Bluegills, redears and other sunfish species will gravitate to a variety of cover and structure, from stump fields and boat docks to cypress knees and shell beds. But on the whole, nothing attracts these tasty panfish like a lush bed of vegetation.
Weedbeds offer sunfish a cool, oxygen-rich sanctuary from sunlight and predators, with an all-you-can-eat buffet of larval and adult insects, grass shrimp, worms and other invertebrates.
Ironically, most pan fans aren’t wild about weeds. Thick salad snags hooks and clogs propellers, complicates casting and hinders navigation. Some fishermen flat-out avoid weedbeds, and many of those who do fish vegetation often merely peck around the edges. It’s too bad, because the rewards are worth the challenges.
Learning to identify plants can help, as can understanding the difficulties and opportunities each presents. We’ll focus on three of the most common: elodea, water lilies and buttonbushes.
Often found in quiet water of lakes and slow-moving streams, elodea is often called American or Canada waterweed. It grows beneath the surface, sometimes in huge beds, creating tall walls of extremely dense cover. Muddy-water plants may grow completely from surface to bottom. But in clear waters, the plants’ tops may be several feet beneath the surface.
Elodea thrives in nutrient-rich waters, but tolerates a variety of conditions including “hard” alkaline water; it is one of the most common aquatic plants in some large, rocky lakes, and can attract major concentrations of sunfish.
Because it grows in tight-knit tangles, you’ll find most fish near the outside borders of elodea beds. It’s important to find the perimeter—using polarized glasses, sonar or “test” casts with large, weed-grabbing lures—then cast so your bait falls along the outside weedline.
Ultra-light spinning tackle is ideal. Spool with 2- to 6-pound line, and build a no-float, egg sinker rig. Thread a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce egg sinker on your line and tie a small barrel swivel below it. Add a 2-foot leader of 2- to 4-pound line tipped with a size 6 or 8 Carlisle hook.
Thread on a cricket, redworm, mealworm, waxworm or other natural bait, then cast the rig to the weedline and let it sink to the bottom. When a sunfish hits, the line moves freely through the sinker with no resistance to alert the fish.
For fussy fish, dispense with the sinker. An unweighted cricket or worm sinks slowly, creating an irresistible enticement. Watch your line constantly, looking for a tightening, slack or side-to-side movement that indicates a take. If the fish consistently bite before the bait reaches bottom, add a small slip float to suspend it in the strike zone.
Other similar plants that hold sunfish include coontail, northern watermilfoil, various pondweeds, eelgrass and hydrilla. All are fished the same way as elodea.
Water lilies are floating-leafed plants found in swamps, lakes, ponds and slow-moving streams throughout North America. They’re known by many names, including spatterdock and yonkapin. To most, they’re simply lily pads.
Water lily beds come in all sizes. If you find a small bed you can fish slowly and thoroughly in a matter of minutes, do so. But don’t waste time fishing every little hole in a broad expanse of look-alike pads. Odds are better if you target key areas.
Focus on cover and structure that interrupt the pads, such as an isolated log or treetop, a point of pads along an otherwise straight edge, or an inundated creek channel or other drop-off that creates an open cut through the bed.
Small, satellite pad patches adjacent to the main bed are must-fish spots. Isolated pads attract more than their share of big ’gills and redears. Also watch for rafts of pads in deeper, cooler water than the fish can find in the shallows.
Also key on isolated openings deep in a field of pads. Fish there are far more willing to strike than their shell-shocked kin on a heavily fished edge.
A 10- to 14-foot jigging pole is tops for plying pads, because it allows you to reach honeyholes from a distance with few hang-ups. Attach a small float and single split shot above your bait and probe every nook, changing the float’s position occasionally to determine the depth at which fish are feeding.
If the sunfish seem unusually finicky, dispense with the float and sinker. Flip your bait atop a pad, then slowly pull it off the edge and let it flutter enticingly through the water. A 1/64- to 1/32-ounce tube jig hopped through openings in the pads also can be dynamite.
Crickets, worms and grass shrimp are excellent baits. Or, peek under the pads for small invertebrates such as dragonfly and mayfly nymphs. Collect a few, place them in a container with water, and fish them on a fine-wire Carlisle hook. Remember, too, that listening for the sounds of sunfish smacking these foods under the pads may help pinpoint fish.
Buttonbushes, or button willows, are 3- to 8-foot woody shrubs that grow in many Southern and Midwestern sunfish lakes. They’re also called buckbrush, elbowbrush or globe flower (the latter referring to the ball-shaped heads of its tiny white flowers).
They grow in shallow shoreline water, often in dense stands covering several acres. Where fishing pressure is light, they don’t attract more slabs than other, easier-to-fish cover. But when pressure is heavy, there’s a definite correlation be-tween big sunfish and these tangles.
Reaching the fish requires pulling your boat past the edge of cover and into the thicket. The only way to do it is to grab branches and pull, working your way through the cover until you reach an opening large enough to fish. To meet this challenge, it’s best to use a light, narrow boat. Try to maneuver so it’s positioned near a stump, log or other fish-friendly feature.
Casting is next to impossible, so most savvy anglers employ a 9- to 14-foot jigging pole. Because of the increased possibility of getting snagged, light line is out. You may want to jump to 10-, or even 20-pound test so you can hoss in your fish and avoid losing tackle. It’s also wise to rig with a high-quality, long-shank, light-wire hook that bends easily when snagged.
Fish floatless for more freedom to work your rig in the thicket. It’s also best to use a pole with line-guide eyes so you can more easily maneuver your bait or lure. Hold the butt of the rod with one hand, and use the other hand to pull the line so your bait comes up flush against the tip-top. Then work the bait carefully through the brush until you can lower it into an opening.
When a fish takes the bait, immediately set the hook with a sharp snap of the wrist, reel the fish nearly to the rodtip and begin backing the pole into the boat before it has a chance to tangle your line in the cover. This can be frustrating at first, but be patient. After some practice, you’ll be landing a high percentage of beefy, button willow bream.
Remember you don’t have to know the name of every species of plant in a lake to enjoy great weedbed fishing. Concentrate on the top type at hand and the best tactics for fishing it. Prepare your game plan well, and you can catch your fill of plump panfish other anglers miss.