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Fly Fisherman: Tactics for Bluegill and Sunfish

Excerpts from “Seasons of the Sunfish,” By Dave and Emily Whitlock
To see the complete article, click here.

Bluegill and their fraternity of sunfish cousins—coppernose, redear, yellowbelly, longear, crappie, green sunfish, common sunfish, warmouth, and rock bass—take well to trout flies and techniques. They are widely distributed, self-proliferating, hardy, strong, beautiful, and aggressive fly eaters. After a lifetime of fly fishing, I’m always eager to take on sunfish.

Seasons of Bluegill

Although most bluegill are caught in the spring and early summer, they eat flies during all four seasons. The entire family spawns in spring, moving into sheltered ponds, lake coves, and stream sloughs when water temperature exceeds 70 degrees F. Males create nests by digging small depressions in water ranging from 1 to 4 feet deep. Soon after, the females join them to spawn.

The ladies depart after spawning but the guys hang around to guard the eggs, circulating water over the nest to aerate it and prevent silt from settling around the eggs. Some fish return to these same bedding areas in the fall to spawn before water temperatures drop below 70 degrees.

Just before, during, and a week after spawning, males are aggressive near their nests and strike almost any fly that comes into range. In most bluegill fisheries, larger males tend to spawn in deeper water. I’ve observed them on nests 10 to 25 feet deep. I’ve also found that each season some males spawn so often they waste away and die—what a way to go!

I generally avoid targeting spawning fish of any species in order to protect future stocks. I believe the best sport for bluegill and other panfish begins in the spring, before they spawn, and then again at postspawn, and in fall and winter. At these times, they still feed aggressively but are more widely distributed in low-gradient, cool- and warmwater streams, and in stillwaters. Bluegill generally hang around structure where they find food, shelter, and comfort, and it’s great fun to try to match their natural foods and search for them with accurate casts.

Picking up one or two bluegill per spot and then searching for the next holding cover is infinitely more interesting than casting over 20 or 100 nests and getting a strike every cast for hours. On days when the water is clear and the surface calm, sight-casting is an added pleasure, and large bluegill can be as spooky and selective as any trout, bonefish, or carp.

On mild, sunny, late summer and fall days, bluegill form loose schools and cruise just under the surface to locate topwater terrestrials and midges. Watch for their frequent rises just offshore. They are spooky in the open, but small, well-presented terrestrial imitations cast in front or to the side of a moving group can draw aggressive responses.

Bluegill Foods and Flies

This may surprise you—or you may disagree because you’ve caught them on bass flies, Woolly Buggers, and other big flies—but a lifetime of bluegill devotion leads me to believe that they prefer small foods and eat them more frequently. Most of the big bluegill I hook are caught on small flies. Even 8- or 10-inch fish have tiny mouths, so they find small foods easier to bite and swallow. Big, mature bluegill—when not “bedding”—are more selective feeders than young fish, and they take small flies readily.

Small, barbless flies typically catch bluegill in the lip and are easy to remove from small mouths. Large, barbed hooks tend to hook deeper and are more difficult to remove. Hemostats or hook removal tools are musts for sunfish.

After a lifetime of fly fishing for bluegill, I’ve also found that the slower you fish the fly, the more and larger fish you can expect. Bluegill and other sunfish often miss and quickly lose interest in fast-moving foods and flies. Dry flies, Sponge Spiders, Sneaky Petes, mini jigs, San Juan Worms, eggs, nymphs, and midge larvae are magic if simply suspended just above or at a lurking bluegill’s level.

Occasionally, a large hair or popping bug raises a moody bluegill when small flies won’t, but it’s hard to hook them on these big bites. When this occurs, attach 8 to 10 inches of 4X or 5X tippet at the bend of the big hook with a tight Duncan loop and tie on a #12-14 nymph dropper.

This attractor-imitator rig can be irresistible to stubborn or snoozing ’gills. When bass buggin’, this is a good way to enjoy a few bonus sunfish. Several springs ago, while fishing this two-fly combo with an 8-foot, 5-weight rod in an east Texas lake, I hooked and eventually landed a nearly 8-pound largemouth bass on a #12 damsel nymph dropper.

When suspending surface flies or subsurface flies under an a indicator or a floating bug, cast close to structure and let the flies sit where they land for a second or two before slowly twitching them along a foot or so. If you don’t get a rise after 30 to 60 seconds, try another spot. This method works because bluegill prefer the safety of cover and commonly don’t venture far to feed. Long retrieves are far less productive.

Open-Water Bluegill

Large bluegill prefer deep water in summer and winter and can be taken over open, aquatic vegetation or brushy water structures by using weighted flies such as #10-14 nymphs, shrimp, Woolly Buggers, Marabou Minnows, or leeches, and using long, slow, deep retrieves. The best line for this is a slow-sinking, colorless fly line such as the Scientific Anglers Stillwater. After letting the fly sink to the intended depth, begin your retrieve. The slow sink rate allows the fly to swim slowly at fish-holding depths.

I use a 6-foot leader with a 24-inch fluorocarbon tippet and a fly that is weighted to have the same, or a just slightly greater, sink rate than the fly line. This straight-line connection with the fly keeps it at the depth you want and allows you to detect subtle strikes. The transparent line does not disturb the fish as you retrieve it over or through them.