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How to Master Bull Coppernose Bluegills in Tidal Rivers

Fishing for tidal bluegills can be frustrating and rewarding. Here's how to make it more of the latter.

How to Master Bull Coppernose Bluegills in Tidal Rivers

Coppernose bluegills have the potential to grow quite a bit larger than the common bluegill species. Many of them fall in the 
10- to 12-inch range. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Abney)


In the dark, vast and mysterious tidal flows throughout much of the southern United States, there is a panfish that many anglers know about but few pursue. Jeffrey Abney, of Elizabeth City, N.C., is one of those certified panfish freaks who has made fishing for the giant bluegills of the Albemarle River system his life’s pursuit. He chases the abundant coppernose bluegills that live here multiple times per week throughout the year and is known for his ability to catch big fish ... really big fish.

Over the course of a year, Abney will boat hundreds of bluegills exceeding 10 inches in length, with some that approach the foot-long benchmark. If this sounds like astonishing panfishing, that’s because it is.

“There are many factors that contribute to the health of a panfishery,” Abney says. “Predator/prey balance, stages of human development, water quality, angler pressure and harvest all affect it. A thorough understanding of each is required to maximize your ability to consistently catch big tidal bluegills.”

bluegill
Tides are driven by lunar phases, of course, but wind plays a larger role in determining water movement—and subsequently bluegill behavior—in tidal rivers. (Photo by Jim Gronaw)

While Abney has mastered this North Carolina tidal fishery, the tactics he employs apply to all tidal waters across the South.

PLAY THE WIND

The tides are driven by moon phases, which cause them to rise and fall. While the moon is certainly important to good tidal bluegill fishing, Abney prefers to play the wind.

“Wind tides have a far greater effect on bluegills in river systems that enter huge sounds like the Albemarle and Pamlico in coastal North Carolina—more so than the moon,” he says.

Abney’s favorite rivers are located on the northern shoreline of the Albemarle Sound. The Perquimans, Pasquotank, Yeopim, Chowan and Little Rivers all enter from the north side of the sound. Subsequently, a northern wind will push water out of the sound and cause these estuaries to drop in water level.

“Conversely, a strong southwest or south wind will ‘push’ water from the sound back into the rivers, raising water levels,” Abney says. “Whereas the lunar cycle only raises or lowers water 6 to 8 inches at a time, the wind tides can alter water levels two to three feet.”

Additionally, the wind tide can sustain a high or low tide condition for several days, trumping the effect of the lunar phase.




Although Abney catches big bluegills during all phases of the tide, he prefers a falling wind tide during the spring when the fish are readying for the spawn.

“This ‘fall’ in the tide is a slow progression where several days of prevailing low to moderate north winds allow a smooth drop in the water level,” he says.

Often, however, a southerly wind will gradually overtake the diminishing north winds, and waters will rise slowly. A high, flood tide in late April is usually due to a lack of north winds, not the lunar phase.

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Falling or lower tides can have their advantages. In the dark, tannin-stained waters of many southern flows, actual spawning beds for bluegills can be observed, as can appropriate sand or gravel substrate that can draw bluegills when the waters rise. Keep in mind that these are vast, expansive systems that periodically take a beating from coastal storms and hurricanes that frequent the Carolinas and other southeastern coastal states.

Fallen trees, blowdowns, small log jams and other wood debris can change the look of things from year to year, depending on the high water or storm occurrence. One of the “problems” with these waters, as with many other tidal flows in the region, is that everything looks very good to the angler. Fishy-looking wood cover, cypress trees and laydowns are everywhere, but not all hold quantities of fish.

two bluegills
Jeffrey Abney stays dialed in on the bluegill bite on North Carolina’s tidal rivers by fishing them several times a week throughout the year. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Abney)

COVER SHOTS

With so much good-looking cover to choose from, anglers can quickly become overwhelmed. Abney often starts his search in the standing cypress where he looks for toppled trees.

“I’ve found that partially submerged root balls can often create large, calm pockets that attract bluegills” he says. “Even in the moderate current of a wind tide, any wood structure that deflects current and creates eddies can be a major drawing card for tidal ’gills. Don’t overlook these.

“Cutbanks along the river’s edge often have suitable spawning substrate and should not be overlooked, either,” Abney adds.

Of course, an abundant stand of cypress trees often begs to be fished. However, not all cypress stands are created equal. Abney looks for sporadic trees in and around the mouths of feeders, creeks and guts that can offer open areas for bluegill bedding activity.

The extensive network of cypress knees are always a draw for panfish and other gamefish as well. But realize that some groups of trees are deeper or shallower than others. Those that deflect the most current and create those subtle eddies are the ones that traditionally hold the most bluegills.

Laydowns and fallen wood often reach out into slightly deeper water and may also attract fish. Fishing the down-current side of these structures, regardless of tidal direction, is always worth the effort and may well produce bonus species like largemouth bass or crappies. Sometimes tidal bluegills will use these locations as staging areas just before seeking bedding sites.

Not all of Abney’s target spots are of the natural variety.

“Some of my best spots are manmade structures, which include bulkheads, docks, bridges and manicured shorelines,” he says.

While fishing with him several years ago, we found high-end coppernose bream along a sun-exposed bulkhead that had water temperatures several degrees higher than the surrounding creeks and cypress stands.

Sometimes, urban development and excavation introduces sand and gravel washes into downstream regions where good spawning areas previously did not exist. Ever the opportunists, tidal bluegills take advantage of such areas.

Likewise, docks, smaller marinas and boat launches can have good concentrations of bedding fish not far from the ramp. In a vast tidal system, there are literally thousands of smaller, quiet coves, cuts and guts where bluegills have never seen a cricket or been spooked by an outboard motor.

bluegill baits
Rigged and ready for action: 1) This hungry bluegill inhaled a heavy-gauge jig tied to stout monofilament line. The weighty setup allows the angler to extract outsize ’gills from tangled structure. 2) A rig that comprises a small bobber and grass-shrimp jig tipped with a portion of earthworm is used for rooting out bluegills hugging shoreline features. 3) A time-honored classic, this small hair jig is tipped with a live cricket and ready to tempt big bluegills in Southern tidal flows.

TACKLE AND TACTICS

When it comes to tackle, Abney likes to keep his gear simple.

“Like most seasoned Deep South bluegill anglers, I prefer to use telescoping poles 80 percent of the time,” he says. “My favorite is the B’n’M Black Widow poles from 10 to 16 feet long for various conditions and structures.”

On the tip, Abney ties 14-pound-test Stren clear monofilament and runs the line the same length as the pole. He has used a variety of jigs over time but currently prefers the 1/32-ounce Pop-Eye Jig that is sold in local tackle shops.

“The heavier-gauge hooks on these jigs enable me to land larger predators such as bowfin, channel catfish and big largemouth bass should they hit,” he says. “Other jigs to 1/16-ounce will do, provided the hook is no larger than number 6, which seems to hook bluegills of all sizes.”

fishing line
Stren fishing line.

To suspend these lures, Abney opts for a Betts float, but any brightly colored bobber will work. The key is to be able to see the float easily and set hooks promptly to steer raging bulls away from wood structures, stumps or cypress.

Many panfish anglers might smirk at the heaviness of these rigs and plead the case for lighter, more sporting gear. But when you are in the jungle and going toe-to-toe with 1-pound-plus bluegills, or bass that could weigh several pounds, you need to give yourself a fighting chance. In the swamps, 4- and 6-pound test just doesn’t cut it. These long, strong poles allow big bluegills to be quickly ushered from the bedding sites so as not to spook other fish. And there are no line shyness issues with these fish due to the dark, tea-stained color of the waters.

Depending on the water level and fish locations, the float is attached anywhere from 18 inches to 4 feet above the jig. Jigs are then threaded with the classic live cricket as a tipping enticement to seal the deal on feeding bluegills. With bedding fish, Abney likes the jig and cricket to hover about 1 foot off the bottom.

bluegill angler
Not all woody structure holds fish. Abney concentrates on sporadic trees situated in and around feeders, creeks and guts. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Abney)

“This practice usually puts the offering right at the eye level of the fish,” he says. “Sometimes in the spring, I may tip jigs with live grass shrimp, as they are a prime forage for panfish year-round in coastal waters. Crickets are preferred, however, since grass shrimp are a softer, fragile bait.”

It is quite an experience to watch a skilled angler like Abney as he quietly and methodically lobs and dips his pole and jig with amazing accuracy in and around a myriad of structures, then pulls robust coppernose bream from the swampy nooks and crannies. It is a skill that requires tremendous patience and focus, though the deep-bodied rewards can be bountiful.


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