Let’s face it, bluegills eat just about anything that fits in their mouth. For anglers, the key becomes making the right bait connection, based upon the season and size of bluegills present.
In-Fisherman readers are aware of the dietary dependence of bluegills on zooplankton, the most common of these diminutive critters being Daphnia and copepods. But when the water heats up, there’s no better bait for trophy bluegills than minnows and young-of-year panfish. With the proper presentation, this prey connection produces trophy ‘gills throughout the year.
If big bluegills crave minnows, a logical approach is to rig the real thing. The easiest way is with a hook and bobber. Simple is good, but by incorporating some rigging refinements, you can maximize your odds of catching more fish. For this reason, my favorite early summer float rig consists of a Rocket Bobber, a 3/0 (about 1/32-ounce) split shot, #6 Eagle Claw Aberdeen hook (model 162EL), and a mainline of 4-pound-test Trilene XL monofilament.
The Rocket Bobber might at first glance appear a bit big and clumsy. But the 4¾-inch Junior Panfish Size Rocket Bobber is an aerodynamic weighted float that adds stealth to any livebait presentation because it can be cast greater distances than round or balsa floats. Bluegills can be greedy feeders, but the biggest ones aren’t dumb. Bigger ‘gills often need to be fished from a distance and the dart-like weighted design of the Rocket Bobber allows it to be cast far with precision.
Casting distance also means you can cover more water when searching large shallow flats for concentrations of fish. Patience may be a virtue but it should be used in moderation when pursuing warm-water ‘gills. Their metabolism is revved up and they’re generally quick to react to something that looks appealing. For this reason, retrieve a few feet of line every half minute or so to reposition the float. When the float is moved, the bait becomes more active as it struggles against the weight of the split shot. Recast once the float drifts beyond the edge of the flat or when you start to get bites.
The Rocket Bobber is not designed to sit vertical in the water like other floats. Instead, it lies flat on the surface and the tip tilts upward to signal a bite when any added pressure is exerted at the end of the line. The 3/0 split shot helps balance the Rocket Bobber nearer its tipping-point and also limits the range of the minnow under the float. The minnow is lightly hooked behind the dorsal fin with a thin-wire #6 Aberdeen hook. A larger or thicker hook deadens the action and tires the baitfish.
Keeping minnows lively is important so if you’re serious about catching big bluegills, get serious about keeping lively bait. Keep them in a cool, insulated container with an aeration or oxygen source. Coolers can be converted into bait systems by adding an aeration system. Commercial containers like the Frabill Bait Box, which is about the size of a 6-pack cooler, or the Aqualife Bait Station, framed off a 6-gallon bucket, are ideal for large numbers of baitfish or larger baits. In hot weather, change the water frequently and add sealed ice packs to keep the water temperature below 70°F. When minnows start coming to the top of the container, it’s a sign of stress and they need more oxygen.
Even when properly cared for and lightly hooked, minnows get sluggish after being dragged through the water and recast several times, so use a fresh minnow after every couple casts. You go through more bait but also catch more fish. Big bluegills react more favorably to a bait that’s struggling and trying to avoid being eaten.
Once you locate big ‘gills, another livebait option is to play into their chasing instincts by freelining a medium-size fathead minnow. Fatheads are hardier than shiners and do well as freelined baits. The same Eagle Claw thin-wire Aberdeen hook can be used, but without the split shot or float. For even more attracting power, thread a small softbait like the Berkley PowerBait Ice Wishbone onto the eye of the hook. This little attractor adds color and scent to the presentation without interfering with the action of the minnow.
Hi-vis Stren Gold mono in 4-pound test makes line watching easier with this technique. If fish seem finicky, add a 4- to 6-foot leader of fluorocarbon. Hook the fathead through the lips and pitch it into fishy areas. Watch the line for any jumps or taps. A free-swimming bait often attracts more attention than one tethered under a float because it ranges more widely.
When prespawn bluegills take up residence on flats but have yet to start bedding, they become territorial. During this period, a quicker cast and retrieve approach can be more effective than a slower livebait presentation.
To mimic a minnow, the Storm WildEye Live Minnow works wonders. These 1-, 2-, and 3-inch lures consistently produce big ‘gills. Fish them on 6-pound-test Berkley NanoFil for maximum casting distance and sensitivity. Repeated casts to the same area may be necessary to get fish to commit.
Since Storm WildEye Live Minnows are prerigged with a weight at the head of the bait and a treble hook at the belly, they work best over sandy areas. When vegetation covers the bottom, try a swimming grub like Kalin’s 3-inch Sizmic Grub to represent a minnow. Rig it on a jighead to reduce snags. Sizmic Grubs have a tight kicking tail action at any speed and work well when paired with a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Gulp! Minnow Jigghead. Gulp! jigs have a ribbed bait keeper collar to prevent tail grabbing ‘gills from pulling the grub out of alignment and ruining its action mid-retrieve. The hooks on Minnow Jiggheads are ultra-sharp and thin for good hookups.
While a fleeing minnow triggers the feeding instincts of bluegills, so does a lure deliberately twitched on the surface. During low-light periods, bull bluegills are keen to scout the surface for any wounded prey. Some of the best baits to replicate this action are the smallest A.C. Shiner, original Rapala Floating Minnow, Bagley Bang O Lure, Yo-Zuri Pin’s Minnow, and Rebel Minnow. With slim profiles, they resemble a minnow from below. They barely dive when twitched on the surface and shimmy side-to-side on the retrieve. They quickly rise to the surface on the pause and their dangling trebles nail nipping fish.
A minimum of 6-pound line saves you the heartache of lost lures and won’t interfere with lure action. When fishing them, scan the surface for activity. Even the dimpling of emerging insects or tiny schools of glass minnows attract bull bluegills. Make long casts to likely areas. Quickly pick up slack after the cast and let the lure sit motionless on the surface. Allow any surface disturbance to dissipate. Then give it a slight twitch. Pick up the slack and wait a minute for a reaction. Repeat several more times before slowly retrieving the lure a few feet and continue with a new twitch-pause cadence.
Match the Hatch
Minnows are a great year-round bait option, but there are times during mid-summer when trophy bluegills go on a tear for young-of-year panfish. Then it’s time for realistic hardbaits. Some lifelike ones are the Bagley Small Fry Crappie and Bream, Rapala DT 4 in Custom HD Live Bluegill or Pumpkinseed patterns, Livetarget Crappie Crankbait or Sunfish Squarebill, Bagley Sunny B, and Rebel Bluegill.
To fish these baits most effectively, replace the rear treble hook with a #8 Owner Tournament Trailer hook. These dressed hooks are tied with feathers and reflective mylar to give an added swimming and kicking action to the lure. On the pause, the feathers flare and make fish commit to the lure. Since bluegills are suction feeders and often inhale the entire hook when they rush the bait, consider pinching down the barbs on these ultra-sharp, quick penetrating Owner ST-36 trebles. When fished on 8-pound-test braid, hook-sets are guaranteed.
Crankbaits that imitate young-of-year fish work anywhere big ‘gills roam. Fish them shallow and deep. During early morning, bluegills frequent the inside weededge to pick off prey in as little as a foot or two of water. Docks with a light near the water are great focal points for bluegills since they attract insects during low-light hours, and this activity attracts minnows and predators. Small wakebaits like the Bandit Footloose or 100 Series in bass, bluegill, or crappie patterns can get the big ones fired up. As the sun creeps up, work further out on vegetated flats and then fish the outside edge during midday.
Side-scan sonar is a great way to quickly map the edges of a weedline, as well as to discover thicker clumps where baitfish and predators are likely to hold. No matter what depth you fish, maintain a constant and relatively quick retrieve. Slight variations in the retrieve can trigger bites but rarely do long pauses or ultra-slow retrieves work. When trophy-size sunfish get an extended period of time to examine a lure, they generally lose interest or detect something bogus. Fish at a fast pace, cover ground, and don’t let fish think too much.
Minnow-connection options for big bluegills are many. In addition to the above techniques, spoons, spinners, under-spin jigs, and even mini bladebaits that can be fished vertically come into play during summer. It’s a matter of locating fish-holding areas, refining presentations, and letting them eat meat. ■
In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Chicago, Illinois, is an avid multispecies angler who contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.