Most anglers are taught from a very young age that a bobber is only as effective as the rig hanging below it. That holds true for a variety of species, with the weight of the entire setup being paramount to how the bobber displaces water, how it indicates a bite and even how a fish responds to eating your bait. Too much weight and it’s difficult to keep your bite indicator above water; too little and fish are effectively trying to sink the equivalent of a beach ball. In the latter case, they often drop the bait and give up.
This can be especially true for finicky cold-front or spawning bluegills.
The fix has usually been split shot or appropriately sized jigs that suspend a bobber to perfection, which reveals bites without preventing fish from pulling it under. Many bright anglers have discussed the importance of fine-tuning this balance.
However, when pursuing spawning or finicky ’gills, consider not adding any weight at all. This is a tactic that has proven productive for me over the years. In fact, I’d argue that this little wrinkle—when presented properly and at the right times—can be effective during the entire open-water period, provided fish aren’t too deep.
I was at a photo shoot last summer for a major boat manufacturer when the camera guy said, only slightly in jest, “Hey, you with the bobber, take that thing off for the shot. Nobody uses those things. You’re supposed to be a pro angler.” I politely obliged, laughing quietly to myself as I thought back to that same morning as Gary “Mr. Walleye” Roach and I shared a dock while casting bobber rigs to ’gills and crappies. If they were good enough for Gary, I certainly wasn’t ashamed to panfish with them. Still, many anglers shy away from bobbers because of their connotation as a kid’s fishing crutch, rather than something an adult angler would need to catch panfish.
Roach—like many other wise and talented anglers—knows that bobbers are far more than a childhood strike indicator. First and foremost, they’re a speed-control device. Panfish in neutral moods or with spawning on their minds rarely burst forward to grab a bait rapidly moving through the water column. Pair a wet-noodle ultralight with a jig heavy enough to be cast a reasonable distance, and that’s exactly what you’ve got—a presentation that’s moving too fast horizontally through the water. By the time most bluegills see the bait, they either can’t catch up to it or aren’t willing to try.
Bobbers help keep baits in front of fish longer than a jig alone. They also impart a subtle, upward movement to baits when pulled from a rest position. This motion can’t be duplicated without a bobber unless done extremely close to the boat. That up-then-over motion can often excite ’gills, no matter their attitude for the day.
Now that we’ve discussed some reasons why to run bobbers in general, let’s discuss the how of weightless bobber rigging. Be forewarned, it’s shockingly simple.
Start with a No. 10 to 12 bait hook of your choosing and tie directly to your main line. Fluorocarbon in 4- to 6-pound test is preferred in shallow, clear water, but mono works fine as well. Next, grab a pencil float. Clip it to your line as necessary depending on the depth of the fish. Impale a chunk of crawler or other perferred bait and the hook and cast it out. The entire idea of the rig boils down to one simple concept: Adjust your fall rate to super-slow-motion, thereby tantalizing any neutral or negative fish you encounter.
This fall-rate aspect again goes back to a bobber’s effective role in controlling the speed of a presentation. Although bobbers can slow down the horizontal portion of a presentation, a heavy split shot or jig causes baits to drop with unnatural speed. The weightless bobber rig is all about controlling your rate of movement, both horizontally and vertically. As a result, it offers ’gills a much more natural offering in the water.
If you’re near heavy cover, one variation is to run a nanobraidmain line with a 3-foot-long fluorocarbon leader tied to it via a castable knot. Nano increases your casting distance and provides vegetation-cutting durability in and around lily pad stems, cabbage stalks and other cover.
Another variation is a nearly weightless ice jig, such as a 1/64-ounce ice fly that will help you tackle deep-spawning fish or post-frontal weed edge ’gills that just won’t respond to much else. This tactic comes in handy for exceptionally clear lakes with a deep weedline and slightly deeper nesting sites.
FINDING, CASTING, CATCHING
So, how does one fish these weightless bobber setups? In most places, bluegills tend to spawn once the water temperature hits around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. They can be on nests at 65 to 68 degrees and remain there as the temp climbs into the low to mid 70s.
With any water clarity whatsoever, you should be able to cruise the shallows and see the tire-sized circular depressions stacked next to one another. Side-imaging technology on today’s sonar has made finding and catching those spawners much easier, perhaps to the detriment of bluegill populations on some lakes. When used responsibly, it’s incredibly effective at locating bluegill beds throughout a lake.
If beds are occupied by fish, go ahead and cast your rig to the outside edge of them. Gradually work your casts closer into the cluster of beds. Some days, you’ll need to drop your presentation right in the center of the most prominent bluegill bed. Other times, you’ll only need to get close.
Bites can be disguised on the drop, but in water less than 6 feet deep or so, your pencil bobber should tip or shake ever so slightly to indicate a bite. A bobber standing straight up is your signal to reel down, sweep back and set the hook. It’ll take some time to get used to a bobber that rests on its side, as you cast and pull, cast and pull, each time giving the weightless hook a few seconds to settle in front of the fish you’re targeting.
HAVE YOUR FISH AND EAT THEM, TOO
Bluegill spawning conservation discussions have grown more heated in recent years, as the science continues to show problems with overharvest, specifically of big bulls. These bright-breasted bluegills show off a variety of magnificent colors, have a longer ear tab than their female counterparts and protect nests during the crucial spawning times. Without them, inferior cuckold males fertilize eggs and deplete the genetic viability of large ’gills in general.
By releasing these colorful males, and keeping only a few females each season, you’re doing the health of the lake a great favor. The science is crystal clear: Targeting and high-grading (keeping only the largest) spawning males can and has dramatically decreased the size of all bluegills in many lakes we fish throughout the Midwest.
You can also spread your take across multiple lakes. Traditionally, once anglers find a good shallow bite, they fish and harvest on it until the spawn period is done. Instead, take a few fish from several different lakes rather than limit after limit from just one.
Get in the habit of measuring your bluegills, too. Big ones in the 10-inch-plus range are rare, and the more you measure, the more apt you’ll be to let the bulls live to fight another day. Adhering to these courtesies will help increase the likelihood that you’re never the guy or gal who laments, “There used to be big ones in here!” while being part of the reason there no longer are.