America's freshwater fish isn't the largemouth bass. It's not the smallmouth, the walleye, or the rainbow trout. It's the bluegill.
And the reason is quite simple. Most us, myself included, began our fishing careers watching a bobber. During the course of our angling tenure, we periodically went back to watching a bobber.
Why? Because watching a bobber is relaxing. And productive. And when the target is mid-summer bluegills, the end result — a fine mess of golden-brown fillets surrounded by jalapeno hushpuppies — is nothing short of spectacular.
Despite the bluegill's reputation of being a fish pursued mostly by new anglers, the summer months can prove somewhat frustrating when it comes to staying on the fish throughout the dog days. During the spawning period, when bluegills are easy to locate, they are easy to catch. When the bluegills are on the beds, we can't miss.
But once the spawn ends, and you go from Hero to Zero in terms of your celebrity status center stage at the family fish fry.
Contrary to what you might think, the fish are still there, but the game has changed. And for those willing to adapt and adjust to these post-spawn conditions — well, there's still plenty of golden-brown fillets to be had.
Michael Sheldon loves bluegills and bluegill fishing. If, by some chance, the Sheldon name doesn't ring a bell, then his family's company — Mepps — should sound definitely sound familiar.
"True," Shelton said, "bluegills are often considered a 'starter fish.' They're readily caught, and young people or inexperienced anglers can handle them quite well. But," he continued, "it's a misconception that bluegills are always pushovers.
They get tough. They move. They get finicky. You're forced, then, to try different things. Different methods. Oh, under the right conditions, bluegills can be easy. But you're still at the mercy of the weather and Mother Nature. Cold fronts. Wind. The spawn. They all change the game."
BLUES ON THE BEDS
Typically, bluegills begin the spawning process when the water temperature reaches that magical 60-degree mark. As the water warms, fish transition from their deep-water winter haunts in depths that may range down to 30 feet (depending, of course, on the body of water), into the shallows where spawning will take place.
The males move first, often following the edges of creek channels, drop-offs, or weedlines. They feed aggressively as they go in order to put on the energy reserves necessary for the rigors of spawning. This is an excellent, albeit often frustrating, time to jump-start the spawn fishery.
Electronics play a key role in the success or failure of this pre-spawn fishery, with technology allowing an underwater view of the bluegills winter-to-summer routes and, hopefully, permitting the savvy angler to intercept these movements.
Once water temperatures reach the mid-60s, nest-building, a male task, begins in earnest. The females wait in deeper water for the process to be completed; then, they too move into the shallows.
In Sheldon's world, the ideal summer bluegill scenario involves sight-fishing."During the spawn," he said, "I'm targeting shallow water. Perhaps 2 to 6 feet deep. Here I don't wade much, but prefer to put the boat in deeper water and come at the fish from offshore."
Where the water clarity permits it, Sheldon looks for the beds or nests themselves, and then drops his offering accordingly.
"I'm using No. 4 or No. 6 test monofilament with a light Shimano reel and St. Croix rod," Sheldon explained. "Jigs — and brightly colored jigs — are my choice when it's clear enough to drop something right on the beds. Ordinarily, I prefer a more natural presentation in terms of color — browns, blacks, and white — but go with bright colors when fishing the beds."
I agree with Sheldon in terms of tackle for spawning bluegills, with a couple small exceptions. I prefer a quality No. 2 fluorocarbon line, as it handles abrasion well. There's often timber, rocks, sand, or weeds in and around prime spawning cover, and all can take a toll on lesser quality monofilament.
An ultralight fluorocarbon line also allows micro-light lures — such a Mister Twister Micro-Shad or Nymph plastic on a 1/32- or 1/64-ounce jig head, or 1/18-ounce Mepps Wooly Worm spin-fly during the post-spawn — to be worked with no impediment.
As for rod and reel, I'm partial to a shorter rod, an ultra-light, 4-foot 6-inch-long rod with a No. 20 spinning reel. Hook a bull bluegill on such ultralight equipment, and you have a fight on your hands.
But the finest gear used on the country's best bluegill lake with the most natural presentation all becomes a moot point if one element isn't given special consideration.
"Fishing spawning bluegills," said Sheldon, "is all about stealth. It's important with any fish species, but especially with shallow-water bluegills. You can't make a lot of noise on the boat. And I'm big on not casting my shadow on the area I'm fishing. I try to keep movement to a minimum, as these fish aren't very tolerant of my shadow (flashing) on and off the surface of the water."
Some anglers will go so far as to wear sky-tone clothing — grays or light whites or even blues — so as to blend more naturally with the overhead backdrop. Every little bit helps.
THE POST-SPAWN BLUES
In many lakes, finding post-spawn bluegills can present quite a challenge; however, it's a challenge made easier thanks to information you already have regarding the spawning areas.
"Post-spawn bluegills," said Sheldon, "will typically move off to deeper water adjacent to the spawning area. Deeper water, deeper weedlines, deeper timber, and deeper structure. Now, you really have to rely on your electronics to locate these types of habitats. You're still wanting to work the structure or the edges of the structure, and that might be something as subtle as a current break."
Gradual points dropping off into 10 to 25 feet of water are best, ideally with some type of vertical structure such as timber or rock humps. Creek channels — or, rather, the edges of creek channels leading away from spawning flats — are my personal favorite; however, such honey holes can prove difficult to pinpoint precisely. Enter 21st Century high-tech angling electronics.
"I can't imagine bluegill fishing without electronics," said Sheldon. "Shallow water fishing is a visual thing, but (once the fish move into deeper water), you have to 'see' them to get on them. And that's where electronics come into play."
Post-spawn bluegills are in recovery mode, and this means food.
"Key in on the food source in your particular body of water," Sheldon advised. "Maybe that's aquatic bugs associated with deeper water vegetation. Maybe it's small minnows. Once you've found that deeper water and a potential food source, you're in a good position to find those post-spawn fish."
When targeting post-spawn bluegills, Sheldon prefers vertical jigging micro-lures over suspected holding areas.
He does this, he says, because doing so allows him to keep his presentation in the strike zone longer compared to fishing a spinner. That said, he still packs plenty of small spinners in his tackle bag during this post-spawn period.
"It's possible to cover more water," he said, "and potentially catch more fish with a spinner, especially during this 'searching' phase of the summer."
Bluegills — American's freshwater fish — can be as forgiving or as finicky as any 10-pound walleye. However, armed with a bit of background, an ultralight rig, a pocketful of tiny jigs, and a touch of Ninja skills, summer bluegills can be almost as easy as watching that old red 'n white bobber bounce. Almost.