Bluegill constantly get a bad rap by fishermen.
Bluegill 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 is equal to your opponent.
My love affair with bluegill fishing started in the late 1950s with a worm, small bobber and a small hook. Then in 1968, when I was 15, a kind neighbor loaned me his old lightweight fly rod and reel.
He had purchased a new one and thought I might like to give it a try. I practiced and finally learned enough to tie on a light leader and yellow popping bug.
The following morning I walked down to a promising lake shore and flipped out my first fly rod delivery where I knew a big school of bluegill were suspended. The bug landed with 2 feet of line on top.
But the gods of fishing smiled down and the mess untangled in the water. I pulled out the slack and twitched the popping bug. Nothing. I twitched again and made the rubber legs kick like an insect. “BLOOP” – the artificial bug disappeared in a mini explosion on the lake’s surface.
The big bluegill immediately started pumping toward the bottom. The old fly rod maintained a satisfying bend. The slab turned its body sideways to create the most drag and resistance possible.
Finally, the remarkable fight reduced down to tiny circles, then surrender. I examined the big slab and found a blue marking around its head and gills and a bright orange belly. By day’s end I had a healthy wire mesh fish sack full of slab bluegill.
Many years later I treated my daughter, Holly, to her first bluegill excursion. She cast the rigging out a considerable distance and snapped the bail of her spinning reel shut. Her worm, hook and bobber settled in almost the same spot of my first fly rod bluegill. A stern vigil of watching the bobber started.
A light breeze moved the small plastic bobber from side to side. I cautioned her that it was not a fish and she patiently continued to sit and watch. “SPLASH!” Her bobber disappeared with a great deal of power. The inexpensive reel’s drag squealed as the big bluegill fought for depth. The familiar circling motions started after several healthy runs. The fine fish soon flopped in the bottom of our fish sack.
Bluegill can provide an excellent day’s fishing with the results of a good fillet dinner. Bluegill fillets are not large but daily limits are generous, sometimes up to 30. A well-fried batch of fillets will never last long on a kitchen table. Some fishermen prefer them over almost any other type of fish for taste. I personally will not go that far, but I never turn down a bluegill fillet dinner.
Bluegill are not hard to catch. Popping bugs, worms, crickets and tiny lures are the main bluegill baits. A Mepps Spinner is excellent bluegill bait. But that is the joy of bluegill fishing – they are not particular. If it looks or smells good, chances are they will bite it.
During the spawn bluegill are mostly caught in shallow, weedy areas. After spawn, bluegills are found in deeper areas. But like many predator fish, they will move into the shallows for food. Fishermen have a lot of success around logs and stumps after the spawn.
Fly fishermen consider this to be one of the best times to fish. Try an 8-inch leader, 2- to 4-pound test and a box of tiny popping bugs. An old fisherman once told me, “It don’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.
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. That means an easy meal. I have caught numerous bass while popping for bluegill, including a 6-pound female on a 2-pound leader. That got the old heart muscles pumping.
The key is finding a big school of large bluegill. When you find this concentration, fish after fish can be caught. Be cautious not to make a lot of noise. Too much noise will spook bluegill out of any area.
Bluegills tend to hang around woody cover for protection. The wood also draws a healthy population of insects. Bluegill love these tiny aquatic insects and respond well to black and brown wet flies. You might do as well with 1/80- and 1/100-ounce black and brown jigs.
Bluegill have a cousin that I would like to introduce you to. Redear sunfish are commonly called shell crackers in the southern United States because of their love for 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.
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 that looks like an ear lobe.
Redears 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 redears 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, the late Bill Bennett, liked to drape a pinch of nightcrawler 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 1/2 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 redears, 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 from 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.