June 30, 2014
Copper light filters down around dark green shadows, like rain around an umbrella. Saucer-shaped predators prowl under the canopy, plucking invertebrates from lily pads the size of hubcaps, making a popping noise that gives them away.
Listening is a skill — one of many a good bluegill angler needs. Observation is another. You need both to find bulls in the slop, where most anglers fear to tread. Most bluegill anglers avoid dense weeds, brutal cane, and line-snapping pad stems like the plague. And they don't approve of stout sticks and heavy line for panfish.
No wonder the biggest bluegills in many lakes, reservoirs, and river backwaters can be found in the "slop." Nobody wants to visit them. It's hard to propel the boat through it, difficult to regain tackle from snags, and frustrating when a brahma bull turns sideways, arcs violently through weeds and pads, then pops the line.
Like overcoming frustration to create a drag-free drift with a tiny dry fly in fast water, slop fishing is a discipline. It's about minimizing frustration with all those aversions until hunting in rainforests becomes enjoyable. That's pretty much what shallow flats are when compared to the rest of the lake — rainforests. Diversity of plants, fish, and invertebrate life is greater here than anywhere else. Biomass is greater, too. Bulls grow faster and receive less pressure here than anywhere else, too, making discipline well worth the effort.
Jungles of aquatic weeds covering expansive flats can be found in any kind of environment. The thickest are in river backwaters and eutrophic lakes, which tend to be shallow, dish-shaped, and floored end-to-end with soft substrates. Floods continually replenish the rich sediments in backwaters, and shallow lakes allow more sunlight to reach bottom, encouraging rampant weedgrowth.
But almost every lake that harbors panfish has the right stuff somewhere. Find the most expansive shallow flat available, with more area under 6 feet deep than any other part of the lake. That's the easy part, and it can be accomplished with a lake map or by cruising around and observing. The larger the flat, the more diversity and hot spots it's likely to have.
Every big flat has hot spots. Observation finds them, too. Look for:
â— Areas where weed, pad, or reed cover is most dense.
â— Areas where the widest variety of vegetation and cover types come together in one spot.
â— Depressions or troughs where slightly deeper water is surrounded by shallower water (depth variance can be significant at one foot or less).
â— Pockets of open water over sand or slightly thinner vegetation surrounded by dense growth.
â— Dense plant growth adjacent to a depth change of 2 feet or more.
â— Submerged or emergent woodcover surrounded by vegetation.
In areas like these, bluegills won't need to move far to find an abundance and diversity of forage types. Studies indicate that various epiphytes (invertebrates that live on plant life) make up over 75 percent of bluegill diets in weedy environments. More groceries concentrated in a smaller area than anywhere else, meaning fewer calories spent foraging. For a bull, there's no better place to shop than in the slop.
Diverse plant species coexisting in a small area usually indicate a variety of substrates as well. Each type thrives best in a specific bottom content, some in marl, some in silt, others in gravel, and a few in sand. Most can tolerate a mix, and that's where vegetation can be diverse. Use that as a clue because invertebrates like crayfish and burrowing mayflies display distinct preferences for certain substrates. The more variety seen in plant life, the more variety in the soils that sustain them.
If the whole flat looks great (eureka!), start where 1) The deepest water bends in closest to the shallows, or 2) Where the wind is blowing into the flat. Access to deeper water makes it easier for bluegills to change patterns. Studies have shown that the biggest bluegills in many lakes switch back-and-forth from invertebrates to a diet of big, open-water zooplankters. Wind and waves disturb plants and bottom, making life easier for bluegills and maybe just a little harder for slop invaders that feed on them (big bass and pike). At any rate, the windward side of a flat generally attracts most of the panfish in the area.
And if you can't find them any other way, listen. Leeches, freshwater shrimp, and insect larvae cling to lily pads. When a bluegill belts a bug off the underside of a mud-flap pad it sounds like a cork popped from a champagne bottle. A little muffled, maybe, but distinct enough on calm days.
In the words of Dr. Hal Schramm, a professor of fishery research, "The number of invertebrates living on a plant is relative to the amount of surface area. Pondweeds, curly-leaf cabbage, chara, and coontail offer much more surface area than reeds or spadderdock. But if vegetation becomes so thick bluegills can't slide through it, they move. If you can't get a bait down, don't worry. Bluegills won't be there anyway."
Ropin' Slop Bulls
This program is brought to you by braided line. PowerPro, TUF-Line, Berkley FireLine, Spiderwire, all the other superlines that offer 6- to 8-pound test versions. It's thinner and stronger. Yes weed-whackers employ heavy nylon (basically monofilament), but nothing whacks weeds like braid. Most of us agree that any 6-pound-test braid actually has a breaking strength of 12 pounds or better, yet it's thinner than 2-pound mono. When a saucer-shaped pugilist with a bent nose goes ballistic, braided line follows and slices through everything but wood and the thickest cane.
But no need to thin the jungle or leave a green trail of devastation. Long rods in the 10- to 12-foot category reach out and dap into pockets, shadows behind thick stands of weeds, and other edge areas where bluegills hide and hunt (as Wilderness Dave Patterson always said, "The mo' edges the mo' bettuh."). Long rods keep the battle a bit more vertical while making it easier to follow the fish without dragging line across dense tangles of vegetation.
I've been using a Fenwick HMX-C1062MF, a 10½-foot rod or the St. Croix Panfish Series PFS110LMF2, an 11-footer. I also like the new B&M Buck's Series Sam Heaton SHSS-BS-122, a 12-foot reachaholic. The only thing essential about the rod, other than the occasional need to protect 6-pound fluorocarbon in super clear water, is the length, so less expensive rods are fine, too.
The remainder of the rigging is simple. Few American-made floats are better adapted to dapping than the Thill Shy Bite series. This wooden stem-and-body float is thin and extremely sensitive. It submerges with the slightest pressure. The lightest bites pull it under. It comes in several sizes, from 3 inches to over 7 inches long. The Mini Stealth is great for dapping when you want nothing between the bait and float. Bulls can be hovering right under the pads at times, meaning a rig with split shot plummets past them. Small floats with no weight on the line give fish a chance to see it.
Thin Raven floats, designed for current, work well, too. I prefer them when bulls collect around the base of lily pads and plant stalks. That brings up a point: You never know what level bluegills are occupying when you arrive. That seems so unimportant to many anglers when fishing depths of just 3 feet or so. Just think about it for a minute and you'll probably decide to hang baits high at first. Most fish are better adapted for looking up than down. And in the jungle, the less line dangling below the float the better. Start high and work deeper as needed.
Ball-head jigs fall straight down, another advantage in the slop. They hang horizontally and drag over weedstalks more readily than vertical jigs or bare hooks. In open water and along deep weedlines, I prefer plain #8 hooks. That size has enough gap to grab a bull by the jawbone and haul him in. It says, "If you can't break my line, you're mine."
But the slop is a jungle. Make it easier on yourself and drop to #10 hooks in the thickest cover. A #12 is a conceit. Can it land a bull? Yes. Consistently well? No — at least not as consistently well as a #10 (which is inferior to a #8, which is inferior to a #6 in that regard).
Now bend the point down. More often we bend points slightly up and out to grab light biters. Bend it down slightly in the slop and you snag only half as often. The larger the hook, the more I bend it down. And when conditions allow, I use a larger hook.
The reason for this is called "horsing." Until you haul a 12-inch bull through pads in close quarters with braided line (which doesn't stretch), you won't understand the capacity such a fish has to straighten hooks. The common genre of "panfish jigs" is sorely insufficient here. I often use 1/80- to 1/64-ounce TC Tackle Jigs (970/221-5680) because they can land a salmon. Tim McFarland at TC is a custom jig maker who builds with any hook you want. (Mine are molded around Daiichi or Gamakatsu hooks.) Finding a premium hook on a panfish jig has been otherwise difficult until recently.
The Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle Little Nipper, the VMC Nymph Jig, and the VMC Flap Tail Jig are just three of many exceptions. The Nipper can land steelhead, and the VMC jigs have high-carbon steel hooks that wrestle 6-pound largemouths to the boat. Jig size is a function of angling pressure. Use big jigs and spoons to call in aggressive, lightly pressured fish, and vice versa.
Slop bulls tend to target small things. Conventional wisdom suggests small jigs in clear water. But fishing pressure is the overriding factor. Unpressured bluegills in private or remote lakes respond well to big presentations, including spoons like the PK Lures Predator and Northland Tackle Forage Minnow. Dapped up and down with a long rod, spoons catch untutored bulls without bait, making them great search tools. In heavy cover, I sometimes replace the small treble with a beaked, down-eye, #10 hook like the Mustad 9260. Beaked points deflect cover better than straight points, and the down eye reduces the gap, which helps resist vegetation.
In murky water I tie braid directly to the jig. When it's clear, I slide the float sleeves onto the braid, tie on a small swivel, and I add a 2- to 3-foot leader of 6- to 8-pound Raven, Seaguar, or Berkley Trilene fluorocarbon. Heavy cover demands a heavy leader. Around wood, I might go with 10-pound test.
Bulls tend to position themselves on the outside edges of cover. In a pad field, it's seldom necessary to go in more than 3 or 4 pads deep. Look for edges where dense emergent cover meets open water, where shadow meets light, and where troughs or depressions create open spaces above the vegetation. The biggest bluegills command the edges.
A push-pole is good for propelling the boat around. Small boats, canoes, and kayaks are best adapted to this kind of fishing. A big boat has a big footprint, and often rolls over pockets of fish that could have been caught from a smaller craft. Find a good mix of weeds or an area rife with edges, push the craft in quietly and anchor front and back to keep it from swinging over potential spots. The new Power Pole Micro pins a small boat with ease, and deploys with the touch of a button. With that 10- to 12- foot rod, reach out or walk quietly around the boat and dap to every available opening, every shadow, every edge and pocket until the spot is thoroughly covered or every biter is accommodated. Then move the boat 10 feet or so and start over.
If things don't happen right away, be patient. Sit still. This is shallow water. I've seen a Shy Bite sit in one spot for 10 minutes before slowly disappearing, which is a good sign. Bulls are cautious. They've been around the block. They're worth the wait.
Somebody (everybody) once said, "If bluegills reached 10 pounds, nobody would ever land one." That goes double in the rainforest.