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A Fool for Bluegill!

Originally Published in Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide
May/June 2005

by Joe Cornwall

I love fly fishing for bluegill. There is almost nothing quite as magical as a warm, sunny day with wildflowers erupting everywhere, a picturesque pond, and voracious pre-spawn bluegill throwing caution to the wind as they greedily grab a well-presented fly. The line stops with an electric throb of energy and the ultra-light fly rod bends to the cork as a slab-sided handful of pugnacity pulls left and then right in a showy display of strength and determination. Spring is here!

The pre-spawn period offers the very best opportunity to catch a ďpersonal bestĒ bluegill on a fly. Small three to five inch bluegills are always available in the weedy shallows of just about any Midwestern pond, lake or river. Hand-sized seven to nine inch fish arenít uncommon when a floating foam spider or Sneaky Pete is presented over their dinner-plate sized beds in late May and early June. Foot-long bull bluegills are never easy to find, though. For eleven months of the year, I find trophy-sized bluegill to be the single most difficult target in fresh water. Show me a fly fisher who can consistently catch bluegills in the pound-plus class year round, and Iíll show you the most talented angler Iíve ever met!

For a few shorts weeks every spring, bluegill move shallow to feast on the spring bounty of emerging insects, hatching fry and the eggs of other nesting fish. For this brief period, big bluegills are readily accessible to the fly fisher. They arenít easy to hook, though. Youíll need a cautious approach, a faultless presentation, and refined tackle. I almost never take bluegill over ten inches on top-water flies. The biggest, wisest, and most wary fish always position themselves just a bit deeper and a bit closer to heavy cover. They donít get to be trophy size fish by being careless!

To find trophy bluegills I look for three critical structural elements; old, dead wood, easy access to deep water and proximity to a firm bottomed spawning flat. The more compressed these elements are, the greater the likelihood that there will be big bluegills in the area. When I find all three elements within a few yards of each other, I know Iíve found a perfect spot.

More than just about any other game fish, bluegill relate to woody structure. Iíve found that recent blow-downs donít produce well. The decay of green leaves and fresh wood often depletes the oxygen content in that area, and fresh structure rarely holds enough food to entice gamefish to hang around. Instead I look for old wood, either standing timber or logs lying on the bottom, with plenty of branches offering overhead cover. This older submerged wood typically is home to a myriad of damselfly and dragonfly nymphs, leeches, and sowbugs. This combination of food and shelter invariably holds the largest population of fish.

Big bluegills, fish over a pound, are not afraid of predation by bass. They feel safe and comfortable in the dark depths of the pond or lake. I canít stress the need for deep water too highly. As these fish reach trophy size, they become increasingly light sensitive. Even during the spawn, the big bulls rarely come to the shallow water most fly fishers flog. Instead theyíll hold in six to eight feet of water, close to structure and in the shade. The best locations will have twelve to twenty feet of water off of a six to eight foot deep break line. As the angle of the sun increases on the water, on bright days and as the season progresses, the biggest fish will move progressively deeper. Itís not unusual to find big bluegills in twenty to twenty-five feet of water at the height of summer!

The proximity of spawning flats adds the final detail to the portrait. Bass spawn before bluegill, so where you find good bass spawning habitat youíll find good bluegill spawning habitat. The best areas have a bottom substrate of firm clay, sand or gravel coated with a thin but rich layer of decomposed plant matter. Big bluegill wonít spawn over soft mud bottoms or clean sand bottoms. When the trophy bluegills can move up the break onto the spawning flats, and then move back off just as easily to the deeper holding water described above, itís almost a guarantee the biggest fish in the pond are nearby.

Itís important to use utmost stealth when approaching such a prime area. I wear muted clothing and keep a low profile to ensure that a bright flash of color or hard silhouette doesnít spook the fish before Iíve even made my first cast. Needless to say, the approach must also be as silent as possible. Because of this I find that I catch all my best bluegills when Iím fishing from my canoe. I slowly and quietly paddle into position and give the water a f
ew minutes to ďrestĒ before I begin to work the area. Although you can motor in, stand tall in the bow, and make your first cast even as the boat slows its forward motion, youíll seldom take big bluegills with such reckless tactics.

The tackle for trophy bluegills is simple; a light fly rod, matching line, and long, light leader. I use a seven foot two weight rod for most of my bluegill fishing. If the wind is uncooperative I use a seven foot four weight rod. I match either of these with a double taper line in a dull, olive color. If you have a white or bright fly line, you can dye the final ten feet using a permanent marker. Such precautions make a surprising difference!

The leader I use to target bluegill is a minimalist design, but an important one. I want the fly to drop vertically in the water column with the least amount of drag. Therefore, I use a long, light tippet. The set-up I like best is a ten foot design that consists of three feet of butt section, two feet of taper in three steps, and a five foot long 5X fluorocarbon tippet. I donít use a strike indicator; instead Iíll use floatant on the butt section of the leader and the first few feet of the fly line. It helps if the fly line is clean and floats high in the meniscus, too. My best bluegill ever, a twelve-and-one-half inch long, sixteen-inch-around giant, came to a size twelve black leech pattern fished on just such a set-up.

Iíve found that there is no need to carry a large assortment of flies for this fishing. The most effective patterns for me have been the aforementioned black leech in sizes 10, 12 and 14, an olive wooly worm with grizzly hackle and a red, stubby tail in the same sizes, and a size 12 Flashback Gold Ribbed Hareís Ear. With any of these patterns, Iíll use a non-slip mono loop knot to attach the fly to the tippet. This provides maximum action. All my flies for trophy bluegill fishing are either lightly weighted or tied on heavy wire hooks to enhance the sink rate.

The best retrieve for big bluegills is almost no retrieve at all! This is a game of patience. Once Iím in place Iíll pick a target and execute a high tuck-cast to drop the fly on the spot with a maximum of slack line. The fly should hit the water before the leader and line. Once the fly begins to sink, Iíll count it down to the appropriate depth while carefully watching the floating end of the leader for the slightest motion. If the leader twitches, Iíll give a short, sharp snap with my line hand to set the hook. I never use the rod to set the hook, if I miss the fish Iíll pull the fly out of the zone and often spook the fish in the process!

If I donít get a hit when the fly is ďfallingĒ, Iíll begin a very slow hand-twist retrieve. The retrieve speed should be just fast enough to hold the fly at depth without allowing it to sink all the way to the bottom. Moving the fly slowly is critical. Bluegill, especially the big ones, will seldom chase a meal. One inch per second isnít too slow! I retrieve the fly at this snailís pace until its far enough away from the cover that I
can execute a roll-cast pick-up and recast without spooking the area.

On the ne
xt nice spring day, why not try for a personal best bluegill? Itís challenging, exciting and relaxing. Chances are very good you will catch a fine mess of fish, and the opportunity is its best for the year that youíll hook the bluegill of a lifetime!

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