Outdoors / Sports

Annual bluegill spawn a national draw on Tennessee lake

HORNBEAK, Tennessee -- For 44 straight years, Gary and Martha Holder have been traveling from their home in Evansville, Indiana, to Blue Bank Resort on Reelfoot Lake to fish for bluegill during the spring.

There are plenty of bluegill in Indiana and plenty more in all the lakes and rivers they cross during their three-hour trip to Blue Bank.

But when it comes to the annual bluegill spawning run, the Holders insist nothing matches what Reelfoot has to offer.

"The bluegill are so fat here because there is so much food for them in this lake," Gary said. "We catch the same size bluegill at home, but they're always skinny. The bluegill here are always thick, and they're some of the best-eating fish you'll find anywhere."

The Holders spent a recent Friday evening bouncing from one bluegill bed to another with longtime Blue Bank fishing guide Billy Blakley. Their Indiana tag didn't look the least bit out of place in the parking lot, sitting alongside tags from Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Illinois, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas -- just to name a few.

That kind of mix this time of year always says the bluegill are biting.

"We have groups of people from all over the country who come down every year -- and they always come right about now because they know the bluegill are gonna be working their way onto the beds," Blakley said. "People come from everywhere. My guide rates are $325 for two people or $425 for three people, and I could book every day during the run if I wanted to."

AN ANNUAL RITUAL

The bluegill spawn usually takes off on Reelfoot when the water temperature reaches the high 60s -- and with the erratic weather in the Mid-South, it's always hard to know exactly when that will happen.

Thanks to a harsh winter and an unseasonably cool spring, last year's spawn didn't really hit its stride until mid-June and then lasted well into the summer. But this year's spring weather has been much milder.

Many people find bedding bluegill on other lakes by simply looking for light spots on a dark bottom where the fish have wallowed out their beds in shallow water by fanning their tails. But the murky water on Reelfoot forces anglers to rely more on experience and trial and error.

Once you locate a bed, it's wise to commit the spot to memory because bluegill often bed in the same areas year after year.

"A lot of the beds I fish are just beds that I found years ago," said Blakley, who's been a hunting and fishing guide on Reelfoot for more than three decades. "But I find a lot of new beds just running from place to place. Knowing what to look for is really important."

Blakley lets a baited hook do much of his searching for him as he works quickly up the shoreline, fishing around fallen logs, wood piers, lily pads and standing green grass. He uses live crickets 1-2 feet deep beneath a float -- and if he catches one good bluegill, he lingers in the area to see if it's holding more.

Though some say it's an old wives' tale, Blakley believes he can smell bedding bluegill when he gets near them. But no sign means more to him than the sight of bubbles along the surface in shallow water.

"If you've ever watched bedding bluegill, you've probably seen them running circles inside their beds," Blakley said. "That causes those bubbles along the top of the water that I call 'foaming.'"

(c)2014 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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