March 05, 2015
Is it possible to plan a fishing trip that will allow you to catch — by design rather than accident — a bluegill weighing 1 1/2 pounds or more?
There was a time I would have answered that question with a succinct "No." Despite the fact that bluegills are widespread and abundant in North American waters, individuals that size are true trophies and probably more rare than 3 1/2-pound crappie. It's possible to catch 2- or even 3-pound bluegills, but anglers who do so rarely set out with that specific intention.
I've been an ardent bluegill angler for half a century now, targeting these fun-to-catch panfish from Canada to Mexico and many points between. During those 50 years, I've caught tens of thousands of bluegills weighing up to 1 pound. But only on a few exceptional days have I landed specimens weighing 1 1/2 pounds, and, until recently, I had never caught a 2-pound-plus fish.
That changed in 2011, however, thanks to Facebook. One day I saw a photo of a 2 1/2-pound bluegill posted there by my friend T.J. I contacted T.J. immediately, and he agreed to take me to the 120-acre, privately owned lake where he caught the huge panfish.
We started out casting the same lure T.J. used to catch his 2 1/2-pound behemoth: Road Runner's 1/32-ounce Natural Science Trout & Panfish spinner. The big bluegills were cagey, though. One-pounders were the biggest we caught until we moved offshore around midday and began fishing around floating grass mats in deeper water.
When T.J. cast beside one mat, his rod tip bent to the water, making me think he'd hooked a big bass. But when the platter-sized fish started swimming in tight circles, I knew he'd hooked a bluegill. It turned out to be the biggest bluegill I'd ever seen caught — a skillet-sized behemoth weighing slightly more than 2 pounds.
During the next few hours, we enjoyed several double hookups with bluegills this size. It wasn't like shooting fish in a barrel. Catching these giants was challenging. But when the day ended, we had caught and released two-dozen bluegills exceeding 1 1/2 pounds, including one beautifully colored coppernose weighing 2 pounds, 4 ounces — my biggest bluegill ever.
This excursion convinced me it is possible to plan a successful trip with the intention of landing the biggest bluegill of your lifetime. And although I don't have any "magic bullets" that will absolutely assure your success, I do have five decades worth of hard-earned knowledge that can help you catch more trophy bluegills. I share some of these tactics and tricks here in hopes you can use them to accomplish quickly what it took me half a century to achieve:
First, know the possibilities
To have some gauge by which to judge the size of a true trophy bluegill where we fish, we can look at state records. Forty-eight states (all but Alaska and Maine) maintain record listings for the species. Of those, one (Hawaii) has a record less than 1 pound; four have records between 1 and 2 pounds; 12 have records of 2 to 2 1/2 pounds; 13 have records between 2 1/2 and 3 pounds; 12 have records of 3 to 3 1/2 pounds; two have records between 3 1/2 and 4 pounds; and four have records exceeding 4 pounds. The world record, a gargantuan fish caught in Alabama's Ketona Lake way back in 1950, weighed a whopping 4 pounds, 12 ounces.
My online and on-the-water research indicates that states with larger record fish tend to have more bodies of water where trophy bluegills can be caught, plus larger numbers of trophy-class bluegills in those waters. Thus, if you live in one of the 12 states with 3- to 3 1/2-pound state records, you'll probably have a better chance of finding a good place to catch a 2-pound-plus bluegill than if you live in one of the 12 states with 2- to 2 1/2-pound records. If your home waters are in a state with one of the smaller records, you may need to look elsewhere to land the bluegill of a lifetime.
Find the Right Waters
The primary key to catching trophy bluegills — and I can't stress this enough — is fishing the right body of water. You could fish many lakes that produce thousands of 1-pounders annually without ever catching a 1 1/2- or 2-pound fish.
Trophy bluegill waters are special waters with an excellent forage base and near-perfect balance of predators (like largemouth bass) and prey (bluegills and other small fish). One way to pinpoint trophy waters quickly is to phone the freshwater fisheries agency in your state and speak to a fisheries biologist familiar with bluegill waters. A few questions presented to the right individual could help you find several choice locations
I used to think there wasn't a good reason to waste my time with it. But now I have "friended" more than 1,000 fellow fishermen, and each day I see posts that show the fish they're catching. Most are willing to share information about good fishing locales, and through such friends, I've been able to identify many trophy bluegill waters I wouldn't have known about otherwise. I also know from their posts when the fish are biting and when they're not, and am better able to visit when fishing conditions are good. If you're a really good friend, they may even tell you the best bait to use and specific locales where trophy bluegills are liable to be caught.
Many bluegill anglers don't fish in ponds because they believe these diminutive waters aren't big enough to support healthy populations of trophy bluegills. If we look at the state-record listings mentioned earlier, however, we see that at least 20 of the 48 records were caught in ponds. Poorly managed ponds often are inhabited by tiny, stunted bluegills, but those with balanced populations of predator and prey fish may offer excellent fishing for heavyweight bluegills. If you do enough research, you might be able to find some well-managed ponds where owners will grant permission to fish.
Small bluegills tolerate an amazing amount of disturbance — a paddle accidentally banged against the boat, a fallen tackle box, squeaky boat seats. But trophy bluegills won't abide the slightest bit of commotion. At the first hint of danger, they disappear into the depths. This being the case, you should always be attentive to noisy distractions when fishing for big bluegills. Wear soft-soled shoes when fishing from a boat. Be sure all gear is carefully arranged so there's little chance of creating a disturbance. Fish slowly and "quiet as a mouse."
Try a belly boat
The best trophy bluegill waters often are backcountry lakes where vehicle access is difficult or non-existent. Belly boats, or float tubes, provide an ideal means for sampling such places. Put one in a backpack with a small tackle box full of hooks, sinkers, bobbers and lures, grab your ultralight rod and reel, and you're ready to hike in for adventure.
Try minnows for bluegills
When a bluegill gets too big for an angler to reach his hand around, it often turns from a diet of invertebrates to a diet of small fish. If you're hoping specifically to catch a trophy, try fishing 2- to 3-inch minnows. Hook the bait through both lips, not behind the dorsal fin, as it's easier for small-mouthed bluegills to swallow this way.
Present the minnow below a slip bobber, fishing hideouts in deeper, darker water where big wary bluegills usually hide. You may have to soak a bait several minutes before you coax a bite. Patience is key to success.
Tempt 'em with topwaters
One- to 2-inch topwater plugs resembling natural bluegill forage such as grasshoppers, small crayfish, little frogs and tiny shad are excellent for catching cautious trophy bluegills lurking beneath lily pads. Cast the bantam plug to an opening in or beside the pads, then let it sit, with only an occasional twitch to ripple the water's surface. A curious bluegill, if one is close by, will soon rush in and smack the lure. If you're good, you'll hook it.
Give 'em a spin
Small spinnerbaits cast and retrieved very s-l-o-w-l-y are great search tools when you are fishing unfamiliar waters and trying to pinpoint locales harboring oversized bluegills. My favorite is Road Runner's Natural Science Trout & Panfish spinner, the one T.J. and I used to catch several huge fish. The 1/32-ounce size is small enough for dimple-mouthed bream to inhale, and the spinner blade rotates quickly even when the lure is retrieved at the snail's pace usually needed to entice these persnickety panfish. Few lures are as effective for trophy bluegills.
Fish at night
In some waters in summer, the largest bluegills feed primarily at night, just like catfish. You sometimes can catch them on spinners and other noisy, vibrating lures, but live baits like small minnows or night crawlers seem to work best. Fish with no bobber, using only one or two split shot to carry the baited hook down. Place a fingertip on your line to detect pick-ups.
If your catch consists primarily of little bait-stealing bluegills, move to deeper water. Small bluegills aren't angler shy, but heavyweight fish prefer deep, dark, cool sanctuaries where they feel secure from surface disturbances. For bigger bluegills, deeper is almost always going to be better.
Though it seems contrary to common sense, big bluegills are more likely than small fish to gently nip a bait rather than smacking it with a hard-hitting strike. That being the case, lightweight, sensitive equipment is a must. Use an ultralight spinning outfit or graphite jigging pole with a soft, sensitive tip. This allows you to lift up slightly and watch for the slightest bend in the tip that indicates a fish has taken your bait. Though few anglers use it, 2- or 4-pound-test line will produce many more big bluegills than heavier line.
Detect light biters
Bluegills often feed on bottom invertebrates. If one of these bottom feeders takes your bait, it may swim upward after inhaling the enticement. Your bobber never moves, leading to missed fish. Catch these light biters by using a European-style "antenna" slip bobber on 2- to 4-pound-test line.
Run your line through the bottom hole of the bobber, then add a bobber stop above the float at the depth you want to fish. Tie on a hook, then start adding small split-shot between the hook and float. Use just enough so 1/4-inch of the bobber protrudes above the water. If a bluegill swims upward after grabbing the bait, it removes some weight off the line, and the super-sensitive bobber rises enough to clearly indicate a taker.
Fish on the bottom
Big bluegills tend to take a position below the rest of a school, usually on or very near the bottom, even in shallow water. A tightline bait rig is one of the best for catching these bottom dwellers. Thread a small egg sinker on your line, and, below it, tie on a barrel swivel just large enough to keep the sinker from sliding off. To the swivel's lower eye, tie a 2- or 3-foot leader of light line tipped with a long-shanked Carlisle hook. Add a small minnow or other live bait, then cast the rig and allow it to settle to the bottom. When a fish takes the bait, the line moves freely through the sinker with no resistance to alert fish to a possible threat.
Fish in waders
Giant bluegills often hide in areas inaccessible from a boat, especially on lakes with lots of shallow, flooded timber. To catch these fish, you need to dispense with the boat and don a pair of waders. Walk slowly and quietly in shallow, brushy backwaters, using a long pole to place a bait in front of feeding fish. Watch closely for swirls in the water indicating actively feeding bluegills.
Think outside the box
If the tactics here aren't producing, try thinking outside the box to be successful. Try a different bait, a new rig, another fishing locale. Trophy bluegills are among the wariest and most difficult to catch of all North American sportfish, but innovation often leads to success.
Favorite Baitcasting Reel
Favorite Stand-Up Paddleboard
"Humminbird is No. 1 to me because they never stop re-inventing their units. They stand behind them, and they are virtually trouble free. Updates are also free." -Gary Dollins
Garmin GPSMAP 1040xs
"I have one on my Smoker Craft. It pushes my boat really good and I can still troll down to a slow speed of 1.5 mph. It is a 4 stroke, so I don't have to worry about mixing oil." -Ron Croucher