The Bluegill Bonanza of Spring

The Bluegill Bonanza of Spring

Bluegills are a great pick-me-up for the winter-weary trout angler

  • By: Chad Mason
"More fun than a barrel of monkeys." That's what Grandpa would have said. My good friend Paul and I were sitting in a canoe on a small Midwestern lake, grinning ear-to-ear and giggling like a couple of third-grade boys playing hooky. We were holding fly rods bent to horseshoe-shape by hefty bluegills. We both had other work that needed doing, but we had completely lost track of time. "How many of these do you think we've caught?" Paul asked as he unhooked a deeply colored, muscular, nine-inch bluegill."I don't know," I answered. "Eighty or ninety, maybe." I suppose we could have done some figuring to develop a better estimate but, as I said, we were playing hooky. Hooky and math problems don't go together. During the spring spawn, bluegill fishing can feel like taking candy from the proverbial baby. For exactly this reason, some fly anglers shun bluegill fishing, saying it "proves" nothing because it's "too easy." But elitism is completely irrational from a natural perspective. In nature, all creatures come gratefully to a bonanza. They do so because they have nothing to prove, and because life is hard enough already. Far from being a reason for avoidance, the sheer ease and abundance of spring bluegills are compelling reasons to get out there and enjoy the fun while it lasts. Some of the world's easiest fly-fishing occurs every spring on warmwater lakes, ponds and reservoirs across North America. The best natural lakes are geologically old, or at least middle-age, classified respectively as eutrophic or late mesotrophic. Such lakes have the following critical conditions for a healthy bluegill population: Many reservoirs and ponds have these necessary conditions. I've enjoyed excellent bluegill fishing in rivers, too. Pools, backwaters and oxbows can provide hot bluegill action in or near moving water. However, permanent stillwaters generally make the best bluegill hotspots. Whether created by geologic or human activity, good bluegill waters exist from California to New England. Bluegills are the most populous and widely distributed of several sunfishes (Centrarchidae) native to North America. A bluegill is distinguished from other sunfish by the solid black, flexible tip at the rear of its gill covers, and derives its name from the sky-blue coloration of its chin and gill covers. If your "bluegill" has an orange ring around the tip of its gill cover, then it's not a bluegill at all. It may in fact be a green sunfish, a pumpkinseed or a redear sunfish. Bluegills begin to arrive at spawning areas when the water temperature in the shallows reaches the upper 60's (Fahrenheit), and they really get busy making babies at 70 degrees. I live in the Midwest at a latitude roughly equivalent to that of Chicago. Around here, we begin seeing bluegills in the shallows by early May on our smallest ponds, and early June in our larger lakes and reservoirs. (Small waters warm more quickly.) From Texas to Florida, bluegills may spawn as early as March. The right water temperatures generally correspond to the first full leafing of deciduous trees. When the leaves pass their budding yellow hue and you first notice that the trees are starting to look full and thick and green, it's time to go bluegill fishing. Some spawning activity will continue as long as water temperature stays below 80 degrees, and in some areas may continue all summer. (If you currently live in such an area, don't move!) Male bluegills build saucer-shape nests 12 to 24 inches in diameter by fanning out sediment with their tails. Sand and fine gravel are the preferred substrates, and nests generally are built in water less than four feet deep. However, in exceptionally clear water I've caught bluegills bedded as deep as eight feet. Nests may be built in vast, dense colonies, with up to 100 of them in a 50-yard radius. The best description I've heard about bluegill nests is that they look like "elephant tracks." Somehow I find appropriate giggles in the image of an elephant stomping through an Illinois farm pond. Bluegill fecundity is absolutely amazing. Males can be identified during the spawn by their dark coloration. They lure females to their nests, and one female may eject eggs into the nests of several males. After fertilization the male is completely in charge of homeland security--which is no small task, as the average nest produces more than 60,000 bluegill fry. The fiercely protective spirit of male bluegills accounts for their ease of capture during the spring bonanza. A small popper or dry fly, cast over the nest, will seldom be refused. If a breeze makes surface patterns difficult for bluegills to spot, virtually any nymph or wet fly in sizes 10 or 12 will draw hard strikes. I once caught a good bluegill on a cigarette butt I found at the public boat ramp, which I threaded onto a bare hook shank. Eventually the bluegill orgy ends, and the shallows become devoid of all but juvenile fish. What then? Those husky 'gills can still be caught, but in summer they are not the pushovers they were on the beds. Though still not as technical as trout fishing, summer bluegill success requires patience and persistence. After the spawn, bluegills retreat to deeper water to recuperate for several days. After recuperation, they take up a summer routine: days spent on deep weed beds or woody cover, with morning and evening forays to feed in the shallows. Even during midday, however, you will always find them above the thermocline. During summer, many lakes and reservoirs stratify, with upper and lower temperature layers separated by a thin band of water called a thermocline. As a rule, the summer thermocline in most bluegill waters will be located at a depth of 8 to 15 feet, although in exceptionally clear lakes, it may be as deep as 22 feet. You can eliminate from consideration all parts of the lake deeper than that. Anywhere you find structure or weeds reaching just above the thermocline depth, you are almost sure to find bluegills. Of course, on many bluegill waters this still leaves you with an awfully big chunk of wet real estate. During morning and evening, I fish open pockets in shallow weed beds, near fallen trees, muskrat houses or boat docks, and beneath overhanging vegetation along shorelines. At twilight, these visible features will often hold mature bluegills. I catch them with dry flies, terrestrial patterns, nymphs and wet flies presented with a floating fly line and a 4X or 5X tapered trout leader as long as my rod. I favor an 8-foot, 5-weight rod, although a 9-foot, 6-weight is preferable on windy days and gives access to the added versatility of sinking-tip lines. Favorite dry patterns include the Parachute Mosquito and Madam X in sizes 10 and 12; good subsurface patterns include the Yuk Bug and McGinty in sizes 8 and 10, respectively. I know some good bluegill anglers who insist that a dry fly is more effective than a popper on the largest summer bluegills, and I'm inclined to agree. Nevertheless, I've seen many summer evenings when the same poppers I used in spring worked wonders. I don't tie my own cork poppers, since excellent ones are cheaply and readily available for purchase at most fly shops. Most come with rubber legs sticking out the sides; these twist a tippet horribly, but I find them more effective than similar poppers without legs. (Incidentally, I don't find the legs to be as important with bass.) Therefore, I leave the legs on my bluegill poppers, and periodically pause to untwist my tippet. Regardless of pattern, summer presentations must be almost painfully slow. Let your favorite surface pattern sit until you can't take the waiting anymore; then let it sit a minute longer. Subsurface patterns should be very lightly weighted to sink slowly, creating an almost neutrally buoyant presentation that hangs in front of the fish. If an evening hatch of mayflies or midges brings bluegills up to feed on the surface, the fish will sometimes lose their timidity and gulp the same cork poppers they took during the spring bonanza. During midday you'll have to go deeper, perhaps needing a sinking-tip line. Rubber-legged nymphs in dark shades (olive, black, brown) will usually produce well. If these don't do the trick, try a light-color one (white, yellow or chartreuse). Work the outside edges of weed lines, timber or drop-offs. A very effective technique is to drift with the wind through such areas and twitch a nymph occasionally. Bluegills are predominately insect-feeders, but in early fall they will sometimes chase minnows into shallow water. I've caught these fish on size 8 Clouser Minnow patterns in pink or chartreuse, tied with bead-chain eyes to sink more slowly than the lead-eye original. The standard belief on bluegills is that you can't over-harvest them, so help yourself. In fact, many people believe they should keep every bluegill they catch in order to prevent over-population and stunting. I beg to differ. During the spring spawn, a huge portion of the bluegill population becomes vulnerable to harvest at the same time. I'll often keep a dozen or so for a family fish fry, but I don't "fill the freezer" with bluegills. I figure it isn't my divine right to control the bluegill population by myself; that's why God made largemouth bass. When you find a pond with tons of stunted bluegills, it's often because people are keeping too many bass, and not because they're keeping too few bluegills. I have a favorite lake near my home where fishing pressure is extremely light. I've never kept a bluegill there, yet all the bluegills I catch in that lake are thick, deep and long as a business envelope. The lake has an excellent bass population. Paul and I stayed until darkness fell upon the lake and bats came out to suck mosquitoes from the thick, humid air. The night was full of the sounds of crickets and frogs and geese going to roost. Maybe it was because of my persistent worries in raising three daughters, or Paul's pain in a messy divorce but, for whatever reason, bluegills were better balm for our spirits that night than trout could have been. We didn't have anything to prove, and life was hard enough already. We let them all go. It didn't seem right to kill them, not tonight. There is a joyful meeting where nature's abundance converges with a creature's need, and you can find it where the elephant walks through the pond. Finally we beached the canoe, still smiling.