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All-American Gamefish: An Appreciation of the Bluegill

Sinking spiders, light tackle, summertime fun bring a panfish renaissance for the author.

All-American Gamefish: An Appreciation of the Bluegill

The bluegill may be the quintessential All-American gamefish. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

If I'm completely honest, I was in a bit of a surly mood when I stepped from my SUV and began to get ready for a bit of summertime fishing a few days before the Fourth of July this year.

In fact, there was a bit of a weary frown on my face this particular late-June morning as I put together the five-weight fiberglass fly rod, attached the old Orvis Battenkill click-and-pawl reel made in England, and threaded the fly line and leader through the guides.

A creaky back acting up more than usual, family members who had come down with the super bug stalking our planet the last couple of years, and the worries of a middle-aged empty-nester trying to figure out the new normal were all clogging up the cerebral cortex, giving me a mild case of the mid-summer blues rather than one of Shakespeare's mid-summer night's dreams.

Catch Bluegills 4th of July
Beautiful brawlers that live almost everywhere across the country, bluegills just might be the All-American fish, especially when battled on lightweight tackle. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

To make matters worse—or better, depending on your electric bill perspective—a rather strong cold front for this time of the year had pushed across the Red River into North Texas, meaning that the nice northerly breeze carried a bit of refreshing respite from the usual Lone Star State heat, but it would also make the fishing a bit more difficult too in all likelihood.

But, bluegills were the angling fare of the day, not the moody Florida-strain largemouth bass that I was sure were out sulking some place deep as water temperatures pushed well up into the 80s, promising the summertime offshore bite and dog-day shallow-water doldrums. Hopefully, with a new moon approaching, I could trade the bass I was sure wouldn't bite very well and find a few late-spawning bream, and coaxing a few into biting.

When I got on the water, the bluegill fly box was opened, an explosion of color with small poppers of various types, a few of the late Michael Verduin's well-known Cap Spiders, and a hodgepodge of other non-descript buggy-looking patterns that I've accumulated over the years.

On this day, however, a curious pattern that I'd never fished—and one that I honestly have no remembrance of obtaining anywhere—caught my attention from the cornered recess of the old Scientific Anglers fly box I bought many years ago at some fly shop along the way. Perhaps I bought the fly at the same fly shop, possibly someone like my guide friend Rob Woodruff handed it to me on an East Texas bream hotspot, or maybe it was even a raffle prize at a local fly club meeting.

There's a good chance I plucked it from the foam because it was in mint condition and previously unused. It could be because it was simply different, and I couldn't ever recall having fished the fly pattern. Truth be known, I probably chose the fly because it was black and chartreuse, similar to the black-and-gold colors of the local Denison Yellow Jackets football team, my high school alma mater and the Friday Night Lights pigskin warriors whose gridiron games I've called on the radio for 30-plus years now.

Summer bluegill fishing
Bluegills, or bream as many Southerners call the panfish species, are beautiful brawlers that live almost everywhere in America. Fine as a diminutive game fish or even Fourth of July table fare, they often can't help but attack a popper or a slow sinking spider imitation, giving an angler a summertime morning of fun, even when the heat is on. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

After tying the size-10 fly to the end of a fluorocarbon leader, I made my first cast in a likely looking area near the deep water side of a weedline and watched it began to slowly sink. It wasn't long before a couple of bluegills made a run at the fly, knocking it around, but turning away in the end.

The action of this pattern—which further online investigation revealed was one of Houma, La., fly tyer Stephen Robert's Slow Sinking Spiders—was simply mesmerizing to me and the local bluegills, green sunfish, and long-eared sunfish that came calling.

A two-tone body of black-and-chartreuse ultrafine chenille tied on a size-10 hook (some like Robert use a Mustad 94840 dry fly hook, while others use a 1X or 2X curved wet fly or nymph hook for this pattern) with a pair of rubber legs splayed out to the side give this fly a unique motion as it slowly falls through the water column with the legs waving. Twitch it slowly during the retrieve, and the local sunfish can't stand it, even on a bright-and-sunny summertime day.

A few casts into my morning, I finally connected as a hand-sized panfish made a swipe that was a little bit too close, providing a solid take and putting a good arc in the fiberglass rod, reminding me of why I'm enjoying this panfish renaissance as I roll through my 50s.


Maybe it's the fact that bluegills were the genesis of my fishing career and still bring an emotional connection to my late father. Huge bluegills, in fact, that weighed a pound-plus when pulled from the Mississippi River oxbow named Horseshoe Lake, an eastern Arkansas water body where my dad used to fish for bass as I played around with a cork, a lightweight wire hook, and a box of crickets bought from a Memphis bait shop.

Perhaps it's because in some way, they are a change of pace from the big Texas largemouths that I'm normally in pursuit of as my on-going quest to catch one or more 10-pound lunkers—on a fly rod, no less—continues unfulfilled. Like most things in the outdoors arena, I like traveling a bit of a different path and making things a bit more challenging in the end. Perhaps that explains why a fly rod and a bow are the lenses that I choose to see the outdoors world through, most days when I'm afield.

Or maybe, it's because the bluegill is in many ways—sorry Mr. Bucketmouth Bass—are the quintessential All-American fish, a diminutive piscatorial brawler who is a worthy species that lives just about everywhere in the land of the red, white, and blue.

As Uncle Sam gets ready to celebrate his 246th birthday this week, the bluegill continues to be almost universally the pathway into the angling arts across the U.S.A. It requires little more than a cane pole, some monofilament line, and a worm or cricket wiggling at the end.

Beautiful in their own right, aggressive to a fault when a fly or lure hits the water, and always giving a tremendous account of themselves as they fight at the end of an angler's line, the bluegill (or bream, as many of my fellow Texans call them) are an absolute hoot to catch on lightweight tackle. And that's true, mind you, whether you're 5 or 55.

Bluegills are small but fight hard
Bluegills are found in all kinds of water bodies all across the USA and many are small and mid-sized panfish. But big or not, they all fight tremendously hard on lightweight tackle and serve for many angler's as the gateway into America's angling riches. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

On this day, as I probed the deep water structure and weedlines on this little local lake, I eventually found a few late-June saucer-shaped depressions that told me the spawn wasn't over yet. With the faint smell of bedding bluegills in the air, the action picked up and I was soon lost in the unconscious pursuit of the fish of my childhood, and perhaps, my middle age too. In the end, searching for big bluegills—especially on a lightweight fly rod—is a simple endeavor filled with fishing's most satisfying result, a whole lot of fun.

While the day wasn't spectacular from a number's standpoint—I lost count but ended up somewhere just shy of a couple of dozen, I think—it served its purpose, bringing me back to my angling roots while the bass rig, the new trolling motor and electronics, and a pile of high-dollar tackle in the garage all collected dust.

Soon, a couple of hours had passed by, and I remembered fully well why I had been so attracted to the pastime of fishing in the first place—because it's simply a whole lot of fun.

When my suddenly valuable fly pattern snagged hard on a piece of stubby vegetation, the resulting tugs I gave it on the 6-lb. fluorocarbon eventually caused the leader to snap. And as it did, I realized that the frown the day began with had been replaced with a big smile.

Relaxed and happy, I reeled up, because thanks to America's pugnacious little fish, it was time to go.

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