By Tom Carpenter
In spring it can be easy to be a bluegill expert. Find some warm, shallow water from a couple to 4 or 5 feet deep that’s close to a few weeds, and look for plate-sized spawning beds fanned out in the sand or gravel bottom. Then, bait up with a piece of worm, tip of nightcrawler or waxworm below a fixed bobber and make some soft casts. You’ll fill your basket, bucket or livewell with a mess of filleting-sized sunfish.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and such is the case regarding the easy pickings of springtime sunnies across the Dakotas. Once their procreation duties are over and weed growth explodes as water temps rise, bluegills start drifting back to progressively deeper, cooler water and the visual cues of spawning beds are no longer available. The fish aren’t as accessible to anglers, so, in turn, fishing effort wanes.
But with just a little work — and the right arsenal of strategies, techniques and tips — you can catch good-sized sunfish all season long. Here are 18 approaches for catching more and bigger bluegills.
1. Slip Bobber Versatility
Slip bobbers represent your all-around best and most versatile bluegill rig. Flexibility is their biggest advantage, as you can fish shallows 3 or 4 feet deep in the mornings and evenings or during the spawn, yet probe down to depths of 10 or even 20 feet in summer.
Slide a commercially made bobber stop knot on your line (leave the ends dangling free for easy adjustment), add a small bead, slip on a small bobber, and tie on your hook or lure. Add a split-shot about 18 inches up from the hook.
2. Light Line
Sunfish aren’t simpletons. In fact, trying to catch hand-sized bluegills is one of the toughest fishing challenges to be found in the Dakotas, which means you need to spool up with light line to make a low-impact, finesse presentation.
In spring you can get by with 6-pound line. But in high summer, switch down to 4-pound monofilament. Use 2-pound line if you can, when weeds and snags aren’t a big issue.
3. Multiple Rigs
Keep several rods rigged at all times so you’re ready to switch tactics at a moment’s notice. Having a backup rod handy also enables you to keep as many legal lines in the water as possible instead of re-rigging when you’re on a hot school.
Personally, I like to keep several outfits at the ready: two with slip-bobber rigs, one for vertical jigging without a bobber and, last but not least, one with a fixed bobber rig.
4. Transition Fish
After spawning, bluegills go into a transition mode. The shallows are too exposed, and with nesting finished, there’s no use risking predation, which is why sunnies move out to slightly deeper water — about the 6- to 8-foot range — in weedy bays. Now is the time to drift over weedy flats, probing as deep as you can to just brush the submerged weed tops with your baits.
5. Deep Weedlines
Despite the modern marvels of fish finders, GPS units and all the other electronic gadgetry known to fishermen these days, one of your best summer bluegill-finding weapons is a good pair of polarized sunglasses that will help you discern the deep edge of any weedline. This is especially true on prairie lakes. Bluegills really congregate here once warm weather hits.
6. Early Bird
It’s easy to talk yourself into sleeping in and fishing bluegills any old time of day. After all, they’re just bluegills, right?
But, if you’re serious about catching slabs, that precious hour or so before the sun comes up might be your best bet, especially in summer. The water has cooled off all night, and dawn is your chance to fish up a little higher in the water column where big ’gills are more active and accessible. You can often catch sunfish right in the shallows now, where they go to feed on minnows and other forage that teems there before they retreat to deeper water for the day.
7. Evening Shift
The day’s other prime bluegill fishing time is evening. One of my favorite evening spots is a point or weedy ledge where you can fish the deep side in the early evening and then, as the sun drops, work your way up into shallower water as the fish do the same. Your versatile slip-bobber rig is perfect for this duty.
8. Midday Effort
Early or late fishing doesn’t always work with busy spring and summertime specials. Don’t give up, but be prepared to work harder and deeper for your fish.
On sunny days, you might have to get down as far as 10 to 15 feet using a slip-bobber rig. Alternatively, forget the bobber and just drift slowly about along weed edges, vertically jigging below your boat. Bluegills will usually be within a foot or two of the bottom.
9. Minnow City
By summer, there are a lot of small fish fry swimming around, and bluegills eagerly feed on the bounty. Be sure to find and use the smallest minnows you can. For a natural presentation, hook a minnow in the lip on a size No. 8, light-wire, short-shanked hook. When using minnows, you might not catch as many bluegills as you otherwise would, but their average size will run larger.
10. Small Baits
When bluegills get real finicky, think small when selecting lures and baits. Tiny ice-fishing jigs, preferably with some silver and flash, are prime. Small 1/16- and 1/32-ounce jigs work well, too. Tip with waxworms, mealworms, spikes or eurolarvae.
11. Cricket Crunch
Crickets make great sunfish bait for three reasons. For starters, bluegills are very insect-oriented in their feeding habits. Secondly, when hooked, crickets emit fish-attracting scent. And last but not least, a cricket represents something new and juicy that a wary old sunfish hasn’t seen that often.
When they start coming out in late summer, grasshoppers make great bait, too. Hook crickets and grasshoppers along their body length (to prevent bait stealing), and fish them wet below a bobber or slip bobber.
12. Stay Fresh
You will catch more bluegills if you keep your bait fresh and lively. Store minnows in an aerated and insulated bucket. Carry a cooler with ice on which to store nightcrawler and waxworm containers. Put crickets and hoppers in a cage box and keep it in the shade.
13. Fish Above the Thermocline
Look for suspended summer bluegills just above the thermocline, or the depth where warm water meets cooler, deeper water. Bluegills are a warmwater fish, so they’ll go as far down as they can while staying within their preferred water temperature of the mid-70s.
14. Color Notes
When deciding on lure colors for sunfish, black always makes a great starting point. Bluegills seem to love it. If that’s not working, go to the other end of the spectrum, which means white or, in many cases (and one of my personal favorites), yellow or chartreuse.
15. Go up Top
One of life’s best and simplest pleasures is working a prairie lake or pond in the evening with a fly rod and poppers. Bluegills head into weedy bays and along lily pad edges as the sun goes down, and now is the perfect time for a topwater presentation.
Wade or drift slowly along, casting into turns and pockets in the weeds. Let the popper sit after landing, twitch it a little bit, then let it sit again for a half minute or so. “Pop” it lightly along for a little ways, twitch and let sit, then pick up and cast to a new spot. Bluegills will smack the popper while it’s twitching or resting.
16. Secondary Spawn
Nature employs an insurance policy against the potential failure of the year’s main hatch. That tool is a second spawn in July (or sometimes August), tied to those months’ full moons. These spawns involve different fish than those that participated in the first spawn, and the action takes place in water that is a little deeper — usually 8 to 12 feet. Look for these second-spawn fish when a full moon rides the night sky.
17. Cold Front Drifting
Even hungry bluegills get a bad case of lockjaw the first day or two after a storm front blows through the Dakotas, when fresh winds blow out of the northwest. These bright and breezy bluebird days, featuring puffy clouds and cool air, seem to scatter fish to all corners of a lake and all levels of the water column. This is drifting time.
My dad was an expert at it. We call them in-line spinners now, but he called them “June Bugs” back then. Attached on a light 3-foot leader below a barrel swivel (to prevent twist) and weighted with a split shot, we would add a redworm or nightcrawler tip to the little spinner’s single hook and just drift along. The flash attracts fish. To adjust depth as you drift, it’s a simple matter of reeling up or letting out line or adding or deleting split shot.
18. Cloudy Day Party
Don’t underestimate the value of a cloudy day in the middle of summer. It often presents an opportunity to fish for aggressive warm-front bluegills that have moved up out of the depths to work the shallower water and weedy edges for forage. These fish are there to feed, so take advantage and get after them.
Your bluegill season doesn’t have to end after late spring’s spawn. The slabs are still there, feeding hard all summer long. You just need to adjust your approach and react to what the fish are actually doing.
About the Author: Tom Carpenter is editor of Pheasants Forever Journal and a freelancer who focuses his outdoor year on the northern plains. His favorite thing to hunt or fish for is … whatever he’s hunting or fishing for.