What Trophy Bluegills Eat
July 05, 2017
Trophy bluegills are anything but shy about eating. It's how they grow double chins and helmet heads. The key for anglers becomes identifying what trophy 'gills are eating and the seasonal location of their preferred prey. For every season there is a recipe for catching binging bluegills. Even when they're spawning, big bluegills can still be aggravated into consuming a well-placed bait.
There's no quicker way to understand what big bluegills are eating throughout the year than to ask a devoted panfish guide. Garett Svir operates Slab Seeker Guide Service in central Minnesota and one of his specialties is trophy bluegills. He's been obsessed with giant 'gills for more than 20 years. His rule is that every bluegill over 9 inches gets released, and his clients are supportive of that policy. They're ready to take photos and order a replica mount of their trophy fish, as most are pursuing bluegills in that magical 10- to 12-inch range.
Svir develops strategies throughout the year to stay on top of big 'gills, while reducing the need to sort through large numbers of small ones. He starts his open-water season with a prespawn pattern that he describes as the "bloodworm connection." He says that during this period, big bluegills are often out beyond the cabbage edges on the base of the first breakline gorging on bloodworms.
Bloodworms are slender chironomid larvae that generally hatch during the summer months into small flying insects commonly called lake flies and midges, which resemble mosquitoes, but without the bite. If you look closely you'll see that adult midges have fuzzy antennae, while mosquitoes don't. Bloodworms are a favorite food of panfish during winter and spring prior to the bloodworm hatch. They're mostly found in soft mucky bottoms. Under ideal conditions, they emerge in hoards from the lake bottom and get big bluegills grazing recklessly.
Svir points out that the spring bloodworm connection is a big-fish pattern. "Small fish usually won't leave the protection of thicker cabbage to forage among the decaying plant matter farther out from the weededge at the base of the break where the bloodworms are," he says. "We had days last year when every big bluegill we landed was spitting up bloodworms in the net. They were gorging on them."
From May through early June, Svir finds larger bluegills primarily in 7 to 10 feet of water with their noses to the bottom feeding on bloodworms. To catch them, he uses a setup consisting of 4-pound-test monofilament, a 1/32-ounce Northland Gill-Getter jig, and a large leech, which helps sorting through small fish. Bites are obvious, eliminating the need for no-stretch braided line. Plus, the stretch of mono is beneficial when allowing fish time to suck in a large leech before setting the hook.
He keeps his presentation vertical and slowly works along the outside weededge until a group of larger 'gills are located. Be observant for changes in the weededge as they often hold more fish. Such changes include areas of thicker growth that have caused old weed stalks to fall on top of each other. The crisscrossed stalks create horizontal overhead cover, and the decomposing vegetation creates habitat for bloodworms at the base of thicker vegetation clusters. Also look for rock spines that intersect the weededge, or substantial inside or outside turns in the edge. These features serve as navigational markers for nomadic early-season bluegills and typically hold more fish.
Once bluegills are in full spawning mode, it becomes more difficult to get them to eat. Svir then turns to large baits and appeals to the aggressive nature of bull bluegills that are protecting spawning territory. To get more action out of his baits, he uses a Thill Mini Stealth Float rigged waggler-style. Under the float, he uses a teardrop jig baited with a wispy plastic tail.
The Mini Stealth Float has an egg-like shape with a large rounded bottom and narrower top, like the old Weeble Wobble toy — "weebles wobble, but don't fall down." Same concept on the water with a bait dangling and rocking under the float. The line is threaded through the hole in the small stem at the bottom of the float, which is set to the desired depth by pinching a tiny split shot on the line a half-inch from each side of the float's stem. This keeps the bait at a fixed depth, adds distance and control to the cast, and adds rocking action to the float and bait.
Svir finds some of his biggest bluegills in shallow waters that are affected by seepage from the surrounding land. This creates tannic stained water with visibilities less than a few feet. Since he can't visually see bedding fish, he relies on drifting and fancasting with his Mini Stealth Float rig. He avoids livebait and uses plastics like Northland Impulse Rigged Bloodworms or Custom Jigs & Spins Wedgies on a Northland Gill-Getter jig. Plastics stay on the hook better than livebait, which can be easily stripped by small 'gills. Larger baits also reduce the number of small fish caught and remain in the water longer for better odds of connecting with a trophy bluegill.
Once he locates spawning areas, Svir continues to fish fast presentations to aggravate the biggest bulls and avoid smaller fish. Don't be fooled by the modest size of a bluegill's mouth. These fish can get their mouths around 2- to 3-inch baits.
Favorite bigger lures to fancast include the Northland Impulse Live Rigged Paddle Minnow and Storm WildEye Ripplin' Swim Shad. With an exaggerated wobbling action imparted by oversized paddletails, these lures generate a considerable amount of commotion to get noticed by aggressive bulls. They can be counted down to fish any depth and work well on a slow, steady retrieve.
Postspawn though Summer
Svir observes a period after the spawn when bluegills of various sizes mix, and it becomes more difficult to exclusively target the largest fish. Even on outside weededges, smaller 'gills have become more established as the vegetation thickens. Accordingly, he focuses on main-lake rockbars and points. He surmises that giant 'gills are feeding on minnows and juvenile crayfish that take refuge on these structures, where walleyes and bass are often mixed with trophy bluegills.
For fishing mid-lake structure at depths of 10 to 20 feet, Svir recommends a bait-delivery system that gets deep quickly and offers maximum sensitivity. Two simple options are a drop-shot rig and a tungsten jig and bait. Both presentations put the weight either at the hook or below the hook for increased sensitivity. While a Lindy rig or a split-shot rig serves the same function, sensitivity is lost due to the weight being between the bait and the rod tip.
Preferred baits vary by lake. Where legal, a piece of crayfish tail or small softshell crayfish can be an outstanding drop-shot bait. Other traditional mid-summer baits include nightcrawlers, fathead minnows, leeches, helgrammites, and redworms. Svir favors redworms for their wiggling action and scent. "There's something about their smell that gets the attention of bluegills. After a day of fishing redworms, the boat literally takes on the smell of big bluegills."
He threads several redworms onto the hook of a 1/16-ounce Northland Tungsten UV Fire-Ball Jig when fishing depths of 8 to 12 feet. These tungsten jigs sink quickly, and with the weight attached at the bottom of the hook shaft they provide more open hook-gap and an upward angled hook point for better hook-sets when attached with a loop knot. Baits are most often fished within a foot of the bottom with subtle jigging action.
When fishing in water 12 to 18 feet deep, or when searching large pieces of structure, Svir uses jigging spoons to quickly cover water. Top options include the Acme Rattle Master, Northland Tungsten Sliver Spoon, and Wolverine Rattle Streak Spoon. Each fishes differently, being made of either brass, tungsten, or lead, respectively. However, they all have the same triggering qualities of flash, wobble, and sound. He fishes them with a lift, hold, and drop presentation. Constant bottom contact creates a visual disturbance and sound to attract fish from a distance. He uses St. Croix Panfish Series rods, saying that these rods give his clients good feel of a spoon's action, bottom composition, and light bites.
Moving into Winter
When the water gets colder, Svir continues to focus on finding the primary prey of bluegills to stay on big specimens. "A bluegill's diet is completely made up of small foods," he explains. "This forces them to eat often. If you can dial in on one of the food sources for the body of water you're fishing at that particular time of year, you'll be successful. All of my bluegill patterns are forage based." Accordingly, don't hesitate to fish away from the crowds and popular spots if you find abundant sources of bluegill foods elsewhere.
"I've been successful fishing shallow almost all winter on my home water of Lake Osakis in central Minnesota," Svir says. "This lake is known for its basin fishery and most anglers target plankton-eating 'gills suspended over deep water. My wife and I discovered a big-fish pattern a few years ago while pre-fishing for a tournament on Osakis. I was checking holes with the underwater camera when I discovered a couple large bluegills. After watching them for a minute, I noticed one of them bump a cabbage stalk with his head. These fish soon disappeared and I kept drilling. Later, I noticed another bluegill bump a cabbage stalk. A closer look revealed that they were knocking amphipods off the plants to eat them.
"The pattern made sense as the shape of a bluegills body is perfectly designed to hunt in thick vegetation. A unique pattern that still occurs on this lake is we typically catch larger bluegills fishing the shallow shrimp bite than we do looking for suspended plankton-eaters over the basin. It's almost like the dominant fish push the smaller fish out of the vegetation that's loaded with shrimp, like a hierarchy exists within the community."
Amphipods grow bluegills fast and are one of the key food sources Svir looks for when scouring the Minnesota DNR LakeFinder site looking for new bluegill lakes with potential for giant fish. "Some smaller lakes in Minnesota are so loaded with amphipods that we find them in ice shavings," he says. "When fishing the shrimp bite, plastics work well in colors like motor oil and green. Two of my favorites are the Maki Plastics Matdi and Jamei. Fish them close to the cabbage stalks in small openings. For cabbage fishing, an underwater camera is instrumental in finding sweet spots or open pockets in areas of thick vegetation that often hold the largest specimens."
No matter the season, there's a prey connection that can be exploited to catch more trophy bluegills. Prey dictates not only location for big 'gills, but often guides presentations.
The bait of choice doesn't necessarily have to match the hatch, but should appeal to the feeding habits of larger bluegills during that seasonal period.