Thank God for Bluegill - An Ode to Lepomis macrochirus
At 38 years old, my life is busier than I could have ever imagined. Between multiple jobs, one being a growing fly rod company, and my family, it’s been pretty hard lately to find any time to fish.
Sure, guiding gets me out on the water plenty, but instead of casting a 9ft pole from the front of a skiff, I’m pushing a 22ft pole from the back of the skiff.
The hope is that in the future, free time will shift in my favor, but for now time on the water is a premium.
Thank God for Bluegill.
The first fish I ever caught, and most likely the last fish I'll catch when I'm an old man.
One of the most willing little fish to ever eat a fly, and they love to attack a topwater. Available year round, if you understand their habits. Found in substantial numbers, and various habitats. And available just about anywhere, so they’re great for a quickie fishing trip.
Bluegill are the quintessential panfish or bream.
They are bright and colorful, growing to a respectful size of about 12inches (the world record weighed in a 4lbs 12oz). Realistically the average fish is the size of an adult’s hand. Breeding males will develop an orange-ish breast and a yellow belly along with a copper snout, earning them the name "yellow belly bream" or "copper nose" in some areas.
Although distinct in body shape, coloration and markings, they are often confused with other species, such as Red Breasted Sunfish, Pumpkinseeds, Redear Sunfish, Green Sunfish and Warmouth.
Bluegill once had a natural range covering most of the Eastern half of the United States.
Now they are found throughout North America, including almost all of the United States, along with parts of Canada and Mexico.
Bluegill have also found their way into South America, Europe, Asia and South Africa.
When you’re like me and short on free time to chase bigger, faster fish, the Bluegill can be a life saver. I almost always have a 4wt and a box full of bugs tucked away in my truck.
Bluegill have always been a quick and easy target when you get the itch. It’s one of only a few fish that you can realistically pull off the side of the road with a few free minutes and be confident about landing a fish or two. They're the perfect "lunch break" or "drive home" fish.
Bluefish may be the hungriest fish I’ve pursued in the salt, but the little Bluegill takes the cake for the most willing fish in freshwater.
The shoreline of any lake, pond, river or creek that has a population of bluegill will be a guaranteed enjoyable time on the fly. Just as much at home in a Walmart runoff pond as they are in a cypress-lined creek. They love structure such as lily pads, sub-surface aquatic plants, cypress knees and downed timber, but will also do just fine in a completely bare quarry pond.
Little cork or foam poppers are my favorite flies to throw at them, followed closely by a foam spider. Thinking back, these are the exact same flies I threw at them 30 years ago when I first picked up a fly rod.
They’ll also readily take a traditional dry fly like an Adams or a Stimulator. Topwater is my "go to" for Bluegill, but they’ll also take small streamers such as micro wooly buggers.
Nymphs work well when they are targeting small aquatic insects and they also love squirmy worm flies and mop flies. If it will fit in their mouth, there’s a real good chance they’ll eat it.
And when they eat, they take the fly like they’re three times bigger than they actually are. They attack it with such gusto, and bulldog as hard as a hand sized fish can. If Bluegill averaged 5lbs, it might be the only fish I ever targeted!
Since they are so willing to eat, they make the perfect first fish on fly for adults and children. Once my son could pick up a fly line and lay it out 5 feet from the rod tip, we hit the local ponds and I watched him find success catching bream on fly.
And although they are the perfect first fish, I still get a huge kick out of targeting them now, 30 years after my first one. The ease and availability only adds to their allure, but their ferocity alone is enough to excite me when thinking about targeting them.
Although most people target Bluegill spring and summer, they can be caught all year in most habitats. Bluegill become more active once the water temps rise into the 60-degree F. range. Fish start working shorelines in March and April looking to bulk up on food.
Sometime around May, when the water temp rises into the 70-degree F. range, males start carving out nests along the shoreline in 1-5ft of water. They will continue to spawn and protect their nests through the summer. As easy (and tempting) as it is to catch these fish on their “beds”, I try to leave them alone and target other fish not protecting eggs.
In the fall, the fish start to school and work open water looking for small insects to fatten up on for winter. In late fall and through the winter, Bluegill hang deeper in the water column and slow their movement to save energy. Unless the water is extremely cold, they will still take a slowly sinking midge or wet hackle fly.
I am thankful for Bluegill, that I can say with assuredness.
They’ve been a life-saver for me every time the itch for a fish on fly has become overwhelming. Whether it’s a quick stop at a parking lot drainage pond, or if it’s hiking through the forest to a secret pond, the allure of casting a small rod to a spunky bluegill has not diminished for me at all in the last 30 years.
I doubt it ever will.
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