By Gerald Almy
Gerald Alami’s photo
The light rod veered sharply as an invisible quarry slashed through the weedy waters in powerful trails. When I looked at the back of the boat, my fellow fishermen were busy fighting and landing their finned opponents. Before the day was over, we were fighting over 100 fish.
trout? Largemouth bass? catfish?
No, our quarry that day in a Central Virginia pond was the humble gillfish—the most popular fish in America and a favorite of many of the old Dominion fishermen.
For the ultimate fishing pleasure and quick movement on the water, it’s hard to go out for a blue gill picnic. For this article, let’s also take a look at redear (shell breaker) and closely related pumpkin seeds. This sunfish can be found in ponds, lakes, rivers, and streams throughout Virginia. They are also easy to catch, making newcomers interested in the sport and making them a great target for family outings or introducing a fishing novice. One of the most attractive features of Gill is that it is a great quarry for all three main fishing methods – live bait fishing, bait fishing and fly fishing.
Often, the flight of this feisty fish means fishing with bait. For fast and furious action, you can’t go wrong with a garden worm, red voyeur, or cricket on a tiny fine wire hook.
The brightly colored sunfish are also great targets for flycatchers, as they easily grab spongy rubber spiders from above and flies and nymphs slowly crawl beneath the surface.
But bluegills and their relatives are also a wonderful fish for the angler who throws light lures. We’ll go into more detail about all these methods of catching Virginia’s most colorful jigsaw fish, but let’s start with the artificial.
When choosing a bait for sunfish, one of the most important components is compactness. With small mouths, gills simply cannot wrap their lips around a large morsel of food or a large lure. Fish know this and rarely make large, cumbersome offerings.
But when the condition of compactness is met, these feisty fish will attack a variety of artifacts. Some days, they’ll catch a blinking vertigo through their weed-filled lair. Other times, they’ll rush a cryptic caterpillar crawling through a sinking log or a small beetle circling in a quiet bay. Here are some of the best sunfish lure options and how to catch them.
- caterpillars; This 1/32 to 1/8 ounce lead head jig with a soft plastic body is without a doubt the most productive jill lure ever. The sunfish loves a bait that resembles aquatic insects and this offering fits the bill. They also like nice, non-glare displays and something soft and chewy to sink their teeth into. Larvae meet all these requirements. The flexible texture encourages the fish to hold onto the bait for longer, making it easier to adjust the hook. The best caterpillar tails for gill hunting are usually short and short – either single or split. The squiggly tails of the gills are more fish-like in appearance, and the blue gills do not feed on baitfish much. Top colors include pumpkin seed, motor oil, smoke, orange, white, and black. The whole bait – including the jig head – should be about an inch long. Slow and steady recoveries work best, although occasionally pausing can help, especially in deeper water. If you really need to slow things down, put a bobber on the line so the temptation can get stuck and you slow it down again. This is especially useful after a cold front has blown.
- Spinners. While a regular grub is usually best, the same basic lure fitted with a safety-studded Beetle Spinnerbit, such as the popular Beetle Spin, is a better bet. This makes for a slightly larger width and the small Colorado spinner adds a bit of flash. This is useful when the water is turbid and also when the fish are in an aggressive mood. Although a slow, steady recovery is usually best, sometimes a stop-and-go offer works. Take it out and let the spinning bait sink near the bottom, then start a smooth retrieval. When the temptation passes by a log or bed of weeds, stop abruptly in your recovery. The fish often bolts the bait as it falls down like a struggling insect or crustacean.
- spinners; Another better option for murky water or actively feeding fish is a simple spinner. Some of the people I’ve had good luck with include Mepps, Blue Fox, Panther Martin, Worden Rooster Tail, and Luhr-Jensen Shyster. Spinners come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and colors. Choose compact models and stock a variety of blade colors including silver, gold, black, fluorescent green or orange for murky water conditions. Recover the spinners at a slow, steady pace, while reeling fast enough to make the blade spin. Strikes are often aggressive with these temptations.
- Carolina prepared for plastic. You may have used this setup for bass, but Carolina-style rigging also provides a productive way to fish for punchy fish. Mount a 1/8 to 3/8-ounce sliding bullet or egg weight in front of the rotating barrel and bead. Then tie into an 18- to 36-inch leader and attach the lure to that. Alternately, you can simply use one large split shot before the show.
For a lure, a good choice is a 2- to 4-inch thin plastic worm with pre-made hooks, or a single exposed hook. Another option is a small grub, hanging gently through the head, only 1/8 inch from the tip, on a 6 to 10 short shank bait hook. Separating the bait from the sinker and flapping behind it nearly weightless makes this setup particularly attractive for fishing in High pressure water and clear lakes. But be warned – you can catch an 8-pound bass with that’s probably the same as an 8-ounce gill sound!
For your tackle, the 5- to 6-foot light action rod coupled with an open-faced spinning reel with smooth drag and a 4- to 6-pound line is ideal for nearly all gill fishing. Some ‘very light’ rods work, but make sure there is no movement too soft, which will make it difficult to install the hook.
In some cases, you can also effectively use a cane post or fly rod to simply reach and tip caterpillars, spoons, and spnerbits beside covering and battling with your quarry up close. Both types of fishing tackle work well for fishing as bait.
With their diminutive mouths and a preference for feeding on insects, blue gills are a great quarry for flycatchers. Spring is one of the best times of the year to use this type of fish handling because the fish move well in shallow areas to feed the beds and prepare them for spawning.
Stagnant water in rivers, farm ponds, natural lakes, and large reservoirs are all good fly fishing locations. Clothes from 5 to 7 weights fit perfectly on the bill.
The dominant choice among bluegill flycatchers is the sponge rubber spider with white rubber band legs. Good colors are black, green, red and brown. Also stock some ground patterns from the trout jacket such as large ants, crickets, beetles, and grasshopper flies. If the fish aren’t keen on eating from above, curl the split shot in front of the rubber spiders a foot or two so they slowly sink. You can also attach some to the weight on the hook leg. Some wet fly and nymph styles like Wooly Worm, Hare’s Ear, and Pheasant Tail are also good, with sizes 8 to 14 even better.
Try spotting fish on the spawning beds using polarized sunglasses. If you can’t locate the beds, stick them to coverings such as tree trunks, weed edges, and mooring posts. Allow overhead water shows to rest after placing them on a bed or blanket, then after 20 to 30 seconds, shake them slightly. Bottom surface patterns produce best with 4- to 8-inch strips or a slow-creeping presentation.
as live bait
Lure hunters are likely to catch more bluegills than any other method. No wonder why. Show the gill of a sparkling worm or succulent cockroach and an almost guaranteed bite.
Lures also provide a great way to introduce youngsters and newcomers to fishing. A light or very light swivel, a fly rod with a single-thread-wrapped spool, or a simple cane shaft can all be effective at making a tempting bite. Use long fly bars or reed posts when you can get close to your target cover or spawning beds and turn the width toward the quarry. Otherwise, use the spin tool.
Placing the popper anywhere from 2 to 5 feet above a size 6 to 8 bait hook is useful for hanging display. Add a small split shot a foot above the hook. Red worms or garden worms are excellent choices, but crickets may be the best gill bait out there. A piece of night crawler also attracts constant movement.
It may seem like an ancient hunting technique in our modern, high-tech world, but watching a bobber disappear as a gill bull races away with your show is a thrill that no old – or very young – hunter can enjoy!