August 12, 2020
By Lynn Burkhead
In 1951, Ernest Hemingway set down at his typewriter, punching keys until he had produced the last major work of fiction that his long and storied literary career produced.
Written in Cuba and published in the U.S. the following year, the 127-page short novel was entitled The Old Man and the Sea, a volume that won a Pulitzer Prize. Read by millions of school-age kids down through the years, the story is one of angling literature’s most legendary tales, describing the fierce battle between an aging angler named Santiago and a massive marlin that broke an 84-day fishless streak as it was battled in Gulf Stream waters between Cuba and the Florida Straits.
To my knowledge, while he wrote of trout and ocean-going creatures, Hemingway never penned anything about the common bluegill, the everyman fish found in lakes, rivers, streams and ponds from one side of America to the other.
And neither did Zane Grey, another legendary fishing writer from the first half of the 20th Century who wrote often of Western cowboy adventures along with epic fishing trips taken to New Zealand and beyond, saltwater quests for deep-sounding pelagic monsters.
But maybe the two well-known American writers should have focused less on angling’s hall-of-fame species and written something about the simple bluegill instead, a sunfish species that in many ways, is the most important piscatorial critter of them all, offering far more muscle than a big marlin ever could.
Why is that? Because the bluegill is a natural presence in most waters across the U.S., known to nearly all who have ever picked up a rod and reel.
As such, while the well-known bluegill may not look like much to the casual observer, it’s a fish that provides far more punch than its diminutive size might suggest.
Just ask 13-year-old Joshua Thomas, a young angler from northeastern Oklahoma who just the other day caught a huge bluegill, one that is so impressive that it caused news stories to flash their way across social media pages and Internet sites around the nation.
According to an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Facebook post, the big bluegill catch happened when Thomas was fishing on a small pond near Tahlequah. Tipping the scales at 2 pounds, 5 ounces, the big bluegill caused quite a stir locally and beyond after it was landed.
In fact, Thomas’ big bluegill catch was large enough that it provided a near-miss at the Sooner State’s bluegill benchmark. That current state record bluegill, caught by Tom Shorter in 1987, is a single-minnow heavier on the scales, weighing in at 2-6.4.
Bluegills are widely regarded as excellent table fare, for their hard fight on light tackle, and as an important baitfish for largemouth bass in many water bodies. The prolific sunfish species are readily stocked across Oklahoma and have prolific natural spawns during the late spring and early summer months, annual breeding cycles that bring the bluegill into shallow waters where they will feistily attack a variety of baits and lures.
Such offerings include a variety of topwater and subsurface flies for fly fishermen and small lures for conventional tackle enthusiasts, as well as natural baits like earthworms, catalpa worms, grubs, crickets, grasshoppers and small minnows dabbled under a cork at the end of a cane pole.
No matter what they are caught on, bluegills often serve as the gateway species for a lot of young anglers, luring them in for a lifetime of fishing fun.
And for some, the specialized pursuit of so-called trophy bluegills is the lure—pun intended—as anglers seek to catch the biggest specimens of the small sunfish species. Some landowners even create trophy bluegill ponds, others research the Internet to find out-of-the-way natural places where slab-sized bluegills can be caught, and a few even specialize to the point of seeking record-sized catches of the pint-sized piscatorial critters.
With all of that in mind, just how big is a 2-5 bluegill?
As told in a fascinating Game and Fish story by Keith “Catfish” Sutton, the species can certainly get bigger.
That’s evidenced by the tale of a 4-pound., 12-ounce specimen pulled from Alabama’s Ketona Lake by T. Hudson back on April 9, 1950. The size of a good bass, Hudson’s big bluegill is the specie’s all-tackle world record in the International Game Fish Association record book!
But not by much, mind you, as Sutton’s story details. Because Hudson’s big bluegill topped an equally impressive 4-10 specimen pulled from the same quarry lake north of Birmingham, another huge slab taken by Coke McKenzie in May 1947. Incidentally, McKenzie’s huge bluegill—which was a world record until it was topped by Hudson’s fish—beat the then-previous world record mark by more than 2 pounds!
In addition to the pair of Alabama world-record bluegills that topped the 4-pound mark, there are plenty of other slab sunfish specimens to consider, a fact detailed by a list of state record bluegill catches put together on the Karl’s Bait and Tackle Blog maintained by Mystery Tackle Box.
In fact, a total of four other states have produced state records for the species that sit above the coveted 4-pound mark. Those include Kentucky (4-3), Nevada (4-12), North Carolina (4-5), and Virginia (4-8). Two others are near-misses to the “Four-pound Bluegill Club” including Arizona's 3-pound., 15.68-ounce state-record specimen and California's benchmark of 3-14.
In addition to Arizona and California mentioned above, 16 other states—Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee—all have state-record bluegill benchmarks north of 3 pounds.
While some of these record bluegills were caught long ago, not all of them have been. In fact, according to the Mystery Tackle Box list referenced above, a total of nine state-record bluegills have been landed in the 21st century so far, including one in Colorado (2019) and another in Vermont (2020).
While huge bluegills are caught on a variety of light-weight tackle, fly rods occasionally account for some of the record fish. That list includes the new Colorado state record—reportedly caught as the angler, Gregory Wallace, fly-fished for big northern pike—on June 12, 2019 at Totten Reservoir. The big sunfish, which took a sizable pattern meant for a pike, was sizable too, measuring 12 3/4 inches in length and weighing in at 2-pounds., 9.5-ounces.
So to answer the original question—how big is a 2.5-pound bluegill? —the answer is that while they can indeed get bigger, anything in that size range is at the upper end of the spectrum for what the species can produce. In fact, any bluegill above the 1-pound mark is a trophy specimen, one to remember for a lifetime.
Even if it’s never written about by a couple of fishing writers named Hemingway and Grey. But judging from the size of the smile on Joshua Thomas’ young angling face, that’s more than OK.