Fly rodding for bluegills doesn’t get a lot of ink in Florida, what with all of the big-time saltwater gamesters to choose from. It might get more attention if more fly fishers would give it a try, if only for a refreshing, laid-back change of pace. And if more dedicated bait-fishing panfishers would get over the notion that fly casting is hard to do, they might just trade in their crickets and earthworms for a light fly rod. Flipping a bug to bluegill involves little more than a 20- to 30-foot toss, and even a rank beginner can muster that after 5 minutes of instruction at a local fly shop or under the tutelage of a flyfishing buddy.
The line-in-hand contact, and leverage of a 3- to 5-weight fly rod amplify every tug and surge that these scrappy panfish make. My wife and I have been flicking bluegill flies for over 33 years in Florida, and in Ohio, Michigan and Arkansas before that. With its amazing number of lakes, reservoirs and canals, Florida has by far a more widespread bluegill population than any state I’ve ever fished. And because of Florida’s longer “growing season,” the average size of our bluegills is much larger.
The cost of acquiring the necessary rod, reel and fly line need not set you back a “grand” as it can for top-end saltwater fly gear. “Off-the-rack” rod-and-reel combos can be had for as little as $75 to $100, and you can expect to spend around $40 or so for a weight-forward floating line.
I recommend an 8- to 9-foot fly rod rated for a 5-weight fly line (though anything from a 3- to 6-weight is perfect for bream), a single-action reel with an outgoing clicker (no drag is needed), and a floating fly line. Your leader can be as short as 5 feet, and as long as the rod, max, ending in a tippet testing 4- to 8 pounds or so. A level (one continuous strand of mono) leader can work, though a packaged, tapered knotless leader is ideal, and eliminates the need to tie knots. You’ll find that a tapered leader will turn a popper or fly over much better than a level leader.
Sometimes making the bug flutter and pulse will garner a strike.
Bluegills eat scads of flying and crawling critters. Let me tell you what I know about flies. Just out of high school I worked in a sporting goods store for eight years. And because I loved fishing, it became one of my duties to manage the flyfishing department. We had a special case made to hold thousands of flies and I had to learn all the popular patterns. Dry flies, as the name implies, are made of materials that are buoyant enough to float them. The time-tested trout patterns included the Black Gnat, Light Cahill, Royal Coachman, Black Wulff, White Miller, Mosquito, Pink Lady, Iron Blue Dun, Adams March Brown, and the Goofus Bug. Though tied for trout, they all appeal to bluegills, especially on size 12 hooks and larger. Then, there are the wet flies that sink—Ribbed Hare’s Ear, Parmachene Belle, Woolly Worm and a Weber Brim Fly. Poppers round out the fly selection, and are by far the first thing fly fishers reach for when after bluegills. I recall that we stocked and sold the Creepy Popper, Screwball, Firelure Nitwit, Sizzler, Grasshopper, Mountain Hopper and Waterbug.
These are but a fraction of the thousands we stocked. Why so many? Well, the prevalent theory of fly fishing is, as the familiar phrase goes, you have to match the hatch. There always is some kind of flying or crawling critter coming in a bumper hatch that can emerge several times a year over land or in water. And bluegills, unlike the more fussy stream trout, will gorge on all of them, at any time (though they can be selective on the rare occasion, too).
If there is one must-have ingredient in a Florida bream fly it is rubber legs. Rubber legs seem to be the clincher here. Let me simplify it for you. For an entire year I tried every popular fly pattern to see which was the deadliest on bluegills. And it came down to one—the good old green sponge spider with white rubber legs, tied on a No. 10 hook. In its normal state it is a dry fly, buoyant enough to float and crawl over the surface. Hold it under water and squeeze out the air to let it absorb water, and it becomes a wet fly. It will sink slowly to bluegills that are shy to rise to the top. If you carry this fly only, you will catch plenty of bream.
Now, the fundamentals. First, the dry spider. Cast it near shoreline covers like lily pads, weeds, cane, overhanging limbs, debris, rushes, fallen brush, cattails, hyacinths or riprap. All are places inhabited by the tiny critters bluegills eat. Let the floating spider lie for at least a slow count of 20. Normally, the biggest of bluegills do not go for over-active flies, for reasons known only by them, and they aren’t talking. And when you move the spider, do it one time, with the slightest twitch of the rodtip, or a tiny tick of your line hand. Then let it lie still again for 20 seconds or so, before moving it again. This is the very best method when the water surface is calm. If you’re in clear water, and the sun is high enough, you will see larger bluegills ease up to the spider and eyeball it. Then it’s a matter of who blinks first. If the ’gill holds tight, twitch the spider and watch the fish for a reaction. Sometimes when all else fails, making the bug flutter and pulsate continuously will garner a strike from an otherwise indifferent fish. More often than not, the surface bites come best at first light or at dusk.
With the sinking spider, you’ll have to eyeball the tip of your floating line to detect a take. Usually a strike will be solid enough to make the line jerk forward, or downward abruptly. Set the hook with a quick hand-strip and lift of the rod. There will be times when action is nil and bluegills seem to be in Nowheresville. Try this old-timer’s trick: Add extra enticement—a maggot, or a tiny piece of pork rind, or bacon to the hook. The scent can turn on bluegills that already have a belly full of fo
Bluegills can be skittish at times, so the least commotion you make in the boat, or while walking along the shore, the better. And when you make a cast, try not to splat the line onto the water. Cast at eye level, and then the line and fly will softly fall onto the surface. Of course, casting a 3-weight rather than a 5-weight or heavier line makes this much easier to accomplish. Also, in picking up the line for a back cast, drag it slowly to get it moving, then ease it off the surface with a slow lift.
The best time for lunker bluegills is in the spring during spawning time when they gather along shallow shorelines in large numbers. At times the surface feeding activity is visible from a distance, with swirls and “rise rings” all over the surface. And there are times when the fish seem so absorbed with the spawning instinct they totally ignore flies of all kinds.
When summer temps heat shallow waters into the high 80s, bluegills tend to migrate into deeper, cooler waters during the middle of the day. At such times, fishing the sinking spider, or one of many sinking nymph patterns, or the venerable Woolly Worm or Bugger, will be the ticket. However, this practice seems to thin out the flyfishing ranks considerably. Most of us tend to turn to something else, and just return to surface fishing when the time is right.
If you are on the lake once the sun climbs high in the sky, don your polarizing glasses and scope out the locations of beds, those scoured-out light-colored saucers made by both bluegills and shellcrackers. They are commonly made in deeper water than bass beds are. Return to these locations in late afternoon and you stand a chance of bagging the biggest bluegills of all. And more times than not, a cork or balsa-body popper with rubber legs will have more appeal than the sponge spider. Plus, a few bass will climb aboard, too.