Which bluegills are better to keep?

Anglers shouldn't be concerned about choosing which gender of bluegills to keep. Males are easily distinguishable by their orange throat patch like the one pictured on top. Photo provided by author

Every spring and summer questions are raised by serious bluegill fishermen. How many should a single person keep? Is it better to keep the males or females? The answer depends on who you ask.

Most anglers and fishery biologists are in agreement that there’s nothing wrong or unethical about plucking a stringer full of gills off spawning beds during springtime. They are easy to spot, can congregate in large numbers and easy to catch.

Bluegills are the most prolific native gamefish in Indiana. They build hundreds of saucer shaped nests and some might even bed multiple times a year, producing thousands of eggs with each spawn.

But the debate continues. There is one camp of anglers who believe in taking only the males, since there are generally more of them. They are conservative in taking females since they are the egg-layers.

At age 64, Bob Ramer, who lives in Kosciusko County, lives to fish for the tasty panfish. But he has a different theory. “The males are the ones who protect the nest after the females drop their eggs,” he noted. “When you take the male, it exposes the eggs for other fish to raid. I think it’s better to take the females.”

In case you’re wondering, you can tell the difference in gender by coloration. Males are far more colorful and have a bright orange patch under the chin. Females generally are less showy.

Ramer, as well as many serious bluegill fanatics, is also concerned that a red-hot spawning season, like the one this spring, can hurt bluegill quality in small lakes. People can congregate and take large numbers of the tasty fish, and although not depleting the lake, they can seriously diminish the numbers of those that are keeper size. This is one reason ethical pan fishermen encourage others to use common sense with the number of sunfish they take home. For that reason some prefer to fish multiple lakes during the spawn to avoid reaping too many from one single body of water.

Jeremy Price, IDNR Fisheries Supervisor, says there’s no biological reason to be overly concerned with taking males over females or vice-versa. “First, the female spends very little time on the nest,” he explained. “Secondly, although the males may spend more time there, they don’t guard the nest as diligently or aggressively as a bass does during the spawning season,” he added. “More importantly, bluegills are laying thousands of eggs and are biologically engineered to produce far more young than a lake can handle.” In other words, it’s extremely hard to completely fish out a lake with bluegills.

Price says there are several factors that come into play when deciding on how many to keep. “It can go either way,” he explained. “If the lake has a large number of bigger fish then you want to be judicious with your catch so you help protect the size quality of the population.” On the other hand Price says if the lake has a large number of smaller, stunted fish then large numbers need to be removed. “In this area it takes a bluegill seven years to reach eight inches,” he added.

Although Indiana does not have a size or bag limit on the popular pan fish, some states do. But that could change in the future since many believe there should be restrictions on the number a person should keep for the frying pan.

“A bag limit may not affect the overall population, but it could help distribute the size,” Price explained. “Plus we just finished our annual survey of licensed anglers and two-thirds of respondents think there should be some type of creel limit.”

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John Martino

Martino is a well-known outdoor writer throughout Indiana and has served as longtime outdoor columnist for the Kokomo Tribune newspaper. Martino has won numerous awards for both his writing and his service to youth, conservation and the community. He recently retired as Superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the City of Kokomo and now works as Ivy Tech Executive Director for Facilities for the Kokomo region.

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