Alpha 'Gills On The Fly

Many bluegill anglers are ditching their spinning gear for something different. Try a fly, and you'll know why! (June 2007)

Photo by Tom Evans.

Here's a question for all you serious bluegill anglers: Have you ever noticed when unhooking bluegills that most of the twistertail or night crawler you used for bait is dangling outside the bluegill's mouth?

That's because the average bluegill's mouth is barely large enough to gulp the baits and lures that many anglers use to catch 'gills. If bluegills weren't such an aggressive species willing to choke themselves on our oversized offerings, many more of us would go home with empty stringers.

As it is, who knows how many bluegills ignore our super-sized bluegill baits and lures? Who knows how many more fish we could take home if we downsized our offerings to match the tiny insects and invertebrates on which bluegills normally dine?

Steve Anderson knows. "I've fished side-by-side with guys using the smallest, lightest ultralight spinning tackle they could use, and I caught two or three bluegills on my fly rod for every bluegill they caught," he said. "If you really want to catch bluegills, a fly rod is the way to go."


In the spring, Anderson ties on a black ant or other dark-colored floating fly to tantalize bluegills in shallow water spawning beds. The results he characterizes as "nearly explosive."

"If you put just about any black floating fly over them when they're on their beds, they can't resist it," he said. "I sight-fish in the shallows, flip a black ant over a nest when I see one, and they absolutely hammer those little flies. Plus, because you can generally keep using the same fly, you don't waste a lot of time rebaiting with a worm or putting on a new twistertail after your old one gets torn up."

As the spawn tapers off, Anderson switches to a nymph pattern that he ties himself, and follows bluegills to deeper water.

"It's tough to fish much deeper than 4 feet, even if you use a wet fly or nymph pattern, but that's okay, because bluegills aren't a deep-water fish," he said. "If you fish around the edges of a pond or lake, along the edges of weedlines or in woody cover associated with the shoreline, you're going to be targeting 90 percent of the bluegills that are available."

Anderson's go-to pattern for deeper bluegills is his "bead-eyed leech." He purchases lightweight silver-beaded "plumber's chain" such as is commonly used to turn on and off basement lights and cuts the beads apart.

"I use the little stems between the beads to tie two beads side by side behind the eye of a dry-fly hook," he said. "The beads are the 'eyes' of the leech. Normally you use a nymph hook for this sort of fly, but I like the finer wire and shorter shank of a dry-fly hook to give me a shorter, tighter leech. I use either a piece of black marabou or little fluffs of pheasant feather to finish it, and it's absolutely deadly.

"The beads are hollow, but not sealed, so they fill with water. That uneven filling makes the leech dance as it sinks. I've never seen anything catch bluegills the way it does."

Anderson often fishes in farm ponds or small public lakes from a belly boat or "kick-boat," which has two small Styrofoam or inflated pontoons with a nylon seat on an aluminum frame between the pontoons. The angler's feet dangle in the water, and either swimming flippers or small oars are used to maneuver the boat. He catches bluegills throughout the summer by fishing in and around emergent weeds that ring many small bodies of water.

"If the weeds are just below the surface, I'll use a dry fly pattern, fish over the weeds, and the bluegills will come shooting up out of the weeds to hammer the fly," he said. "That's a really fun way to fish. If the weeds are right on the surface, I'll fish the inside edge of the weedline. I look for indentations or pockets in the weeds, and either float a dry fly right on the edge, or drop that bead-eyed leech so if falls right along the weedline."

The length of fly rods allows Anderson to fish holes and pockets in the weeds that might be inaccessible to spincasting anglers. "If there's a bucket-sized hole in the weeds, I'll use the length of the fly rod to drop a dry fly or the leech into that hole," he said. "If you're good enough, you can cast and just lay that fly or leech right in the hole. Either way, if you catch a bluegill, you just use the length of the rod to get him up on the surface, then skim him over the weeds and out to where you can play him."

In small, shallow coves with minimal weeds, Anderson borrows tactics from spin casting anglers to find bluegills lurking in "deeper" water. He casts his bead-eyed leech, and then counts it down before retrieving to determine at what depth bluegills are suspended.

"I could fish deeper than 4 feet, but it takes so long for the leech to settle down to the deeper depths that it's not worth the wait," he explained. "It's more time-efficient to fish shallow and cover a lot of water than it is to fish deep and slow."

Joel Frye, a fly-fishing tackle salesman for Scheels Sporting Goods (stores in eight Midwestern and Western states; on the Internet at who uses fly-casting tackle to fish smack in the middle of woody structure often avoided by spincasting bluegill anglers.

"Bluegills love brushy habitat," he said. "I can flip my flies and nymphs right into that nasty stuff. If I snag up, the little hooks straighten out and pull loose without spooking all the fish. If I hook a fish, I just get him up on top and skim him out to where I can play him. Fishing the deepwater sides of deadfalls and brushpiles in the late spring and early summer is a fantastic way to get bluegills that the spincasting guys have trouble getting."


For all the advantages of fly-casting for bluegills, many anglers have stuck with spincasting tackle because of concerns about the cost and complexity of learning to cast flies. According to Frye, those concerns are unfounded.

"It's going to cost a little bit to get started, but the cash to buy a decent beginner's outfit is well worth it," he said. "I've taught hundreds of people how to fly-cast. I recommend starting out with something like St. Croix's $140 Premier Kit, with a 5-weight rod. It's a good starter's outfit that will work well even after you're a veteran fly-caster. You can get a beginner's outfit for less than $100, but I suggest buying a little quality so that quality will be there once you get past the beginner stage."

Frye explained that fly-casting rods are numbered from 0 through 9, with a 0-weight being a light, flippy rod equivalent to the lightest ultralight spinning rod, while a 9-weight rod has backbone and stiffness on par with a salmon or muskie rod. A 6 to 6 1/2-foot 5-weight rod is an all-round fly-casting rod that works well for bluegills, trout and other small to midsize species.

"Buy the fly-casting equipment from a store with someone on the staff who knows fly-casting, and ask them to show you how to get started," he suggested. "I show guys how to tie on the leader and tippet in the store, then take them out in the parking lot and teach them basic fly-casting. You can buy a fly rod in the morning and be catching bluegills with it that afternoon.

"You don't have to be elegant in your casting, or have a $1000 worth of waders and fishing vests and fancy stuff to catch fish and have fun. Once you learn how to do some basic casts, just go out and catch fish. I've never ran into anybody that I couldn't teach to fly-cast, so there's no reason for anybody to not try it."

Fly-casters in search of bluegills should be aware of certain "risks" associated with fly-casting, noted Frye.

"I warn people that bluegills aren't the only fish that take flies," he said. "You're going to hook largemouth bass, channel catfish, crappies, carp-there aren't many fish that won't take a fly. And if you want a real thrill, hook onto a big bass or 5-pound catfish with a fly rod. My trout-fishing friends out west in the mountains don't believe that I intentionally fly-fish for carp, but once you've hooked a 20-pound carp on a fly rod, catching trout isn't as big of a deal as it used to be."

So the next time you land a bluegill on spinning tackle and see the twistertail or night crawler dangling outside the fish's mouth, think smaller. Think about using a fly rod to give bluegills an irresistible morsel to gulp easily. You'll put more bluegills in your frying pan by fly-casting -- and maybe cross paths with some of the larger predators in the pond or lake while you're at it.

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