The colorful stem float was listing—purposely set as a leaner by withholding the BB shot that would force it to stand upright. I lightly jiggled the rod tip. The stem danced slightly, stopped, and then slowly fell flush to the surface as if it had fainted. Within seconds of responding with a steady, rod-pulling hookset, I held a plump bluegill in hand.
While showing aggressive hit-and-run tactics later in the season, bluegills are very shy biters in the early spring as the water temperature struggles to climb through the 40s. During this time, angler success depends on small baits, a sensitive float and finding a little bit warmer water.
To locate the latter, check out areas on lakes and reservoirs that are sheltered from cold northern winds, receive ample direct sunlight, have a dark bottom or remnant vegetation to absorb solar heating and are shallow around the edges. Small bays, inlets, backwater sloughs, connecting canals and shallow marina basins are among the possibilities
Zooplankton and insect larva are on the menu for bluegills in the early spring. In chilly water, ‘gills rarely chase forage. Instead they swim slowly up to it and suck it in. Therefore, a bait must be small enough and light enough to be vacuumed effortlessly.
Jigs can rarely be too small—1/32-, 1/64- and 1/80-ounce are good places to start. Don’t go larger than a size #8 hook or smaller than a size #14.
Tiny plastic bodies from 1/2-inch to 1 1/4-inch are threaded on these jig heads. But rather than a curly or swim tail, I opt for thin quivertails so they shimmy with the slightest twitch of the line. Tiny tubes and split-tail grub bodies produce, as well, when tipped with a couple maggots. Color-wise, orange, red or chartreuse usually get a good response. However, basic black is every bit as good as any color.
Or you can skip the plastic bodies and go natural. Tiny hair or marabou plume jigs and beaded nymph patterns make up the arsenal for a couple of my fishing acquaintances. Writer and gadabout angler Jeff Samsel pursues panfish around the country.
For cold-water bluegills, he relies mainly on small hand-tied jigs in black, olive or tan on a 1/32-ounce jig head. But if he finds it necessary to take finesse to the extreme in order to get bites from particularly spooky ‘gills in the shallows, he ties a bit of black hair, dubbing and a peacock herl on a #10 or #12 tungsten head nymph hook. “Trout fishermen call it a fly, but to me it’s a micro jig,” Samsel says with a smile. “It goes perfectly with the smallest float I carry in my box.”
Panfish guru Jim Gronaw of Maryland also fishes very small hand-tied jigs in patterns of his own creation: Dark hair wrapped to a 1/64- or 1/80-ounce head to which a live larval bait is added. “Sometimes, rather than a hair jig, I use a plain painted jig head tipped with a wax worm, meal worm or two maggots,” says Gronaw. “The heads are white, orange, pink or chartreuse. I don’t think a specific color matters, but I believe any bright color attracts chilly-water bluegills to the baited jig.”
One cannot fish micro jigs effectively without a float to suspend that bait. A proper float adds some weight for casting micro jigs, and provides the increased sensitivity required to detect the lightest bites from cold-water bluegills.
Here is a quick reminder of the difference between a fixed float and a slip float. “Fixed” (or “pegged”) refers to a float affixed to one position on the line by means of a wire spring, wire clips, small peg or silicone sleeves. On the other hand, slip rigging allows the bobber to slide down the line near the bait during the cast and then slide back up the line to a pre-set bobber stop, which designates the depth setting.
Samsel prefers slip-float rigging. “Early in the spring I most often use a slip float because I am presenting the jig in a little deeper water than a fixed float comfortably allows. A slip float is easier to cast. Casting a fixed bobber with more than three feet of separation between float and bait results in a tumbling effect, which reduces both casting distance and accuracy.”
His go-to float for most conditions is a classic pencil-style balsa slip float capable of supporting a 1/32-ounce jig. Faced with wind or slight current, he might switch to an oval-body stem float for extra stability.
“If bluegills are in three feet of water or less and very skittish, my fall-back option is two-pound test and a beaded nymph supported by a Thill Ice ’n Fly Special float,” says Samsel.
When fishing large ponds from the shoreline, Gronaw utilizes a fixed float. He believes a fixed float attached at the bottom and top provides a more direct pull when setting the hook, thereby resulting in a higher percentage of hookups. Also, given his wind-drift approach, a fixed float keeps the bait at a constant depth. During a wind-drift, a slip float may slide down the line closer to the bait.
“My number-one choice is thefive-and-a-half-gram Sheffield Balsa. It attaches with tiny silicon sleeves, can be adjusted easily and does not damage thin mono like clip-on bobbers do,” says Gronaw. “However, I sometimes use the three-quarter-inch Plastilite pear-shaped clip-on or the weighed four-and-three-quarter-inch orange-top Rocket Bobber clip-on for longer casting distance and better visibility.”
My favorite bobbers include several models of Thill Gold Medal Floats (Super Shy Bite, Stealth and Mini Stealth) with the X-Change line attachment. The X-Change gizmo on the bottom stem enables a float to be switched between a slip float and fixed float simply by moving the silicone sleeve. Slide it up to create a hole for line to pass through freely or slide it down to peg the line against the bobber stem.
Also, by sliding the sleeve a bit farther up the stem, the float can be removed and replaced with another size float—either smaller or larger—without having to cut and retie the jig. By adding or removing small BB shot, a replacement float can be balanced as desired, thereby maintaining the ability to detect the lightest bite.
Samsel and I fish our floats in a similar fashion. “In early spring, my presentations are always slow and subtle,” he says. “I use the rod tip to jiggle the float and make the jig dance a bit without moving the rig. I’ll cast to a spot, let the rig rest several seconds, jiggle the float a few times, pause, jiggle a couple times and pause it again. Then I might pull the float a foot or two and repeat the process.”
Gronaw prefers to let a mild breeze do the work in order to cover open-water territory on his favorite ponds. “When a warm spell with southern breezes pushes warmer water against the northern shoreline creating a thermal bank that is three to six degrees warmer than the rest of the pond or lake, bluegills can be very close to shore,” he says. “A breeze propels my float-n-jig enticingly along. Keep up with slack line so you can set the hook on tight, straight line.”
In cold water, don’t expect bluegills to completely pull a float under when they take a bait—it doesn’t always happen. Being able to read a bite without the float disappearing below the surface is critical.
Without adding additional BB shot, a stem-style float might either tilt or lay flat on the surface, depending on the weight of the jighead. Actually, this is an advantage for reading extra-light bites.
“My Sheffield float will lay flat with a 1/64 or 1/80-ounce jig,” says Gronaw. “A strike is indicated when the top stem ‘tilts’ upward or stands straight up but does not go under. That tells me it’s time to set the hook. With the water temperature in the upper 30s and low 40s, very few bluegills pull the float under.”
In order to detect what are called upbites, I use a slightly different float trick. I weight my long-stem float just enough so the float’s position rests at 45 degrees. When a bluegill sucks in the bait, thereby relieving tension on the line, but does not move off, the float stem lays over and rests on the surface. That’s when I know it’s hook-setting time.
Bluegill Bobber Outfit
A rod length of 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 feet with a light or ultralight action rated for two- to six-pound-test line is a good choice. Even if action is listed as ultralight, the rod should be moderate soft taper with some power in the butt section so it can load and propel a bobber rig. A short, buggy-whippy parabolic blank that bends all the way into the handle is not recommended. However, since the float is doing all the bite detection, there really isn’t a need to invest in a high-end graphite rod. Heck, even an old fiberglass rod can serve as a good bobber rod.
Four-pound test will perform very well as an all-around line, although there may be times two-pound test works better. Jim Gronaw insists on a clear or green copolymer. I’m more of a high-vis guy, favoring a line I can see easily above the water. With the fine diameter of a four-pound copolymer, I am not concerned bluegills might see it. If they do, they just might follow it to the jig.