OTTER TAIL COUNTY, Minn. — According to central Minnesota guide Garett Svir, the fishing for trophy bluegill is as good as it gets right now.
“I had three clients in the boat this week that were catching plenty of nine- to 11-inch sunfish,” Svir said. “We actually had to load up the boat and move to another lake to catch fish small enough to keep for dinner.”
Svir has a strict policy on his boat that all bluegills longer than nine inches must be released. His clients are fine with that — most are hoping to catch a fish in the mythical 10- to 12-inch range for a photo or replica mount.
Svir has been a full-time multispecies guide for seven years, but big sunfish are his specialty. He guides year round, but said early fall is one of the most productive and overlooked time of year for trophy bluegills.
Right spot, right lake
Svir said that choosing the right lake is just as important as finding the right spot on the lake.
“I usually begin fishing smaller lakes during during spring and early summer,” he said. “By August, though, I’m usually fishing the biggest lakes in the area. The fishing seems more stable during peak water temperatures. But I’m always back on the smaller lakes by mid-September.”
To avoid putting too much pressure on a handful of lakes, Svir is always on the lookout for new fisheries that produce big sunfish.
“There are more than 1,000 lakes in Otter Tail County alone,” he said. “We’re fortunate in Minnesota to have access to the DNR LakeFinder site (https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/lakefind/index.html), which provides detailed data from fisheries surveys and a topographic map of each lake. Even if the data is a few years old, it still illustrates a lake’s potential to grow big bluegills.”
Svir said that right now is a good time to scout new lakes because fish are actively feeding, and most can be found in shallow water. But it’s not the only time.
“Choose a key time of year — a time when the fish should be biting — and check out five or six spots,” he said. “It usually doesn’t take long to determine a lake’s potential.”
During recent weeks, Svir’s focus has shifted from main lake structures like hard bottom humps and deep breaklines to inside weed edges in shallow water.
“I’ve noticed the same migration on a handful of lakes,” he said. “They were holding on deep structure one day and had moved shallow the next. My clients were catching fish in six feet of water, but caught even bigger bluegills when we moved into four feet.”
Svir added that he assumes the movement is food related, but admits he doesn’t know what they’re feeding on.
“At certain times of the year, it’s easy to figure out what the fish are eating,” he said. Like when they’re spitting blood worms into the net. During fall, though, they seem to be more opportunistic.”
When fishing water deeper than about six feet, Svir prefers to vertically jig directly beneath the boat as he moves along an inside weed edge. He instructs clients to maintain frequent contact with the bottom, and “pound” the jig to provide maximum vibration with minimal movement.
“I use a 1/32-ounce Northland Gill-Getter jig with a #10 hook,” he said. “I add a large split shot about 18 inches above the jig to help keep the line vertical. I tip the jig with a whole redworm hooked through the nose so that it’s as long as possible.”
When fishing shallower water, Svir removes the split shot and adds a Thill Mini Stealth float, which features a wide base that gently wobbles in wind and waves to provide subtle movement to the jig.
“The biggest bluegills usually bite quickly when you’re in the right spot,” Svir said. “I move slowly (0.3 to 0.5 mph) along the inside weed edge until we catch a big fish. Then we spend three to five minutes fishing that area more thoroughly. As soon as we catch a small fish, though, we’re on the move.”
After years of experimenting with various rod and reel combinations, Svir settled on a 7-foot light-power spinning rod matched to a small spinning reel spooled with 4-pound Trilene XL monofilament line.
“My favorite rod is the Panhandler from JT Outdoor Products,” he added. “It’s the most sensitive rod I’ve ever used, but still has enough enough backbone to land trophy sunfish.”
Productive fishing is the main reason Svir likes fishing during fall, but it’s not the only reason.
“During the hottest part of summer I usually meet my clients before daybreak,” he said. “But this time of year we don’t start fishing until 8 a.m. Banker’s hours aren’t common for a fishing guide.”
Selective harvest for bigger bluegills
Garett Svir is a member of the Minnesota Panfish Advisory Council, which works with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to improve the size of sunfish in lakes across the state. He said angler education is a major part of the council’s mission.
“Every sunfish angler wants to catch bigger fish,” he added. “But too many anglers want to keep big bluegills when they catch them. You’re never going to find 11- or 12-inch sunfish in a lake where anglers keep all of the 10-inchers.”
Bluegills potentially live for a long time in lakes across the upper Midwest, but they grow slowly. Research from the Minnesota DNR suggests that they grow about an inch per year. So the 10-inch plus specimens Svir and his clients seek are more than a decade old.
“The state is rapidly expanding the number of lakes with special regulations,” Svir said. “The statewide limit remains at 20 sunfish per day, but on some lakes it’s been reduced to 10 or even five. Our hope is that these lakes begin to produce bigger fish and the program gains more angler support.”