Across the Great Lakes state anglers are poised for the once a year epic fishing phenomenon to fire up. When fish are snapping, the good news about colossal fishing quickly spreads and Michigan sportsmen take to the water in boats, canoes, flat bottoms, kayaks and canoes and invade the banks of local waterways in search of limit catches. No, I’m not talking about trout or bass opener but the shallow water sport fishery for panfish, primarily bluegill. If your goal is to catch more and bigger fish this season, concentrate on the patterns of nature and hit waterways when ’gills storm the shallows. Here’s how.

As water temperatures warm up, panfish move from deep water lairs into skinny water in search of food, warm water and ideal spawning habitat. When this occurs you can count on panfish charging shallow water and patrolling shore in basically one-to-six-feet of water. This takes place in the month of May. Each spring is different and the mass migration of ’gills has everything to do with water temperature.

Last spring we had endless rain, high water and the shallows stayed relatively cold until late May. When water temps would become ideal, fish would move into shallow water only to get hit with more cold weather and rain and ’gills would disappear; which occurred last year until Father’s Day in late June. When shallow water temperatures hit 64 degrees, male ’gills move on sand bars, gravel, and slip into bays, cuts, channels and skinny water. The process begins when males search out ideal spawning habitat and begin making saucer shaped beds by fanning the bottom clean of debris.

Males are very aggressive and protective of spawning beds and will snap at just about any offering that comes into the hot zone. A hot zone is a three-foot diameter area over a spawning bed, although during the early phases of the spawn males will frequently leave redds to smack presentations a few feet from the zone. When water temperatures hit the 67 degrees, females join males and begin spawning. When water temperatures rise to 70 degrees, the activity reaches peak and spawning pairs are in full spawning mode, do not leave the bed and are busy spewing sperm and eggs. Spawning can take just a couple days when conditions are ideal but many times females will dump most of their eggs and retreat to nearby cover found in weeds. They relax, recover from spawning and eventually finish spawning chores by rejoining males who remain guarding the nests.

Sarah Darwin loves warm weather blue’gill fishing on calm seas when the action is red hot. This ’’gill slammed a chartreuse brim fly available on eBay made by Gibson. Kenny Darwin photos

If conditions are ideal, the ’gill spawn can last just a week or so but cold weather, cool rain or changing weather can prolong the spawn. In many Michigan lakes the bluegill population is large and females with ripe eggs can show in the shallows for several weeks. Some years the ’gill spawn is over by Father’s Day but last year the fish were still going nuts on northern Michigan lakes on July 4.

The fantastic fishing opportunity has little to do with feeding but is more a strike instinct or response to your hook encroaching on a bluegill’s spawning territory. When fish are staged in the shallows the fishing is simply epic, unmatched the entire year, and you will catch more and bigger panfish in short order than most anglers dreamed possible. Ideal water temperature is key to success.

My hottest bluegill fishing strategy is simple; I motor along the shore, spot, stalk and use skinny water tactics that produce monumental catches. My gear is simple: Zebco 33 push button spinning reels or Daiwa Legalis 1500 open face reels spooled with 8 pound Berkley clear monofilament for easy casting, reliable hook sets and enough abrasion strength to handle big bulls that charge into thick weeds on the hook set. I love skinny water ’gills because this style of spot, stalk and precise casting is very entertaining, never boring and I can fill the live well at lightning speed. The following anecdote best describes this point.

It was high noon when I arrived at the boat launch and the day was clear, sun high and water calm as glass. A Tracker boat was pulling out and I noticed they had rods rigged with typical panfish pencil bobbers, a couple split shot and large worm hook. “How they biting?” I asked. The captain said, “We had to work to catch a few fish,” as he tied down his craft and I looked at his large hooks and heavy weights with disdain. I launched and headed to a sandy beach found on the north end of the lake.

With bright sun to my back I lowered the Minn Kota Ultrex electric bow mounted motor and paralleled shore, soon I could see several spawning beds, hollowed out white disks in the shallows with active gills spinning in circles around the saucer shaped hot spots. I hit Spot Lock on the motor to hold my position and readied my 7 foot Shakespeare Excursion medium light spinning rod rigged with Zebco spinning reel. I had a 3/8 oz. Rainbow Plastics A-Just-A-Bubble with surgical tubing center on the line. I set the float by twisting the torpedo shaped rubber center tubing about 3 feet from a plain Mustad baitholder size #8 bronze hook. I hooked a waxworm in the nose, threaded the bait until it covered most the hook but allowed the tail to dangle and wiggle in the water to entice aggressive fish into striking.

My first cast was perfect. The bobber splashed down next to shore, I reeled slack line which caused the bobber to create a V-shaped surface wake, and soon I could see a large ’gill charging the trailing white offering. Suddenly the bobber jerked backward as a big bull male slurped the bait and swam away. On hook set the big male charged into nearby weeds and tried to pull the hook but I cranked him out, lifted him into the boat, rebaited and made a second cast. Soon as the bobber splashed down creating ripples, several ’gills turned and charged the commotion and I was fast into another. The action was remarkable, fish attacked the tiny offering every cast and I was busy putting new waxies on the hook, pressing the handheld fish counter and keeping the live well gushing with fresh water to keep fish lively. Soon the counter read 25 and I’d reached my limit at lightning speed. So can you if you follow some simple rules.

The best time to hit the water is early morning when you can be the first rod at your favorite hot spot. But after years of chasing big bulls, I prefer midday trips when the sun is bright, winds calm and I can see fish by the zillions. The trick is to use an electric trolling motor and slip along the drop off looking into skinny water for telltale signs of ’gills. Sometimes they are on beds and easy to spot at long distances, other times you simply work the one-to-six-feet of water surrounded by ideal spawning habitat.

In order to spot ’gills you gotta wear polarized sunglasses. Most bassin’ pros swear by Wavy sunglasses but I love my high definition, Special Ops polarized sunglasses that offer clear vision and polarization to eliminate glare from sun and water. The high definition technology helps me to see detail and I love the superior color, clarity and definition. But best off all is the anti-reflecting polarization technology that filters light and blocks out blinding glare and prevents eye strain when you are on the water all day. Most impressively, the glasses help me to see more fish, identify habitat, pinpoint movement, find structure and quickly identify spawn locations at long distances. This is sight fishing at its finest, a virtual piscatorial show complete with aggressive fish biting like starving great white sharks. For this extra exciting style of fishing your luck depends on your ability to spot target fish.

The hottest tip going for shallow ’gills is to use small presentations with absolutely no weight. The trick is to use a bobber that provides enough heft for long casting and small hooks that slowly sink in ’gill heaven. This required use of no split shot between torpedo bobber and the hook. I prefer to eliminate line twist by using an extra small ant size Blackbird barrel swivel attached to a one-to-three-foot fluorocarbon leader. In super clear water try two-pound test, but when the bite is crankin’ stick with six-pound leader. If ’gills are cranked up, smashing every presentation non-stop, I frequently use eight-pound Maxima Ultragreen. I’m sold on plain hooks but also enjoy using surface foam spiders that float and can be jerked to mimic wild water spiders and attract strikes.

I’ve had outstanding luck using hand tied brim flies sold on eBay. Some of my best flies are Gibson Brim Killers, Mylar Minnows, Rubber Leg Crickets and Boss Bluegill flies with bug eyes. Hot colors include black, chartreuse, brown and white.

Chasing spring ’gills is a blast and time flies when you are spotting, stalking and casting nonstop. Often success hinges on your ability to make accurate long distance casts. Anglers who can place the hook directly on active fish and allow the offering to slowly sink in the strike zone will catch more and bigger fish. Sometimes you can get kissin’ close without spooking gills and catch plenty by simply flippin’ the bug, fly or plain hook with waxie and keep the presentation in their face.

It’s exciting to see the strike, set the hook and fight big ’gills. Many times you will miss hooking fish because they grab the offering, dash to the edge of the bed and spit out the hook at lightning speed. Some ’gills are smart about grabbing and spitting with ease and often you will go through a couple waxies before you hook them. Most are lip hooked but a pair of hemostat pliers is standard ’gilling tackle to remove hooks that are deep.

Keep in mind to practice wise conservation when fishing beds. ’Gills are in a rather precarious position when they are stacked in skinny water, snapping at any presentation. Respect the resource, keep only your limit and make certain you know exactly how many are in the live well by using a handheld counter with clicker and count each fish you keep. Never go to the boat launch without recounting your catch. The fine from the DNR is $150 per ’gill over your limit and loss of fishing license for one-to-three years. Savvy anglers hand-count the catch and place fish in a small cooler full of ice. The trick to tasty gills is keeping the meat ice cold from lake to fry pan. Discourage those who overharvest.

Fishing ’gills provides top notch fast paced action that provides memorable outdoor experiences. Some of my greatest days on water are ’gilling with family and friends. Catching slab ’gills brings out the best in you and your companions. Together you share the water resources, great outdoors and the
tiny diminutive ’gill provides a unique exciting brand of adrenaline that binds family and friends together.