By Joe Schwartz, Fisheries Supervisor, Iowa DNR
Bluegills are one of the most common game fish found in Iowa. Although primarily thought of as a pond and small lake fish, they are also abundant in natural lakes, large border rivers, and reservoirs. Bluegills are closely related to largemouth bass, and as you might expect, anywhere there are bass there is an excellent chance bluegills will be present.
Angler opinion polls conducted by the Department in the last decade have shown bluegills are one of the more popular fish in Iowa, especially in the southern part of the state. Not only is it a favorite, but its popularity has been steadily increasing until it currently ranks third in preference. Bluegills are moving towards the top of popularity charts for several reasons. They are quite easily caught, take great varieties of baits, are not particularly wary, are forgiving of a less than perfect fishing technique, fight very well for their size are exceptionally fine eating, and are extremely abundant in many ponds and lakes. In addition, bluegill can be caught with just about any tackle, from a simple cane pole to a sophisticated and expensive graphite flyrod. Finally, and most importantly, bluegill are just plain fun to catch.
(Photo Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)
Locating a Fishing Spot
Catching bluegills is easy, but consistent catches of larger fish are more difficult. Large fish are not found in every body of water; therefore, it is important to locate ponds and lakes that contain bigger fish. You can find water with keeper bluegills by asking other anglers, conservation officers, area fisheries biologists, state and county park rangers, pond owners, or for that matter anyone that is familiar with the body of water in question. Don’t be shy in asking for information; most anglers like to add a little spice to their reputation.
After finding waters that are known to harbor keepers, consistent catches will depend on your knowledge of the location and seasonal habits of the fish. Bluegill are not randomly distributed in a lake, but rather they concentrate into specific habitats, depending upon the season. To be successful you must learn to locate these concentrations of fish. The fact you caught fish in one area in the spring does not mean you will catch them in that location in mid-summer. In fact, the opposite is probably true; it would be surprising to find bluegill in the same location during two different seasons.
Spring and Early Summer Fishing
Spring and summer is by far the best period to catch bluegills because they congregate in the shallows to spawn, become very aggressive, and are particularly easy to catch. The best method of determining this period of bluegill spawning activity is water temperatiure. Spawning activity peaks when the water temperature is 75 degrees F. This period usually corresponds closely with Memorial Day in Iowa. Fish a week or two before and after this holiday, and you will center the major spawning activity. It is often easy to spot the saucer-shaped depressions because bluegill build their nests in shallow water very close to shore. Carefully search water from 2 to 6 feet deep and locate a spawning bed. Male bluegills guarding nests are woefully easy to catch.
Although the same factors govern the spawning habits of bluegill, there may be great differences depending on habitat. In large rivers, like the Mississippi, the fish prefer to spawn among stumps and dead bottom-hugging trees and other quiet areas; commonly these are backwaters and sloughs. Here they find habitats where the constant current will not disturb the nest. Current is not a major factor in natural lakes, ponds, and reservoirs, where males build their nests in shallow bays or along protected shorelines. In these habitats bluegill spawn among sticks, stumps, or thinly-spaced vegetation. A shallow flat adjacent to a flooded creek channel is also a good place to find spawning bluegill. Nearly all species of sunfish, which include bluegill, prefer a sand or gravel bottom for nest building, but lacking this habitat the nests will be fanned out of silty muddy bottom. Beds may be as small as 3 or 4 feet long and 4 feet across or as large as 25 feet accres and 50 feet long, and a single bed may contain nly a few nests or several hundred. By and large, spawning locations in large rivers are considerably smaller than those found in lakes and pond.
Fishing for bluegill that are guarding the nest is exciting. One of the best techniques is to wade or boat within easy casting distance of the nests and use a small lure or bait just below a small bobber. Cast a piece of worm, jig, or other bait beyond the bed and slowly retrieve it through the nesting area. Depth of the nests determines how deep to set the float. Fish close to the bottom, keep both lure and float as small as possible, and set the hook quickly, or the aggressive males will swallow the bait.
A bed of spawning bluegills can be a flyrod fisherman’s dream. If the water is shallow enough, they will usually rise to hit poppers, especially in the evening. Otherwise wet flys or ultra-lite leadheads will take them from deeper beds.
Of the fish caught from nests, 95 percent will be males. The male fish is more vulnerable to catching because he builds the nest within a well-defined terrritory and aggressively protects the eggs against all intruders. Females are more often caught on casts into the adjacent, deep water. Many times they hang just off the spawning beds prior to inshore movement.
Late Summer Fishing
As the season progresses, small bluegill hatch and move away to feed. The adult male then abandons the nest to travel to deeper water for the summer. Many bluegill will spawn only once each season, but in waters not limited by overcrowding, some fish move back into the shallows in the late summer to spawn a second time. It often is rewarding to check spawn sites again during the summer for these multi-spawners.
Large river bluegill spend their summer in deeper water and congregate along undercut banks often favoring old, fallen trees. High water in spring-time and currents scour holes near the bank, often exposing a tangle of roots and other snags. The edge of lilly pads or other aquatic vegetation can also produce good catches of fiesty bluegills.
Bluegill living in lakes, reservoirs, and ponds also move to deeper water during the hot days of summer. They can be found along the edges of weeds or in deep coves. Many times they are on humps or areas that break into flooded creek channels or other deep water. Summer-time bluegill, especially the bigger ones, are usually found at depths ranging from 10 to 12 feet. There they suspend just above the thermocline. Man-made underwater objects also attract bluegill during the summer. Many lakes and reservoirs contain stake beds, brush shelters, tire reefs, and other fish attractors that have been placed in the water. These objects, in addition to boat docks or boats tied at one spot for several days, are productive hangouts for bluegill.
To catch mid-summer bluegill, fish your favorite bait or lure in areas you think might concentrate the fish. On the Mississippi try the 10-foot water along undercut banks or near aquatic vegetation that crowds backwaters and near sunken trees. Working undercuts during summer is best accomplished from downstream. Cast upstream and allow the current to move your bait or lure through target habitat. Allowing the bait to move naturally is the key. It’s best to use natural bait, even when fishing jigs, because the line often goes slack because of the current. The tasty natural bait makes the fish hold on until the slack is eliminated and you can feel the fish on the line.
In lakes, reservoirs, and ponds try live bait or small lures near the edges of weed beds, submerged extensions of shoreline points, humps or flats dropping into creek channels. Fish often suspend over deep water where they can be taken by drift fishing. Drift your boat with the wind allowing the bait or lure to be suspended at 10 to 15 feet. Repeat drifts over areas that are productive.
Sometime around late September, large bluegill abandon their summer haunts as they prepare for fall and winter. They move from deep water to locations with mid-depths, often near their spawning sites. Here, as with selection of other habitats, structure is important. Shoreline points that extend far out into the lake and drop off sharply often concentrate bluegill. Another “hot spot” is an underwater ridge, saddle, or hogsback in 8 to 10 feet of water. The presence of brush or rock will enhance the fish-holding capablility of these locations.
Fall bluegill fishing is similar to summer fishing, except the fish are generally shallower. Mid-summer techniques and baits should be used during this period.
As autumn turns to winter and water cools, bluegill move into deeper water to spend the cold months. Here they often locate over shoreline points and ridges or near brush and aquatic vegetation in 15 to 20 feet of water. Frequently schools of similar-sized fish will move onto flats 10 to 12 feet deep to feed before moving back to deep water.
As we have seen so far, big bluegills change their habits with the changing seasons. Failure to take advantage of this knowldge will leave a bluegill angler with an empty stringer or with only small fish to show for their efforts. Big bluegill tend to gather in small groups, while the small bait stealers many people are so familiar with are found in large schools.
General Guidelines for Bluegill Fishing
There are several basic bluegill fishing principles which should be adhered to if consistent success is to be had. Foremost, fish where the fish are living. This may seem obvious, but it is surprising how many anglers simply walk down the shoreline, cast out, and never give a thought to the seasonal habits of the fish they’re after. Make use of your knowledge of seasonal changes in bluegill habits and your success will improve. Take note of the locations that produce catches because these places will be good from year to year.
It definitely pays to use light line and tackle when bluegill fishing. Not only do you catch more fish, but also you have more fun with light tackle. Many serious bluegill fishermen use ultra-lite graphite spinning rods and tiny reels loaded with 2 or 4 pound-test monofiliament line to pursue their quarry. Bluegill feed mainly on aquatic insects, which are slow-moving creatures. Rarely will a bluegill chase food items; therefore, it’s important to fish very slowly. This is true whether you use artificial lures or live bait. Finally, there is practically no such thing as a lone bluegill. Once you catch one, quickly cover the area again and take as many as possible before moving to the next spot.
Suitable bluegill fishing equipment comes in many forms. Perhaps the oldest fishing gear used for bluegill is a cane pole and a can of worms. This simple implement of by-gone days has been largely replaced with modern spinning and spin-cast rods and reels. Rarely does one see a cane pole in use today. Most have been lost, broken, or regulated to garage rafters. The cane pole is effective, however, and may be just what the doctor ordered, especially for small children unable to master a rod and reel.
Modern fiberglass and graphite rods with spinning or spin-cast reels are the gear of choice by most bluegill anglers. The great advantage of this equipment is the a wide choice of baits and techniques can be used, all within reasonable cost.
Although artificial lures are most often thought of in partnership with spinning gear, these outfits can also be used effectively with live or natural bait. The perennial favorite live bait is the fishworm. Whether it be a nightcrawler stalked with a flashlight in the back yard, garden worms dug from a manure pile, or red wigglers purchased from a bait shop, all serve as effective baits for bluegills. Most fishermen use small bobblers when fishing worms, but all live bait can also be fished on the bottom with success. Lowering your bait over the side of the boat or making short casts with a slow retrieve are also tried and proven techniques. A soft touch is required when not using a float to feel a bite and set the hook. Other live baits suitable for bluegill include grasshoppers, crickets, catalpa worms, or about any insect large enough to put on a hook – most bluegill are not particularly shy about forage.
Bluegills have small mouths and a small hook is essential–sizes 6 or 8 seems best. Hooks with long shanks are easier to remove from the small mouth, especially if the bait is swallowed. Thin wire hooks are the choice with live bait because the bait will stay alive longer and will be more enticing to fish as it squirms on the hook.
Artificial baits suitable for catching bluegill are numerous. Thirty-second and sixty-fourth ounce leadhead jigs, although tough to cast with anything but ultra-lite gear, are exceptional bluegill catchers. Leadheads tipped with marabou feathers, rubber grubs, or twister tails all work well. A small piece of worm or maggot attached to the lure will often increase bites when the fish are exceptionally choosy. All colors catch bluegill, but black is preferred by the most ardent ‘gill fishermen. Tiny spinner-baits, spinners, and weighted flies can be used with spinning gear to catch big bluegill. Fish these baits as slowly as possible for best results. Dry flies and small poppers can be used with a spinning rod if a small float is attached about 4 feet from the lure. Long casts with a jerky or twitching retrieve will take bluegill when they are feeding on the surface.
A fisherman using a flyrod is a rare sight today on most Iowa waters. Often thought of as a technique to catch trout, a flyrod is an excellent piece of equipment for catching bluegills. It is surprising how far a 9-inch fish can bend an 8-foot flyrod. Flyrods work best for fishing shallow waters. Try one when fishing among spawning beds in spring or along the edges of weed beds later in the season. Surface flies, poppers, or rubber-legged spiders will take fish in early morning or late evening when the fish move into shallows to feed. All lures of this type come in a myriad of colors, styles and sizes. A tapered leader, common for trout fishing, is unnecessary for bluegill. A 6-foot length of 2 or 4 pound monofilament is sufficient leader material. Present the lure into an area where fish are feeding and make the bait imitate an injured or struggling insect.
Flyrods can also be used to catch mid-summer bluegill when thay are in deep water. Best success occurs with a sinking line. If you do not have one, try placing a small split shot several feet in front of the fly or weighting the lure by wrapping a small amount of lead wire about the body. Cast over the area you with to cover, allowing the lure to sink to 10 or 15 feet; retrieve slowly, and set the hook the instant you feel the slightest tap or hesitation. Sometimes it is beneficial to count the fly down until you locate the right depth.
Ice fishing is another method of catching bluegill and is increasing in popularity each year. Many warm weather anglers have not ice fished, but the technique has proven to be an extremely successful method of extending the fishing season for the more ardent anglers. Standing on a foot or two of snowy ice in mid-winter may not seem to be an enjoyable form of recreation to many people, but it can be a comfortable and sporting way to avoid cabin fever during the long winter months.
The single most important fact to remember when ice fishing is to dress warmly. Even the best fishing will be ruined if you are uncomfortably cold. This is best accomplished by dressing in several layers of clothing rather than one thick garment. Clothing can be put on or taken off, allowing a fisherman to remain comfortable no matter what the temperature. Good protection for the feet and hands is essential. A pair of warm gloves or mittens, several pairs of wool socks, and a good rubber boots will help prevent the extremities from becoming cold. A warm hat with ear protection is also important.
Ice fishing gear varies from very simple to complicated. Basic gear includes: spud bar or auger, ice dipper, rods, lures, bobbers, bait, and a sled or bucket to carry gear and fish to and from the fishing spot. Some fishermen use a shelter for protection from the elements. This may be simply a piece of plywood to block the wind or a shack complete with stove.
Ice fishing rods are usually short and stiff, made of fiberglass, and equipped with 4-pound-test monfilament. They are probably the cheapest rod you can buy, costing only a few dollars. It’s best to have at least two, but several tipped with different lures are nice and handy. Rods and reels work well, but homemade ones made from a rod tip and dowel with pegs to hold line are more than adequate. Use a float just large enough to suspend your lure and bait. Lures should be small and brightly colored, with green and red the most popular colors. Live bait is a necessity for ice fishing. Waxworms, mealworms, mousies, corn borer larvae, and goldenrod grubs are all good baits.
Ice fish on lakes or river backwaters in the same places where you caught fish in late fall. Best ice fishing often occurs just after freeze-up. Fish are found in water of moderate depths and often are near weed beds. they move into deeper water as the winter progresses. A newcomer to ice fishing can locate the best spots by looking for a congregation of fishermen over traditional hotspots. Don’t fish unproductive areas longer than 15 minutes; move frequently to find concentrations. Bluegills are tightly schooled during winter months.
Use your spud bar or auger to cut a hole through the ice. An axe, often tried by novices, works poorly except in the thinnest ice. After the hole is drilled, clear the ice chips with your dipper, lower the baited lure to within a foot of the bottom, and set the bobber at that depth. Big bluegill tend to hang close to the bottom in winter and bite ever-so lightly. You must watch your float closely for bites. Often the float will rise and lie on its side as a fish picks up your bait. Set the hook immediately and pull the fish to the surface.
The bluegill is everybody’s fish. Excitingly easy to catch, they are ideal for beginners but equally fun for experienced anglers. There is no shortage of good bluegill spots in Iowa, and they are excellent eating. Bluegill fishing-try it, you’ll like it!
*Mayhew, J. (editor). 1987. Iowa Fish and Fishing. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Des Moines, Iowa. 323 pp.