Want to Grow Monster Bluegill in Kentucky? Stock Hand-Painteds!

There is a wide range of opinions in the fish world about how far north coppernose bluegill will thrive. A well-respected hatchery in the Deep South claims to have stocked them successfully as far north as Michigan; conversely, one of our competitors here in Tennessee has been making the dubious claim to pond owners that coppernose don’t do well even in the Volunteer state. We have disproven that latter claim many times over, as we’ve stocked them in large quantities all across the state, and have seen them thrive, and get significantly larger than northern-strain, over and over again over many years’ time. The furthest north we as a company have stocked coppernose was an Indiana pond, in the spring of 2015. We actually tried to talk that particular pond owner out of stocking them, but he was adamant, mainly because he had a neighbor that had had coppernose in his pond for two years already and the fish were doing well in that pond.

In the wild, coppernose are found throughout most of Florida, but they’re also found up the Atlantic coast up through southeast Virginia. Some scientists believe the coppernose in those other Atlantic states are a separate subspecies; Lepomis macrochirus purpurescens is the name most commonly used for the coppernose outside Florida, while Lepomis macrochirus mysticalis is used for the Florida coppernose (northern-strain bluegill are known as Lepomis macrochirus macrochirus). But what is certain is that they are coppernose and not northern-strain bluegill. (People who sell only northern-strain bluegill rarely share this information with their customers, we have noticed.) The males of these fish have the same light-colored patch on their forehead as the Florida coppernose, and also often feature purple on their gill flaps; however, they often lack the cream or white-colored fringing on their fins that the Floridas have.

So that brings us back to the question: what variety of bluegill should you stock in your Kentucky pond? We know of one pond in northern Kentucky that was stocked by another company with coppernose several years ago, and purportedly the fish did not do well in that pond. We ourselves have stocked coppernose once when they did not thrive: it was October of 2010 and we stocked them into a half-acre pond in middle Tennessee that was five feet deep at its deepest point. A severe cold snap hit us within a week of stocking those fish; the following spring, there was no sign of the 500 3-4” coppernose we had stocked. We still were not seeing the fish by mid-May 2011, so we re-stocked with 700 fingerling coppernose, and those fish did great and the pond has had a thriving coppernose population ever since.

Kentucky, of course, is not Michigan; but it is also not Tennessee, just as Tennessee is not Alabama. Pond management methods that may work famously in Alabama often fail in Tennessee, and methods that work in Tennessee do not always lend themselves well to Kentucky. Coppernose may or may not thrive in your Kentucky pond; certainly if they can thrive in a pond in Indiana, theoretically they should thrive in Kentucky; but keep in mind that that Indiana pond, according to my customer, has water fourteen feet deep. Deeper water offers fish a winter refuge, a chance to get a little more distance between them and that icy water at the surface.

Enter the Hand-Painted Bluegill. Hand-painteds are, like coppernose, a subspecies of bluegill; unlike coppernose, they have a much narrower range in the wild, only being found in the Apalachicola River drainage in the Florida panhandle. Where they’re found naturally is important to remember: they’re found in the northernmost portion of Florida, the part of the state that by far comes the closest to having anything resembling a real winter. The average low temperature in January in Orlando is fifty degrees Fahrenheit; the average low temperature in Wewahitchka, in the heart of that tiny range of the hand-painteds, is thirty-nine. Likewise, there’s nearly a ten-degree difference in the average daily temperature for those two cities: 60.3 for Orlando compared to 50.5 for Wewa, as the locals there call that tiny little town. Fish are cold-blooded, meaning their body temperature and their metabolism change with the water they’re surrounded by; ten degrees is a lot when it comes to fish.

But theory only goes so far. First-hand observation and experience are far more valuable, and are the only criteria you should use for important decisions regarding your pond. We have had enough experience now to state without hesitation that, while hand-painteds may or may not thrive in Michigan or Canada, they definitely thrive in Tennessee – and most relevantly to you, the Kentucky pond owner, in the bluegrass state.

Here’s a video we shot on Monday at one of the properties where we raise hand-painteds. The water temperature was 8.6 degrees Celsius, or 47.5 degrees Fahrenheit:

We also fed a coppernose pond on that property on Monday; a handful of fish came up to the food, but nothing remotely approaching what you see above. A year ago we posted a video of hundreds of hand-painteds feeding in an outdoor raceway in the middle of December. We have seen these fish overwinter in Tennessee, in great numbers, in ponds as shallow as three feet.

But what about Kentucky, you say? We just began stocking these awesome fish in ponds commercially a little over a year ago, in October 2015; one of the first ponds we stocked them in was a one-acre pond in Greenville. We don’t have any photos as of yet of the bluegill in that pond, but early reports from the owner are that they’re growing extremely well; the owner had intended to feed his fish but didn’t get much feeding done that first year, and yet he still has hand-painteds that are already eight inches long. One year in – with no substantial management.

So if you’re wanting to grow some hawg bluegill in Kentucky, you owe it to yourself to try some hand-painteds!