Pinpointing these broad-shouldered sunfish can be an all-day endeavor, but it’s a day well spent once you hook into a true pounder. Sunfish in the 9-11 inch range are in a class of their own, and once they surpass that 10-inch mark you’ve got yourself a real trophy. Lighting biting, drag squealing, rod bending; now we’re talking “bull” gills!

Patterning these evasive creatures can seem as complex as linear algebra, but patterns do exist, and you don’t have to be a mathematician to discover them. Locating these “bull” gills is only half the battle, but it can be the most important part of the equation.

Large sunfish will relate to the forage they prefer, often times over soft-bottom areas with an abundance of plankton, blood worm, scuds, and other micro-organisms. Sunfish will also hold to weedy areas, and will utilize those areas as long as oxygen and forage continue to provide them with adequate surroundings. Once the weeds turn brown and down, you can expect the larger gills to move on and find more suitable areas. However, keep note of those areas as possible late ice spots, or even early open water areas. Those larger sunfish will return to the weeds once they begin to flourish with life come spring.

Soft-bottom areas are prime “bull” gill spots. These soft-bottoms are profuse with a forage-rich environment. Sunfish can devour tiny morsels of food all day long, and even into the evening hours. Often times you can find sunfish holding to the bottom across these expansive sticky-bottom areas. My flasher only displays a quivering bottom at first glance, but slowly a massive red blip rises from the bottom telling me I’m about to begin a tug-fest with the “bull” gill.

Some of these areas can be rather intimidating, and rightly so. Some of these soft-bottomed areas can appear to be larger than a football field. Deciding where to begin your search can be tricky, but by paying attention to the nearby structure you can limit your time at punching holes over “dead” water. I prefer mid-depth areas where you can find both shallow and deep water in the vicinity. Areas dropping off a hump or neck-down area (narrows between two large bodies of water, but not a channel) are two of my preferred locations.

Large soft-bottom flats in 8-15 feet can hold large sunfish all winter-long. These “bull” gills don’t need a lot of structure to survive. However, small depressions in these expansive flats can attract fish, same with subtle humps and pockets of weeds or brush. Abrupt breaks dropping from shallow water weed lines can also draw-in sunfish, especially when the bottom of the break is composed of a soft-bottom. Consider it a “highway” to these large sunfish, and they will roam around those areas throughout much of winter.

Staying mobile is key when targeting sunfish over soft-bottom flats. They will not stay put, and you can expect to punch a lot of holes and cycle through each hole more than once. Firing off 10-15 holes over a 30 yard piece of structure is not uncommon, and once the fish vacate from one hole doesn’t mean that they won’t be back. “Bull” gills are spookier than your average sunfish and they will be more apt to cruise once any sort of commotion takes place.

Now, I said earlier that location was only half the battle, and as you guessed, there are two sides to ever page. The second half typically takes less time, but it’s the part that brings home the bacon. It’s time to figure out what those fish want to eat.

During the winter months, sunfish will generally feed on micro-organisms and small-bodied creatures. Presentations that mimic these small critters are what you’re looking for. Size 10-12 hooks will be your standard for these midwinter “bull” sunfish. Small-profiled baits seem to be the desired means of attack for enticing those finicky sunfish.

Jigs like the size 10 and 12 Lindy Tackle Fatboys, Genz Worms and Genz Bugs are some examples of productive, small-profiled sunfish jigs. Tip these jigs with a piece of plastic and you have yourself and nice little bluegill snack.

Seeing the bite is very important when targeting “bull” gills. They have the tendency to bite very light, and relying solely on feel can result in missed opportunities. Incorporating some sort of spring bobber can give you the upper hand when detecting light bites. Sunfish are notorious for “tasting” the bait, only to spit it out moments later. The spring bobber will allow you to “see” these subtle attacks and you’ll see your catches increase.

So, start by searching out likely areas where you think large sunfish will be holding. Grab a lake map and look for areas where soft-bottom flats come in contact with/near adjacent structure. Breaks can be considered as possible nearby structure. Then once a spot is isolated, stay mobile and be willing to work over the area thoroughly. Punch a lot of holes and cover a lot of ground. Next, down-size your presentation if the situation calls for it. Staying small will imitate what these larger sunfish feed on. And along with down-sizing you presentation, include some sort of spring bobber to help detect light bites.

I have only touched on the tip of the iceberg, and hopefully some of these tips for pinpointing “bull” gills can be applied to your particular body of water. There is still a lot to be said about locating and catching “bull” gills through the ice. Large sunfish are something to be admired, and catching one of these brutes is something to be proud of.

“Bull” gills – set the hook and enjoy the ride!
Good Fishin,
Matt Johnson
Guided Open Water and Ice Fishing

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