Summertime bluegills are a feisty and fun foe
Pugnacious and accommodating, that’s what summertime bluegills are.
How many angling careers have they – and their cousin sunfish, the pumpkinseed — launched over the years? Millions, no doubt.
They are, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys, “one of the most popular sport fish in the United States.”
And yet, if anything, they suffer for it. Not biologically, but reputation-wise.
Many anglers who count a sunny as their first fish move on to other species, never to return. Pity their loss.
Summertime bluegills are a joy.
Catching bluegills – maybe a mess of them for the dinner table – has long been, and remains, a fun family outdoors activity.
There’s some pretty good fishing at hand, too.
Late spring and early summer – when bluegills congregate to spawn – offers the best potential for landing a creel full. But late summer shouldn’t be overlooked.
Angler catch reports compiled over decades by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission show that September is the best month of the year for catching bluegills in rivers, and among the best for catching them from mid-sized lakes, those between 50 and 500 acres.
Those kinds of waters exist all across the country.
And bluegills populate most of them. Their range across North America extends from Canada to Northern Mexico.
In most cases, finding cover is key to finding bluegills. Luckily, that’s often close enough to shore than anglers confined to the bank rather than free to move about in a boat can catch their share.
Weed beds, grassy edges, docks, rocks, submerged trees and the like all congregate bluegills, with the best fishing at this time of year typically early and late in the day, before the sun hits its peak.
A variety of baits will take bluegills, too.
Indeed, biologists at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries say they’re “not too fussy” in terms of diet. They eat insects, insect larvae, small crustaceans, minnows and, of course, worms.
Countless bluegills have fallen to the old standard, a red worm dangled below a bobber. Put a worm on a size 6 to 12 hook – size 10s with a long shank are a favorite – on 2- to 4-pound test and you have a bluegill catching rig nonpareil.
Plenty of other live baits also work. Grasshoppers, crickets, maggots, meal worms, and butterworms all catch bluegills and pumpkinseeds. They can be fished alone or with a 1/32- or 1/64-ounce jighead But they eagerly take artificials, too.
Small soft plastics like Twister Tails catch bluegills, as do tiny spinners. Fly anglers get them on poppers, small nymphs and even dry flies.
No matter the bait, there’s one thing to remember.
“Fishing slow is the key to catching sunfish,” say biologists at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
Bluegills don’t often chase baits far or fast. A slower approach – perfect for warm summer evenings – is often most productive.
Of course, the main criticism launched at bluegills is that they can be small. Allow too many to populate a lake and they wind up stunted.
“Bluegills are density dependent, meaning that as their numbers increase (within limits), their relative sizes decrease,” say those at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
A keeper bluegills is, in most cases, anything 7 inches and longer. A good average keeper fish goes about 9.
But bluegills can get much bigger. Most state records are for fish exceeding 2 pounds.
And those kinds of fish are often found in different places than the average bluegills. And catching them sometimes takes different techniques.
For the next month or so, according to the Iowa Department of Natural resources, large bluegills hang out in deeper water – say six to 12 feet – along the edges of weeds, in deep coves, flooded creek channels or along underwater humps.
“Man-made underwater objects also attract bluegill during the summer,” it says. “Many lakes and reservoirs have stake beds, brush shelters, tire reefs, rock piles and other fish attractors. These objects, along with boat docks or boats tied at one spot for several days, are good bluegill hangouts.”
Later, in mid-September, those fish will move shallower again for a time, often returning to spring spawning sites.
Until then, say New York biologists, those bigger fish are more likely to be loners or in small groups than in the big schools common to smaller fish.
But they, too, can be caught.
They’re bluegills, after all. If there’s a more cooperative fish swimming, it’s hard to imagine.
Summertime bluegills can be impressive
Give them a little respect.
That 9-inch bluegill or pumpkinseed bound for the frying pan? It’s been through a lot.
According to Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission records – based on examining and aging thousands of fish – a bluegill has to live almost eight years to reach 9 inches. And to get to 10 inches and seven tenths of a pound, a bluegill likely has to survive a little more than 15 years.
So those aren’t rookie fish you’re creeling.
And that makes record bluegills all the more impressive. How old were those fish, what had they seen, how many natural predators and fishing hooks did they avoid, before being caught?
Here’s a look at the state record bluegills for a number of states, with the year they were caught. Almost all are decades old, showing just how rare monster bluegills are.
• Pennsylvania: 2 pounds, 9 ounces; 1983
• Ohio: 3.28 pounds; 1990
• New York: 2 pounds, 8 ounces; 1992
• North Carolina: 4 pounds, 5 ounces; 1967
• South Carolina: 3 pounds, 4 ounces; 1973
• Maryland: 3 pounds, 7 ounces; 1998
• Illinois: 3 pounds, 8 ounces; 1987
• Texas: 2.02 pounds, 1999
• New Jersey: 3 pounds; 1990
• Delaware: 2 pounds, 10 ounces; set in 1998, tied in 2001
The world record bluegill, according to the International Game Fish Association, is a 4-pound, 9-ounce fish caught in Alabama in 1950.