Bluegill Harvest Guidelines
Bill Cody
Bill Cody

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Is this your goal? Be prepared to work at it.

You and your son are fishing in your new pond. It is now two years beyond stocking. You’ve been faithfully feeding a good fish food and eagerly watching the activity. The bobber hops, then rockets beneath the glistening surface. For the first fish of the day, out comes a dandy hand-sized bluegill. Everyone is happy, beaming, and excited. It is one of the best bluegill you’ve seen anywhere in several years.  This makes you very happy and satisfied for all your hard work.

Do you keep it or release it to grow larger? 

The answer is deeply rooted in your GOALS for the pond. 

These guidelines are suggestions for growing bigger, premium bluegill after the first few years of stocking your pond.

These two bluegill are the result of 5-6 years consistent feeding and culling (using bass).

Is your GOAL general good fishing for mostly keep-catching fun activity for your guests? If so, then keep the bluegill. Is your GOAL to produce big, whopping-sized panfish? Then decide if the bluegill is a male or female. Release many of the males and keep the females for improving overall bluegill size and growth of remaining fish. If your GOAL is mostly bigger bass, you can keep some bigger bluegill each year. Bigger bass are targeting midsize bluegill, not the 8”+ sizes.

Without culling, expect lots of young bluegills, with many size classes.

Managing for big bass is more difficult than managing for big panfish because you need to more carefully monitor and harvest the proper number and sizes of bass. This ensures fast growth of the biggest bass while having lots of proper food that puts size and plumpness onto your bass. Watch for proper bass harvest guidelines in a later post.

This is why harvesting bluegill can be a confusing mix of answers. 

If you or your pond provides plenty of food as bugs and or pellets for the bluegill AND you don't let these precious fish become overabundant you should be able to grow bluegill to 9"-10" long in five years in southern climes – seven years in northern zones. The differences are mainly due to length of growing season.

Bluegills have a high reproductive rate.

Let this be a guide for your success. If you are doing things correctly, expect fingerling bluegill (1"-3"), post stocking, to be: 1yr=4.5"-6"; 2yr=6.5"-8"; 3yr 8"-8.9"; 4yr=8.7-9.4"; 5 yr. 9.5-10"; 6yr? These growth rates are for well-fed bluegill. Northern pond owners will see slightly slower growth rates, while in southern ponds, growth can be faster.  
Slower growth rates than those above likely mean your BG are likely not getting enough food and/or they are probably too crowded! Abundant food grows fish quickly. Too many fish REDUCES amounts of available food per fish. Once bluegill are adults, proper harvest to control their numbers is important to continue growing big, feisty bluegills.
The rewards of years of excellent management. 
If your pond is six years old and you are not catching 9” long bluegill as a goal, then you are likely not doing something correctly. Seek more help from members of Pond Boss Forum
While bluegill in northern states typically grow a little slower, they live longer and can eventually get as big as southern bluegill where the warm season is 9 to 10 months instead of six. Fast, extended season growth tends to shorten the life span of a fish. All bluegill grow best in warm water above 60F.
The dilemma for the pond manager is, “How many and what size bluegill to remove?”  A normal pond should have some type of annual harvest because natural mortality of old bluegill will occur each year despite you not seeing any floating, dead fish. Old age bluegill usually do not float after they die. They decompose on the bottom. Some annual harvest keeps remaining fish healthier and growing better than no harvest.
Experts suggest removing 6-8" fish from a mature system.
Bruce Condello, the expert of (and other students of BigBluegill), currently thinks the goal for a memorable or trophy bluegill fishery should be to perform the larger part of harvest from midsize groups of 6”-8” bluegill. Harvesting 6” to 8” bluegill will protect the largest size classes and maintain numerous big bluegill, which provides great long term exciting angling experiences for young and old anglers. Harvest only a very few of those largest deeply hooked bleeding fish in the 9” to 10” category each year. This amounts to removing only three to six of the biggest bluegill per acre per year. Protect your biggest male bluegill to maintain the highest quality angling fun. 
To take harvest for big bluegill management to the next level, remove more females than males. Learn to recognize the difference between an adult bull male and the lady bluegills (see information below). Fast growing bluegill usually do not mature and are not easily recognizable until they are 7.5” to 8” long. If you are able to recognize the sex of bluegill smaller than 7” this indicates slow growing and probably stunted bluegill who are too crowded and not getting enough food.  
In a pond where bluegill are fed high-quality fish food pellets, harvest about 30% to 40% of the mid-size bluegill (which often amounts to 20 to 30 6-8” fish per acre per year). After the pond is 6-7 years old, do not overharvest so that each year you have some fish to replace the natural old age mortality. It is REALLY important to keep good catch harvest records if you are serious about maintaining a long term high quality bluegill population. When the average size of fish you are catching gets smaller or the number of bluegill catches per hour decreases you need to look at making changes to your management style. Seek help on the Pond Boss Forum if you have doubts as to what changes are needed for your specific pond conditions. Each pond can have its own unique character.
Even Snow White can help harvest fish.
Also when you catch or clean bluegill, note plumpness of the bluegill. There should be some cream-colored body fat present inside the fish when you clean them. No fat inside a fish often indicates over-crowding and food shortages. It is time to make some adjustments and most likely it is removing more midsized bluegill.
A fish feeder will increase BOTH fish plumpness and fish catchability in vicinity of the pellet feeding area.
Many pond owners miss this important point. HARVEST of fish is IMPORTANT to keep them from becoming too abundant in any pond. CROWDING slows growth rates. It is similar to growing any animal crop, weather it is chickens, pigs or fish. If you keep feeding them, letting them reproduce without a harvest, soon they become too many for the growing area. Animal over-crowding causes problems of poor living conditions and poor health that leads to sickness, shorter life spans, slower growth rates, decreased fishing quality, and untimely, unnecessary deaths.
A beautiful bluegill, beyond two pounds. 
Annually evaluating fish body condition and performing some fish harvest are important items keeping your pond healthy and your fish growing well. It has been proven many times that hand feeding or using at least one automated feeder is significantly important for growing large, plump bluegill. Feeding good quality pellets several times per week need only to be done in one localized section of the pond. In large ponds more feeding areas results in producing more and bigger fish throughout the pond. It is important to feed consistently at the same location and same time each day. Fish are creatures of daily habit. Note that feeding the fish pellets is not just about growing more, and bigger, fish. Feeding should be ALWAYS be combined with proper harvest to improve growing conditions of remaining fish and help maintain a proper TOTAL fish community balance.
If you don’t feed your fish, then realize that harvest and management are still very IMPORTANT to reduce fish crowding. Reproducing fish almost always trend toward overcrowding either as forage or predators. It is what fish do. Lower density of SPECIFIC SIZES of fish in a pond results in better growth rates and overall bigger fish. Without pellet feeding there just won’t be as many fish but with proper HARVEST they will trend toward bigger and better quality fish.
Some (primarily anglers) will strongly disagree with the above philosophy and argue that the largest and oldest bluegill should be readily harvested and utilized before they die naturally of old age. This is a debate for another topic and I will not dwell on it here. I do agree with our mentor, Bob Lusk, and many fishery scholars who promote their conservation philosophy about growing trophy bass and large bluegills. This philosophy of preserving larger fish is: “these are trophies are rarities of nature and should be appreciated and held in reverence. Due to their large size and premium quality, they deserve to live out their entire life span in the pond, not in the frying pan."


Pond Boss Forum Thread: Knowing what to look for to recognize male and female BG.

Note for the above thread:

Many times the BG needs to be a full 7" or 8" long to usually determine the sex.

Keep in mind that the overall body hue or darkness of colors on bluegill can vary widely from pond to pond due to water color and bottom composition.  Bluegill will tend to have the most vivid darker body colors and markings during spawning season. Gill flap or ear lobe shape does not change during the seasons. Thus the gill flap will be the same size and shape in winter as summer.  As the BG gets larger the gill flap increases in size proportional to an increase in body size. I can almost always recognize a male bluegill by the size & shape of the gill flap and the dark tipped scales of the nape (forehead). Sometimes these dark tipped scales extend back and down across the male's body as in the 1st picture by Bruce Condello in the link above. Compare the dark tipped scale pattern of fish in the 1st and last BG picture in the thread. Sometimes the overall body hue of the male will be so dark that the dark tipped scales are not readily apparent. This usually occurs in clear, brown or tannin stained water.

For more information about growing big bluegills check out the references below:

Pond Boss Forum Thread: Good management will produce dandy BG in just 2 yrs.

Pond Boss Forum Thread: More Pond Boss Forum discussion about harvesting BG
Pond Boss Forum Thread: Very good discussions include BG genetics versus the other important factors for good growth. Bob Lusk provides very good thoughts in this PB Thread about growing BG.

Bill Cody is a career aquatic taxonomy microbiologist with a leaning toward growing big fish in small waters. He is a moderator for the Pond Boss “Ask the Boss” discussion forum and highly respected for his experiences managing private waters. Find him on the forum.


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