By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
Fresh, golden brown bluegill fillets are bound to bring a smile when you lay them on a plate beside baked beans and coleslaw at the summer cookout. Bluegills are a summertime favorite for a lot of good reasons.
* They are abundant and nearly everywhere.
* Their populations can stand good harvests, within reason and in most systems.
* They are lots of fun on ultralight equipment.
* The action they provide is a great way to hook kids on fishing.That doesn’t mean catching decent-sized ‘gills worthy of the livewell is a cinch. Small ones come easy, but getting the big bulls takes some research and work to find.
Bluegill lakes do have some characteristics in common. For one, the fish usually relate to weeds and the bottom content they prefer consists of a variety of hard and soft bottoms.
Some bluegill lakes are very shallow. In fact, small, shallow, fertile farm ponds provide some of the best action in areas of the Midwest. But in general, the presence of deep water near shallow bays where bluegills spawn and feed is a plus.
A strong predator base is a second critical factor. Bluegills have a tendency to overpopulate and remain small unless predators like largemouth bass, walleyes or muskies are present to thin their ranks. Most biologists say a lake known to have large numbers of 2-pound largemouth may harbor big panfish. Biologists will also tell you that angling pressure can impact whether big bluegills are present. More on that later.
Study Map, Study Weeds, Time the Spawn
Hunting big ‘gills begins with a lake map. Look for shallow, weedy bays with deep water nearby. The shallow weed edges may hold fish. But, once on the water, use an Aqua-Vu underwater camera or your sonar to search for the deeper submerged weed beds.
The best vegetation is cabbage (or similar, leafy weeds) 12 to 20 feet down near transition areas between hard sandy bottoms and mud. This is a region where the food chain tends to be varied and abundant. Depending on water clarity, productive beds can even be deeper.
Every weed bed has an inside edge, outside edge and a top edge. Ignore one or more at your peril. Add to your understanding of the layout of weeds by slowly moving around the edge watching your sonar and GPS. Note the turns and points that serve as fish holding areas. A Humminbird side-imaging unit can help pinpoint details.
Use the wind. A slight breeze blowing into the weeds is good because it stirs the food up, triggers fish to feed and doesn’t spook the fish as you motor around.
The general rule is that bluegills move to the spawning beds during the first full moon of June. However, not all ‘gills spawn at the same time. Some will move into the shallows during the full-moon phases of July and August, or earlier in southern climates.
Gear & Presentation
Start with a sensitive rod like a 5-½ to 6-foot St. Croix ultralight. Light bites are telegraphed more noticeably by using a good, high quality rod. Spool up with 4-pound Gamma line. Gamma is so strong that this will be sufficient.
Try targeting shallow fish by casting and swimming light jigs or use a slip-bobber rig. The best jigs are the Lindy Quiver jig or the Little Nipper. The Queen features tiny wings, which create a slow fall keeping the jig in the strike zone longer. Experiment with colors. If things get tough, try downsizing your jig by using a micro sized ice jig, like a Fat Boy or Genz Bug. Your odds of success will go up by tipping your jigs with a small chunk of nightcrawler, a whole wax worm, or a few maggots.
Cast parallel to shoreline weed edges. Once fish are found, switch to a slip-bobber rig. Use a threaded bobber stop to avoid damage to light mono. Add a small Thill Pro Series float. The weighted version lets you cast into the wind so the bobber floats back to you over the top of the weeds. Avoid line damage by using a small rubber-core sinker or soft split-shot to balance the float so the rig will do its job and detect light bites.
If you happen upon a spawning ground, the larger bluegills tend to be
at the heart of the colony where it’s harder for egg predators to
reach. But, be careful about taking the biggest bluegills from the
system. Some biologists think stunting may occur, not from
overpopulation, but when the biggest male bluegills in a lake are
removed. As the average size of the mature males decreases, younger
males have no biological reason to delay spawning until they reach a
size when they can compete for the prime nests nearest the center of
the colony. A fish’s growth rate slows when they mature and begin
spawning. As a result, some biologists wonder if taking too many big
bluegills can lead to undersized fish in years to come.
Research to confirm the theory is underway in some areas of the
country. Although the results are inconclusive, it’s still a good
practice to take medium-sized males and free the big males and females.
Many anglers ignore deeper beds, where the best bluegills often can be
found. Vertical jigging works best along deep weed lines and over the
top of deeper weeds. Vary the action, and let the fish tell you want
they want. Afraid you’re missing bites? Watch your rod tip very
closely…a slight wobble and “fish on!”