Small waters management – Bull Bluegill

Small waters management – Bull Bluegill

Feb 24, 2015

Let the ‘Alpha’ principle guide your bluegill management

By Mike Pehanich

The growth principles and population dynamics of bluegill populations are unique even within the broadly represented sunfish family. Let those principles guide your bluegill harvest on public and private waters alike!

From coast to coast and border to border, America is a land of bluegill lovers !

From what I have observed, even bass pros enjoy an encounter with a bull bluegill — at least when there’s no tournament money at stake.

"Let the alpha male bluegill go," says Nate Herman of Herman Brothers Lake & Land Management, noting that the growth potential of bluegill is largely based on the size of the alpha male.

Kevin VanDam told me that he spent the weeks leading up to his 2011 Bassmaster Classic victory ice fishing for bluegill in Michigan.

Even Nick Lyons, whose trout musings led to some of the finest writing in American literature, unabashedly admitted his weakness for big bluegill.

Indeed, monster bluegill are a precious resource and a certified national treasure whether we find them in public waters where Nature’s laws govern or in private waters where man directs their destiny.

“Bull” building

Bluegill lovers mourn the loss of those many waters across the country where honest-to-God pound-plus bluegill once swam in relative abundance. For “bull” bluegill populations come and go. And often when they go, they do not return, even with well-meaning measures and regulations in place to aid their resurrection.


With a decent gene pool to draw from, most freshwater fish species will grow well with good water quality and an abundance of food available to them. Those prerequisites are important to sunfish family members, too.

But an “X” factor plays a big role in growing big bluegill as well.

“First and foremost, you’ve got to protect your big male bluegill,” says Nate Herman, lake management specialist and co-owner of Herman Brothers Lake and Land Management based in Peoria, Illinois.

Unlike most freshwater fish, the largest bluegills are generally males, not females! Furthermore, the “alpha” males set the pace and potential of the growth of the rest of the population.

“If you do not have a big bluegill as your alpha male, the other bluegills will become sexually mature too fast,” explains Herman. “You won’t be able to grow them any larger (than the largest male bluegill).”

The implication is clear, and it echoes a message bluegill lovers have preached for years: Protect the biggest males!

Lakes with a healthy population of bluegill and sunfish provide great fun and great eating, but understand the dynamics of bluegill and sunfish populations to establish sound management principles.

Big bluegill are particularly vulnerable during the spawn when they congregate heavily in predictable areas and often expose their presence to sight anglers.

“When you are plucking the big males off the spawning beds, you are actually damaging the bluegill fishery for the rest of its life,” sums Herman. “It doesn’t matter how much food they have to eat. The population can’t rebound from that. The bluegill in your pond will only grow as big as the top alpha male.”

Without a big “alpha” male, an individual male bluegill’s only objective is to grow to sexual maturity, notes Herman. In the presence of a big alpha male, smaller bluegill actually delay sexual maturity, which allows them to put more food and energy into body growth – and probably extend their life expectancy as well.

How do you tell a male from a female bluegill? No, not by pulling down its genes! Note the coloration. A yellow/gold belly and a generally lighter color characterizes the female. The male has a dark hue with a blend of red and purple. Hues may vary with the color of the water and the presence or absence of vegetation as well.

The author with a nice bluegill from a central Illinois strip mine lake Nate Herman has had a hand in managing.

“Instead of having that (growth) limit be five, six or seven inches, keep those bluegill growing so they can get as big as that top alpha male. Let them grow to 10, 11 and 12 inches instead!” says Herman. “For the most part, you can eat about as many females as you like with little effect on the population. But let those big male bluegills go!”

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