Fine Tuning for Trophy Bluegills
July 21, 2014
The title of this article reminds me of the REO Speedwagon album You Can Tune a Piano but You Can't Tuna Fish. Its opening track is "Roll with the Changes" — a phrase that could serve as the mantra for today's bluegill anglers. Changes in tackle and a better understanding of bluegill feeding behavior have translated into an evolution in how we fish for them. Learn to roll with these changes and you'll become a better panfish angler.
Whatever Floats Your Bait
Floats are an essential part of panfishing, serving as bait-delivery systems, bite indicators, and mechanisms for imparting action on baits. More U.S. and European tackle manufacturers have entered the float market in recent years, and anglers are confronted with an array of fixed and slipfloat models constructed from ultra-sensitive balsa and porcupine quills to plastic, foam, and other synthetics. Floats range in size from mini-stealth to jumbo capable of suspending any size bait.
One of my favorite European designs is the waggler. Companies such as Bentley and Thill make multiple versions of this versatile float. With a fat portion at the bottom and a long slender body, wagglers have good stability and visibility in any conditions. The line connection is at the bottom and most of your line from the rod tip to the float is submerged and unaffected by wind and wave action, so the float and your bait remain in place where it was cast. Floats with line connections at their top can cause the line to act like a sail and quickly move in the direction of wind and waves. Balance the waggler with a couple BB split shot, and it becomes sensitive to the slightest movement of the bait.
When fish are scattered over large flats, a float drifting with the waves can be appealing. In these conditions, try the Thill Wobble Bobber slipfloat. Reminiscent of the "Weeble Wobble" toys from the 1970s, this oblong float seems off balanced and constantly pivoting in the waves, creating constant bait movement. Worked as a slipfloat, the Wobble Bobber can be cast long distances due to its internal weight. Whether from shore or boat, covering more water helps locate roaming bluegills.
Another option in both rough and calm conditions is the Rocket Bobber. This hefty plastic float flies tip-first like a rocket for long, accurate casts. Unique is that it lies flat on its side at rest. When the slightest pull is exerted on the bait, the tip of the Rocket Bobber pivots upward to signal a bite. This "tip-up" response helps bite detection in waves. It takes a little time to become accustomed to fishing it, but it's quickly become a favorite among serious trophy bluegill anglers as it can be fished as either a fixed or slipfloat at any depth.
In calm conditions when bluegills are rising to the surface to feed on hatching insects, consider using a casting bubble to present small poppers, foam spiders, or flies on the surface. Typically, such baits are impossible to cast more than a few feet without a fly-rod. Adding water to the casting bubble allows you to cast these light offerings long distances. A clear bubble is less detectable by fish and serves as a bite indicator. To increase the buoyancy of flies, add a small piece of floating Berkley Gulp! to the hook. Gulp! Floating Trout Worms add buoyancy and scent.
In calm conditions when fish are spooky, standard floats can be too obtrusive to fool trophy 'gills. In these settings, a narrow, elongated, clear-plastic float like the Carlisle Ram Rod Slim Boy can be effective. The Slim Boy lands softly on the water and only the tip portion that remains out of the water is painted hi-vis red. Such details make a difference in tough conditions.
In certain settings, using the smallest, most sensitive float has some exceptions. I use a classic red and white plastic bobber that measures less than 3/4-inch in diameter where a fixed float is appropriate. I continue to use this bobber out of familiarity even though it's not the most sensitive option. Through years of use, I've learned its nuances and know how the bait is behaving at all times based on how the bobber rests on the water.
Heavier than balsa and with a compact design, round, plastic bobbers can be cast accurately at mid-distances, even into the wind. In addition, its shape offers enough surface area to use it like a popper, creating disturbance on the surface to attract fish. By constantly working with a particular float style, you can learn how baits react with each twitch of the rod. When the float does anything out of the ordinary, set the hook.
How's it Hanging?
Fine-tuning tactics with vertical and horizontal jigs can increase your bluegill catch. Take your ice-fishing box on your open-water excursions and experiment with those baits. Horizontal hanging ice jigs make great search lures and are well suited for tipping with micro soft-plastic tails. Some options include wacky style plastics like VMC's Mustache Worm fished on a pull-and-pause retrieve; Northland's Impulse Stone Fly on a hop-and-drag retrieve; and the long slender Maki Spiiki fished like a jerk worm. Work these baits without a float to cover more territory. Their horizontal nature positions them to be inhaled by chasing 'gills.
Present vertical jigs as a slower presentation to fish that have been pinpointed. My favorite vertical jig is a teardrop style like the Custom Jigs and Spins Demon. The Demon comes in five sizes from 1/100 to 1/14-ounce, with varying hook sizes and color patterns. The standard model comes with an unpainted metallic backside, which captures and redirects light as it falls through the water column. This is especially appealing in clear water. In stained water, fully painted or glow-in-the-dark jigs, like the Custom Jigs and Spins Mega Glow Demon, Lindy Frostee, and Jammin Jigs Neon Glow Candy Stripe Teardrop, often are productive.
Bluegills primarily sight-feed on a range of aquatic insects, other invertebrates, fish, and plants during the summer. Choose jigs that offer a visual profile to get noticed and enough hook gap to accommodate a whole redworm or half a nightcrawler. While a couple spikes or a single waxworm on a small ice jig may be a productive option in open water, larger baits tend to yield bigger bluegills. Scaling up to a whole nightcrawler often triggers trophy 'gills. On a jig with a small hook, open the hook gap slightly and offset the point to allow for better hooking. If the bite slows with livebait, switch to Gulp! and work the bait more aggressively. The scent and feeding stimulants in Gulp! can prolong a bite.
One of the most noteworthy trends in today's micro jigs is the use of tungsten and crystals to deliver greater responsiveness and flash. Examples include the Bentley Marmoosha Stinger, Clam Epoxy Drop, and HT Enterprises Marmooska Tungsten Eyeball Jig. These heavy compact jigs work well for pounding and punching for bluegills, while reflecting light through their Swarovski crystals.
Find a soft-bottom area close to a weedline and pound the bottom with a heavy tungsten jig to create a disturbance. Inquisitive panfish rush over and react as the jig pops out of the smoke cloud. In areas with heavy weedcover, use these same jigs to punch through the top of the weed canopy and get to the bottom stalks where bluegills have more room to maneuver and feed. Select a jig with a small hook and tip it with a dark plastic tail to make the jig more snag resistant. Heavier line helps to horse fish from cover and to deliver more powerful hook-sets.
The Perfect Line
Selecting the right line for targeting bluegills is the essence of fine-tuning your presentation. Personal preferences play into this, but the general characteristics of each line offer guidance in pairing line with technique. Monofilament is a great option for fishing livebait under a fixed float in shallow water and when working tandem jig rigs. It offers considerable stretch that allows bluegills to inhale a bait without immediately feeling resistance from the float or the rod.
Unless you are fishing close to cover or dragging bait rigs in deep water, use monofilament no heavier than 4-pound test. One- to 2-pound-test typically is better when targeting line-wary, trophy 'gills. Thinner line imparts a more natural action to the bait that can more closely replicate the movement of zooplankton.
For added stealth, fluorocarbon offers low visibility. It also sinks faster than monofilament, so it's less affected by wind and waves. This also makes it a better option than braid when fishing with slipfloats. The reduced stretch of fluorocarbon also enhances sensitivity and allows for quicker hook-sets.
For even more sensitivity, spool at least one ultralight spinning outfit with Berkley NanoFil. This ultra-slick unifilament casts farther than any other line I've used. For working small spinners, spoons, and jigs, I find NanoFil has unparalleled performance. Each revolution of a spinner's blade and wobble of a spoon is transmitted to the rod handle. Short strikes and fish rushing up against the bait are easily detectable, allowing you to adjust your retrieve to convert otherwise undetected opportunities.
If you add a fluorocarbon leader to NanoFil, forgo a double-uni or blood-knot connection. Due to its ultra-thin diameter, double over the NanoFil mainline and use an improved clinch knot to attach it to one end of a small swivel and tie the leader to the other end of the swivel. Do the same with braided lines when dealing with lightweight leaders that can easily be weakened in the knot-tying process.
Braid is the most overlooked panfish line type. However, for drop-shotting near weeds, pulling livebait rigs in deep water over rocks, and casting crankbaits, the added strength, durability, and feel of braid makes sense. PowerPro, Sufix, and Spiderwire make braids with diameters equivalent to 2-pound-test monofilament with the strength of 6- to 8-pound test.
Bullying a Bull
When it comes to pursuing bluegills in big waters, few panfish anglers use lures large enough to appeal to the bullying instinct of 'gills surpassing 10 inches. These are the same giants that are occasionally seen swimming in deep water with packs of bass. They're no longer bass food but instead feed alongside them.
Prior to the spawn, one of my favorite trophy bluegill lures is a Storm WildEye Perch in 2- or 3-inch sizes. The 2-incher is pre-rigged on a 3/16-ounce jighead with a #1 single hook at the top of the bait and a #8 treble hook at the bottom. It's ideal for casting onto flats in 2 to 5 feet of water where bluegills scout for spawning locations. While not overly big, this bait has enough weight to be cast long distances on 6-pound-test NanoFil or Sufix 832 Performance Braid and fished on a slow steady retrieve. It irritates enough big bluegills into striking that it makes the process of wading through the juvenile bass it catches worthwhile.
In clear water you can watch as big bluegills chase the Perch and whack it from the side to push it out of the territory they're guarding. In water deeper than 5 feet and in cloudy water, scale up to the 3-inch WildEye Perch and swap the #4 treble hook for a #8. The single hook on top isn't suited for bluegills and all hookups are on the bottom treble. Bluegills that hit these swimbaits typically exceed 9 inches and seem to attack out of aggression, not hunger.
As summer progress and big bluegills move off flats, swimbaits and jigging spoons produce along outside weededges. Another option is slowly working crankbaits that have slow rise rates on the pause. These bass cranks include the SPRO Little John, Bomber#4 Fat Free Shad, and Rapala DT 4 and 6. I switch the standard treble hooks for smaller #6 trebles and add a couple Storm Suspend Dots to the bottom of the lures to make them neutrally buoyant. This allows the lure to be cranked down to its maximum depth and twitched in place, retrieved slowly, and again paused and twitched in place. Fish these lures on standard bass tackle and expect to catch other gamefish, along with a couple trophy 'gills per outing. Use neutral colors and avoid bright colors, such as firetiger, to reduce strikes by pike.
Keep an open mind — try some new float styles, experiment with ice-fishing tackle during open water, try various soft plastic tails, upsize lures for trophies, and match fishing line to the situation. By taking advantage of advancements in today's tackle, age-old techniques can be fine-tuned for more productive bluegill fishing.