Don’t mess with bluegills: serious tactics and gear that make panfishing more fun than ever

One of the best places to fish for bluegills is in shallow areas in April or May, during the spawn. The appropriate tackle includes an ultra-ultra-light spin rod and a limp 2- to 4-pound test line. The use of grubs, mini-worms, spinners, spoons, fake bugs, crankbaits and spinnerbaits is described.
Serious tactics and gear that make panfishing more fun than ever.

Look for elephant tracks in the water,” I was told many years ago. As a fishing-struck kid, I ached to catch some of the big bluegills that were said to be on their spawning beds in a nearby lake, but I was a little vague on the procedure. “Round,” my advisor explained, describing an oval with his hands. Another sage (probably 40, 41 years old, I’d now guess), gave me an additional tip: “Lots of times, you can smell ’em. Bluegill beds smell a lot like fresh-cut watermelon.”

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I still love that kind of angling folklore, which, however dubious, was and is a lot more fun than the charts-and-graphs data of the present age. And I do remember the first time I clearly identified an actual bluegill bed: ovoid, concave, a white roundness bright against the furry-green bottom. Was that watermelon I smelled? Using a spinning rod and a trio of split-shot for weight, I cast a bright red sponge-fly with white rubber legs past the bed and jigged it in. The fly became suddenly visible over the bed’s whiteness. A dark form flashed in and attacked, and I was into the first good bedded-bluegill of my life.

A very few things don’t change over the years. Angling for bluegills on their spawning beds may be one of them, though refinements in modem tackle have made the game more fun than ever.

GET THE GUARD

Bluegills move into the shallows to spawn when the water warms to 67 [degrees] E This can be early April or late May, depending on the latitude. (Some bluegills in any given lake may spawn later than the majority, well into June, and occasionally as late as July.) More specifically, many anglers swear that the peak spawn activity, and the best fishing, occurs during the phase of the full moon.

The best way to find the beds is to walk the shoreline or drift along in a boat or float-tube while searching the two- to six-foot depths for saucer-shaped depressions in sandy, muddy or pea-gravel bottoms. Beds may appear empty, but probably aren’t. Once the females deposit their eggs, the male bluegills stand guard, often lying off to one side, against a darker, less contrasting background. Nest-guarding males are aggressive and will strike at nearly anything–including a fly or lure–that threatens the eggs.

RODS AND REELS

Spawning bluegills are not hard to catch. The main tactical demand is that you not blunder or splash onto the scene, which can frighten fish off the beds. (Even stalwart egg-guarding males will run for cover if too large a predator shows up.) The real key to catching lots of fish and having the most possible fun is to use the right tackle. Standard medium to heavy freshwater rods ant lines reduce the efficacy of your small-bait presentations (limiting both distance and finesse), and mute the spunky tussling of a hooked fish. I like ultra-ultra light spin rods, 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 feet long, with slow, willowy actions. This kind o rod, coupled with a matching reel and fresh, limp 2- to 4-pound-test line makes it easy to cast the tiny jigs, grub tails and porkrind flicks that bluegills love to hammer. Many of the new “micro” spin and spincast systems are perfect for bluegilling. Kids and beginners will find the close-faced, under-the-rod “trigger-spin”-type reels easiest to handle and virtually tangle-free.

To my mind, flyrodding provides the ultimate in bluegill sport. Any standard trout rod–the lighter the better–will work; but my very favorite bluegill rods are Orvis’s 7 1/2-foot One-Weight; a “spring creek”-style 8 1/2-foot 2-weigh and Bob Dennison’s diminutive five-foot 3-weight Fly-Lite rod/reel combo [see Rods & Reels, Winter 1996-97]. Use a seven- to 11-foot leader tapering to a 5X to 6X tippet. These delicate outfits turn even a midsized bluegill into sheer delight.

The most important attribute of a bluegill lure is compactness. With its tiny mouth, compared to that of a bass, pike or even a crappie, a bluegill simply cannot get its lips around a large morsel of food. And the bluegills know it. They won’t even try to strike big, chunky offerings.

If that size requirement is met, these pugnacious little gamefish will strike a wide variety of artificials. Some days they’ll nab a spinner flashing by, other times they’ll wallop a spoon or a grub slinking past a sunken log.

You can probably get by with one or two favorite lure types, but to be ready for all the finicky moods sunfish can display, it’s best to stock a larger selection. Also carry a variety of colors including black, red, pumpkinseed, silver, orange, white and green/black striped.

GRUBS

If forced to narrow my choice to one offering, this would be it: a simple round leadhead jig of 1/64- to 1/16-ounce with a soft-plastic body. I would stock a few fluttering twister-tails, but even more bodies with stubby split or single tails that display little motion on the retrieve. Bluegills seem to like it like that–plain and simple. The overall length should be no more than 3/, to 1 1/4 inches.

Cast and retrieve just fast enough that you don’t hang up on bottom, pausing occasionally. Another method that works well is to rig these grubs beneath a small bobber and twitch them near brushpiles, stumps, weeds or spawning beds. This allows an even slower presentation than you can obtain using the jig by itself.

MINI-WORMS

In two- to three-inch versions, plastic worms can be as deadly on bluegills as they are on bass. Rig them Texas-style with a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce bullet sinker on a No. 4 sproat hook, or use pre-rigged versions such as those sold by Wordens, Creme and others. These seem to work especially well at dawn and dusk, fished over beds or near submerged timber and weeds.

SPINNERS

Small spinners such as the Mepps Aglia, Thunderbug and Spin Fly, Worden’s Roostertail, Mann’s Winger, Panther Martin and Caliber are great lures. Use them in moderate-to-deep water in rivers, and in lakes when the water is stained. A steady retrieve is best.

SPOONS

Casting tiny wobbling spoons such as those made by Eppinger and Luhr-Jensen is a neglected but very effective way to take bluegills. I reserve these for pre- and post-spawn conditions, when fish are in a more actively feeding mode instead of a nest-protecting one. Vertically jigging miniature slab and ice spoons also works when fish are deep–whether the water’s surface is frozen or not.

FAKE BUGS

Soft-plastic insects made by Creme, Burke and others offer more convenience than using live bait, and with scent- and flavor-enhancers mixed in, they often work as well as the real things. Some come pre-rigged, or you can fish them on a small fine-wire hook. Attach one or two split-shot and slowly crank them back, or fish them suspended beneath a float, twitching lightly to add action.

CRANKBAITS

Most anglers think of these as baits that are used strictly for bass, but in smaller versions they can work wonders on jumbo bluegills. They are also hot lures for catching redbreasts in streams. Small wobbling Flatfish lures and the tiny Bomber 3F Fat A are good examples. Rebel also has a complete line of ultralight panfish crankbaits, including the Crickhopper, Tadfry, Hellgrammite and Cat’r Crawler.

SPINNERBAITS

These lures combine the best of two top bluegill offerings–a Colorado spinner and grub or jig. The Beetlespin is a classic bluegill spinnerbait good for ponds, lakes and especially streams. Also worth checking out are the Blue Fox Foxee Spin and the new Mister Twister Tiger Spin with a chenille bee-type body and fluttering feather tail.

BACK TO BASICS

Don’t forget the lowly worm, the No. 1 live bait for catching bluegills. Impale a worm on a No. 1 to No. 6 long-shanked hook (to make removal from the panfishes’ small mouths easier) and suspend it trader a bobber. Try various depths and in and around different cover types until you find the level at which the fish are feeding.

ON THE FLY

You could almost get by with one fly for bluegills–but not quite. If you had to pick a single offering, it would definitely be a sponge-rubber spider. With its soft body and quivering white legs, this fly imitates a variety of insects. Tie it unweighted for topwater fishing, or use it with split-shot or lead on the hook shank for subsurface action. Red, green, black and white are productive, Sizes 8 to 12. If fish are striking but not getting hooked, trim the legs with scissors.

Other flies worth stocking are weighted nyphs, particularly the new beadhead patterns and wet flies such as the Black Gnat or Wolly Worm. Also carry a few trout dry patterns including the ant, bettle, mosquito, Irresistible and Humpy in Sizes 10 to 14.

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