Skip to main content

Buggy-Whip Bluegills: Fantastically Fun Intro to Fly Fishing

There is no better entry to the sport of fly fishing than a pond full of hungry bream.

Buggy-Whip Bluegills: Fantastically Fun Intro to Fly Fishing
Bluegills and their various sunfish cousins are easy to locate and will eagerly take a wide range of flies. (Shutterstock image)

Few fish offer anglers as many chances for endless fun as bluegills found throughout the country in waters large and small. These colorful, hand-sized sunfish are voracious opportunists that will quickly make a meal out of any insect or tiny aquatic creature that happens by. This presents great opportunities for fly fishermen who, particularly during spring, rarely fail to score using a wide array of poppers, dry flies and nymphs.

Fly fishing for bluegills doesn’t require expensive gear or tremendous casting ability. Knowing how to cast a fly definitely helps, but you don’t have to consistently lay out 60 feet of line with pinpoint accuracy. The aggressive and forgiving attitude of these panfish during the spawn translates into a considerable number of opportunities to practice and hone your casting while also catching fish. This time of year, bluegills don’t spook when a fly lands a bit too close. If they do, they don’t go far. And when you blow a cast, taking a short break is often all it takes for the fish to calm down and return to very spot where you found them.

KNOW YOUR TARGET

Bluegills, also known as bream, are found in every state except Alaska. Members of the sunfish family, which includes the various bass species, they thrive in many different types of waters, from large lakes to small creeks and ponds within city parks, farms and golf courses. They can be targeted from a boat, canoe or kayak, or by wading or casting from the bank.

bluegill flies for fishing
Bluegills call for only a few surface and subsurface patterns. (Photo by Alan Clemons)

Prolific breeders, bluegills typically start spawning once water temperatures stabilize at 65 to 80 degrees. In the Southeast, this usually happens from April through September. The fish prefer clean water with plenty of forage in the vicinity and enough flow to replenish the oxygen. They fan the bottom with their tails to create saucer-sized nests and often hang out right beside others in prime habitat within a waterway. A gravel bottom is optimal, but bluegills will make do with a silty or muddy bottom when it’s the best available. Shallow areas with aquatic and shoreline vegetation like cattails, reeds or primrose are great places to look for potential targets.

Always pugnacious pugilists, bluegills fight hard for their size. On properly scaled tackle, they truly are a blast.

EFFECTIVE PATTERNS

No matter which waterway you fish, it won’t take a bunch of different flies to catch bluegills. While the list of proven patterns is long, you can get the job done with just a few. The upside with bluegills is that they’re not finicky when they’re hungry. In spring and summer, they gorge on a wide variety of insects, including mayflies, mosquitoes, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, gnats, midges, dragonflies and more. They also feast on small minnows, baby crayfish and just about anything else that looks edible.

By the way, flies for bluegills don’t need to be perfect replicas of the fish’s preferred prey. An inexpensive popper from a big-box store will usually produce strikes just as well as a hand-carved cork model you painstakingly made yourself.

If the fish stop hitting popping bugs, try switching to a dry fly like an Elk Hair Caddis, Adams or Stimulator. Cricket and hopper patterns, like the Pink Pookie and Rainy’s Grand Hopper in tan or yellow, and foam spiders, ants and beetles tied on a size 8, 10 or 12 hook also do the trick.

For those times when bluegills won’t come up to pluck a fly from the surface, consider a size 8 or 10 scud, Hare’s Ear, Tellico, Prince Nymph or a Woolly Worm in olive, black or tan. The legendary San Juan Worm, in red or black, is another superb option.

“Any small popper, spider or hopper pattern works if bluegills are looking up. If they’re not, use a buggy nymph” says Jeff Samsel, an expert fly angler and longtime panfish pursuer. “I’d go with size 8 for the surface flies and sizes 10 and 12 for nymphs.”

TOOLS FOR THE TASK

As with fly selection, you don’t need a topnotch rod-and-reel combo for bluegills. And, while a case can be made for using a versatile 9-foot 8-weight (you never know when a bass will grab your fly), such a rod is overkill for panfish rarely weighing more than a pound.

“For bluegills, any old rod will work,” says Orvis ambassador Tom Rosenbauer. “But if I’m going to target them specifically, I like a smaller, lighter fly outfit. My rod of choice would be 7 1/2 to 8 1/2 feet long and designed to cast a 4- or 5-weight fly line. That makes catching even the little ones a lot of fun.”

Recommended


Rosenbauer recommends the Orvis Encounter combo, a solid yet inexpensive option that includes a 4-piece rod, large-arbor reel for faster line pickup, backing, a weight-forward, floating line and a leader.

My personal favorite, however, is a 9-foot 7-weight Dead River rod from Maine Fly Company. And I use a weight-forward line to help with casting, but it’s not absolutely necessary since you don’t need to make long or super-accurate casts.

SEALING THE DEAL

When it comes to presentation, simply remember to make your fly act like the creature it’s intended to mimic. With a dry fly, it’s best to do nothing for as long as a minute after it hits the water (shorten the pause by half when using a cricket or hopper pattern). If a bluegill doesn’t soon come up to grab it, give the fly line a slight tug and then wait and see if that draws a take. Repeat the process until the fly drifts past the fish, then make another cast and start again.

When using nymphs or other subsurface flies, it’s important to give them enough time to sink to the desired depth, which should keep them slightly above the bluegills. If you deem the drift to be rather quick, cast farther upcurrent or upwind to let your fly sink sufficiently before it gets near the fish.

Purchasing knotless leaders at your local fly shop or online is the easiest route, but tying a basic 8-foot, tapered leader only requires that you learn the Blood Knot and use it to join three traces of monofilament of different diameters (15-, 10- and 8-pound, with the latter tied to the fly, is a good rule of thumb).

Attaching a strike indicator to the leader will serve two important purposes. Just like a bobber or float in conventional fishing, the right strike indicator ensures your offering won’t sink past the desired depth and, as the name implies, it also helps you detect bites.

As the fly drifts with the wind or current, mend the line and feed an arm’s length as necessary to keep your offering from dragging. You don’t want either the fly or the strike indicator to cast a wake, which can be the red flag that lets bluegills know it’s in their best interest to take a pass.

If you ever entertained getting into fly fishing or looked for a fun, new way to sight fish for bluegills, a single time targeting the eager panfish with the long wand and a few faux bugs is sure to make you a convert. And there’s no better time to try it than now, when bluegills are abundant, accessible and hungry.

BOBBERS BY ANOTHER NAME

  • These simple accessories can make a world of difference.
fly fishing strike indicator
AirLock’s versatile Centerlock indicator can be fished as a fixed or a slip-through depth-control and bite-detection device.

When fly-fishing for bluegills, good depth control and bite detection are often the two factors that make the difference between a decent day and a great one. That’s where a strike indicator comes in handy. Not all are created equal, however. To serve both aforementioned purposes, you should opt for one of the following three types, all of which are available in several sizes and bright colors.

Thingamabobber strike indicators (westwaterproducts.com) are very light floats with a molded tab that incorporates an eyelet through which you thread a loop of your leader and then pull tight to secure the indicator.

AirLock strike indicators (fishairlock.com) come in two models. One is the Classic, which has been updated and is now made of a biodegradable, lightweight foam (instead of plastic). It has a screw-top that you loosen to lay your leader in a grove between the nut and O-ring, and then tighten to lock the indicator in place.

The latest model, called the Centerlock, is a more advanced, eco-friendly design that depending on your needs, lets you suspend the fly at a fixed depth or permit the leader to slide through. You simply unscrew the two halves, lay your leader in a designated slot and screw the halves back on to clamp the indicator in position.





GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Gear

Trika Rods

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Gear

New Shimano Baitcasters

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Hunting

Incredible Turkey Audio: Tommy Allen Punches his Minnesota Tag IN THE SNOW

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Destinations

First Turkey Ever: Perfect Conditions Make for a Short Hunt

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Fishing

Bass Crash Course: Bass Froggin' Game Plan

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Videos

What to Know Before Going Off-Road

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Learn

Off-Road Safety Tips and Techniques

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Gear

The Right Tires for Off-Roading

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Learn

Bass Crash Course: Shallow-Water Power Lures

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Destinations

Minnesota Double Down: First Visit to New Farm Goes Perfectly

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Fishing

Bass Crash Course: Bass Fishing in the Wind

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Hunting

She Kills The Biggest Bird of the Year

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now