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Bluegill Fishing on the Fly

Florida flyrodders' tricks for bluegill fishing.

Several years ago, I caught a mixed bag of four dozen bluegills and shellcrackers during a single, glorious afternoon. While that was practically all the law allowed, the real kicker is that these fish weighed close to a pound apiece.

I was fishing a tournament on Lake Okeechobee, and on the afternoon in question, I fished out of Buckhead Ridge with a very good guide named Mike Backich. Don't remember whether Mike remembers that trip, but for me, it remains a revelation. If I'm sure of anything, it's that if I go out and land a blue marlin on a kite string, it could hardly surpass the sheer serendipity of tricking that many fat, sassy sunfish. I went from last place to second in a matter of hours, but then Mike knew where to look for truly big bream.

I live in South Florida where a half-dozen native panfish species compete with a growing list of exotics, so confusion is inevitable. Although many claim the latter upset the ecological applecart (a supposition that's rooted in fact), exotics are just as much fun to catch as natives. Whatever your preference, an education in the habits of panfish is always worth the cost of tuition.

For starters, big panfish are elusive. Yet every species eventually comes within the reach of fly fishermen. Scientifically speaking, the several species we Floridians collectively refer to as bream (pronounced "brim") are just plain, ordinary sunfish. Be aware that like other freshwater dwellers, they feed best, and spawn at particular times of year. For instance, if you go to Lake Okeechobee in November in hopes of catching a trophy bluegill, you'll probably be disappointed. On the other hand, if you return in May you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Of all our local species, bluegills rank at the top of most fly fishermen's lists because of their availability and affinity for hitting a floating bug. 'Gills inhabit practically all freshwater bodies, although they seem to do better in lakes. While examples to the contrary exist, very few big ones ever show up in residential canals. This, in itself, is a point worth considering. Then again, some canals are known for trophy bluegill. Take, for example, the Lake Okeechobee Rim Canal with its famous chizziwink hatch. When these "blind mosquitoes" hatch, they can fill the air like snowflakes. This, in turn, brings up the bluegills, which respond with uncharacteristic abandon. Back when he lived in South Florida, fly fishing great Lefty Kreh used to snag the shoreline branches on that canal in order to shake off the chizziwinks. When the bugs hit the water, all hell broke loose.

The Everglades canals are famous bluegill hotspots, too. Over the years, I've logged many, many hours bream bugging along Alligator Alley, where I learned to call big 'gills "copperheads" in deference to the metallic-hued bar on their foreheads. Some anglers feel that big bluegill aren't as plentiful now. When I quizzed long-time fly fishing guide Jack Allen on the subject, he was less than optimistic:

"I remember we used to kill the big bluegills in L-67 canal in western Miami-Dade and Broward counties, but lately, I don't see as many. I think it has something to do with Oscar." Jack's sentiments aren't unique. However, the oscars and Mayan cichlids that anglers blame for the bluegill decline are confined to Miami-Dade, Broward and Collier county waters, where the occasional harsh winter keeps their numbers in check.

Jon Fury, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who specializes in Everglades fisheries, sees the exotic panfish situation differently.

"I looked up some old records. According to angler success statistics compiled since the mid 1980s, numbers of native panfish haven't really changed that much. I agree that exotics take up space and change the energy flow. But despite the commonly held belief that they're out-competing the natives, actual numbers don't support this claim."

It's difficult to write about bluegills without a word or two about bream bugging. On behalf of the uninitiated, this is topwater fishing with a fly rod, but unlike bass fishing, it's a waiting game that relies more on stealth and self-control than aggressive lure manipulation. How does it work? You cast a tiny bug to a likely looking spot and let it remain motionless until after the rings subside. If you move it at all, it's only after waiting for 10 to 30 seconds. Whoever blinks first, loses. And anyone who's fished for big bluegills knows that the number of big fish caught has a direct relationship to how long one lets his bug sit still. Big bluegills are deliberate risers and can't be rushed. However, that's not the case with smaller bream that greedily attack on sight.

Incidentally, in order to avoid hooking these over-zealous juveniles, you should focus on the most productive water just outside nearshore dropoffs, or during spawning season, over clearly marked beds. It also pays to avoid striking prematurely, and again, moving the bug too soon or too much.

The typical bream bug differs slightly from an ordinary bass popper in several respects. It's smaller and has a blunt nose, rather than a cupped face that audibly pops during retrieves. Bream bugs resemble actual insects, which explains why one of the most famous of all is the immortal Shuman's Cricket, a simple sponge spider.

You'll generally find bluegill spawning beds in three to four feet of water where they show up as plate-size depressions in the bottom. When they're spawning, 'gills will sometimes rise to a surface pattern. However, they just as often refuse, which reinforces the need for sinking fly patterns such as the Woolly Worm.

I might add that before that day on the Big O, I learned a local secret. My insider source claimed the locals fished for spawning bream with a weighted black Woolly Worm, size six, tied with a grizzly hackle and no tail. With bragging rights on the line, they didn't waste time with poppers or other patterns. I took my informant's word for it. The rest is history.

In South Florida, prime time for spawning bluegills is the several day period preceding and following the March full moon. The farther north you go, the later spawning commences. Good news is that spawning continues throughout the summer months, around full and new moon periods.

Bream aficionados recognize that the world record bluegill was an Alabama behemoth that weighed an astounding 4 pounds, 12 ounces. Here in Florida, the record remains a respectable 2.95 pounds, and if interested, you can qualify for an FWC "Big Catch" certificate by weighing in a bluegill that measures at least 11 inches in length or weighs at least 1.25 pounds.

Bream bugging is generally best in low light. I like to canoe at sunset. I'll work my way down an Everglades canal and wait for the wind to subside. It's only then, when the light begins to fade and the surface glasses over, that I'll begin casting. It starts with a bass here and there. Most are inconsequential yearlings. However, the rhythm is frequently interrupted by a succession of stumpknockers and now and then, a gar. Leg-pullers, I call them from the way they jostle the bug and chew its rubber legs. Then on a retrieve when I've absentmindedly allowed the bug to drift motionless over deeper water, it simply disappears. This time, the rodtip digs deeply as whatever's on the other end dives beneath the canoe. I keep up the tension, wondering if I've hooked a cichlid or a sizeable bass. But eventually my smile broadens when the hand-size fish spirals to the surface. It's a copperhead. Now, as I did 20 years ago, I take a moment to admire it before releasing it into the tannic depths below.

While the red-eared sunfish or shellcracker doesn't have the reputation of the bluegill, size-wise it's the granddaddy of bream. Like its name suggests, this beefed-up bundle of muscle has a red spot on its gill flaps and a penchant for feeding on freshwater mollusks. Shellcrackers frequent sandy areas where they feed on snails. Perhaps this is why they're less likely to hit a surface bug.

Nevertheless, I get my share on top. Besides, I've read that rigging a small dropper fly makes the method more effective. Most shellcrackers are caught during the spring spawning period; while some share the same beds as bluegills, spawning activity generally takes place in slightly deeper water.

In South Florida, shellcrackers begin bedding as early as March. By the April full moon, spawning begins in Central Florida. Red-ears in Northwest Florida don't start until late April and May, and while shellcrackers continue bedding into August, bluegills will spawn intermittently into fall. Incidentally, when shellcrackers aren't on sandy spots, try targeting them near snags and floating vegetation.

It's interesting to note that a good spawning shellcracker averages a pound or more. However, if you're looking for a record, you'll have to beat out the South Carolina giant that weighed 5 pounds, 3 ounces. The Florida record currently stands at 4.86 pounds, while any shellcracker weighing at least 2.25 pounds or measuring 12 inches warrants that "Big Fish" certificate.

Lake Okeechobee was once considered the epicenter of the shellcracker fishery, but nowadays, other locations share the limelight. The day I caught the four dozen, my guide and I were staked-out in a broad, shallow expanse where spawning beds stood out like underwater road signs.

Bluegills and shellcrackers represent the royalty of the sunfish clan. But several smaller species are equally important to anglers. These include the red-breasted and spotted sunfish, as well as the ubiquitous warmouth.

The spotted sunfish or stumpknocker gets its name from its habit of feeding by knocking insects off vegetation. I can't say I've seen it happen. However, I've unhooked enough stumpknockers to know that just about anything that lands in the shallows is fair game for these gluttonous feeders.

In the Everglades, stumpknockers are the first panfish to show up along the brushy banks. I don't know when, or if the spawning period begins or ends, because it seems they're always swarming the shallows. At times, they are so abundant that it's impossible to catch anything else. There is, however, one other panfish that stumpies can't beat to the punch-the warmouth. The warmouth has a bass-like mouth, but alas, the horsepower of an undernourished crappie. Yet while Florida's warmouth may not be the quintessential gamefish, it provides anglers enough entertainment to easily forgive any shortcomings. How do you target warmouth? Look for a marshy area, and then toss anything from a bass bug to a streamer. Incidentally, I agree with Jack Allen that low-water periods are best. As a point of interest, the late Broward County fly fisher and fly tyer Bob Kay insisted that wherever you find warmouths, you won't find many bass. For the record, I agree.

Redbreasts are more of a North Florida native than the other species. My personal experience is limited to the St. Johns River, where I occasionally catch them, along with shellcrackers, while fishing for American shad. According to the biologists, redbreasts are primarily a river species, but what can I add? I know they're both feisty and beautiful and they fall for the same subsurface patterns as shellcrackers.

Bream Hotspots

Top panfish waters vary from year to year. With that in mind, FWC biologists Mark Trainor and Steve Crawford compiled a list of top panfish waters in anticipation of the 2004 season. Overall, the current prognosis is good, considering last year's high-water conditions.

Here are this year's top panfish locales (in no particular order):

  • St. Johns River-Look for bluegills between SR 50 and Lake Monroe. The area between Astor and Sanford is also worth investigating. Incidentally, don't forget to check out the banks for stumpknockers.

  • Lake Kissimmee-After the recent drawdown, Kissimmee may offer the best bluegill and shellcracker fishing in the state.

  • Lake Okeechobee-Once again, a strong contender for bluegills and shellcrackers. Water levels will be down by April, so look for firm, sandy bottom in two to five feet of water. Top locations should include the Rim Canal, Indian Prairie, Fisheating Bay, West Wall, Bay Bottom and Pelican Bay.

  • Lake Panasoffkee-Look for shellcrackers at Shell Point, Grassy Point and Tracy's Point. Also, warmouths in Little Jones Creek.

  • Lake Talquin-Should be a good year. Try the upper end of the reservoir for bluegills and shellcrackers.

  • Tenoroc-This 13 lake management area near Lakeland has the highest bluegill and shellcracker catch ratio in the state.

  • Lake Harris-Both "large" and "small" Lake Harris boast heavier than average bluegills and shellcrackers.

  • Lake Marian-Good bluegill fishing turns off and on without warning. However, this Osceola County "sleeper" should offer memorable action with shellcrackers.

  • Lake Istokpoga-Best-known for its bass fishing, Istokpoga supports good bluegill and shellcracker populations. Check cattail areas from April through June; otherwise, look around sandbars and edges of eelgrass.

  • Lake Jesup-Between April and July, a top bluegill and shellcracker hotspot.

  • Choctawatchee River-A shellcracker fisherman's dream. Also known for redbreast, stumpknockers and warmouth.

  • Suwannee River-A good bluegill and shellcracker river. Truly celebrated, however, for its stumpknockers and redbreast. Best fishing is in the lower section.

Aliens Abound

Like it or not, exotics are here to stay. Traditionalists may wince at the thought, but pound-for-pound, exotics out-fight most native panfish. Of the several species fly fishermen are likely to encounter, oscars and Mayan cichlids are the most common. Still, there's a short list of incidental panfish that includes several varieties of tilapia, the jaguar guapote and the colorful Midas cichlid.

While the Midas has gained a modicum of regional popularity as a sportfish, a number of subsistence fishermen actually target oscars and Mayans. How prevalent are these two species? During a single 3-month period, creel census figures disclosed that nearly a hundred thousand were taken from Broward County's Everglades Holiday Park alone.

Local anglers recognize that oscars and Mayans become more active in hot weather, when they'll strike surface lures with abandon. During winter, both species are partial to small nymph or streamer patterns worked around deep vegetation.

Just for the record, the Mozambique, blue and spotted tilapia are vegetarians. Nevertheless, I once caught a spotted tilapia on a popper, which serves as a reminder that even vegetarians have attitudes. FS

Originally Published Florida Sportsman May 2004

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