Jul 13, 2020
Woken by the alarm clock at 5:00 AM I jump out of bed with the excitement of a kid on Christmas Day. I could barely sleep because of the anticipation. Where will the fish be? What bait should I use? I grab my lunch and fly out the door. As I’m hustling down to the pier I’m scanning the lake looking at all my “secret spots” making sure that nobody has beat me to them this morning. Is my target walleyes, bass or musky? Nope! It’s bluegills. Of all the species of fish I go after, nothing gets me more excited than catching bluegills. Perhaps it’s because they are plentiful, usually eager to bite and make excellent table fare. Bluegills also bring out the “kid” in me and resurrect good memories. If you have ever held a hand sized bluegill in your hand, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Bluegill fishing, especially in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, can be fun and rewarding if you know where to look depending on the time of year. I would venture to guess that most of the lakes in Wisconsin have bluegills or sunfish in them. However, finding lakes that have “quality” sized fish can be tricky. Even though most every lake will hold bluegills, not every lake has what it takes to grow a quality sized bluegill. Typically, fertile lakes will hold larger bluegills. A fertile lake usually contains a high-level biomass of zooplankton and invertebrates required to grow big bluegills. Another factor that helps maintain a population of larger bluegills is predation. Research has shown that if a lake has a high density of large-mouth bass under 12 inches in size, chances are that there will be a good population of larger sized bluegills. Biologists have found that when it comes to promoting and maintaining the population of quality sized bluegills it comes down to the size of the male bluegill fertilizing the eggs. If smaller male bluegills are in high numbers and are allowed to spawn, then the size structure of the population will remain small. However, if big male bluegills are present and prevent smaller fish from taking part in the spawn, then the size structure will remain higher.
Around late April into May start looking for bluegills in or near shallow water. I like to put on my polarized sunglasses and use my bow mount trolling motor to cruise the shorelines looking for bluegills. Look for downed trees, pencil reeds and other aquatic vegetation in shallow water. I also like to check sandy bottom shorelines on sunny days where bluegills will hang out pre and post spawn warming themselves. If it’s a nice calm day I will also watch for fish “popping” or eating bugs off the surface of the water. Once you find a bunch of bluegills in shallow water, look around the adjacent areas. Are there weed beds nearby? Is there a defined drop-off? If so, these are important areas to remember. If there is a sudden drop in water temperature causing the bluegills to leave the shallows, chances are they will be in those nearby areas you identified. And as the season rolls on, the bluegills will transition to those areas after spawning.
Bluegills spawn over a lengthy period compared to other fish. Bluegills will start spawning in late May, peaking in June, but the process may last into August. Bluegills will spawn in water temperatures between 67 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Males will arrive first to make beds. The beds are typically a foot or two in diameter and there will be several close together. The males will hang out and guard the beds. They will be very aggressive and easy to catch. But please note, fisheries biologists have determined that the big male bluegills, AKA “bulls”, have the genetics responsible for growth size structure. Therefore, it is highly recommended that fishermen release the big “bulls” to ensure that their genetics remain within the system thus maintaining quality size structure. Prior to spawning, bluegills will hang out in areas near the spawning areas. As I already mentioned, make mental notes of key structure areas adjacent to known spawning areas. Once bluegills are done spawning they will start to disperse. Some will stay in the shallows but typically these are the smaller fish. The bigger bluegills will school up in 6-12+ feet of water. Typically, they will hang in out weeds or other structure that provides them protection and a place to ambush prey.
The reason I like bluegill fishing so much is that it can be a very simple way to fish. Of course, you can make it very technical and complicated, but it isn’t necessary. In fact, you can catch bluegills with a classic old cane pole equipped with a hook, worm, split-shot and bobber. Using this type of equipment brings back good childhood memories of sitting on the pier with my grandfather. He fished with cane poles for everything from bluegills to pike. It was a relaxed way to fish and suited him just fine. Just typing these words, I can almost smell the smoke from his cigar that he always had when we fished. Good times. But these days I like to use an ultra-light spinning rod. I prefer a rod that is at least 7 feet in length. Any good spinning reel will work just fine. Line selection is important. I like super lines. Berkeley Fire Line or Suffix Advanced 832 are my choices. I like to use the white, or “crystal” colored line. I use 10-pound test. That translates to the equivalent diameter of 4-pound monofilament. I use 10-pound super line because you will probably get snagged on something and it is also very probable that a bluegill will take you into very thick cover when fighting. Also, I have caught a lot of “other fish” when bluegill fishing like bass and even pike. Not to mention the numerous times I’ve been reeling in a bluegill only to have musky grab it. It’s not too often that I land the musky but at least with a heavier test line, I stand a fighting chance. I will tie my hook or lure directly to the super line, but often I will tie a two-foot length of fluorocarbon to the super line and then tie my hook or lure to the fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon is a little tougher than monofilament, does not stretch as much as mono and is virtually invisible under water.
There are numerous baits that catch bluegills. Plastics, jigs, flies, worms, etc. One unique thing about lure selection when targeting bluegills is that you can use your ice fishing lures during the open water season with high success. I like to use my tungsten ice jigs during the open water season. I will also continue to use waxworms or spikes if they are available. I’ve caught a lot of bluegills with a simple number 8 hook and redworm. The selection of artificial lures available today is immense. Mini-mites, twister tails, Wedgie Tails, Gulp! and other plastics work very well. This year I am excited to try a couple new lures that have come to market. The first is the INSTINCTRIX Jig by Panfish Pro. It is a 1/32 #8 jig that looks like the Mini-Mite, but the tail is flat instead of round. I believe that this design will allow more natural movement under water. The other lure is the Baitmate Ultralive Worm. It is made from a food grade, biodegradable material. They mimic a worm and are infused with Baitmate Fish Attractant. Of course, use any lure that you are confident with.
The most important thing is to get out and go fishing. Bluegill fishing can be simple, action packed, and they offer great table fare. Take kids along and watch how their faces light up when that bobber goes down and they feel the tug of a bluegill on their line. Hopefully you’ll have those fond memories return and will create new ones along the way.