Whether you call them brim or bream or just plain old bluegills, big bluegills deserve a certain reverence. Big ‘Bull’ slab bluegills have a pugnacious, pug-nosed and are quite likely to be 8- to 10-year-old fish, especially when found in northern climes.
Given a short growing season, it takes a considerable amount of time for a leviathan bluegill to reach 9 or 10 inches. He’s spent his entire life avoiding herons, muskies, otters and anglers to get that big. As with a wily buck in the rut, about the only time he’s likely to make a mistake is during the spring when his mind is on procreation instead of survival.
Indeed, spring is the one time when you can clean up on the big bulls. The hulks leave the security of deeper water to invade the shallows and spawn. Jumbo males will be in the shallows to set up housekeeping long before their female counterparts. Males dig saucer-shaped redds, or beds, and strut their Sunday best to attract prospective mates. Spawning can take place anytime from late May into August, depending on your latitude. In general, June is prime time, but much of it depends on water temperature. When water temperatures reach from 70 to 75 degrees, expect spawning activity to intensify.
We were fishing a lake several years ago that was famous for its outrageous numbers of slab bluegills. Having fished the lake for years, we knew the areas the bluegills preferred for bedding. Two things that you need to locate bedding bluegills are polarized glasses and a surface temperature gauge.
Early in the week, we slipped back into a shallow bay to check on bedding activity. We caught a few fish from the bay, but there weren’t any obvious signs of heavy bedding activity. The surface temperature gauge on my brother Pat’s boat read 72 degrees.
Knowing that saucer-sized bluegills had to be staging nearby ready to rush into the skinny water as soon as it warmed a little more, we began checking out the deeper water just outside the bay. By jigging and drifting with slip-bobbers close to the bottom, we located schools of staging bluegills and hammered the big bulls for a couple of days. I’m sure other anglers that saw us were wondering why we were fishing in the middle of nowhere.
Following two blistering-hot days with temperatures in the 90s meant it was time to check out the shallow bay again. Pat noted that the temperature gauge now read 77 degrees, 5 degrees warmer than it had just a couple of days earlier.
We dropped the trolling motor to edge into the shallows. Before we even got into the skinny water we could see schools of bluegills migrating through the weeds headed for the shallows. Our polarized glasses revealed the bull male ’gills had moved in. The bay was pockmarked with saucer-shaped beds that resembled craters on the moon. Each bed held an ornery bull ready to defend his territory.
Catch one of the big males and another quickly moved in to take his place. As the week went on, roe-laden females moved into the area to join the finned orgy.
Bedding bluegills can be downright spooky or they can be obstinate and indifferent. There doesn’t seem to be any in between. Bluegills are most spooky when they first get on the beds in shallow water. Cast a heavy bobber that lands kerplunk in the middle of them and they’ll be hightailing it for the nearest cover. Used to having the safety of weeds or deep water to escape to, bull ’gills can be fidgety when they first invade the skinny water.
As they go about the business of making a bed and then getting into the spawning mode, they get more determined about not giving up their space. It’s like flipping a switch as the bulls go from shy to attack mode over the course of a couple of days. With an equally belligerent neighbor just a few feet away, bulls can get a little testy and that plays right into an angler’s eager hands.
Still, you should approach a prospective bedding area by drifting into position or using a trolling motor and then use the sun to your advantage. Stop short first and make long casts to get a feel for things before you bust in hell-bent-for-leather and spook every fish to deeper water.
If you’re fishing from the bank, walk softly and make as little noise as possible. Keep a low profile to prevent casting your shadow across the beds and wear drab clothing, or even camouflage.
Tackle for targeting bluegills on the beds is largely a matter of personal preference. You can use something as simple as a cane pole and bobber, but most anglers like equipment that maximizes the dogged fight of a bluegill and makes catching them challenging and enjoyable.
The most common tackle combination for bluegills is an ultralight spinning rod and reel filled with a clear, light, monofilament or fluorocarbon line testing 2 to 6 pounds. The combo is ideal for line-shy bulls and for casting micro-sized lures and jigs. My brother, Pat, uses an old, longer 7 1/2-foot glass rod that has a parabolic bend for bluegills.
The rod-and-reel combo is capable of casting a split shot and half a crawler or an ice-fishing jig a good distance. Setting the hook is as simple as raising the rod high and letting the rod bow into a deep bend. I can’t begin to fathom how many bulls have met their maker at the end of that rod.
When picking a spinning combination for bluegills you might be inclined to get the shortest, lightest, tiniest rod and reel to get your money’s worth out of the fight, but you’d be making a mistake. Light-action spinning rods stretching 6 to 7 feet give you better leverage for driving casts into strong winds, help in steering fish out of weeds, and come in handy when you hook into hefty largemouth bass, which hang around the same beds.
Spincasting combinations are a good option, especially for younger anglers. They’re easier to use than spinning rods with fewer moving parts and bails to deal with. Add a slip-bobber to the combination and fishing can be fairly trouble-free for the grownup. Slip-bobbers are a better option than fixed bobbers because you can reel the line right up to the bait or split shot and lessen the chance for tangles. Long, slender bobbers are perfect for detecting the sometimes-delicate bite of a bluegill and they make less commotion when entering the water. But it can pay to have a selection of bobbers that can suspend a couple of split shot and slightly larger baits, and that can be cast some distance into a strong wind.
My favorite way of catching bluegills though is with a fly rod. Fly rods are the best tool for harvesting bluegills. You can use a measured amount of line that can drop a super-light fly accurately on a saucer-shaped target with no commotion. You rarely have to change lures. My favorite fly-rod-lure combination is a size 12 rubber spider with a trailing nymph of some kind. The nymph pattern rarely matters as long as it’s durable. Hare’s Ear, Copper John and Brassies on size 10 or 12 hooks are good choices. The ’gills tear them up, and quite often you can catch the bluegills two at a time. I once caught 96 bluegills in an hour on a fly rod. I told you it’s a tool for harvesting and a heck of a lot of fun!
While flies are one choice for bluegill baits, there are lots of others. Initially on our annual pilgrimage to one of North America’s premier bluegill lakes, we’d take a couple of thousand wax worms and a flat of nightcrawlers. Then, it got to the point where we figured out we didn’t need live bait to catch bluegills on the beds. Bluegills will tear up scent-enhanced plastics like Berkley Gulp!, Northland Impulse and others. The plastics come in a variety of shapes that imitate bluegill munchies like insects, worms and minnows. Use them on light 1/32- to 1/64-ounce jigs or smaller, or on ice-fishing teardrops.
Just about any body of water can have bull bluegills, but it takes a special body of water to produce numbers of big ’gills. Waters have to have just the right combination of bluegill density, food and predators to grow bluegills to the max. Ponds and small private lakes can be bluegill mother lodes, but they need to be carefully managed for maximum benefit. Catch too many of the bulls, and you end up with a bunch of stunted runts. Largemouth bass are an important tool for keeping bluegill populations in check and producing the maximum number of bulls.
As a general rule, large public lakes tend to produce the most consistent bluegill fishing. The lake has to have a solid predator base, shallow spawning areas with a suitable substrate, deeper water to retreat to during the hot summer months, and weeds. Bigger lakes are capable of producing more biomass, and if conditions are right, a good portion of it will be bluegills.
The predator base is important to cull smaller bluegills from the population and to prevent overpopulation. Many well-known walleye or bass lakes will have a significant bull ’gill population that few anglers know about, or they don’t know how to catch them.
The big bulls are targeted in the spring when they’re in the shallows, vulnerable, and highly visible, but once they leave and take up residence in deeper water, few anglers target them. Anglers may catch a few when pulling a crawler harness for walleye or when live bait rigging, but there are few diehard bluegill fanatics.
Weeds are the dinner table for bluegills, and the bigger the dinner table, the bigger the bluegills. Weeds harbor aquatic insects, offer protection from predators, and provide shelter for minnows and baitfish.
Weedbeds can also be a great place to prospect for bedding bluegills. The trick is to find hard-bottomed area within the weeds that offer spawning habitat. Look for open areas or holes in the weeds. These will be areas of gravel or rocks that are too hard for weeds to grow, but the perfect consistency for spawning. These honeyholes are sometimes difficult to find and pinpoint, but once you find them, you can take a limit of bull bluegills without moving. And the same areas seem to produce year after year.
Once the bull bluegills leave the shallows, anglers tend to forget about them. It takes a little more doing to find them during the summer months and most anglers don’t know where to look. Big bulls are like any other top-of-the-line predator. You’re not going to find them in the shallows with the runts, except to feed.
Temperature can be key. Look for a bull’s preferred water temperature of 69 degrees and you’ll be in the ballpark. To find that temperature requires a temperature gauge, and chances are that as summer water temperatures rise, it will be found in fairly deep water, often deeper than you would think.
Summer bulls behave much like walleyes or smallmouths, relating to structure and temperature. In fact, fishing for bulls is much like fishing for walleyes and bass. Use livebait rigs or slip-bobbers, but instead of using a whole nightcrawler, use redworms or pigmy crawlers or modest-sized leeches.
Maybe the best part about catching bull bluegills is the eating. I don’t know of any fish that tops a platter of golden fried bluegill filets. Just remember that it takes a while to grow a good-sized bull, and so go ahead and take a few for dinner, but be sure to leave some for seed.