The humble bluegill has a place in the hearts and memories of most freshwater anglers, and if you’re anything like us, one of these feisty little fish probably got you hooked for life!
While many of us graduate to bigger and “better” species like bass, spending sundown chasing bluegills as an adult is no less exciting than it was as a kid. And if you have a young angler or two in your family, casting into a pile of bluegill and pulling fish after fish into your boat is a great way to build a love of angling in the next generation.
If it’s been a few years, you might need to dust-off your bluegill savvy--or you might be a new angler yourself, wondering how to catch these lively fish.
Want some sure-fire tips?
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Need a rod and reel for bluegill fishing? Check out our buying guides:
The bluegill, Lepomis macrochirus, is a common panfish native to the United States. Particularly common east of the Rockies, it can be found in pretty much any body of fresh water, from small ponds to large lakes, streams, creeks, and rivers.
Anywhere you find fresh water and plenty of aquatic vegetation, you’ve got a good chance of catching bluegill.
Bluegill have slender, flattened bodies that are rounded behind the head, ending in a tapered tail. Typically ranging from 4 to 12 inches, lengths of 6 to 8 are the most common. They can grow up to 16 inches long, however, and the biggest bluegill ever recorded weighed-in at an astonishing 4 pounds, 12 ounces!
Bluegill are easy to identify. Though their scale color can vary widely, they sport a distinctive dark spot at the rear of the gill plate. You’ll also notice a yellow-gold belly and breast that turns to a distinctive bright orange in males during the spawn.
This little buy is darker than some, but his breast and “ear” give him away.
By contrast, this bluegill is much lighter, but still easy to identify.
Strong swimmers blessed with a fin configuration that allows rapid acceleration, sudden stops, and incredible maneuverability, bluegill are well equipped to avoid predators. That doesn’t mean they don’t play a major part in the food chain, however, and the aggressive fish native to the same waters depend on them throughout the year.
From bass and muskie to alligators and birds, bluegill are a common prey item. But they’re also voracious predators in their own right, feeding on aquatic insects and invertebrates of all kinds. Common food items for bluegill include crawfish, leeches, fish (including small bluegill), and any insect foolish enough to land on the water.
Though they possess a lateral line allowing them to detect the vibrations of prey, bluegill are predominantly sight predators. The hours surrounding dawn and dusk are prime times, but I’ve had bluegill bite pretty much anytime the sun was up! Contrary to what you might expect, evenings are usually slightly better than mornings, as the bluegill’s feeding cycle peaks later in the day.
Bluegill range from water so shallow that you can’t believe it can hold fish to deeper holes and channels.
This movement is highly dependent on the water temperature and season. As the water warms and winter surrenders to spring, bluegill will move shallow, often congregating near shore to spawn. Producing shallow, round depressions near overhanging vegetation, lily pads, and other aquatic growth, bluegill will begin spawning as the water warms to roughly 70 degrees. In more northern areas, however, they may jump the gun a bit, beginning the spawn before the water hits this temperature.
Like many species, larger bluegill will be the first to move toward the shallows, followed progressively by smaller and smaller specimens. Once the deed is done, males guard their eggs, fanning them to keep the water rich in oxygen and chasing off any predators they see.
As Steve Quinn explains, “Male sunfish are able guardians, chasing off fish that come too close, no matter their size. Larger males react to intruders at a greater distance than smaller ones. This might be due to greater aggression, or else better vision since visual acuity increases with age in this species.”
As the summer really starts to bring the heat, in smaller ponds and lakes, bluegill will tend to stay shallow, but in larger bodies of water they’ll retreat deeper to escape.
Drawn to aquatic vegetation like weeds, stumps, and submerged trees, expect bluegill to hold tight to cover most of the time.
Let’s analyze the takeaways from what we’ve learned about bluegill:
While no tip can guarantee success, these seven tricks are a good start!
Bluegill are aggressive predators, and it doesn’t take much to get them biting. But they have very small mouths, and you’ll need to downsize both your hooks and your lures if you want them to take them.
Keep the hooks small and the lures under two inches, and whether you work a topwater or run a crankbait, you’ll turn bites into catches!
Double Catch offers scented soft baits that are sized just right for bluegill.
In larger lakes, bluegill will back-off the shore in search of cooler, more oxygenated water. When that happens, you’ll be searching the water column for bluegill, and they could be just feet below the surface all the way down to 25 feet or so.
Sometimes, the larger ‘gills will hold below their smaller kin, creating a multi-layered school.
It pays to slow the descent of your lure, giving these predators a few seconds to react. Don’t race to the bottom: lighten up on your jig heads, and give the bluegill time to notice!
As Steve Ryan explains, “In nature, most food falls slowly through the water column. This gives fish the opportunity to identify and access the object as it makes its way from the surface to the bottom. A bait that falls too quickly often goes overlooked by nearby bluegills.”
I can count on one hand the number of anglers I know who didn’t start their journey hooking panfish below a bobber. And chances are, if you hit your local pond this summer, you’ll see more than a few fishermen throwing them into the shallows.
Tiny bobbers supporting a number 6 hook can be murder on panfish of all kinds, and bluegill are no exception. Bobbers work, no doubt about it!
But they do have some serious disadvantages when compared head-to-head with slip floats.
The biggest advantage of slip floats is that they don’t interfere with casting. By using a movable knot aptly named a float or bobber stop, to arrest their progress and set their depth, they stay out of the way when you cast, allowing you to work from a distance that won’t spook wary bluegills.
There’s no slip float I like better than the Thill Crappie Cork. Available in a variety of weights to match your micro jigs and tiny hooks, they work as flawlessly on bluegill as they do on papermouths.
Thill makes the best slip float I’ve ever used.
They feature a spring that allows fixed rigging for shallow water, and they come with a string stop pre-attached. Because the aperture is very small on this float, there’s no need for a bead.
You’ll need a few float stops for the seasons, and our favorites are Tinksky Fishing’s Rubber Float Stoppers. They’re ideal with the small aperture on the Thill, and simple to apply to your line.
Not sure how to rig a slip float? Check out this tutorial:
Given the natural diet of bluegill, if there’s better live bait than a kicking cricket, I’d like to know what it is!
When nothing else works, and you really need a sure-thing bite, live crickets are king!
If you’re wondering how well this works, check this out:
And if you’re unsure about how to hook a live cricket, check out this video:
When the heat’s on, and you’re fishing a bigger lake, it might be time to back off the shallows and run deep.
In larger bodies of water, oxygen levels can remain high in the depths, allowing bluegill to retreat to cooler temps and still breathe. And in situations like this, setting a slip float to let you work deep--often below 10 feet--can be amazingly productive.
Dipping makes use of a long rod like a 12’ B’n’M or a cane pole to drop a lure into a tight spot. Bluegill, like crappie, tend to hold close to cover, and getting too close with your boat can easily spook them.
But in dense cover, a cast just isn’t going to work--so instead, rely on reach.
The idea is to creep close, stop your motor, and either use a pole or an anchor to hold your boat steady. Trolling motors are not going to help you when you’re this close to the action!
Then, use the reach of the pole or rod, and holding the line in one hand, drop the jig in the pocket between branches or into heavy cover. Another way to dip is by extending the line to the reel seat, then flipping the jig where it needs to go.
A gentle motion of your wrist will tease a bite from any slab that’s there!
Watch this gentlemen demonstrate the technique:
Bluegill love to congregate under docks, taking cover in the shade to beat the heat and hide from predators. But when the water’s high and the dock is low, they can be hard targets to reach, and the real brutes will often look for the deeper pilings where you can’t reach them with a cast.
The solution? Shooting!
Using an ultralight rod, grab your soft bait behind the hook with your left hand, open the bail, and hold the line tight with your right index finger. By pulling back on the jig, you can load your rod like a bow.
By releasing your left hand and index finger simultaneously, you can launch that jig like an arrow! A few minutes of careful practice will have you skipping jigs into deep cover like a pro.
Watch Wally Marshall give a quick lesson:
For me, bluegill are a spring and summer staple, an exciting and relaxing chance to reconnect with my roots and have a great time.
I hope you feel the same way, or, if you’re new to angling, have the chance to build some memories of your own with these aggressive little fish.
These tips and tricks work for me, and if they work for you, too, we’d love to hear from you.
Please leave a comment below!