Bluegills often get the Rodney Dangerfield treatment: being abundant and readily catchable with relatively simple tactics, they get little respect. The common perception is that if you simply show up at the lake, you’re guaranteed a bucketful.
It’s a bad rap. Because if you’re after bull ’gills pushing a pound and more, you can forget the assembly-line mentality of cast, bobber down, wind in. Sure, you can catch them in the shallows in spring, on a simple piece of worm dangled beneath a float. And at the leading edge of summer, you’ll see them suspended high in the evening, their dorsal fins poking above the glassy surface as they smack emerging insects from atop the mirror-like setting. More easy targets.
But then, a week or two later, reality sets in and the biggest fish disappear.
That’s because although small and medium-size bluegills pepper all forms of shallow wood and weedgrowth throughout the summer months, the big guys often head deep as the water warms to 68 or 70 degrees and insect hatches blossom from the main lake’s soft basin. There, they adopt a deep-water lifestyle through much of the warm season.
If this surprises you—or if you’re skeptic—you’re not alone. After all, it stands to reason that if ’gills are deep, then we’d catch more of them while targeting walleyes, bass and other species that inhabit deep, main-lake structure in summer.
That’s a fair point, but think hard: Assuming you frequent fisheries where both species are present, you probably have caught at least some bluegills on smaller baits. It’s only when you fish mega-mouthfuls that you take them out of the mix.
Deep Blue Seize
Although the phenomenon escapes most anglers, it’s not incredibly complex. Big ’gills typically drop out of the weedbeds that held them in spring and early summer, and then slide down the sides of adjacent structure that intersects a mid-depth soft basin, where larvae and small minnows abound. In most Northern natural lakes, 20 to 35 feet is the most common summer depth range—at least for large fish. In shallower lakes, bluegills simply head to the deepest water they can find.
Unlike crappies, which often suspend high in the water column during summer, big bluegills tend to be more bottom- oriented, running tighter to the edges of structure instead of roaming farther out into the basin. You catch the two species together at times, especially during peak activity periods in early morning and evening, when their feeding activities overlap. But chances are you’ll catch mostly one or the other, especially given where and how you need to fish.
That’s because your target zone for bait placement should be slightly higher than it is for bottom-hugging walleyes— but much lower in the water column than you’d fish crappies.
George Cooper, a multi-species angler and former guide from Brainerd, Minnesota, says that at peak activity periods, these ’gills rise a bit in the water, but also ascend the adjacent structure.
“When they’re active, they position two to four feet up,” he says. “But they also move a little up the drop-off, instead of simply suspending a short distance above the mud.”
With that in mind, presenting live baits such as small to medium leeches on a drop-shot or three-way rig is the ideal approach. Such tactics place the bait two or three feet above your sinker, right where bluegills are on the prowl. While you can definitely catch fish by dragging the same baits along bottom, you’ll catch far more by employing these unconventional bluegills rigs.
Cooper’s preferred setup is a three-way, with a short snell above a 2- or 3-foot dropper running through a 3/4-ounce sliding pencil sinker. Both the snell and dropper are tied to the bottom eye of a swivel. He ties a bead to the end of the dropper line to stop the weight from sliding off.
“It’s basically a downsized version of what you’d use to fish walleyes,” he says.
Cooper says the relatively large sinker not only lets him fish deep water, but it also gets the bait through any smaller fish that might be suspended above the bigger ones. And the swivel eliminates line twist when hooked bluegills go into their characteristic whirling dervish mode.
Not surprisingly, a wide array of natural baits power through bluegills on this rig, including leeches, small crappie minnows (if truly large fish are around), and pieces of crayfish. But that’s not all.
“Use those big, white cutworm grubs you pull out of the garden, as well as grasshoppers,” he says. “In Southern fisheries, crickets fished in similar fashion are the way to go. Big bluegills love them all.”
But here’s a shocker. The big boys really don’t go for a small piece of nightcrawler— or even a small angleworm— like smaller fish do. And if you fish for small fish, you’ll catch small fish.
You’re better off presenting a live bait that’s a bit bigger, but don’t go overboard. Remember that even the magnum bluegills have small mouths and you must choose a bait that fits inside.
There are exceptions to that rule. Fellow bluegill expert and guide Brian Brosdahl has access to many off-thebeaten- path waters that grow brutish ’gills, and he sometimes breaks the mold by fishing an entire nightcrawler. He hooks it through the nose on a split shot rig, using patience—not weight—to sink it to the depth of the fish.
But before you do the same, bear in mind that his go-to fisheries are dominated by relatively small populations of large bluegills. If you tried this in a lake with a disproportionate number of small fish, your bait would get picked to pieces before a big one even gets a crack at it.
Note an important point: although a full ’crawler is long, it isn’t wide or thick, which means a jumbo ’gill can still get its mouth around one end and slurp it in like a spaghetti noodle.
“Another trick that works really well is to use a floating jighead in place of the plain hook in a three-way rig,” Cooper says. “It helps float your bait, adds a bit of color for attraction, and bobs and weaves as you move along.”
Whether he’s fishing a floating jig or plain hook, he fishes slowly, almost vertically, inching along with the electric motor and allowing the bait to work itself. In the case of freshly-killed baits like grasshoppers, the slow approach lets the taste and smell work their magic.
So, what about artificials? Or, is this strictly a live bait enterprise? Cooper weighs in.
“You can catch plenty of deep bluegills on small artificials. But once again, they have to be sized to fit inside their mouths,” he says. “And not just the bait itself, but also the hook.
Most of the time, Cooper fishes a 1/32- ounce jig, which is pretty light for fishing in such deep water, so he pinches a split shot on the line and slides it right down to the knot, tight to the head.
“It seems strange, but you don’t need it positioned up the line, because it doesn’t spook fish. In fact, it makes the jighead work more like a 1/16-ounce head, which is perfect,” he says. “A 1/16 ouncer on its own typically has a hook that’s just too big for a bluegill to handle.”
Where legal, I sometimes use two jigs tipped with artificials simultaneously. To do it, I attach a short piece of line to the end of the main line using a surgeon’s knot (get instructions by clicking on Web Extras at FishingClub.com), and leave 18-plus-inch tag ends.
I clip the tag end of the leader line nearest the rodtip close to the knot, but leave about 8 inches of the other tag end, to which I attach a 1/32-ounce jig. About 18 inches below the knot, on the main-line tag end, I tie a 1/16-ounce jig.
I thread a ½- to 1-inch curlytail grub onto each jig—a 2 incher is on the big side for most bluegills, although they will hit it, leading to many bumps and thumps but fewer hookups.
I can cast and swim this combo, as well as vertically jig it in deep water. Sometimes, you catch two fish at a time when they’re active, but the real point of fishing the rig is more about being able to put two different-size lures at two slightly different depths. And it works.
Fishing small jigs in deep water requires precisely matched tackle.
“I prefer low-diameter superline over thicker mono,” Cooper says. “I’ll use 4- or even 2-pound-test FireLine Crystal or 6-pound Tracer Braid. They not only cut the water better with lightweight lures, but they let me easily feel light bites in deep water, detect strikes visually and set the hook hard.”
He also advises to tie in a short section of fluorocarbon between the line and lure. It results in more bites, and makes retying much easier.
With any deep bluegill presentation, an ultra-light rod will do if you’re into the occasional jumbo. But if you’re into serious ’gillage, I prefer a 6-foot, 6-inch, medium-light, fast-tip spinning rod. It provides good hooksets, plus a bit of backbone to fight fish that corkscrew their way to the surface under pressure.
If you fish the ice belt, remember to pack your hard-water tackle box on trips for deep summer bluegills. The typical collection of tiny flies, jigs and spoons fit neatly into a ’gill’s mouth, and fish seldom see them outside winter.
As an added plus, most ice lures are tailor-made for fishing below a slip float, a presentation Cooper sometimes employs in summer, when the situation allows him to anchor at the tip of a point and stay on top of fish.
Finally, remember that mid-summer bulls are no dummies. They grow big by not falling for the typical worm chunk their smaller brethren clobber. Rather, they use their microscopic eyesight to carefully evaluate plankton-sized food items before inhaling. If they don’t like what they see, they don’t bite.
So, the best advice is to treat them with the ample respect they deserve. Because when you go off the deep end for big summer bluegills, you earn every fish you catch.
Bluegills—and pretty much every other variety of panfish for that matter—relish leeches and crickets, but both baits come with baggage.
Aside from not being available everywhere, leeches are often delicate—go too long without changing water or keeping them cool, and they’re mush. Even if you can keep them fresh, most are too large to use on panfish and must be snipped into pieces, which defeats the bait’s inherent action.
Crickets are no picnic either, plus they’re easily stripped from a hook if you flub a hookset or fall asleep at the switch.
Berkley’s bait wizards have just engineered a solution: new Gulp! Alive 1- inch Leeches and Crickets. The leech has all the action of its 5-inch Gulp! Alive brother, and the cricket marks a Berkley first—tiny appendages formed out of Gulp! material.
Not only are both easy to transport and rig, they’re tough enough to stay on the hook through several fish.
For more information on these latest additions to the Gulp! Alive line, click on NAFC Links at FishingClub.com.—Ryan Gilligan
Beyond The Regulations:
The Ethics Of Keeping Bluegills
For about the past 15 years, fisheries biologists nationwide have wrestled with the dilemma of how to maintain bluegills populations dominated by large fish. In the South, that’s often meant manipulating largemouth bass numbers to increase predation, keeping bluegill numbers in check and growth rates high.
In Northern waters, the peak predation season of summer generally isn’t long enough to allow bass or pike to sufficiently knock down the ’gill population, so biologists have gone to the opposite end of the spectrum, decreasing bag limits to reduce the number of large males removed from a given fishery. Bull bluegills discourage the spawning of younger, smaller males, so keeping more in the lake means fewer fish spawn, which keeps the population under control and prevents stunting. Plus, younger males can then put energy toward growth, not needless spawning.
Both management schemes have worked, but the Northern tact has left conservation-minded anglers who also enjoy the taste of fried bluegills with an ethical question. Beyond simply following the regulations, how can anglers who want a fish fry best utilize a fishery without harming the resource? Are anglers out of line keeping sumo ’gills on waters with ultrarestrictive bag limits—those where they might be allowed as few as five fish?
To find out, I posed those questions to Peter Jacobson, Fisheries Research Supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He said that although anglers need not feel guilty about keeping big (legal) bluegills out of managed lakes, those wanting to help create the best fisheries possible would do well to use selective harvest measures.
“Rather than keep a limit of 10-inch fish, anglers would be do better to throw those largest fish back and keep 7 to 8 inchers instead,” Jacobson says.
The concept itself is nothing new. In fact, conscientious walleye, bass and pike anglers have for years practiced selective harvest, voluntarily releasing the largest portion of their catch. The same cannot be said for anglers targeting bluegills, but Jacobson says that trend might be changing.
“Shortly after special slot and length limits began to expand for walleyes and bass, we started seeing anglers voluntarily putting back the biggest fish they caught, regardless of the regulations,” he says. “It was a small percentage at first, but soon that ethic took off and you had a significant portion of anglers doing it. At some point I think the same will be true with bluegills.”
The rewards of such restraint are worthwhile.
“The modeling we’ve used to gauge these decreased bag limits show a distinct improvement in the size structure,” Jacobson says.
Keep that in mind when you’re targeting a lake’s biggest ’gills—restrict your harvest to smaller keepers, and you’ll have more giants to battle in years to come.—Ryan Gilligan