June 20, 2023
This article was originally entitled "Summer 'Gills" in the July-September 2010 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Big bluegills. That’s an oxymoron, right? Like “jumbo shrimp”?
If this seems like a joke, it’s probably because your first fish, like mine, was a worm-caught bluegill not much bigger than a soda cracker. We were thrilled, of course, but our initial excitement began to wane after it became apparent that there was an eager and seemingly inexhaustible supply of them. Not surprisingly, we soon moved on to bigger and more challenging species. Even so, I have occasionally wondered how things might have turned out if that first bluegill had weighed a solid pound and been caught on a fly rod.
That is more typical of the bluegills my fishing buddy Jack Avent and I catch these days, and fish like these are big-time game changers. A bluegill pushing 16 ounces is a slab-sided bundle of energy too thick to get your hand around. Jack calls them “two-minute bream,” because it takes nearly that long to corkscrew one to the surface.
I have fond memories of the first time Jack and I fished together years ago. He picked me up in his classic fishing chariot—an apple green 1956 Ford pickup with a Thunderbird mill and three two-barrels—and took me to a small pond where we spent a memorable evening fly casting for bluegills bigger than I had been accustomed to catching.
“Yeah, those bluegills were fun, but nothing to brag about,” Jack explained, as we drove home, smelling happily of suntan lotion and fish. “This summer, I’ll show you some much bigger fish, but we’ll need to use different tactics.”
Bluegills that run 10 to 14 ounces are the typical specimens we catch these days, and they’re plenty of fun on a fly rod, but it isn’t unusual for us to find bluegills averaging closer to a pound, and some bigger. In a few of the prime waters we fish, Jack and I occasionally catch fish pushing 2 pounds. A bluegill that size nearly overlaps a commode lid (and, yes, you might want to put that beast on the reel).
Keep in mind that the world-record bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) weighed a whopping 4 pounds, 12 ounces. Shellcrackers (redear sunfish; Lepomis microlophus) also share many of these waters, and are often mistaken for bluegills. The record shellcracker weighed “only” 4 pounds, 7½ ounces, but these panfish tend to average a bit larger than bluegills, and they’re also great sport on a fly rod.
Perhaps the most important angling tip Jack taught me is that it’s often a waste of time to fish water randomly if you’re specifically stalking big bluegills. The key to catching those bigger fish, Jack explained, is understanding and exploiting their summer-long spawning cycles.
Contrary to what many believe, bluegills (and shellcrackers) don’t stop spawning after their annual spring orgy when they fan out numerous circular depressions or beds that are easily visible in shallow water. This usually occurs in April or May, depending upon where you live, and catching fish then can be ridiculously easy. Indeed, I had always thought that a bluegill’s most human characteristic was that after that spring spawn, they were “one and done.”
“Not so,” explained Jack. “Adult bluegills gather to spawn several more times through the summer, and they spawn in deeper water each time. Those later spawning sites are too deep to see and, by August, some beds are in 5 or 6 feet of water. Many fishermen don’t realize this, nor do they know how to find these late spawners. I catch my biggest fish on those deeper beds.”
When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he famously observed, “because that’s where the money is.”
Likewise, adult bluegills are always concentrated on these later spawning sites because they are either thinking about spawning (another human characteristic?) or actually involved in it. The payoff comes when you find the bank vault.
Targeting spawning sites that hold those bigger bluegills is usually not difficult, even when you can no longer see the beds. Adult bluegills of roughly the same size tend to hang out together (another function of spawning).
Jack and I usually start looking for fish in coves, on flats, or at the head of a lake or pond where tributaries enter. In ponds, the corners of the dam are prime spots, but we quickly leave an area that is producing mostly smaller bluegills, and keep looking until we find concentrations of bigger fish.
Because bluegills also tend to spawn in roughly the same areas year after year, we often start fishing where we’ve had past success. The deeper, late-season beds are likely to be fairly close to any earlier shallow beds, and that also helps narrow the search.
Though it may seem like cheating, if we don’t quickly find bigger fish, we occasionally search for them using worms, crickets, or small Beetlespins and soft-plastic curly-tailed jigs on ultralight spinning tackle. Once we pinpoint the fish, we switch back to flies.
This usually isn’t necessary, however, because we have another card to play: We sniff ’em out.
Some fly fishers find this hard to believe, but you can actually smell an active bluegill spawning site. It’s a strong, somewhat sickly-sweet, fishy aroma that is detectable even from deep beds.
Bluegills and shellcrackers also root out grass and other detritus when making and maintaining their beds, and if you see loose grass floating in the water–and perhaps a slightly muddy stain that’s not evident elsewhere–that’s another sign that you’re in an area worth checking out.
Traditionally, most fly fishers use floating cork poppers or foam spiders for bluegills, and these can be productive through the season, particularly in early morning or late evening. But adult bluegills and shellcrackers find most of their meals on or near the bottom, and that means sinking flies are a better bet. The good news is that I believe you really need only one fly pattern.
Years ago, I began experimenting with sinking panfish fly patterns in all sorts of color combinations. I even went to the trouble to create exact imitations of favorite bluegill foods, but they proved no more effective than simpler patterns.
I decided that I was unnecessarily complicating the process. Since two of my favorite panfish flies were hard-body black ants and floating foam spiders with rubber legs, I decided to combine their best features, and I came up with an effective, durable sinking pattern that can be tied in less than a minute, and fished at any desired depth.
I use chenille wrapped antlike on the hook with a hump fore and aft, and add rubber legs that extend from the middle of the body. It resembles a Bitch Creek Special, except that the legs are longer and flare like a spider.
I’ve tied it using combinations of black, brown, olive, orange, yellow, and white chenille with white, chartreuse, or black rubber legs. I suspect, however, that all these different colors appeal mostly to fishermen. In practice, I’ve never found any combination that beats a simple black chenille body with four or six white rubber legs.
The contrast makes it highly visible to fish—yet still sufficiently buggy-looking—in both clear and muddy water. A bonus is that this simple black-and-white fly is also deadly for many other species, including largemouth bass (I’ve caught several over 7 pounds on it).
I tie these flies unweighted for shallow water, but I also weight some of them with a lead wire underwrap to create a mid-depth edition, and one more heavily weighted for deeper water. To identify these weighted versions at a glance, I add a single short stub of white rubber to the body of the mid-depth version, and two white stubs for the heavier version.
Bluegills and shellcrackers have bigger mouths than we realize, and adults have no problem inhaling the size 8 (and sometimes 6) hooks I use. These larger flies also tend to limit hook-ups with pesky smaller panfish.
Most of the time, I use a floating line and one fly. However, I have often found it more productive to use two of these flies in tandem when I’m either searching for fish, or fishing the deeper beds. Two weighted flies sink deeper, and also double your chances.
I rig the flies about 15 to 18 inches apart, tying the trailing tippet to the eye or to the bend of the hook on the top fly (either way works fine). You can use various combinations, but you’ll have fewer casting tangles if you put the heaviest fly at the point, or bottom of this tandem. To fish the deepest spots, you can add split-shot above the flies—several smaller shot spaced a few inches apart casts better than a single heavier shot.
I believe it’s more cumbersome to cast these weighted flies and split-shot than to switch to a sink-tip or full-sinking line.
With floating lines, I normally use a tapered leader no longer than the rod. Bluegills aren’t leader shy, and tippets testing 8 or 10 pounds turn over the flies better. You’ll also have a better chance of landing both fish when you have a double hookup—and you’ll have plenty.
I have friends who fish for bluegills using 2- and 3-weight rods. This tackle is fun, and it may be adequate if you’re fishing a small, unweighted fly, and planning to catch a lot of minuscule bluegills. A 5-weight can be a bit light for the large weighted flies I use. I much prefer a 6- or 7-weight, 9-foot rod so I can easily switch to poppers if I want.
Unfortunately, it often doesn’t matter what you use, or how you use it, if you’re not fishing the right water. Bluegills simply don’t grow big in many bodies of water. Some large lakes and other public waters are capable of producing sizable bluegills, but not all have the combination of rich nutrients, balanced fish populations, and other dynamic assets to grow really big bluegills.
The average size that bluegills reach in a given body of water is limited by the habitat, and their maximum size tends to be fairly uniform, with very few individual fish growing much larger. Where overpopulations of stunted panfish are the rule, not even perseverance and the most refined tactics are going to lead you to that random mother lode of whopper bluegills. They’re likely not there.
It may seem obvious, but this makes it even more important to look for fertile waters that have a reputation for producing bigger bluegills. I’ve enjoyed some great fishing for sizable bluegills across the country, but you have to pick your spots. I recently got into some late spawners in a small public lake in Michigan, and some of those fish were as big as the copperhead bluegills I caught later that year in Florida’s famed Lake Okeechobee.
A good-sized bluegill in most waters will typically run 10 to 14 ounces, and seldom average more than a pound even in naturally rich waters. Nothing wrong with bluegills that size, of course. They’re just not those humongous 16- to 40-ounce plus fish you occasionally see in photos and lust after.
Indeed, those giant bluegills and shellcrackers are almost invariably the products of environments manipulated to encourage their growth, and that kind of intensive management is not feasible on most public waters. Even if it were, game and fish agencies couldn’t afford it.
Your best chance to catch such whoppers is on privately owned ponds and small lakes that are specifically managed to grow giant panfish. Here, owners can consult fisheries biologists and apply state-of-the-art management techniques at a reasonable cost, and many do.
Options include fertilizing ponds, placing cover to attract fish, controlling weeds and algae, removing unwanted species, and occasionally trapping and moving fish between ponds to alter the population balance. Most also aggressively cull the bluegills they catch to reduce competition and prevent overpopulation. On one large pond I occasionally fish, biologists recommended the legal removal of 6,000 bluegills each year. Does this stuff work? You bet.
Jack and I have had glorious opportunities to fish some ponds that receive this kind of intensive management. One day last July, we found a large congregation of bluegills bedding in about 4 feet of water, and we literally caught fish on every cast for hours.
I got so weary of battling them in pairs that I switched back to a single fly. Besides, two fish tend to fight each other, and one of those brutes at the time was enough to keep me happy. Lots of those bluegills weighed a pound, and my biggest that day was 26 ounces.
You’re probably thinking that you have no idea where to find good private ponds, and zero chance of getting permission to fish any of them. There are, however, millions of ponds scattered across the country, and many have the natural capability to produce sporty bluegills that run 8 to 12 ounces, sometimes even bigger. Getting permission to fish is often simply a matter of asking, and that’s sometimes even true of managed ponds.
I’ve found it helpful to promise to use any privilege infrequently, call before each visit, and take care of property. It’s also a nice touch to present the owner with part of the catch—cleaned and iced. What has gotten me long-standing permission to fish some terrific ponds is offering to help with some of those time-consuming management chores.
Even if fishing managed private water seems a bit artificial for your tastes, those tactics Jack and I use will work just fine anywhere you stalk bigger bluegills. Besides, if you ever get on a really hot pond, I doubt you’ll be concerned about how those fish got so huge. After all, somebody has to help cull all those bluegills.
Black & Bluegill Recipe
Hook: #6-8 Tiemco 5262 or similar.
Thread: Black 6/0.
Body: Fine or medium black chenille.
Underbody: Fine or medium lead wire.
Legs: White round rubber.
Black & Bluegill Step-by-Step
Step 1: Attach black chenille at the hook bend. Attach fine or medium wire, and a strand of rubber at rear. (I leave one stub for medium-weighted flies, and two stubs for more heavily weighted flies). Wrap lead wire over the rear third of the body for medium weight. Wrap the entire shank for heavier flies.
Step 2: Wrap chenille over rear third of body to form a hump. Clip the rubber strand (or strands) leaving a stub or stubs to indicate weight.
Step 3: Double a single rubber strand to form the first four legs, and attach them at the center of the body. Clip them to the desired length.
Step 4: Add another strand of rubber for a total of six legs. Wrap with thread while positioning the legs to flare.
Step 5: Wrap chenille to form the front portion of the body, then whip-finish and coat with head cement.
Jim Dean is the former editor of Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. He lives in Raleigh.