Note: This article is featured in the East edition of the May issue of Game & Fish magazine, which arrived on newstands this week. Click to learn how to get an annual subscription (10 issues) for $5.
For bass, few things are more important than forage, and no forage species is more important than bluegills. Yes, shad, crawfish, shiners and even trout get a lot of attention, but bluegills rank at the top of the list. For one thing, bluegills are found virtually everywhere there are bass, and they’re guanratneed to be on a bass’ menu in waters that don’t have the other forage.
There’s no better time to connect the dots between bluegills and bass than May and June, when waters are warming, fish are spawning and a tasty bluegill is what’s for dinner.
For most bass anglers, the time to key on bluegills is when they’re on their spawning beds. New Jersey’s Pete Gluszek gets a head start on the rest of us by looking for ’gills immediately after the bass spawn is over.
"A lot of the waters I fish have carp," Gluszek says. "Carp tend to spawn between the time the bass are finished and before the bluegills start. You can often find spawning carp in areas with milfoil or lily pads. The big carp roll and slosh in the shallows and may even be muddy the water. It’s a magnet for the rest of the food chain. The bluegill feed on carp eggs and fry. The bass are there to feed on the bluegills.”
Gluszek is a gifted teacher and the dean of The Bass University (BassU.tv). This time of year, his bluegill approach involves four bait types—hollow-bodied frogs, bladed jigs, swim jigs and boot-tail swimbaits—but frogs are his go-to method.
"Especially on tidal waters when the tide is low, it’s tough to beat a Terminator Popping Frog in Black Camo or White Camo," he says. "The baitfish are grazing in the canopy of the vegetation, and a hollow-bodied frog comes through the cover really well."
If he’s fishing tidal waters and the water is up, Gluszek opts for one of the other bait types. When the vegetation is not extremely thick, he likes a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce Z-Man ChatterBait in green pumpkin with a gold blade and 3 1/2-inch boot-tail swimbait trailer, also in green pumpkin, but with the tail dipped in chartreuse dye.
When the water’s high and the weeds are thick, Gluszek opts for a swim jig—1/4- to 3/8-ounce in green pumpkin with a matching boot-tail trailer. The swim jig navigates the heavy vegetation easily and is ideal when fishing pressure is high and a more subtle approach is necessary.
Finally, Gluszek is always ready with a 5- to 6-inch boot-tail swimbait in watermelon. As with the bladed jig and swim jig trailers, he’ll touch up the tail with some chartreuse dye. He says the swimbait is your best bet for a big bite.
“The key to this pattern is to rotate through your baits quickly. Give each five to ten minutes. If you’re not getting bit, put that lure down and go to the next one,” Gluszek says. “You need to do this throughout the day since the bite can change from hour to hour or even faster.”
After they’re done spawning, big female bass will often hang around the shallows, recuperating and looking for an easy meal. Few feeding opportunities are as attractive as bedding bluegills.
Virginia’s John Crews is part tournament pro, part tackle entrepreneur (he owns Missile Baits) and bass savant. He loves the bluegill spawn period because it presents a terrific big-bass opportunity.
"I look for bream to be spawning in the backs of pockets, in thick cover and behind reeds or anything else that protects them from predators," Crews says. "When I find them, I can just about guarantee there are a couple of big female bass lurking just off the beds."
To find the beds, bream and bass, Crews cruises the shallows with his trolling motor, visually searching for any of the three. “That often spooks the bass, but they return ten minutes to an hour later,” he says. “I’ll mark the spot and come back after I’m sure things have settled down.”
His lure selection is a little unconventional. Instead of a topwater bait or big jig, Crews puts a Missile Baits Ned Bomb (GP Blue Flash Tail) on a 1/0 Gamakatsu Drop Shot Hook and drop shots it above a 3/16-ounce sinker. He fishes it on spinning gear with 8- to 10-pound Sunline Sniper fluorocarbon line.
"That bait and rig looks just like a baby bream," he says. "But I don’t throw it right into the middle of the nests. Instead, I make a long cast to the edge of the bedding area. I like the heavy drop-shot weight because it helps me work the lure without pulling it across the bottom toward me. I can give it a lot of action but keep it in place."
This finesse approach has helped Crews catch bass that others miss. "A lot of anglers just aren’t patient enough for these bass that are targeting spawning bream,” he says. “They move through the area looking for beds. As soon as they see one or see a bass dart away, they spin their boat around and start casting. That doesn’t work very often."
Crews continues, "You’re much better off to spot the nest or the bass and come back later. The fish will have settled down so you can catch them. Just don’t get too close. Make long casts, work the bait methodically and take a finesse approach."
KEEP YOUR DISTANCE
"Bass love to ‘wolfpack’ on bedding bluegills!" says former Bassmaster Classic champion and Bassmaster Angler of the Year, Michael Iaconelli. He gets excited when he talks about bass fishing around spawning ’gills—or any other bass fishing topics for that matter.
"When bass are feeding in groups of two to ten, it makes them a lot more aggressive," says Iaconelli, and that’s a situation he typically finds around spawning bluegills. The popular pro and host of the Ike Livefishing show looks for bedding ’gills in the same places that Crews finds them, but his approach focuses on topwater baits and swim jigs. He only reaches for the finesse gear if the bass force him to slow down.
"I love a Rapala X-Rap Prop in yellow perch for this situation," he says. "It makes a lot of noise over the tops of the beds or on the perimeter of the beds without having to move it very far or fast. You just need a little open water since it has two treble hooks."
He continues, "If there’s too much cover to fish the prop bait, I like the hollow-bodied Molix Supernato Frog in the gray frog color. It can come through any kind of cover and has a little orange in it to imitate a bluegill. On calm days, I like the Rapala X-Rap Pop because I can fish it really slowly over the beds with soft twitches or with the occasional pop. When things are really quiet and calm, there may still be a topwater bite if you just slow down."
Topwater action is exciting, but bass won’t always commit to a surface lure. That’s when Ike opts for a swim jig. He chooses a 1/4-ounce model when the beds are less than three feet deep and a 1/2-ounce version when they’re deeper. A jig with a conical head will come through cover better than others, and he likes a green pumpkin skirt with a few orange or yellow strands. A green pumpkin Berkley PowerBait Grass Pig trailer completes the lure.
"I adjust the size of the trailer to match the bluegill I see, and I just cast it and wind it through the area on a medium to fast retrieve," Iaconelli says. "The great thing about the swim jig is that you can work it through all kinds of brush and vegetation and cover a lot of water with it."
Ike’s caveat for the bluegill pattern is sound advice for a lot of bassin’ conditions: “Don’t get too close. When you find a cluster of bedding bluegills, mark it, come back later, and make long casts.”
5 GREAT BLUEGILL IMITATIONS
Matching the color of your local ’gills is important. Green pumpkin bodies or skirts are often a great starting point. Add a little chartreuse dye around the tail and fins, but don’t be garish. Check your local panfish for hints of yellow or orange around the throat and match them. Color aside, here are some bait types that will serve you well.
- HOLLOW-BODIED FROG: Don’t let the “frog” part fool you. Hollow-bodied frogs not only handle the densest cover where bluegill can be found, but they share a bluegill’s short, wide profile for fooling bass.
- PROP BAIT: In open water, a prop bait creates plenty of disturbance and can be fished slowly over a bluegill nest.
- BLADED JIG: When you need to cover some water in your search for bluegills and bass, a bladed jig works nicely and gets noticed with its flash and vibration.
- SWIM JIG: A lot like the bladed jig, but more subtle for clear water, bright skies or heavily pressured fish.
- FINESSE SOFT PLASTIC: When you have to slow down to get bites, there’s nothing better than a Texas- or drop shot-rigged beaver-style (or similar) soft plastic bait.