Kenneth Kieser: Sir Bluegill – royalty of the fish world

The Examiner
Big bluegill are hitting now.

The black spider’s rubber legs made enticing, struggling motions as fly lines bowed out and then lay flat across the water until a loud splash broke the quiet, calm morning. A big bass gulped down the fly and dove for the safety of depth.

Stephen Matt, director of media relations for G-3 Boats, soundly set the hook, providing his bass with a deep hook sting. The fish made a power run that deeply bent Matt’s lightweight fly rod. The experienced angler fed line in and out until the fight was finished and the 5-pound bass released.

Matt’s target was a pie plate-sized bluegill that ran a pound or more. The pond was loaded with bass and bluegill, creating a balance that helped both species. The bass fed on small bluegill and the bluegill had less competition for food creating a perfect balance. Both species won – except for devoured smaller bluegill.

Matt grunted as he finally hooked the first bluegill that seemed to beat the bass in a race for his bug. The fight was on. The big ’gill dove straight down and made several quick turns and tight spins. Soon he held up the beautiful fish of brown, orange and green colors before slipping it back into the pond.

“We can keep a few smaller fish for dinner,” Matt said. “I want to catch our big bluegills again.”

Minutes later his spider disappeared off the surface in another bubbling surface commotion. He set the hook and enjoyed several deep runs and twists. The big bluegill was determined to escape and Matt was just as determined to finish the fight. Soon he released the determined fish that scaled just over a pound.

Bluegill provide great spring fishing with the added bonus of a fine fillet dinner. These fillets are not large but daily limits are generous. Some fishermen prefer them over almost any other type of fish for taste. We do too.

Popping bug colors are not hard to choose. An old fisherman once told me, it doesn’t matter what color you use – as long as it is yellow. This is good advice, but black, brown and white will attract a fair share of bites too. Popping bugs, worms, crickets and tiny lures are the main bluegill baits with an 8-inch leader of 2- to 4-pound test, but that is a plus of bluegill fishing. Truthfully, they are not particular feeders.

Bluegill move into the shallows for food throughout spring. Anglers have a lot of success around logs and stumps before and after the spawn. Bluegills tend to hang around woody cover for protection. Wood draws a healthy population of insects. Aquatic insects are excellent forage, making black and brown wet flies or 1/80 and 1/100-ounce black and brown jigs effective.

Many of us prefer fly fishing for bluegill. Flip the tiny popper in productive water and gently move the rod tip until the rubber legs kick. All game fish love to find a bug struggling and helpless in the water imitating an easy meal. Be cautious not to make a lot of noise and spook big bull bluegill out of the area.

Bluegills constantly get a bad rap by fishermen. Magazine articles in this day and age of “catch the biggest” bass or walleye list this feisty game fish as forage. But a big “slab” can provide quite a fight when rod, reel and line are equal to your opponent. Ultra-light rigging with exceptionally light line makes bluegill a challenge.

Good for Kids: Bluegill are not hard to catch, perfect for young anglers. You can bore any child by spending a couple of hours trying to find a spot where the fish are biting. Locate productive bluegill water and know the best techniques for catching either species. Scouting or experimentation will be more accepted later after your child is hooked on fishing. But your child must catch fish on the early trips and size is not important.

Redear: Bluegill’s cousin, redear sunfish are commonly called shell crackers in the southern United States because they dine on snails. This hearty panfish is stocked as far north as Iowa in selected lakes. Check with your fish and game commission to find out where redear are stocked in your state. Both Kansas and Missouri have a healthy supply, if you can find them.

Redear grow larger than bluegill, sometimes up to 11 inches. In fact, 2-pound fish are not uncommon in southern regions where they have a longer feeding season. This remarkable fish looks like a bluegill except darker with a red slash on the gill plate resembling an ear lobe.

Redear spawn after bass and near the time when bluegills spawn. Their beds are generally deeper, 2 to 3 feet deep, and around vegetation. The spawn is an excellent time to catch this remarkable fish.

Fishing for redear with a fly rod during the spawn is exciting. A good rigging is a popping bug with a light leader tied onto the hook. Then attach a wet fly to the leader. Watch the line as it sinks with the fly. The slightest movement often means a redear strike.

An old friend liked to drape a pinch of night crawler over a fly-sized hook, size 11, 16 or 8. This was cast out with a tiny wooden bobber about the size of a pencil. Set your baited hook about 1 ½ feet deep and cast into a redear spawning area. The fish generally take this offering as it drops.

When fishing around brush or vegetation for redear, immediately cut the line if you hang up. Redear will spook out of an area quicker than any other game fish. For this reason, redear require a quiet approach for the shore or a boat. Many use a float tube. I prefer a canoe or small, two-man boat. Smaller craft allow you to move in closer. A bigger boat requires long distance casting.

Spring means big bluegill and redear are ready to do battle. Let the fights begin.

Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at kieserkenneth@gmail.com.

Kenneth L. Kieser