Bluegills topping the scales at almost a pound are prized catches. But after the shallow water flurry they disappear and many anglers stop fishing. They are still there, rare on most Michigan waterways but you can up your odds by fishing waters rich in finned dinner-plates. Fishing pressure, predation and abundance of food cause gill populations to rise and fall. If you are not on the hot action when the lake is on fire, you’re too late. When algae blooms and water temperatures rise you need to change strategies for big gills and go deep. Here’s why.
First, begin summer adventures by targeting bodies of water that have a reputation for whopper gills. Some of my favorites include Lake Cadillac, Houghton Lake, Hamlin Lake, Gull Lake and a host of others. The trick is to spend time on productive waters that support a healthy population of slab bluegills. Just about any lake with shallow water, food and spawning habitat will hold gills. But the big bulls frequently are found in specific water providing deep water liars during summer, frequently bordered by vast weed beds and ample cover. Your goal is to isolate schools of active 7½ inch adult gills and hopefully find a 10-incher. In order to catch big gills you need to target lakes where big fish live. Returning to waters where you have caught big fish works but keep searching local private ponds, lakes or reservoirs. Often big gills flourish in lakes that do not have an abundant bass population.
Keep in mind that the average six- year-old gill is only about 6-8 inches long. In order to reach 8-10 inches they need a lake flush with food and weed growth is essential so they can avoid predation from northern pike and bass.
There are several fishing tactics that catch big gills with ease. One of the most productive is a simple bobber rigged with two hooks and a few split shot to take offerings deep. Some folks prefer a slip bobber that can be set at any depth and is effective when bluegills school 15-20 feet below the surface. A small Northland Impulse mayfly or stone fly is placed about 2 feet above a small ice jig tipped with bait. Waxies are the bait of choice but garden worms and crickets are often big fish catchers. The idea is to anchor near a bluegill holding area and cast out two bobber rigs and allow them to sink into the strike zone. Often you need to give the bobber an occasional jiggle to make the jig or fly wiggle and draw savage strikes. Sometimes you can slowly drift with the wind and work the lures along drop-offs or weedbeds and cover more water and often catch more fish and find new hot spots.
Another take off on this strategy is to use a size #8 Eagle Claw style 181 baitholder hook in place of the fly. This strategy is deadly in clear water lakes where adult gills are shy about slamming presentations. There is something powerfully addictive about crickets. Big bulls hit them with reckless abandonment almost like they dislike the wiggling critter with long black legs. I’ve used grasshoppers with this strategy and the hottest color hopper is bright green and dark brown.
Many Michigan gill chasers reserve outings for winter when they can sit in a warm shanty and watch electronics while they work itsy ice jigs tipped with waxies. This strategy is also very productive during summer. You use 4 pound line and an ultra-light spinning rod. Savvy anglers sit in the bow and use powerful electronic bow mounted trolling motors to navigate along deep water gill liars. For this kind of fishing you can step up to a larger jig and tip it with a waxie, itsy worm, and cricket or meal worm. Just like ice fishing you keep an eye on your electronics and when fish appear on the screen you dance the tiny jig slightly above the mark and entice strikes. This same strategy is dynamite on crappie in Wixom Lake and jumbo perch in Higgins Lake. Once you have located the bigger gills you keep working the area searching for those monster 10-inchers. If the bite slows, move to a new location and return in an hour. The trick is to work several locations, cover a lot of water and target areas that hold bigger gills. With this strategy you keep everything moving and only pause when a fish is kissin’ close to the hook. When fish are active you will get slammed on a regular basis and strikes often come when you are jigging the offering upward. But if gills are touchy sometimes you have to lower the jig, work it deep and keep it in their face. This is a simple yet overlooked technique, and once you get the hang of it, you can catch a bunch of gills at lightning speed.
There are a variety of jigs on the market that catch gills. I suggest you take a peek at those made here in Michigan by the folks at K&E Tackle and those produced by JB Tackle. The trick is to use a jig that rides horizontal in the water and dives, dips and jiggles like an underwater micro critter dancing for food. But the key to success often hinges on what you use to tip the jig. Here’s why.
Deep gills will power-slam a jig offering and often rob the bait before you feel the strike. So, the solution is to use plastics. My favorite is the Trigger X Nymph chartreuse glow one inch size. This nymph has a long forked tail, jiggly arms and it swims in the water like a mayfly nymph headed for the surface. The texture is soft, pliable and fish tend to grab and hold on. Another excellent choice is made by Clam, the folks who make Clam ice shelters. They also produce a quality bluegill plastic called Polli that is 7/8 inches long and comes in an 8 pack for around $3. The Polli boasts a natural ball head with long teaser whip tail that delivers incredible action. The Polli is injected with worm-based protein to give added smell and the kind of taste that makes gills hold on. At times you need to trim the plastic to fit the tiny jig hook.
When a big gull slams a plastic tail he will pull it down the hook shank. To keep plastics in proper position use a drop of Krazy glue. I carry a drip bottle in my panfish tackle box.
Now, you get the picture. Just tip the plastic with a waxie and drop it into the strike zone. Give it a little jiggle and slowly work it upward and watch the gills chase it at lightning speed. Now, get ready for the strike. POW! Fish on! In my opinion this bluegill combination is the most productive way to fill your live well with dandy gills. For some reason the jig/plastics is targeted by the biggest, meanest gill in the neighborhood and it keeps you from catching undersized fish. There are a variety of jigs in various colors and plastics that guarantee savage strikes from deep water gills. Experimentation is the key to success and savvy anglers use different combinations to determine which is best for a particular body of water.
Jigs tipped with plastics are a relatively new summer tactic but it has a proven track record for icing winter gills. Now, thanks to modern lures and action tails, summer anglers can catch fish like kids gobbling candy. Keys to success include keeping the jig in perpetual motion, tipping with bait and working the lure near deep water weed edges.
By August weed beds are down to 35 feet which is where the thermocline sets up and the
biggest gills congregate. That’s when plastics shine but you need sonar to mark fish and see
them charge the hook. Look for small schools of maybe a dozen fish found in tight groups near weeds or deep bottom humps. Test the school to see if they are the 8-10 inch brutes you seek. If not, use the electric motor to find a new school.
Sometimes you need to work the bottom 6 inches and gradually stair step the jig with shakes and twitches until you find the preferred depth in the water column gills prefer. If you get machine gun strikes it is often little fish.
Big gills snap the jig with a solid hit. If you miss a strike keep moving the lure and excite
the gill into a second or third strike.
This is finesse trophy bluegill fishing like your father never dreamed about. Just like walleye jigging you keep the boat directly
above the tiny offering and dance the jig in the strike zone. If the wind pushes you off the school try to motor over them and make a second pass. This deadly strategy is best during early morning or when the lake is placid, seas calm and you can hover directly over active schools of big hump backed bulls.
When you hit a hot school of hard thumpin’ deep water gills the action is top notch. Once you try jigging, get the technique down, you will reluctantly go back to grandpa’s cane pole or daddy’s bobbers and heavy split shot. Try this strategy and I guarantee your catches will be impressive and you will be hitting the water with renewed enthusiasm and stay on the hunt for trophy gills until winter draws the curtain on the open-water season.