June 15, 2015
In my home state of Texas, a spot known for its big largemouth bass, striped bass, catfish and redfish, the simple little bluegill, to quote the late Rodney Dangerfield “...don’t get no respect.”
But they should according to Rob Woodruff, a Quitman, Texas, fly fishing guide who specializes in chasing largemouth bass and bluegills with the long rod.
“Yeah, they do kind of get lost in the shuffle of Texas fishing with all of the other species that we’ve got here at our disposal in the state,” said Woodruff, an Orvis-endorsed guide who spends most of his time on famed big bass factory Lake Fork (www.flyfishingfork.com; (903) 967-2665).
“Pound for pound, though, and ounce for ounce, they probably fight as hard as anything we’ve got here in East Texas," he added. "Plus, they can save the day when nothing else is biting.”
Right now is perhaps the best time of the year to fish for them in Texas, the Southland and in many other parts of the country.
“They tend to not spawn and bed until after the bass are finished spawning, so usually by the end of April, May and on into June is a prime time to fish for bluegills,” said Woodruff, a three-time finalist for the Orvis Guide-of-the-Year award.
Keep in mind that for many anglers, the term bluegill is a catch-all phrase that refers to any of the sunfish species that might take a fly, but not for my East Texas fly guide friend. To Woodruff, each sunfish species deserves its own brand of respect given their particular beauty displayed in colorful markings straight off the Creator's palette.
And since most all of them put up a sporty fight on light fly tackle, be they bluegills, red-ear sunfish, long-ear sunfish, redbreast sunfish, green sunfish, warmouth, hybrid sunfish or their copper-nosed bluegill cousins (Woodruff calls the latter “the Florida-strain largemouths of the sunfish family”), he loves to target them all at this time of the year.
Where should a fly angler interested in getting into this year's bluegill action begin his or her search?
During the spring and early summer spawn, look primarily for sandy lake bottoms in shallow water. If such areas are not readily available, Woodruff says to check points or shallow flats at the back of a cove.
“Bedding activity is what you’re going to want to seek out,” he said. “If the water is clear enough, look for depressions on the bottom of the lake. You may find hundreds of beds together."
That's true in a variety of places, including several of Woodruff's favorite East Texas bluegill haunts, where there can be so many bluegill beds that the spawning spots resemble craters on the moon.
One such spot famous for its beds – Caddo Lake, sight of last fall's Major League Fishing Challenge Cup – is particularly well known across East Texas for its myriad of large wasp-nest looking areas filled with bluegill bedding potholes.
So vast are such areas on Caddo, some years, that is, that they can cover as much as a quarter acre or more according to Woodruff. And that can mean literal hours of fishing fun.
If sight is one way to locate bedding bluegills, the Texas A & M educated entomologist says that smell is definitely another.
“When you find them, there’s almost a watermelon rind kind of smell in the air, kind of like how people on the (Gulf) coast can find speckled trout by smell,” said Woodruff.
Once you locate bluegills, or bream, as they’re also commonly known in parts of the Deep South, how do you go about catching them on the fly?
“If you’re fly fishing for them, a one-, two-, three- or four-weight fly rod with a floating line, a 7 ½-foot leader with a 3X or 4X tippet and a popper is the most fun way to catch them,” said Woodruff.
While graphite rods like those found in the Orvis Helios 2 or Recon series work well for bluegills, Woodruff's favorite bluegill choice is a Super Fine four-weight fiberglass rod with a soft action that accentuates the fight.
Keep in mind that while bluegills are usually eager to hit a topwater offering, arguably the most fun way to catch them, sometimes they are like their largemouth cousins and will turn their nose up at the idea of looking up in the water column.
“If the popper doesn’t produce better fish, then try something slow and sinking. My favorite is Wilson’s “Bluegill Bully,” a fly from the Bluegill Fly Fishing & Flies book by Terry and Roxanne Wilson,” said Woodruff, a part-time commercial fly tier when he isn't guiding.
In general, fly anglers should fish flies that resemble the naturals that bluegills readily dine on, things like crickets, tiny grasshoppers, small minnows, spiders, red worms, Catawba worms or even wasp larvae.
Unlike persnickety trout on a pressured tailwater or freestone stream that might inspect how many thread wraps a fly has before hitting it, bluegills aren't terribly picky if the fly sort of resembles the supply of food that the warmwater fish species is familiar with, which is why bream are generally considered to be among the most kid and novice friendly fish to target with a fly rod.
But if an angler needs another reason to go after bream, Woodruff says that it might be because bluegills are not only plentiful and fun to catch, they're also extremely good to eat too.
While there is no creel limit or length limit on sunfish in Texas (check specific rules and regulations in your state before fishing for bluegills), Woodruff reminds conservation-minded anglers to keep only what they can use at the fish fryer.
When kept responsibly, Woodruff says that there are few species better for being dredged in corn meal, fried up in sizzling oil and served piping hot with a side of hush puppies, French fries and a good supply of tartar sauce.
That’s especially true when anglers are talking about panfish that actually fill up a pan, buster bluegills big enough to actually filet in the 1-pound-plus range.
To find such larger fish for the skillet, Woodruff says to remember that bluegills tend to hang out together in groups of similarly sized fish. And don't forget that bigger-size bluegills are often found on the deep water side of their bedding colonies.
The truth is that when an angler catches, and fries up, a good group of plate-size bream with all of the fixings, it's a meal fit for a king. And that's often one of the pure joys of fishing, something that many of us often forget about in this era of strict catch-and-release fishing.
The bottom line on bluegills early this summer is that they’re plentiful, they’re spawning in shallow water, and they are an awful lot of fun to catch!
“There aren’t many things more fun than fishing a light fly rod over a bream bed,” agreed Woodruff. “There’s almost constant action and that’s why they’re so good for kids.”
And adults too, especially those who still like to have fun when they are fishing with their favorite fly rod.