By Matt Straw
There are several reasons why spring is the season to invest most of your bluegill-hunting time: Fish are bigger than they’ll be all year and the tall corn—the cabbage, rice, cane, and pads they use to break free—won’t be fully developed yet. From spawn time through fall, the rules change. Environmental cues switch from the search for warm water, warming trends, stable weather, and finding spawning habitat to diversity, dense cover, and forage gluts that lead to multiple patterns. Some years ago, we divulged secrets to finding bigger panfish, like the 50-50 rule: Look at a map of any relatively complex lake and divide it in half. The shallow half is where most of the food and most panfish patterns unfold.
If it won’t divide easily in half, circle the lake’s biggest shallow flats and target those areas first.
Some rules are hard to break, like matching tackle and presentations to seasons and cover. And another old rule we’ve discussed describes how the biggest bluegills often move shallow first. When the ice leaves a lake—or when bluegills make those first shallow movements down South—the biggest specimens tend to be the first to show. But many rules are made to be broken. Big ‘gills don’t know the rules anyway, and breaking them sometime results in bigger fish. But you have to know the rules to break the rules.
The Early Spring Bite
Canals and small shallow lakes open up first. The first sunny, warm-front days after ice-out find bulls way up shallow, for perhaps, the only time all year. Fish over a pound tend to spawn deeper than smaller members of the species, and may shift deeper after an initial shallow movement. Out of sight in 5 to 12 feet, the biggest ‘gills require a concerted effort to find just before and during the spawn. Those spawning in 1 to 3 feet of water are seldom the biggest specimens a fishery has to offer.
A little later in spring, more unique windows open for finding big bluegills, as river backwaters and mid-size lakes open up. Finally, complex lakes thaw out. Two key areas tend to hold huge bluegills during early the Prespawn Period: 1) Massive shallow flats, hundreds of yards across less than 4 feet deep, on large mesotrophic lakes; and 2) Shallow river backwaters well away from main river currents. These become the next spots to target after canals connected to dead-end bays and small ice-out lakes play out. The biggest bluegills in these spots often avoid fishing pressure from late spring though fall because aquatic vegetation becomes too dense. For most of the year, they eat and get fat. The best flats and backwaters often force anglers to cross large areas just 1 to 2 feet deep to find depressions and troughs in the 3- to 4-foot range, which provide more protection.
Bulls often sun themselves high in the water column, especially near cover. Using a slipfloat with weight on the line moves a bait past them too quickly. The best early presentations for finding big bluegill sink slowly. Rig 4- to 6-pound Berkley FireLine with a Rainbow Plastics A-Just-A-Bubble, gripping it just tight enough to be positioned as needed by sliding it up and down the line. It casts well with no sinker and the bait’s slow fall entices bites. A tiny swivel allows attachment of a 2- to 4-foot leader of 4- to 6-pound fluorocarbon. The business end terminates in a #10 hook or a 1/80-ounce jig. When baited with a waxworm, leech, piece of ‘crawler, or plastic tail, they parachute down slowly.
That’s the typical prespawn progression—from small lakes, to canals, to river backwaters, then to the biggest shallow flats in more complex mesotrophic lakes. By late prespawn in most of these environments, bulls stage a little deeper than the rest of the herd. As a general rule, spawning areas used by trophy ‘gills are adjacent to other spawning sites, a bit farther from shore and 2 to 8 feet deeper. Find them by drifting or controlled-drifting deeper areas adjacent to visible spawners with a simple panfish-style Carolina rig baited with a piece of ‘crawler, redworm, or angle worm, or with slipfloats deployed to the sides of the boat in clear water. Once spawning is done, bluegills shift into multiple patterns. The biggest ones, as we might expect, often slip away to places less easily found.
Fishing Thick Cover
Thick cover is one version of tall corn. Shallow “slop” (lily pads, maidencane, or other emergent vegetation) spots are key. Find a spot where cattails, bulrushes, cabbage, and coontail—or a similar variety of plant types—converge around the edge of a large lily pad field. Some cabbage tends to be a requirement in lakes that have it in abundance. But diversity provides a bonanza of forage types. Bulls thrive there under normal conditions. Deep tangles of wood on shallow flats are key spots, too. Active bluegills tend to position within pads or wood in depths of 3 to 4 feet, close to the outside edge. Choose a 12-foot pole with 6- to 10-pound line and dap the pockets with polefloats and small jigs with strong small hooks. Bend the points slightly downward to avoid snagging.
Along deep weededges, horizontal presentations cover water fast. Cast, drift, or troll with small tube jigs, ballhead jigs with 2-inch auger-tail grubs, tiny suspending minnowbaits or rattlebaits, little spinnerbaits, or tiny crankbaits. Work in all directions—over the vegetation, along the base of the deep edge, the inside edge, and out over open water. Bulls roam these areas, using available habitat. Use polarized glasses and watch the water behind these tiny lures as you retrieve. Even if the most aggressive bluegills won’t strike the bait, some often follow.
Outside the rules are those bluegills driven by fishing pressure or forage location into small isolated, atypical spots—panfish equivalents for tall corn, like a small rockpile or gravel hump in the middle of a massive 25- to 30-foot flat on the deep side of the lake, where most invertebrate species are less abundant than in shallow areas.
The 50-50 rule comes with a caveat: “when typical rules apply.” A typical “within-the-rules” spot on the shallow half of a lake after the spawn might include features like humps and rockpiles beyond the drop-offs, with water around 70°F. Find the biggest shallow flats, go beyond the breaks into 12- to 25-foot depths and look for isolated anomalies. The best ones rise to within 12 or 15 feet of the surface and have some vegetation and rock on top, though deeper rockpiles that top out 15- to 25-feet down can be even better. The larger a spot is, the more within the rules it is, and the more likely to be recognized and heavily fished.
Atypical spots in lakes with few free-roaming predators are much smaller and rise only a foot to two feet above surrounding softer substrates. The primary prey on a hard-bottom oasis is rock-clinging mayfly nymphs, shelter-building caddis larvae, and tiny crayfish, so vertical jigging becomes the prime tactic. But the surrounding flats, holding bloodworms, burrowing invertebrates, and chironomid larvae should be drifted with bait rigs tipped with angle worms or ‘crawlers. Isolated pods of bigger bluegills roam widely across such areas through fall into winter.
Fish these areas with rigs or vertically, using heavy jigs—1/8- to 1/4-ounce or more—with #10 or #8 hooks. Tip with waxworms, maggots, angleworms, or thin softbaits that allow the jig to fall fast and true. ‘Crawlers and minnows are bulky and won’t drop as quickly. Thin braids in the 4- to 6-pound range are most efficient for this and many other tactics, not only allowing jigs to drop faster than thicker mono, but allowing longer casts, better feel, and stronger hook-sets.
Bull bluegills also feed on free-drifting zooplankton and other creatures that feed on plankton. Dr. Hal Schramm studied the interactions of bluegills with various zooplankton at the University of Florida. “Some zooplankters are big enough to see without a microscope,” he says. “They suspend, almost neutrally buoyant, making jerky movements in all directions. They use swimming appendages to move toward phytoplankton—tiny plants drifting in current. Zooplankton generally hop along in one direction long enough to be easily intercepted. The correlation between bigger zooplankton and bigger bluegills has often been noted. Larger bluegills key on larger zooplankton.”
Other studies show that the largest bluegills in many systems, from Michigan to Louisiana, wander out into open water to feed on Daphnia—large zooplankters—at some point during summer. These bluegills suspend, typically within 10 feet of the surface, only appearing for most anglers when the wind has been blowing into the same weed lines and shallower structures in the same direction for days. In some lakes and backwaters this open-water pattern lasts from postspawn well into fall. The densest “fields” of plankton are at the mercy of the wind. Tiny trolling spoons, such as the Bait Rigs Willospoon and the Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon, are dynamite for finding big bluegills in open water. Use 6-pound mono and small planerboards, like the Off-Shore OR 34, to spread the search pattern, and experiment with weight. Generally, one to three split shot suffice, even when using short leads from the board to the lure. If fish are deeper, add another shot, lengthen the leads, and slow down.
Big bluegills home in on bug hatches. They might wander some distance from other patterns to reach a hatch. When zipping across the lake, the feel of bugs bouncing off your face is a clue. Slow down and circle through the area using side-imaging sonar to search for hordes of emerging larvae and packs of pug-nosed pugilists, which might be anywhere from bottom to the surface over depths of 25 feet or more. Pitch to high-riding fish with jigs and plastics and jig vertically for deeper fish. Small bluegills often hold shallower or higher in the water column than larger ones.
The bulls—giants that approach or exceed a pound—like to hold beneath the canopy on deep weedlines, where standard tactics can’t reach them, one reason why bluegills along deep weededges can be among the biggest in the lake. Sort through the small fry to reach the bulls on deep weedlines. Bulls often hold a little deeper in open water, too.
Using a slightly larger slipfloat, say a small one from the walleye box, allows more weight on the line. Bulk the split shot rather close to the jig—8 to 12 inches up the line. This rigging pops through the canopy and speeds past the little guys before they can bite. Jigs should have a stout hook and light head, say a #8 on a 1/64-ouncer. Use a standup-style float, which quickly indicates whether or not the rig pierced the canopy.
Find bluegills fast in “confined open water” near cover like brushpiles, fallen trees, and weedlines with horizontal lures that move quickly and cover water. Tiny crankbaits like Yo-Zuri Snap Beans and Snap Shads balance with 2-pound mono or 4-pound braid, while panfish-sized Bill Lewis Rat-L-Traps, small auger-tail grubs on a 1/32-ounce head, and mini jerkbaits, like the #5 Rapala Husky Jerk, can be fished on 4-pound mono or 6-pound braid.
If fish don’t respond to hardbaits, try fishing 2-inch sickle-tail grubs on 1/32- to 1/16-ounce jigs with 4-pound line over open water. Cast, count down to different depths, and reel slowly. This is a slower technique than hardbaits and can be deadly when bulls are less aggressive. Jig-grubs can also be highly effective reeled over the tops of weedbeds or dropped to the bottom along deep weededges and retrieved slowly near bottom.
Match tactics to the situation. Know the rules. Then break them to find overlooked bulls in the tall corn and ride herd.
This article first appeared in In-Fisherman.