Bluegills look very different from lake to lake--the black flap and the chain design are the only consistent markings, with the male having an orange belly during the spawning period. They range in size from 4 to 10 inches and though ages are inexact, estimates place their life span at 10 years. They are very curious and invariably will crowd around, usually wanting to stay at your side or in back, in order to avoid making eye contact.
The name bluegill is a bit of a misnomer, as many are bright orange or yellow, but there is always an outline of a Monet blue edging on their bodies. The largest bluegills stay in the deepest water and will not normally be seen by the snorleker except in the early morning and at dusk when they are the most active. The exception is in May, June and early July when the jumbo males come in to spawn.
Spawning is a very exciting ritual to observe, and if you are relaxed and quiet, the gills will let you come within inches, and you can stay as long as you like; they will completely ignore you. Every snorkeler should make an attempt to see this unique behavior, as it occurs every spring and early summer, and bluegill nests are easy to spot. They are extremely close to shore--you’re likely to be walking on their beds as you enter the water, but it doesn’t phase them a bit. They make round fairly deep beds extremely close together, and in my book, I give out their locations. The spawning is a spectacular sight; it’s like Grand Central Station at the beginning of the breeding, as the males scramble to attract females to their nests, and females indescriminately flit from nest to nest, laying anywhere from 2000 to 63,000 eggs, each with different males. It’s uproarious entertainment with the water churning with gills of all sizes and colorings, the whole scene lasting for about two days, after which time things get more serious and the group thins out as the egg laying procedure slows down. The males push the females to lie on their sides and hit the bottom to loosen the eggs that sometimes get stuck. The male is always guarding, pushing, prodding, and when the eggs are laid, the female takes no interest in nurturing, but disappears into the deep. It is the male in the fish kingdom, in most cases, who is the guardian of the babies, and he makes an inspiring commitment to care for his young.
For two and a half weeks he circles the nest continuously, frequently standing on his tail to fan the eggs to keep the sediment from settling and suffocating the eggs and to keep the eggs oxygenated. In spite of all this effort, predators such as pike and carp will eat the majority of the eggs and there will be only a few survivors.
It is amazing to see the attempts each bluegill will make to see that his nest is distinctive. I would invariably see some object in the center of each bed to identify it--in one case orange paper had been dragged in, sometimes a colorful stone, a shiny clam shell, or in another case a piece of underwear. After the females leave, there is still much pushing and shoving among the remaining males, if a neighbor tries to invade. The activity, color and behavior make it a sight not to be missed. And the best part is that it takes place in only 2-3 feet of water.
It is said that bluegills can predict a dry or rainy season. If the season will be rainy, they will build their beds right next to shore--if dry, they will build them further out.
One denizen of the deep that always gives an adrenaline rush is the northern pike, sometimes referred to as the water wolf. With its alligator-like head and spear shaped body with kidney shaped spots, he presents an intimidating and menacing sight, reminding one very much of the ocean barracuda. Pike are voracious predators from the time they are only inches long. They will attack another fish or duck up to a third of their size. Indeed if you were small enough, a threat to you would be real. However, with our size advantage, there is absolutely nothing to fear, as a pike strikes only other fish and small animals that he can eat in one chunk. They are lazy and lie in absolute stillness at the edge of the weed beds, often in shallow areas, to suddenly ambush a passing fish. Pike are generally 16-30 inches in length and can actually live to the age of 65, with females living longer than males.