actually helping them grow. Chasing dragonfly larvae is exercise. Induced stress adds muscle mass, and there’s genetically variability for that in your environment. Swimming against a current builds muscle in fish.

There’s a difference between fish building muscles and stress-related behavior.

At the same time, we strive to minimize stress and recovery. If you choose to fish for them, have a plan where they don’t swallow the hook. Use the right equipment and terminal tackle to take care of the fish. Photography sessions should be just a few seconds.

Finally, be cognizant of having competition, too much biomass per unit of water ratios, and use a thoughtful harvest program. Identify the best of the best for your ecosystem. Cull the ones which aren’t thriving. Selective culling probably gives your fishery a genetic bump, plus you are making room for more invertebrates by decreasing mass. Most folks do this with stunted bass. Identify your best fish visually, but you can also weigh and measure and compare to standard. Catch them without a barb, or having to use live weight. Release parental males and your biggest females.

Can you grow some huge bluegills? Absolutely you can. Can you grow a lot of them at the same time? Maybe. Can you create a truly trophy bluegill fishery?

Digest all these pieces of a trophy bluegill puzzle and peel back your own onion a couple of layers and see just what you can do…. it’s worth the extra effort.




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