Late summer isn’t thought of as a peak period to target bluegills, a species commonly associated with shallow-water action during the spring. But in the right situation, August can be prime time to connect with some of the biggest ‘gills of the year.
One place to find big late-summer bluegills is the deeper zones of natural lakes. According to seasoned panfish enthusiast and former guide Darl Black, it’s an opportunity many anglers, who are accustomed to only fishing for bedding ‘gills, don’t know.
"I stumbled upon this deep-water bluegill gig years ago on a Canadian lake while on vacation," he says. "Once back home I realized the biggest bluegills (and pumpkinseeds) of the entire season could be caught in deep water during the summer."
Black has found the best late-summer bluegill lakes are those which feature decent-sized bluegills, not ones with an abundance of smaller, stunted fish. Though he’s had success with big summer bluegills in reservoirs, he’s had better experiences on clear-water natural lakes boasting an abundance of submergent-weed growth and structure such as points, humps, saddles and ridges.
So how deep are summer bluegills commonly caught? Black says it depends on the physical characteristics of the lake, most likely a relation to the depth of the thermocline. In general, he finds the 15- to 25-foot range most productive. In deeper, colder bodies of water, such as the Finger Lakes in New York where the thermocline runs deeper, summer bluegills can be taken at even greater depths. He hasn’t found shallower, dishpan-shaped natural lakes to be productive.
The window of opportunity for late-summer bluegills can be rather narrow. In Black’s experience the fish tend to just suddenly appear. It’s common, he says, for a deep-water zone to be absent of fish in early- to mid-July, and for the fish to show up in abundance seemingly overnight later in the month. Their exit in September can be just as abrupt.
All things being equal, deep-water fishing isn’t as efficient as shallow-water fishing, so it’s not surprising that a significant portion of time is spent searching for fish, a process made much more productive with quality sonar.
“A reliable paper map is helpful, but if you don’t have a good sonar unit, you’re not going to be able to pinpoint the hard-bottom humps, points and saddles,” says Black. “A very good sonar unit, like the Garmin GPSMAP 7608xvs I run, will show you much more, including ‘packs’ of bluegills moving through the water column. Without a reliable sonar unit, the only option is to slow drift through areas where hard-bottom structure might be.”
Adapting a strategy common in deep-water bass fishing, Black often utilizes a downsized drop-shot rig to effectively present some combination of jig and bait to ‘gills and ‘seeds. A common setup is a 1/32-ounce jighead (with a #10, 8 or 6 hook) dressed with a 3/4- or 1-inch grub body. This is tipped with a mealworm or a couple of maggots. If live bait is not available, he’ll opt for a one-inch Gulp! Minnow, Fry or Leech. He leaves about 8 to 10 inches of tag from the Palomar knot (that secures the jig) to which he ties a snap swivel. A 1/4-, 3/8- or 1/2-ounce (depending on depth and/or wind conditions) bell sinker is clipped to the snap to complete the rig.
Going vertical is often the best way to target deep-water fish, and it’s the approach Black takes roughly 80 percent of the time. Working from the transom of his tiller-controlled boat, he slowly works over deep-water structure while keeping an eye on the screen of his sonar unit. He commonly throws a camouflaged floating marker buoy as a point of reference so he can precisely work the surrounding water without losing focus on the screen.
“Deep summer bluegills on the lakes I fish are always moving in packs. They roam around structure up and down in the water column, chasing food,” Black says. “When I intercept a pack, they hit like crazy. If there are multiple anglers in the boat, it’s not uncommon for everyone to hook up simultaneously.”
Black notes that during calm conditions the fish tend to be scattered, not in feeding packs. On these days Black abandons the vertical presentation and fishes 1/8-ounce jigs with a variety of retrieves—bottom dragging, lift-dropping, mid-column swimming—across structure.
Black recommends releasing larger 9 1/2 to 11-inch bluegills, the fish most important to the health of a quality fishery, and encourages the harvest of mid-sized fish if one chooses to eat a few.