May 02, 2022
It was a long winter and a slow arrival of spring, but big bluegills are emerging now from the chill and darkness of the past several months. After relying on a steady diet of zooplankton and bloodworms, they’re shaking off their lethargic lifestyle and seeking warmer waters with a promise of a more varied selection of forage items.
Tiny minnows, grass shrimp and larger plankton species are on the menu. The ageless instinct to feed and prepare for the rigorous bluegill spawn settles in as food becomes abundant.
Though it will be some time before beds are fanned and eggs are dropped, larger adult bluegills will be heading to the shallows in an effort to gain strength and bulk up for the weeks and months ahead. Now, more than any other time of year, quality and even trophy bluegills are vulnerable to micro-sized presentations.
Shortly after ice-out, fish will gradually move to shallow bays, flats or areas of emerging vegetation when water temperatures are in the mid-40s to 60 degrees. Cold fronts push fish back deep, while warm, stable weather sees roaming bulls methodically invade the shallows. By early April, most Eastern lakes and ponds have fish on the move, with emerging weed beds being a key ingredient for fish location. Weeds provide protection from predators and hold a variety of aquatic invertebrates and minnow species for bluegills to feed on.
At this time, bluegills often suspend in the water column and can range from 6 feet down to literally just below the surface. In deeper, clearer lakes, they can drop much deeper. Sometimes they may hover over weed tops or hunker down in them when the weather turns foul. In smaller community lakes or farm ponds, fish can be even shallower, but will quickly retreat to the depths when a cold front rolls in.
During these initial shallow movements, bluegills will seek any forage option available. This feeding spree can last on-and-off for several weeks, depending on the rising water temperatures. When the water warms to 68 degrees, fish will be more concerned with spawning than feeding and they will be at their shallowest locations of the year. Again, environmental factors can extend or reduce the early bite on suspended fish. Cold spring rains or high-water flooding events can wreck a good bite, and it may or may not recover, depending on ensuing weather patterns.
Wind also plays a role here, with southerly winds banking warmer surface water into the shallows. Pay attention to weather patterns that persist for several days. A mild, partly sunny day with 10 mph south winds that blow in your face is ideal. Allow the wind to drift your micro baits while you keep a sharp eye on the movements of the floats that suspend them. Additionally, warm rains can trigger a good bite in the back end of coves or in shallow lakes and ponds, and fish may elevate higher in the water column.
FINDING THE BULLS
When it comes to giant bluegills, not all bodies of water are created equal. Many public waters may hold fish that top out at 7 or 8 inches—not bad fish, but not “bull” status either. Full-bodied, 9-inch fish are more what we are looking for, and 10-inch-class ’gills are the ultimate goal. You will not find fish of this caliber in every waterway, so some investigation and exploration will be required to find the bulls.
An internet search of big fish caught in public lakes and ponds that consistently yield big fish should be your first step. Most states have information on “citation-sized” entries for each species, and bluegills that exceed the 10-inch mark would be considered trophy-class specimens throughout much of the region. In my home state of Maryland, Deep Creek Lake, at 3,900 acres, has long produced trophy bluegills from 10 to 12 inches, including the current state record at an astonishing 3 pounds 9 ounces.
The most consistently producing public venues I fish are typically smaller, shallower state park lakes and millponds of less than 100 surface acres that are isolated from the masses or off the beaten path.
Almost always, I look for lakes that have high numbers of small- to medium-sized largemouth bass that can adequately forage upon and thin-out high populations of smaller bluegills. This allows greater growth potential for the remainder of the bluegill population and bigger, even trophy-size fish can be the result.
Some years I spend more time searching for good bluegill waters than fishing them. Keep your eyes and ears open and don’t be afraid to run down a few rumors now and again. It takes time and effort, but you might just find the motherlode of giant bulls.
Even huge bluegills have small mouths, and their forage options are going to be on the small side. Start by suspending tiny 1/64-ounce jigs; if they don’t produce, go smaller. My favorite choice in spring is a 1/80-ounce round, painted jig head tipped with some kind of live bait or a commercially produced bait such as Berkley Gulp! Bright colors like orange, chartreuse and yellow attract the keen eyesight of bulls, while the bait often seals the deal for finicky fish.
Suspended and bouncing below a sensitive float, the movement alone is often all that is needed to entice the fish. The bait also helps when waters are turbid, as scent can trigger a strong bite as well. During warm, breezy conditions, this tactic is hard for fish to resist.
Other micro-lure options work equally well. Nymphs with gold, silver or black bead heads can represent any number of insects. Hook size is important, too. Jigs should have No. 8 or No. 10 hooks, while nymphs should sport No. 10 to No. 14 hooks. Barbless hooks work well and will actually hook and hold more fish that the barbed variety. Again, tipping bead heads may attract more strikes than a plain hook. At times, a tiny piece of garden worm is a killer.
Don’t ignore other jig styles. I’ve had success with both minnow and nail-head jigs that are slightly larger and sport a baitfish profile. Depending where you fish, small minnow varieties may be an abundant food source for early ’gills. In tidal waters, grass shrimp are a staple for big bluegills and make an excellent tipping bait. I often tie micro jigs to imitate grass shrimp, fishing them without the addition of any bait.
Delivering these tiny baits requires longer rods than your standard ultralights. For longer casts I use a 9-foot, medium-light Shimano Convergence CVS-M90-ML2 spinning rod teamed with a Shimano Sienna 500 spooled with Trout Magnet SOS 4-pound test monofilament in green. You can use a larger 1000-series reel of your choice if longer casts are necessary.
Another good outfit is the 7-foot-6-inch Daiwa Presso Panfish Series 76ULPS with the Sienna spooled with Berkley Trilene Xtra Limp monofilament in either 2- or 4-pound test or the SOS line. Yes, 10-pound braid with a 4-pound-test mono leader works as well; however, lightweight braids can sustain loops and tangle in breezy conditions. Since I am watching bobbers and not “feeling” strikes, the sensitivity of the braid is not necessary. Over the years I have had better success with the monofilament lines.
For suspending tiny offerings, I like to use the 4 3/4-inch Rocket Bobber or the 4 1/2-inch, 5 1/2-gram Sheffield Balsa Float. The Rocket Bobber has a retractable clip on the bottom and can cast like a bullet in the wind. After several fish and around 30 casts, check the spot on the line where the bobber is clipped, as lighter lines can be damaged from repetitive casting. Simply retie the jig and move the float up the line and you’re all set. Attach the Sheffield Balsa with a pair of included silicon sleeves on the stems of the float.
This indicator can slide up and down your line with no damage and is ideal for shorter casting duties due to its lighter weight. For longer casts on large flats, coves or shorelines, I like the Rocket Bobber. If fish have moved in close or are hovering over weeds, the Sheffield gets the call.
READING BOBBERS RIGHT
How to know when to set that hook.
When using “stem style” floats such as the Rocket Bobber and Sheffield Balsa, bait and lure combinations need to be balanced so that the float lies horizontal on the water’s surface. Both floats will suspend lures of 1/64 ounce and lighter in this manner. It may be weeks before bluegills are aggressive enough to bite and pull floats completely under, but for now a delicate strike is the deal.
FLOAT ’EM FLAT
Rig micro lures at the desired depth (3 to 6 feet) and test them so they are riding flat even with a choppy surface. When a bluegill takes the bait, the top stem of the float will “tilt” slightly or even swing completely perpendicular to the surface of the water. This is your indication that it is time to set the hook.
However, on a very tentative bite, bluegills will nip, inhale and even expel a bait in a matter of a few seconds. This causes the float to tilt, fall back flat, tilt again and then return to the flat position, with the fish having abandoned the offering or having eaten the bait. Some bites will be telegraphed by a tilted float that remains stationary in the wind and does not travel or drift as it was. In this case, a bluegill has taken your bait and is holding motionless in the water. Set the hook!
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
It takes some experience and a keen eye to differentiate the difference between a bluegill bite and a jig hung up in the weeds. As waters warm and bluegills become more aggressive, they will start to submerge floats and bobbers with authority. However, one thing you don’t want to do is “out-cast” your ability to set the hook on a raging bull. Light mono stretches, and the longer the cast the tougher it is to read the float and set hooks at a distance. The sensitive bite will eventually wane to the pugnacious nature of big bluegills. But for now, tiny is huge.