Bigger, Better Bluegills
by Brett Brown
Bluegills, like Rodney Dangerfield, don't get much respect. "Kids' fish," some say. "Don't fight," others claim as they derrick in their frisky panfish with tackle better suited to dragging bass out of heavy weeds. Some claim, "Bluegills are too small to be worthwhile." Elitists feel, "Anything that easy to catch can't be worth much."
All of these folks are wrong. On a size per size basis, bluegills (also known as brim in Southern states) pull harder than trout so they fight well on suitable tackle. Small bluegills are usual where stunting is common but hand-size "bull bluegills" weigh a pound or even two. Such fish are not easy to catch. Indeed, they require considered techniques and the right spot. I would personally rather catch bluegills than most other freshwater fish. Of course, I use gear that gives bluegills a fighting chance. Two pound test line, five foot long ultralight spinning rods and mini jigs, tiny spinners or even bait such as worms or light crickets get the job done. Such outfits cost less than $50 and put the fun back in fishing for saltwater panfish, stream black bass, trout and other species you can find near your home or preserve.
I sometimes also use fly gear. If you want to learn to flycast, bluegills work best. Try a trout outfit (eight to nine foot long fly rod, tapered #6 line, a nine foot long leader and a small unsinkable popper or a tiny sinking streamer) on a small pond and you can catch fish all day. However, in most ponds stunting is a problem and the typical bluegill runs only four to six inches long. Most fishermen release these fish and keep larger bass. That's exactly backward. The best thing you can do on these ponds is keep all the bluegills you catch and release all the bass. This is so the bass can grow large and reduce the bluegill population so the average size of all fish in the pond increases.
I don't waste any bluegill. I use a small, sharp fillet knife to cut bite-size morsels off small fish. These poach nicely as snacks and, with a bit of egg and crackers, make lovely fish cakes. When we are at home, I bury bluegill carcasses under our tomato plants.
You don't have to go far to find small, stunted bluegills. A few miles from our home, Spring Valley Reservoir has some. Most of the pothole lakes and many farm ponds in Idaho and Washington have more. Add creeks, some backwater rivers and the many side channels in and around Coeur d'Alene Lake and you've got more. Farm ponds can have much bigger bluegills too. Best of all, farm pond owners who know anything about pond management are willing, even anxious, for you to catch and keep bluegills so long as you release the bass.
Most ponds hold small bluegill. Some have very large yellow perch, crappie, green-ear sunfish and other panfish. My favorite has "hidden bluegill" that cover my rather large hands.
"Hidden bluegills" are those special fish most fishermen overlook. Some lurk in very weedy ponds the owners claim "haven't held fish for years." More are found in deeper, cooler water below schools of smaller bluegills which most catch near the surface.
In reservoirs you need to go deeper to find "hidden bluegills." How deep? That depends on the surface water temperature, time of year and other factors. In the spring, big bluegills move into shallows to spawn and, if you wear Polaroid glasses you can often spot them guarding their nests. Bluegill are one of the few species that should be caught off nests because of the major overpopulation problem.
After spawning, larger bluegills tend to school up (really huge specimens tend to be solitary fish) 15 to 30 feet deep in cooler water. In some reservoirs the best results come where streams enter. In other reservoirs the best spots are cold thirty degree underwater springs. In ponds, big bluegills tend to lurk deep off the dam, rocks or other structures. You can also catch nice bluegills in streams, sloughs and rivers.
Methods for big bluegills aren't that much different from those you would use for trout or smallmouth bass. Live baits with movement work well. It's tough to beat a cricket or worm hooked once with a light size 8 wire hook and sunk to fish depth with the smallest possible split shot. When bluegills are shallow you can use long sensitive bobbers to catch more fish.
If you prefer artificials, try inexpensive mini jigs that weigh 1/32nd or 1/16th of an ounce. Pearl, brown, olive, black and yellow seem the best colors. The smallest gold, silver or, in clear water, copper or black blade spinner you can find suits bluegills not deeper than 6 feet.
When you need to go deeper, switch to tiny spoons that sink faster. You can even catch bluegills on plugs! My wife takes dozens slow trolling the smallest size tan or brown Rebel Naturalized Crayfish plug. This tiny replica of a crayfish seems to take larger bluegills better than any other lure anyplace it can be trolled or cast. It's only disadvantage is the fact that it hangs up in weeds.
Trolling is a lazy way boaters can find bluegills in new waters. Troll the edges of weeds or other cover. Once you hook a fish, retrace your course or anchor and cast. If you fish from shore, try points, inlet streams and cover such as bullrush stands near dams.
One thing remains certain. It is a lot more fun to catch fish than to get skunked. Switch to bluegills and you should always catch fish near your home. Fish a pond or small lake with stunted bluegills hard and you can watch the average size increase an inch a year. Use appropriate gear and you can enjoy a fair fight and more action in one day than you might find in a season spent after striped bass, salmon or trophy trout. That's a respectable result for anyone!