The term feeding frenzy sort of describes the biting characteristics of bluegills in spring when they are schooled in skinny water and smashing any presentation. Soon as your hook taps the water surface and creates a tiny shock wave they turn on the afterburners and rush to smack the offering. Sometimes they gulp and spit out the hook before you can set the hook but most strikes are brutal, deliberate and fish frequently grab, hold on and swim with the hook.
The fishing action is fantastic as gills go insane and smash any presentation at lightning speed. If you want to catch zillions of panfish, quickly land your limit and get enough for a fish fry, now is the time to go.
The fantastic fishing actually has little to do with a feeding frenzy. It is actually a reaction strike in response to your offering encroaching on a gill’s home turf. When panfish begin spawning chores they move to skinny water, sand flats, areas where they can fan the bottom and make depressions resembling divots on the moon.
These saucer-shaped redds are where spawning takes place and eggs and milt are deposited. Usually males are first to begin the nest and they stake out a piece of turf that becomes their bedroom where they attract and hold hens ripe with eggs. Once panfish take up residency over a bed they become very territorial, defending their home turf against any intruders. They will snap and bite at their neighbors, run off rivals, chase away bass and bite any insect, aquatic life or trespassers entering the circular nest.
Along comes a fisherman and he drops a fly on the surface above the spawning bed and the gill responds by grabbing the offering, holding it in its mouth, dashing away from the redd and spitting out the fly. The same holds true for any presentation and the fish is actually not striking to feed but as a territorial maneuver to get the intruder far from the breeding location. This is a boon for spring fishermen because fish are in skinny water, easy to spot and even easier to get strikes.
Increasing water temperature is the key to success. Bluegills move to shallow spawning areas when water temperatures hit around 64 degrees. Nests or spawning redds the size of five-gallon bucket top are made by males in water one-to-six feet deep, preferably on a sand flat or gravel bar with small stones on bottom. Males make nests by fanning relentlessly and removing sediment and exposing a shallow depression on bottom. These areas attract colonies of spawning fish and become the hot zone for fishing success. Easy limit catches hinge on how well you identify spawning colonies, locate specific bedding locations and find beds covered with active fish.
Savvy fishermen begin by using bow mounted electric motors and following the shoreline on a calm sunny day. The idea is to sneak up on a colony of spawning fish, slow your speed and cast to active gills in skinny water. At times you will spook wary fish and if you anchor the boat within casting distance the spawning fish will eventually return. Other times your best bet is to mark the location and continue scouting and locating gill hot spots.
Once you have some excellent locations pinned down, return and slowly motor into casting range and quietly drop the anchor and begin casting. Smart boaters keep the boat far enough from target fish so they do not spook them. Long distance casting can often make the difference between landing your limit or simply bumping fish off spawning sites because your boat is too close to target gills.
I cut my gill teeth shore fishing on Wixom and Sanford lakes in central Michigan. At a young age I learned how to slip along the shore wearing polarized sunglasses and spot fish in skinny water. This tactic is deadly and often more productive than casting from an anchored boat. The trick is to slow your pace, move like a fox stalking prey and ease into casting distance of fanned shallow sandy spots that appear much lighter in color than the entire lake bottom. When you hook gills try to pull them away from the colony and spook as few fish as possible. The sunglasses cut the glare on the water and you can spot more fish. Always wear clothing matching the environment, camouflage is ideal clothing for this task and avoid herky, jerky body movements that fish detect.
Whether fishing from a boat or shore you need to concentrate on your cast and try to present the hook with the least amount of splash. Done correctly the splash down of the hook makes tiny ripples on the water attracting territorial gills, gets their attention and causes them to charge and violently bite the intruder.
I recommend using clear bobbers for this style of sneaky fishing and my choice is the Rainbow Plastics A-Just-A Bubble with surgical tubing center. Insert your line through the hole in the center, pull on one end and twist the tubing to keep your hook at the desired distance from the float. Forget lead split shot that makes a loud entry ker-plunk. This is stealth casting with only a bare hook or flies on the end of your line and the idea is to have a lure entry that is very silent, non-obtrusive to skinny water fish.
The interior rubber tubing holds your line and allows you to quickly adjust the leader length depending on water depth. For most situations you need about an 18-24 inch leader. Sometimes gills are spooky and you can lengthen the leader to three-five foot and slowly reel the offering over beds and allow the hook to sink close to bottom and slowly move through the colony of beds. A-Just-A Bubble comes in two sizes, the mini is 3/16 oz. and the regular is 1/4 oz. Savvy fishermen like the clear plastic float for spooky fish. In early morning or late afternoon when it is difficult to see the float it is a good idea to use the bright yellow bobber. A-Just-A Bubble can be used with fly line, spinning or casting outfits. For extreme long distance casting you can allow water in the bobber by pulling out the tubing head and letting lake water in the float for added weight.
The hottest fishing occurs in southern Michigan in late April and northern lakes have peak spawning in May through early June. If cold fronts arrive and push water temperatures below 65 degrees the spawn will be delayed. But a warm front with sunny warm weather causes water temperatures to suddenly rise and gills go on a spawning spree. Females charge to beds once eggs are ripe. Eggs are scattered on the bed by females and suitor males fertilize them. Eggs hatch in three to five days depending on water temperature and after hatching males remain on or near beds for several days to protect young.
Savvy gill chasers wear polarized sunglasses which cut the sun’s glare and allow fishermen to better see their quarry. Locating targets is easy because they are busy chasing each other, making surface ripples and splashing in shallow water. However, waves caused by wind, rain or cloudy conditions can camouflage colonies of gills and polarized sunglasses are a must.
I love catching gills on fly tackle and my tackle of choice is a simple Zebco closed face Model 33 spinning reel. I still use flies but place a cone-shaped A-Just-A Bubble float on the line two-feet above the offering to give it enough weight for long distance casting. I like to use a super tiny ant size barrel swivel made by Blackbird Tackle below the bobber and attach a two-foot leader of four-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon. The bobber is used for long casts, the barrel swivel keeps the leader from twisting after catching hundreds of fish and the leader material is almost impossible for fish to see.
Sure flies produce results but I catch far more fish on a plain brass hook. Not just any hook but one with baitholder barbs to hold a wax worm in position. My hottest hook is a style 181 Eagle Claw barbed hook size #8 tipped with a wax worm. In skinny water no weight is needed and the single hook has enough weight to make the waxie sink and slowly drift toward bottom. Simply cast to the beds, allow the waxie to sink down and keep a close eye on the bobber. If it jerks backward it is signaling a strike, set the hook.
Sight fishing panfish is fantastic fishing fun and there is never a dull moment. There is something powerfully addictive about watching fish rush to your presentation and inhale the hook. You will feel your pulse quicken as fish charge your offering and in most Michigan clear water lakes you actually get to see fish grab the hook.
If gills are splashing the surface, going bonkers near the surface, use a spider fly. Slowly chug the fly and make the rubber legs wiggle, move, swim on the surface and the action will attract fish. Another trick is using custom tied brim flies with striped legs, black eyes and they look like a tiny surface fly or bug. In early morning I use the bright chartreuse fly with black striped legs. During mid-day I opt for the black shiny model or original brim deep brown.
I tip the fly with a waxie and allow the offering to slowly sink to determine the active bite zone. Sometimes gills want it touching the surface, other days they smack the tiny offering half way to bottom. Often gills will hold tight to bottom near beds and one deadly strategy is to let the fly sink to bottom using a three to five foot leader and slowly pull and stop the offering near spawning areas or around weeds, rocks, stumps, logs or bottom structure.
If gills in your area were on beds but a cold spell cooled water temperature and spawners disappeared, work the drop off region close to beds. Often fish will back off to six-to-10 foot depths and reposition not far from spawning locations. Weather in Michigan is ever changing and it is not uncommon for fish to move into the shallows and back out when cold temperatures cool local waters. While southern Michigan fish often are finished spawning in early May it is not unusual for northern fish to continue spawning chores throughout the month of June.
The daily possession limit is now 25 bluegills and once you hit that magic number you must stop fishing by Michigan law. Even catch and release fishermen must stop fishing at 25…you cannot sort through smaller gills to get your limit of 25 bigger keepers.
Wise fishermen use selective harvest when hammering gills. Sure, big fish are impressive but conservationists understand the need to protect future populations by releasing those big 10-inchers and allowing them to spawn while harvesting the smaller eater size. It is my opinion that over the last decade we are unfortunately losing stocks of top-end spawning panfish to angler harvest. Moreover, the destruction of big gills in a particular lake can only take one fishing season. Keep in mind healthy gill populations contain an abundance of spawning fish over 9 inches. It sure is fun to hammer panfish when they are in skinny water, schooled for the spawn and extremely vulnerable. But do yourself a favor, don’t get piggish and let those big slabs go, release them unharmed.
Bluegills are prolific in Michigan and found in most lakes, ponds, reservoirs, rivers and streams. They begin spawning chores at two-years-old. Larger females contain more eggs than smaller fish and a 10-inch trophy fish produces around 25,000 eggs. Smart fishermen release large females and allow them to spawn. Big hens can live from six to eight years.
Bluegills are the ideal fish to recruit new fishermen. They are scrappy fighters and fun to catch on light tackle. Kids love catching them and they provide fun filled adventure for the whole family. Fishing from an anchored boat with crickets, worms, spikes, mousies or wigglers is very popular.
Try a run-n-gun strategy and use a bow mounted electric motor to position within casting distance of spawning locations. Once you have taken a few fish use the electric motor to stealthfully find new fish. It is exciting to silently sneak up on a large colony of gills swirling in shallow water. Just the sight of big adult fish in skinny water can get your heart pumping.