The Thrill of Bluegill Fishing
Last year I got a call from my buddy Joel who has a place near Texas’ legendary Lake Fork. He invited me to go fishing, and me, being the bass hooker that I am, simply said, “What time are we leaving?!” But when I arrived at his house after driving all afternoon, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Parked in the spot normally reserved for his Ranger boat was his pickup truck. In its bed were three folding chairs. In lieu of his usual seven-foot casting rods affixed to Shimano baitcasters, there were four cane poles poking over the tailgate. And instead of Bass-Pro-sized tackle boxes laden with the latest crankbaits and plastics, there were two giant coolers. I thought I had the wrong house.
What’s with the cane poles, Joe Dirt?” I asked as I walked through his open garage door. “And where’s the Ranger?” Joel answered back, “Getting serviced. And to tell you the truth, I’m glad it is. Leslie’s going with us, and she’s keen on keeping some fish. Bluegills—and lots of ‘em—so we can throw a fish fry tomorrow night!” he said. “You up for it, compadre?” While I can’t say that I wasn’t a tinge disappointed at first—after all, I had driven 300 miles for the chance at catching a bucket list 10-pound bass—I had to hand it to him. I knew he’d been obsessively bass fishing for years no, and so I was pretty sure he hadn’t fished with his daughter Leslie in a while. And he knew that if he’d told me we were doing anything other than big bass fishing, I probably would’ve had more important things to do. But something about the thought of a simple, easy day of bluegill fishing with a buddy intrigued me; almost as if it had ignited some deep down, long-suppressed spark in my soul.
Just then, almost as if he’d scripted it (which come to find out he had), Leslie floated into the kitchen with a big smile about her face. “Hey Uncle Jeff!” she shouted. “Dad says if I catch a bigger bluegill than you, you have to buy me anything I want.” What was I supposed to say to that? “Oh, it’s on!” I said. And it was. We had a fish fry for the ages, and memories that’ll last forever.
The Big Bass Blues
Fact is, it’s easy to get obsessed with trophy bass. We get out there with our big boats and motors only to rip around to one spot then another, probing and flogging the water for that bucketmouth of our dreams. Some of us even take it up a notch and fish tournaments, and there’s nothing wrong with that—except that your young kids or grandkids probably don’t like your style of fishing all that much because it’s so dang serious, and you’re not happy unless you catch a stringer of four-pounders. Meanwhile, your spouse probably can’t remember the last time you bought a mess of bass home for the fryer, because it’d be a high-level crime in your circles to actually eat one.
These are just a few of the reasons why perhaps you should consider leaving the baitcasters and high-dollar tackle in the garage a couple times this spring or summer, and instead engage in some good old-fashioned bluegill fishin’. While doing so, you might just remember why you started fishing in the first place. And the best part? It’s cheap, easy, fun, and your whole family will love it, and you, for going. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s how.
Where to Go For ‘Gills
Bluegills and several other varieties of panfish are found all across America, Mexico, Canada, and even some European countries where they’ve been introduced. Although the biggest ‘gills are typically found in warm regions with long growing seasons, great bluegill fishing can be enjoyed nearly anywhere, even up North. Spring is particularly fruitful, when bluegills spawn in two to six feet of water. Hundreds of these roundish, fierce-fighting fish will congregate on beds in an area so that savvy fisherman can actually smell them. If you smell what you think is a bluegill bed in shallow water during spring, fish there immediately. Often you’ll catch a mess before you can say, “Crack me another cold one!”
In general, look for fertile, shallow waters with lots of bugs, minnows, and sunshine. Then try fishing around any structure such as submerged stumps, weeds, moss edges, boat docks, trees, or cut banks where the fish can both hide from larger predators and hunt smaller ones.
While a one-pound bluegill is a benchmark much like an eight-pound bass, keeper ‘gills for most folks range from six to eight inches and weigh around a half-pound. Currently the world record is a four-pound,10-ounce behemoth caught in Alabama in 1947. But all bluegills are fun, especially with corks and cane poles!
The Thrill of the ‘Gill
Of course you can slay piles of blue-gilled sunfish on light spinning tackle, but cane poles are both fun and actually offer fishermen advantage: Rigged with a small slip cork and a rubberband tied as a stopper, cane poles allow dropping the bait on a dime in thick cover with barely a splash and then pulling it straight up and landing a fish without getting snagged.
For a cane pole rig to impress your grandpa, buy or (to really impress him) cut, a stalk of dried bamboo from eight to 12 feet in length. When using a basic cane pole without line guides, tie the line to the pole’s tip so that a little more than the rod’s length is left for attaching the hook. Leave enough tag end so it can be wrapped eight times or so around the pole and tied at the handle to provide backbone for larger fish. For spring fishing, go with six-pound test. Use electrical tape to secure both knots around the pole and to prevent the line from unwrapping. While plastic bobbers are cheap and easy, I like watching an actual cork quiver atop still water. Rig it slip style so your bait’s depth can easily be adjusted. In summer and in deeper spring holes, pinch a split shot sinker 10 inches above the hook to keep the bait deep. Some serious ‘gillers get fancy with their rigs, preferring a 12-foot Crappie Stalker telescoping rod, a reel, and 20 feet of six-pound Trilene tied to a black No. 4 Mustad hook.
As for bait, nightcrawlers cut in half work like a charm as do grasshoppers, but the best ‘gillers swear by crickets. Trap your own crickets in a barn or under a porch, or buy them from a pet store or bait shop. Keep them kickin’ for long stretches by placing a raw potato wedge in the trap; they’ll get food and water from it. Finally, add beer to ice and a kid or two to fetch fresh crickets and to help watch your cork, and man alive, you’re doing it right!
Just remember, when you see the bobber sway and dance, resist the innate urge to jerk immediately. Instead, wait until it goes completely under then count for two seconds before stiffly pulling the pole’s tip straight up.
Advanced Bluegill Enjoyment Tips
After you’ve found a great spot and chosen a child, novice, girlfriend, parent, or just a trusted buddy to take, don’t spoil it by being uncomfortable. Spend a minute or two to pack comfortable seats and a Thermacell. Load a cooler with cool libations and snacks. If possible, anchor or tie the boat under a shade tree, and if you don’t have a boat, don’t sweat it! Just find a decently level bank or boat dock—or in our case, a big flat rock—from which to fish. Afterall, you’re bluegill fishing to catch some fish and have some fun, not to win the Bassmasters, so now’s not the time to get all serious. You might even find that ‘gill fishing takes you back to simpler times, where you’ll likely remember that it wasn’t trophy bass that hooked you on fishing and the outdoors. More likely it was bluegills and good times shared with your friends and loved ones that gave you such passion for fishing. Woop! There goes your bobber … Set the hook, son, you’ve got a ‘gill!
‘Gills in the Grease
After you catch a mess of gills (there are daily limits on them so check your local regs), the best way to clean them is by scaling them. A bluegill’s skin after it’s fried is sweet, so you want to cook and eat it skin-on. Pinch the fish’s blue-colored gill tabs to hold one solidly while raking the fish with a scaler. Pay attention to the belly scales that are easy to miss. Then cut below the fish’s gills, down to the backbone then laterally down the length of the backbone and through the skin at the tail so you are left with two filets. Remove any remaining guts. Finally, batter the filets with beer, flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper before easing them into 400° oil. Fry till golden brown. Eat with ketchup and cornbread for best results.
Pro Tip: For those who enjoy it a bit spicier, try Uncle Buck’s Hot & Spicy Chicken Fry Mix for the batter.