Bluegills for Young and Old

By Steve Weisman

Let’s face it, I am a bluegill fishing fanatic. And why not? They are plentiful, they put up a great fight and they are great table fare. Oh, and one more thing, they are great fish to get a youngster hooked on fishing.

I will also say this: you still need to develop a strategy to catch nice size bluegills. You can’t just throw a line out and expect to catch big bluegills. To consistently catch these fish you need to know where the big bluegills will be, what baits they like best and how to make the best presentation.

Bluegills can be found throughout Iowa, but not all waters contain good sized fish. So, it’s important to do a little research to find the best bluegill waters in your area. I do know that during weekly summer DNR fishing updates, nearly 50 bodies of water across the state have good bluegill fishing.

I’m fortunate to live in the Iowa Great Lakes, and Big Spirit Lake and the Okoboji chain of lakes have excellent bluegill populations. To the west of Rock Rapids is Lake Pahoja, a small county park with an excellent population of nice sized bluegills. So, I’ve got excellent bluegill waters to fish.

If there is a prime time to catch big bluegills it is during the spawn from late May through mid-June. The bluegills have moved into the shallows and have made their spawning beds. Depending on the lake, this can be anywhere from two feet out to 10 feet. The large male bluegills are guarding the nests, and they will bite whatever comes into their protective area. If there is a time to catch these huge males, it is this time of year. In clear water (with good sunglasses), you’ll be able to see both the beds and the males guarding the nest. Once I locate a spawning area, I will anchor just off the beds and cast to the beds. At one time, I would drop anchor, but now with the Minnkota Terrova I-Pilot, I can use the trolling motor as an anchor. Mine is an older model, and on spot-lock, it does wander a bit compared to the new I-Pilots.

It is at this time, however, that I encourage anglers to protect the fishery. It’s easy to “clean” those big males out of an area. My thought is this; we practice catch and release on bass, walleyes and muskies, so why not do that with bluegills, especially at this most susceptible time. Catch all you want but keep only some for a meal. I think it only makes sense.

During this time, I’ll use a small jig. There are lots of tiny tungsten jigs out there. They fish small but get down to the target area quickly. However, I like a 1/64-ounce Clam Dingle Drop jig or a black hair jig. I use a bobber to keep the jig just above the beds. The bobber makes it easier, especially for youngsters, to see the bite. When the bobber twitches, set the hook. Don’t wait for the bobber to go under, because the hook might be already spit out.

During this time of year, I will tip the jig with a worm. For years I would use garden worms, but now I just go the bait shop and a worm that looks like a garden worm, but this kind is much more lively and tougher. They go by several names: Belgian worm, red worm, leaf worm or trout worm. Just hook the worm through the head and let the body trail behind. Tough for a bluegill to resist a worm.

Sometimes, as the spawning process peaks, the bluegills won’t bite unless the bait is right in the bed. The bluegill will be protecting the bed, see the bait go into the bed and actually go right to it and suck it in. At this time, using a bobber will not be as efficient as taking off the bobber. This is where the tungsten jig works well because even though it is small, it is heavy enough to cast away from the boat toward the spawning beds.

I fish all the lakes in the Iowa Great Lakes for bluegills, and the spawn starts on the smaller lakes first, moves to East Okoboji, then Big Spirit and finally West Okoboji. So, I actually have 3-4 weeks of bluegill spawning. Of all the lakes, however, West Okoboji is my “special” bluegill lake. First, the water is so clear that you can see the beds and fish with good polarized sunglasses. Secondly, the keeper bluegills will run from eight inches all the way to 10 inchers. Finally, West Okoboji has great natural habitat with extensive bays, and the best artificial habitat around…wood docks. The end of these docks will actually go out into 10-12 feet of water. So, after the spawn is over, there will still be some nice gills hanging out around the end of the docks. The more years I fish these bays, I find that certain docks hold more bluegills that others and the same holds true for size. Some of these docks just hold larger fish. So, each year I will mark a waypoint on my Hummingbird 998C, so I have that marked for the next year.

Sunny days work best. Wind and bluegills are not a good combination. For this type of fishing, you want to have calm waters. So, it’s important to know the lake you will be fishing and the direction of the wind for that particular day. No matter the wind, I have enough docks all around West Okoboji that I can always fish calm waters.

Summer fishing
When the spawn ends, the smaller pesky bluegills will stay in the shallows, but the bigger bluegills will move deeper. They are looking for protection and shade, so depending on the depth of your lake, look for the bluegills to be around those deeper weeds. As I look at West Okoboji, all of the bays will hold weedlines that run anywhere from 14-25 and even 30 feet in depth. However, some anglers will use a slip bobber rig with either a plain hook or a tiny jig (1/64-ounce) tipped with a Belgian worm (red worm, leaf worm), a medium to large leech or a wax worm or silver wiggler – in that order.

For this presentation, set the bobber to match the weeds depth, trying to be about two feet either above the weeds or off the bottom when fishing the deep weed edges. One other bait that can be dynamite is a leech. The leech seems to trigger the bigger gills and helps keep the little ones away.

The slip bobber allows us to fish a lot of area because you can anchor on the wind side of the weedbed and then cast with the wind. We can also cast on all sides of the boat. Many times using the fancast method, we will find one spot that seems to hold bigger bluegills. It’s then pretty simple to hone in on that spot where the bigger fish are located. A slip bobber bouncing in the waves often will trigger a fish. Once again, the slip bobber rig is perfect for a youngster to fish.

The other option is straight-lining right over the side. This is my favorite method this time of year. We’re often fishing in 20+ feet of water, and I don’t want the hassle of the slip bobber. Plus, by fishing over the side of the boat, I can feel the bite. Nothing can beat that strike. Feel the peck or see the rod tip move and set the hook.

Although I still will use my tiny tungsten jigs, I have found a Shuck’s Jigger Minnow works really well. Everybody has a favorite color, but I really like the green/gold color on West Okoboji. It’s really pretty simple. Just fish this right over the side of the boat without a bobber. Once again, I will use the same lures that I did with the plain hook or tiny jig.

Sometimes on the shallower weed beds when the wind is down, I will troll very slowly at say .2 to .3 mph and work the weeds. I use the larger Jigger Minnow for this. You never know what kind of fish you might catch using this presentation. This type of fishing can work on any body of water that holds good sized bluegills.

So, guess I gotta admit it. Even at my age, I’m still a kid when it comes to fishing. I just love to chase hand sized and larger bluegills!