Sight Fishing for Giant Bluegills

Bobby Graves of Mount Ida, Ark. proudly displays a heavyweight bluegill that fell to sight-fishing tactics on Arkansas' Lake Ouachita. (Photo courtesy of Keith Sutton)

Do you think catching giant bluegills is easy? Think again.

When a bream reaches the size of a man’s hand, it’s much warier than its smaller counterparts. By the time it’s the size of a jumbo tortilla, it’s one of freshwater’s most cautious creatures. Only the most skillful anglers can hook it.

The difficulty increases during the spring spawn. Big bedding bluegills are easily spooked. We may see clues to their presence—a protruding dorsal fin, swirls over their beds, a flash of scales. But by the time we spot a fish, it’s usually spotted us as well, and quickly scurries away.

If we know what to look for, however, and proper ways to approach spawning beds and present our baits, it’s possible to catch dozens of jumbo panfish. It’s a game of “eye spy,” much like sight-fishing for snook or bonefish on a saltwater flat. The difficulties are many, but the rewards make the challenge worthwhile.

Picture yourself on a huge upland impoundment. The shores and bottom are rocky. Thick beds of submergent vegetation fill the shallows. The water is crystal clear. When bream are on spawning beds, it’s easy to see them, even 12 feet down.

This is a good description of west Arkansas’ Lake Ouachita where bream-master Bobby Graves sight-fishes for 1-pound-plus bluegills. His proven methods for nabbing giant bream here are applicable on similar waters nationwide.

“In lakes like Ouachita, spawning beds of bluegills typically are in pockets, near points and around sunken humps,” says Graves, who has fished such waters in several states. “The fish nest on clean gravel or sand bottom, usually between the bank and the inside edge of a big weedbed in 1 to 6 feet of water. Beds look like big honeycombs, with several nests side by side.”

Polarized sunglasses cut surface glare, enabling Graves to see the inner edges of the “moss” beds and pinpoint the “honeycombs” he’ll fish. He motors slowly while watching for key structure and cover that may reveal bedding fish.

“In pockets, or coves, the ideal site has 5 feet of water on the inside of the moss line and a 30-foot open area between moss and bank,” he notes. “Stumps or other woody cover in the open area make a site even more attractive.”

Graves also watches for “void areas” within the aquatic vegetation—circular openings where submerged weeds don’t grow.

“On points and humps, void areas at the right depth are choice spots,” he states. “For example, a hump may create a clean area 20 feet in diameter. That’s a good spot to watch for honeycombs.”

The scare factor goes up in crystalline waters. Approaching anglers are easily spotted by shy bream, and targeted fish scatter quickly. If left undisturbed, however, bream quickly return to their nests.

“When I spot a honeycomb, I drop a marker buoy nearby,” says the Mount Ida, Arkansas, native. “I keep moving then, marking other spots, and come back a little later. I know where the bed is now and can slip in close without disturbing the fish.”

Graves keeps two 8-foot, medium-light spinning outfits spooled with 4-pound-test Silver Thread line at the ready. One is rigged drop-shot fashion using a No. 4 Carlisle hook tied directly on the line a foot above a pinched-on No. 6 split shot. The other outfit is rigged conventionally, with the split shot above the hook.

“Some days bream suspend above their beds and the drop-shot rig works better,” Graves says. “Other times, you’ll see them right on bottom and the conventional rig is better. Either way, I anchor a long cast away from the honeycomb to keep from spooking the fish, then bait up with a cricket or piece of night crawler. Then I cast to a fish I see in the honeycomb, or to a single nest, and let the bait sink to it. If a big bream is there, it won’t be long till you know it. Keep a tight line, and you’ll quickly learn when to lightly set the hook.”

When targeting bream in extreme shallows (2 feet or less), Graves uses a cork on the conventional rig.

“If it’s windy and I have trouble seeing the honeycombs,” he says, “I cast a 2-inch Yum Wooly Curltail or one of Rebel’s ultralight crankbaits to locate the fish, then I switch to live bait. When the weather’s bad, I fish in covered boat slips using a cricket without a sinker or float.

“Some days you can actually watch the bream take the bait; some days you can’t,” he continued. “Either way, sight-fishing can be habit forming.”

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