Conditions were perfect. The lake’s calm bays were soaking up the sun’s energy, and I knew big bluegills would be drawn to these spots. I headed toward the north shore, where the spring sun had the most impact. I shut down the big motor just inside a favorite bay and quietly slid the electric into the water.
A fin lightly broke the surface in a calm corner of the bay, and as I drew closer a dozen swirls roughed up the slick surface. I slid the anchor into the water and waited a few minutes for things to quiet down.
I lobbed the light balsa float and spoon slightly past the activity. The spoon fluttered down and righted the sensitive float. I gave the rig a gentle sweep, and my rod soon bucked with the signature fight of a husky ’gill. A dozen more chunky 9-inch-plus sunfish quickly followed suit.
No wonder I still enjoy pursuing the fish of my childhood—the bluegill. Best of all, I’m now catching thick-bodied scrappers instead of “potato chips” and I’m doing it with lures—not live bait! If you want to battle bulls until your arms ache, too, follow these patterns.
Spoon And Non-Maggot
It’s no secret that bluegills are attracted to warm water in spring. But often the key areas aren’t the shallows, but pockets of calm water that catch the most rays. You might find fish at the north end of a farm pond or strip pit; in a quiet corner of a bay, channel or oxbow; even in flooded tree limbs. In these calm, sun-drenched spots, bluegills often hold within inches of the surface, eager to feed.
To find a top spot, walk the banks or motor around calm areas on sunny, early spring days. When you see swirls, you can bet they’ll be ’gills (although slab crappies will also get in your way).
It takes a special technique to tempt these spooky fish. The best I’ve found is casting and retrieving a small, flat spoon that flutters slowly, tipped with a couple of Berkley’s Gulp! Maggots, fished under a balsa float that lands like a feather.
In warm, dingy shallows, a small spinnerbait or Beetle Spin can be dynamite. The blade attracts fish in the stained water, provides a little extra casting weight, and its drag keeps the presentation high in the water column. As a bonus, the jig’s arm fends off moss and weeds much better than an exposed hook.
In fact, I consider the 1/32-ounce Beetle Spin a go-to lure for scattered bluegills over shallow flats, especially if the water is dark or if light penetration is minimal, and at times when I need a snag-resistant jig-type presentation for skimming weeds or brush.
Slow and steady works best. Use a soft-tipped rod that will show strikes. One more tip: You’ll catch more fish on each lure if you glue the plastic to the head.
This is deadliest with skinny “do-nothing” plastic dressings on jig heads 1/32-ounce or lighter. I’ve had great success with the Mini-Mite from Cubby Fishing Tackle. These lures are popular around Chicago; if you can’t find them near you, call Cubby, based in Crete, Illinois, at: (708) 672-8072.
Last year I added another petite plastic to my arsenal, Lindy’s Munchies Tiny Tails—especially the Micro-Mino and Split Tail, which have a ’gill-teasing action that triggers big bulls. Count the jig down to the level you want to fish and retrieve it slowly and steadily.
This tactic will cover a lot more territory than live bait, catch bigger fish and work in the colder waters of spring and fall, as well as during the heat of summer. You’ll also attract plenty of bonus bass and crappies.
Jig And Float
It’s hard to beat a small jig under a float. When bluegills scatter across a flat, suspend over cover or open water, or rise near the surface during low light, a jig and float works well because you can cover a lot of water with precise depth control.
Unlike crappie fishing, where working a float in an erratic manner typically gets the best results, slow and steady is the answer for ’gills. I twitch the float a few times to get their attention, then reel in straight and slow. If the float does anything unusual, I immediately set the hook. This method is effective to a depth of about eight feet.
To keep the lure tracking as straight as possible, I use vertically flattened jigs (like a lima bean) or a ball head. I also remove any collar on the hook’s shank designed to hold plastic in place, as it tears up thin plastics. Put a drop of Super Glue between the dressing and jig before sliding them together.
For a fun and vastly overlooked way to catch broad-shouldered bluegills, fish tiny crankbaits. My first experience catching ’gills on ultra-light cranks came by accident. I was using a small minnowbait at dusk in a clear-water strip pit inhabited by tough-to-catch crappies. I caught some of ’em, but what really surprised me was the number of 9- to 10-inch bluegills that also hit the lure. The ’gill-to-crappie ratio got even better as I slowed the lure, allowed more time between twitches, and made the twitches less pronounced. I became a believer.
An ultra-light crankbait covers water, bypasses dinky sunnies and avoids deeply hooking fish on live bait. Plus, you’ll catch bonus crappies and bass. I’ve had much success while fishing the 15/8-inch Rebel Minnow in open water and over subsurface weeds. After the plug hits the water, give it a few light twitches and then a long pause, followed by slow pulls and four- to five-second pauses. An ultra-slow, steady retrieve with the bait causing a slight surface disturbance is also effective. If the lure isn’t moving surface water, you’re going too fast.
Cranks are perfect for pond fishing, too. During summer and early fall, when grasshoppers infest the pond’s edge, try a Rebel Crickhopper or Storm Hopper Popper. Bluegills will suspend in midpond and suck in any struggling insect. Fish the lure with slight quivers; for added appeal put a Gulp! Maggot or a sliver of Yum plastic on the front hooks.
The Rebel Crawfish is also deadly. NAFC friend Mitch Looper fishes big ’gills near his Arkansas home with a passion, and every time he heads out, he has a Teeny-Wee Crawfish tied on. Looper’s pursuit of 1-pound-plus bluegills begins during the first warming trends of March. He says crayfish don’t burrow into the mud during winter in his area, and you can find early action on two- to three-foot-deep, hard-bottom flats when bull ’gills come to feed on smaller crayfish. During the warmer afternoon hours, he covers flats with long casts, letting the lure briefly sit before slowly retrieving, with frequent pauses.
Looper says Arkansas ’gills spawn during full moons from April to September. In April and May, spawning generally occurs in coves, while the June to September spawns take place on big, flat points more related to deeper water.
When spawners come up, he lets the crank sit for 15 to 20 seconds before moving it. Many times a brazen bluegill will suck it in before the first twitch. If a striker misses, Looper doesn’t move the bait—other takers are usually nearby. Under some conditions, bigger fish don’t rise within range of this shallow-running lure. Looper solves the problem by putting a split shot or two 12 to 18 inches above the Crawfish. After letting the lure sink to the bottom on a long cast, he fishes it like a plastic worm—gentle pull, long pause, repeat.
Looper and I opt for longer, light-action spinning rods. You can’t get good casting distance and a solid hookset, or play the fish as well with a short, whippy ultra-light. We use 4-pound test a lot, but Looper often opts for 6 when bass are about. I’ve caught a few 5 to 6 pounders on these tiny lures, and he has hooked a bunch. I guess that’s one of the “drawbacks” of using tiny cranks for ’gills—all the bass that get in the way!