The 'Power' of Bluegills
One warm summer afternoon many years ago in western Tennessee, a young boy stepped into a plywood boat and went fishing with his dad, his granddad and a supply of Catawba worms.
Before the afternoon had run its course, that young lad – yours truly – had not only hooked a pile of bluegills for his granny’s cast iron skillet, but he also had been snared hook, line and sinker by the fishing adventure that can be found all across the Creator’s outdoor world.
Such is the power of bluegills, or bream, depending on the preferred regional name for these spunky little panfish.
Given the fact that bluegills typically do not spawn until after largemouth bass have finished their own shallow water breeding efforts, then it stands to reason that May into June are ready made for ‘gill fishing in many areas of the country.
That’s true for anglers ranging from a young child to an adult novice to even a seasoned pro on the Major League Fishing circuit, or for anyone really who is looking for some simple fishing fun and the power of the pull.
“Most people cut their angling wings on fishing for bluegills,” said Bruce Hysmith, a longtime inland fisheries biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“Bluegills are a great introductory fish (for novice anglers) since they occupy the shallow water zone near the bank.”
Hysmith suggests that anglers, especially younger ones, keep their tackle selections simple.
For children, that can be nothing more complex than an old fashioned cane pole with a short length of monofilament line, a small hook, a small sinker and a bobber attached.
For adults looking for something a little sportier, light or even ultra-light spinning gear coupled with 4-pound-test monofilament line is a solid choice.
What type of baits should an angler use for spunky ‘gills?
There are a number of possibilities including small artificial flies, lures and jigs. The key word here is small, however, since these panfish have very tiny mouths.
Most of the time, bream fishing is easiest with some sort of live bait attached to a small wire hook under a split shot and a cork or porcupine quill bobber.
Such live bait choices range from small minnows to Catawba worms to crickets (my personal favorite) to wasp larvae to red earthworms, the latter being rated by Hysmith as his own personal favorite bluegill bait.
For artificial tackle enthusiasts, solid lure choices for bream include small crappie jigs, diminutive Beetle spins or even tiny panfish crankbaits like the Strike King Bitsy Minnow, the Rebel Teeny-Wee Frog, the Bomber 3F Fat A, the Rapala Mini Fat-Rap or the Bill Lewis Mini-Trap.
Many anglers, myself included, consider these spunky panfish to be a load of springtime fun, and a bona fide light-tackle challenge to boot, when caught on artificial flies tossed with lightweight fly fishing gear.
“Absolutely,” said Chris White, a longtime friend and an avid fly angler from San Antonio, Texas. “Bluegills, those suckers will fight you (all the way) to the boat.”
White should know, nearly wearing out several Orvis one-weight fly rods over the years on bluegill haunts near his former East Texas home, spots ranging from the sprawling Lake O' the Pines to the more moderately-size Lake Gilmer to small private ponds.
“From a pure standpoint of fun fighting, you just can’t beat the action you’re going to get (on a lightweight fly rod),” said White, who keeps coming back to bluegills even though he has caught much bigger bass, redfish and other saltwater game fish species on the fly.
For those interested in pursuing ‘gills with fly tackle, a one, two, three or four-weight fly rod with a floating weight-forward line, a 7 ½-foot leader tapering down to a 3X or 4X tippet and a topwater popper is a tough combination to beat at this time of the year.
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
When you find the right spot stacked up with these panfish, a fly angler can literally catch bluegills until they're all but worn out, just like I was a couple of years ago on a late May day at an East Texas hotspot for big 'gills.
Whatever the preferred lure and tackle choices might be, Hysmith suggests that anglers generally keep their search for late spring and early summer bluegills confined to shallow water areas near weed beds, brush piles, stick-ups and stumps.
That's because the fish are usually visible in and around such shallow confines, especially near easy-to-spot spawning beds.
In some places, anglers can find numerous bream beds lying close together in shallow water conglomerations that vaguely resemble craters on the moon’s surface or a very large wasp-nest.
Keep in mind that an angler’s eyesight is only one way to locate catchable numbers of bream during the springtime months, however, because when it comes to locating ‘gills, the nose often knows the way according to Texas A&M educated entomologist and fly fishing guide Rob Woodruff of Quitman, Texas.
“When you find them, there’s almost a watermelon rind kind of smell in the air, kind of like how people on the (Gulf) coast can find speckled trout by smell,” said Woodruff, a 2015 finalist for the Orvis Guide of the Year Award.
However an angler is able to locate a bluegill spot or two, they should be able to locate many more in the same general vicinity.
That’s because when it comes to spring and summer bluegills – or their redear sunfish, longear sunfish, redbreast sunfish, green sunfish, warmouth, hybrid sunfish or copper-nosed bluegill cousins – where there's one, there's usually plenty more in a "more the merrier" fashion.
Because of that, some sage old crappie fishing advice once given to me by outdoor writer and television personality Steve Pennaz is highly applicable here, “Don’t spend a lot of time in a place where the fish aren’t biting.”
In other words, during the month of May, if you can't connect with bluegills on a regular basis, move on down the line until you find a spot that is filled up with active fish.
While these panfish are relatively easy to catch, not to mention a lot of fun to catch, perhaps the best reason of all to chase bluegills at this time of the year is because they make excellent table fare.
With generous limits in place across much of bluegill country, these prolific sunfish can provide many a memorable meal in an era of fishing that has become known for its catch-and-release angling ethic with many other species.
While a fisherman should never keep more than they can use, catch-and-release means something a bit different for a bluegill angler, as in catch-and-release into hot cooking oil.
“Oh, I love ‘em,” agreed Hysmith. “My favorite recipe is to head 'em, gut 'em, scale 'em, roll 'em in corn meal, salt and pepper to taste and deep fry them.”
“You can take a hand-size bluegill and if you’ve got 10 or 15 of those, I guarantee you've got a meal.”
And maybe, just maybe, a lifelong angler too.