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What's More All-American than Bluegills and Crickets?

Get some light tackle and panfish baits for some angling fireworks this summer.

What's More All-American than Bluegills and Crickets?

As spring and summer continue on for bluegills spawning around full-moon cycles, there’s often a lunar calendar associated spike in cricket sales at local bait shops across many portions of the South. With these brown-colored panfish candy nuggets readily available for anglers, the terrestrials and bluegills seem to go together like the Fourth of July and fireworks. (Photo courtesy of Randy Zellers / Arkansas Game and Fish Commission)

I couldn't help but smile, and maybe even chuckle a little bit, when a fishing guide friend sent me a news release from the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission.

The title: "First full moon in June prompts annual spike in cricket sales."

Been there, done that. I have the cricket box to prove it because crickets were a major part of my childhood introduction to fishing. And anglers everywhere understand that concept, because as the spring and summer spawns of bluegills and other sunfish continue, crickets often lead the way.

"'The first full moon in June,' was a saying told to me by Johnny Riley, the first boss I ever worked for," said Randy Zellers, the assistant chief of communications for the AGFC. "Riley knew better than anyone when the bream spawn was because his livelihood depended upon it. He owned and operated Riley Bait Farm in Southaven, Mississippi. I spent much of my free time during my sophomore year of high school feeding and watering crickets he hatched and raised for bait shops to sell throughout eastern Arkansas and northern Mississippi."

closeup up bluegill caught on fly
Bluegills are a lot of fun to catch on the fly and ultra-light tackle with crickets. With another summertime full-moon cycle appearing on the calendar, good panfish possibilities remain across much of the country. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

Zellers says three dates have always stood out as the best times for crickets, or bream candy as he called them: Memorial Day, Labor Day, and that first full moon in July. "The first two were the result of the traditional three-day weekends that bookend summer," he said. "The last spike was the product of some primordial switch that triggered redear sunfish and bluegill throughout the mid-South to bed up for their spawn and destroy anything that found its way into their spawning territory.”

I might be so bold as to add in the Fourth of July holiday as it approaches next week. The next full moon is Monday, July 3, by the way, making for a great chance to catch a mess of panfish with family and friends on the Fourth. Crickets should be front and center as bait. That includes cricket-imitating flies for fly anglers.

If you'd like to target some bluegills, and perhaps catch a few late spawners, keep a few things in mind. As Zellers notes, bluegills and redears—the two biggest sunfish targets in the mid-South—like to spawn on gravel bottoms in shallow water (although redears, or shellcrackers, usually prefer to go deep after that). Sandy shallow areas are also prime targets, such as in north Texas.

Second, you'll need to do a little recon to find those spawning areas. Zellers notes that bluegills are colony nesters, which will cause them to gather in large groups next to other nests to protect their eggs and fry from marauding predators like largemouth bass. If you've never seen a bluegill bed, think about the dimples of a golf ball. Or small craters on the moon, small depressions that dot the shallows of lakes and ponds. Most will be in one to three feet of water, but sometimes, they can be a little deeper.

If sight is one way to find spawning bluegills, a second way is to smell them. It's hard to describe in print, but imagine the faint aroma of a sweet watermelon or something similar to honeysuckle that is blooming.




A third way, if the water is dingy and off-colored from rainfall or bottom composition, is to just simply go prospecting. When I can't see the beds, I methodically move about until a sponge spider fly on my three-weigh fly rod gets whacked by a feisty bluegill from below. When that happens multiple times, I know I'm in a spawning area and will sink down some roots because where there’s one bluegill, there are undoubtedly others close by.

And when you find bluegill spawning beds, make a mental note. "Each bream will make a small dish-shaped depression in the lake bottom to deposit eggs, fertilize them and protect them from thieves," Zellers said. "With some searching, anglers can find massive honeycomb-shaped blocks of nests that can produce for days. Often, the same area will produce year-after-year because it has just the right mix of bottom content, nearby cover and water depth to play nursery duty."

Today's sonar equipment and even satellite photos have made the search for bluegill bedding areas a bit easier. In his news release, Zellers shared a Google Earth satellite image showing dozens of beds clearly from many miles above. However you find these bluegill beds you won’t regret it.

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bluegill spawning beds
Randy Zellers, a bluegill fishing enthusiast and the assistant chief of communications for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, says that sometimes, bream bed colonies can be massive enough that they can even be found on aerial imagery tools like Google Earth. This location on an Arkansas lake, showed up easily after the water receded following a spring spawn.

"Finding bream beds can take a little time, but it’s well worth it with the large amount of sunfish that can be caught," Zellers wrote. "Look for those gravel bottom areas on the sides of secondary points and other areas shielded from waves and current. Old road beds from before lakes were flooded also offer that hard bottom spawning bream seek. In some lakes that see drawdowns, you can sometimes find the dish-shaped remnants of last year’s beds during winter and mark them for future fishing opportunities."

For conventional tackle anglers, a lightweight spinning rod-and-reel is tough to beat. A good resource to consider Game & Fish’s 2023 Tackle Test 2023 gear reviews .

Many anglers like to downsize their tackle even more, opting for ultra-light gear. Regular-sized or ultralight, you'll want to spool your rig with 4- to 6-pound monofilament fishing line, a small bait hook if you're using natural baits like crickets, a split shot or two, and of course, a bobber. Bluegills will also take small lures, spinnerbaits and jigs, so have several options in your tacklebox.

bluegill spawning beds
Bream beds in shallow water are hard to miss, as they typically resemble the cratered surface of the moon. (Photo by Shane Beilue)

There's also the time-honored cane pole, a staple for many southern bream anglers, and a simple way to get in some fishing on the July 4th holiday. Whether you cut and cure your own pole—see Keith Sutton's excellent story on that—or buy a cane pole from a local bait and tackle shop (usually less than about $10), these long, whippy poles are excellent tools for catching a mess of bluegills from the bank, small jon-boat, or canoe or kayak. Attach some light mono to the end of the pole, a bait hook, a split shot and a bobber, and you're in business.

A fly rod is perfectly suited for catching bluegills, redears, longear sunfish, redbreasts, green sunfish and more. While I got started with five-weight and six-weight rods on panfish missions, today, I prefer a 7-foot, 6-inch three-weight graphite rod with a small Orvis Rocky Mountain fly reel and weight-forward floating line. Bluegills aren't typically leader shy, so I opt for a 7.5- or 9-foot leader in 3X or 4X size category.

As for flies, I like to start out with topwater offerings and see if the fish are looking up. A sponge spider is a top choice for me, but at times, I'll also cast something bigger like a yellow Boogle Bug or a Betts popper, since they are a little larger and often a way to keep smaller sunfish from getting hooked.

bluegill in hand
As bluegills and other sunfish continue to periodically spawn around full-moon cycles through late-summer, these feisty panfish are plentiful, fun to catch and great on the table. Sometimes weighing one pound or better, they are a sporting challenge on ultra-light spinning tackle or lightweight fly rods tossing flies. (Photo courtesy of Randy Zellers / AGFC)

Even on a red-hot bluegill bed, the topwater bite can slow down after a few fish get caught. And somedays, it’s just not there at all. But usually, bluegills are still eager to take a subsurface fly, something like Terry Wilson's weighted Bully Bluegill spider , a Ligon's Brim Killer, or a Cap Spider, the creation of the late Texas fly tyer Michael Verduin.

Also, there's great flies from one of fly fishing's Mount Rushmore figures, the late Dave Whitlock. Whitlock passed away last November from a stroke at Thanksgiving, but his flies live on, including Dave's Cricket, a terrestrial pattern he designed years ago. Tied commercially today by Rainy’s, the pattern can be found nationwide and has filled the bins of fly shops like Ohio's Mad River Outfitters for a quarter of a century or more.

However you choose to fish for summer bluegills, a word of caution here—don't be too greedy and overdo it. It's not only good conservation for this incredible fishing resource down the road, but also a good practice for anglers hoping for more good outings.

"Leaving a few behind to guard the nests can prompt more bream to set up shop between trips, replenishing your fishing area for a few trips before a bed plays out," said Zellers. "Veteran bream anglers will keep a rotation of bream beds locked away in their heads and keep only five or 10 of the largest fish from each before moving on."

Crickets and bluegills are great combination throughout the summer. "Even if you’re not able to time your trips with the lunar schedule, bream are one of the most cooperative species," Zeller wrote, "especially if you have one of those little brown bugs that helped pay for some of this author’s wonder years."

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