August 31, 2022
By Keith Sutton
One hot August day many years ago, I went fishing with my Uncle Julius on a big farm pond. He and I fished together often, but we hadn't visited this place before. Other anglers might have had difficulty finding the late-spawning bluegills we were looking for, but not my uncle.
He pointed toward a spot by the shore with foam and an oily film atop the water and asked if I could see it. I did. A fishy smell also permeated the air. I asked him if that was where it was coming from. He nodded and told me that a bubbly surface and musty smell like that were sure signs of bluegills guarding their nests in the shallow water.
We put crickets on our hooks and threw them over to the spot simultaneously. As soon as our corks bobbed upright, they both shot out of sight. Uncle Julius laughed as the big bull 'gills bent our rods and told me that the fun had just begun. We quickly reeled in those fish, unhooked them and tossed them in a cooler. We then proceeded to load that cooler up with bluegills—more than 50 in all.
While he had no formal training in fisheries biology, my uncle taught me a lot about bluegills that day. Namely that, when males are on spawning beds, you can often find them by watching for areas where those bubbles cover the surface, especially if you can also detect that same fishy smell.
He also proved that, contrary to popular belief, bluegills don't only spawn and guard nests in the spring. In fact, he told me it wasn't unusual for them to nest a second time in summer or to delay nesting after a cold spring or if food was scarce. In the years since, these lessons have often informed my late-summer bluegill fishing efforts. This advice, along with some other tips I'll share below, should help you catch more late-summer fish, too.
Start your late-season bluegill search by focusing on a few choice spawning locales. For nesting 'gills, this often means portions of shallow coves or backwaters protected from wind and waves. Almost any body of water—from farm ponds and small park lakes to big flood-control reservoirs and natural oxbows—can have these.
Males usually build nests on a sand or fine-gravel bottom in or near shallow-water cover. Fish sweep away silt and debris with their body and tail to create a nest 2 to 4 inches deep and around a foot in diameter. Sometimes, many nests are side by side in a small area, and each one appears as a light-colored circle when viewed from above. Prime spawning sites in clear water look like artillery impact areas when bluegills are on their nests.
If you've fished a body of water before and know the location of previous bluegill bedding sites, return to those areas. These panfish often nest in the same locales year after year, season after season, If you don't have experience on the waterbody you're visiting, use a bottom contour map or GPS unit to pinpoint likely hotspots. Look for broad, shallow flats adjacent to creek channels that approach the shore.
When ready to nest, summer bluegills follow channels from deep water into the shallows and spread out on both sides of the channel/spawning cover junction if conditions are suitable. Shallow water in the backs of feeder-creek bays often proves good as well. Look, too, for migration corridors leading to shallow cover: stump rows, old fence lines, weed lines, ditches and the like. I also find a lot of bluegill nests along the inside (shallower) edges of aquatic vegetation. This might be a bed of elodea or coontail or an expanse of water lilies or hydrilla. The key combination is shallow water with some green vegetative cover and a firm—not silty—bottom.
When you've found a promising spot to fish, move slowly along in your boat (or walk slowly along the bank) and watch for frothy bubbles on the water's surface. After these bubbles rise to the top, they remain for several days.
Some folks think male bluegills produce the bubbles with their mouths during nest preparation and spawning. However, in his book, "New Techniques That Catch More Bluegill," master 'gill getter Steve Wunderle says fisheries researcher Dr. Roy Heidinger suggested the bubbles are more likely the result of trapped gases being released to the surface by the nest-building activities of the males.
In clear bodies of water, you can put on polarized sunglasses and actually see beneath the bubbly surface. Polarizing lenses reduce glare and allow you to see much better than with the naked eye. With a good pair, you can cast to individual fish or nests.
OOH THAT SMELL
Mucous secretions from the active male fish create an oily surface film that may also be seen around shallow nests. This shiny skim of material has a very distinctive, though not powerful, odor that many people describe as fishy or musky. Some individuals have difficulty even detecting the smell, while others have no trouble at all. One thing is for sure: When you detect this unusual aroma in areas with lots of surface bubbles, it's foolproof evidence that bedding bluegills are nearby.
When you spot bluegills on the nests, it may help to drop a marker buoy nearby and keep moving and marking other spots. You’ll then know where beds are and can slip in close without disturbing fish. Some anglers like a long jigging pole to swing a jig, cricket or redworm to each fish. I prefer a spinning or spincast outfit to work the bait—usually a waxworm or cricket, but sometimes a mini crankbait or spinner—from a greater distance. In turbid water, I add a slip bobber for easier casting and bite detection. In clear water, I use nothing but a baited hook and one tiny split shot on extremely light (2- to 4-pound) line. The less there is for fish to observe, the more hook-ups you'll have.
Hopefully, these tips will help you enjoy your next late-summer bluegill excursion to the fullest. Your nose and eyes are great tools to find summer bluegill beds other anglers miss.