June 09, 2021
By Scott Mackenthun
Note: This article was featured in the Midwest edition of May's Game & Fish magazine. How to subscribe
Late spring and early summer is a magical time for fishing enthusiasts, especially in the Midwest. Bass, crappies, walleyes, catfish, trout, pike—the list goes on—are all willing to strike a bait or lure.
One prospect that many anglers all across the country often overlook, however, is also one of the simplest ways to catch fish: Fishing for sunfish.
In the spring and early summer, various sunfish species start migrating into shallower water. They hold there awaiting the rising water temperatures and increasing daylight periods that trigger the start of their annual spawn. Large males cruise the shallows, and they’ll soon start constructing nests for the breeding season. Meanwhile, big females tend to hang out a bit deeper.
The males are very territorial at this time, driving other males and fish away from their favored nesting spots. Females are hungry; they are finalizing egg production with a final shot of hormones. In general, at this time, both sexes are hungry and aggressive ahead of the spawn.
This makes the late-spring and early-summer time periods among the best of the year to catch sunfish in both numbers and size. If catching big fish isn’t enough, though, consider this: It’s also one of the best times to experience aggressive sunfish attacking topwater poppers.
The term "sunfish" covers a whole genus and includes some popular species in the Midwest: bluegill, longear sunfish, redear sunfish, pumpkinseed, green sunfish and several other less common species. Also included are hybrid sunfish, which occur often given the varied species within the genus and their substantial overlap in preferred habitat. Because of this, your search for any sunfish largely begins in the same way.
To find pre-spawn sunnies, start by scouting for sand or gravel shorelines adjacent to downed trees or nearby weed beds. Sunfish will spawn in featureless sandy flats, but they prefer areas with some cover. In some areas you might spot hundreds of old nests, which appear on a side-scan sonar readout like dimples on a golf ball. However, you’ll find larger, more mature fish hanging in areas that aren’t so crowded. Mature fish prefer undeveloped shorelines with natural overhanging or fallen trees and patches of submerged and emergent vegetation more so than shorelines with well-manicured beaches and docks.
Sunfish are generally consistent with reproduction in most lakes, ponds and reservoirs. While they can successfully spawn in silty, mucky, barren and otherwise low-quality habitat, the larger mature fish prefer ideal habitat. If you’re scouting a new lake and don’t have great insight into known spawning locations, start your search on undeveloped shorelines. Motor along slowly near shore while wearing a pair of polarized sunglasses. You can spot pre-spawn fish staging along both the inside (males) and outside (females) weed edge. These edges can be as shallow as a foot or two or as deep as 8 to 10 feet.
This time of year, fly fishing is one of my favorite methods for catching pre-spawn and spawning sunfish. If you can cast a fly rod accurately and deliver a popper in small pockets of weed beds or between downed trees, you can have a field day on bluegills and other sunfish. A soft-tipped 3-, 4- or 5-weight rod with floating fly line and 1X, 2X or 3X tippet is ideal. Sunfish typically aren’t line shy, so if you encounter frisky fish around thick vegetation, a beefier leader isn’t a bad idea. The fight is a bit more sporting on a 3-weight, but you won’t regret a 4- or 5-weight rod if you happen to hook a northern pike or largemouth bass stalking the shallows.
For anglers casting from a boat or kayak, the longer the rod, the easier the casting. Shore anglers in tight quarters with shrubs, trees or cattails, should try something a bit shorter. A long leader or long tippet generally isn’t needed. Try one rod length to start, then let the fish’s reaction help you gauge whether you need to add more line.
If you do spook fish, the nice thing about sunfish is that they settle back down quickly, and usually there are more fish nearby. Just motor or push pole a bit farther down the shoreline. You don’t have to be an expert fly caster to catch sunfish. Unlike persnickety stream trout that reject anything floating unnaturally, sunfish are insectivores with prey drive. A popper chugging and pushing a wake on the surface is often more delectable to them than something sitting stationary.
Conventional gear anglers aren’t excluded from popping bliss, though they do have to adjust a bit. Rig up a medium or medium-light spinning rod with 4-pound monofilament line and tie on a popper. Just a few feet ahead of the popper, peg a float or attach a casting bubble. Much like the fly line in the setup above, here the float or casting bubble provides the weight to deliver the small popper.
Because sunfish aren’t inherently spooky but rather curious, the small splash of a bobber might push fish out a few feet initially, but usually they’ll come back to the commotion, looking for an easy meal. With fresh, light line that has little memory, you can cast long distances and reach fish in tight pockets. Try to use as small a float as possible when presenting the popper. A float or casting bubble with a slim profile that creates small splashes and minimal underwater displacement is less invasive and less likely to spook sunfish, even temporarily.
The same poppers that work for fly flingers suit conventional anglers. Small cork or foam-bodied poppers perform best in size 10 or 12. Feather or rubber leg dressings provide a hint of realism, and just about any color can catch fish. Start with natural colors like olive green, beige or ash to best mimic aquatic insect life. Consider a high-contrast color if bites are more slurping than splashing; white, black or chartreuse stand out on most water surfaces and it’s easy to tell when they disappear.
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Primo Midwest waters for topwater sunfish action.
The Midwest is full of great places to fish for sunfish during the early summer pre-spawn phase. In fact, wherever you live, there’s probably a great sunfish spot nearby—whether it’s a man-made reservoir spanning many thousands of acres, a natural glacial lake or even a weed-choked pond. That said, if you’re looking for some really good options and are willing to travel, pack up your poppers and roll out to some of these fine fisheries.
HOOSIER HOT SPOT
Indiana: Dogwood Lake south of Montgomery, Ind., is a shallow and productive reservoir. This waterbody is undeveloped, with lots of downed trees and nearshore brush to attract pre-spawn sunfish. Redear sunfish, which reach 9 inches by age 6, and bluegills grow quickly here. Observe the 10-horsepower motor restriction when visiting this popular panfish, bass and catfish impoundment.
Wisconsin: Fox Lake and Beaver Dam Lake in Wisconsin are two large and shallow waterbodies that produce big bull bluegills. On Fox, look for gravel shorelines on the islands and Maple Point, where sunfish will prepare to spawn. Explore vegetation edges along the sprawling shoreline at Beaver Dam.
South Dakota: Enemy Swim Lake in the glacial lakes region of South Dakota has a deserved reputation for producing large sunfish. This will be the third and final year of a large bluegill tagging project led by South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Your catch could help pay for the trip; some of the fish include $100 reward tags.
Minnesota: The Upper Cannon Chain of Lakes (Shields, Gorman, Sabre, Tetonka and Sakatah Lakes) produce large sunfish in the nutrient-rich waters of south-central Minnesota. Curly-leaf pondweed, an introduced exotic plant, is present throughout this system of river-connected lakes and creates distinct weed patches that reach full maturity near the sunfish spawn. Work inner and outer edges of these weed beds when searching for fish.
Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa anglers near the Mississippi River know the panfish power of Mississippi River backwaters. Annual spring flows rejuvenate the floodplain and bring life back to flooded forests and backwater basins. Put on some waders and go for a walk, or push out on a kayak and explore. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has large swaths of public land along the Mississippi River in many locations across the Midwest. Check out lily pad and cattail edges, downed trees and sandy inlets and outlets to the main river channel.