As we eased the boat into the shallows, we immediately noticed dozens of bluegills swirling in circles, protecting their beds. Zach Darwin made the first accurate cast and quickly announced Fish On! Soon a feisty male with brilliant orange and blue colors came to the boat, and I clicked the hand counter to record our first fish. I hit Spot Lock on the bow mounted electric motor to hold the boat in an easy casting position and made a flip cast to several big ’gills. Pow! I had an instantaneous strike and soon lifted the prize, unhooked the beauty, and hit the counter.
It was a warm May day with overcast skies, calm water, and warm spring rain dappled the water surface. The hundreds of active ’gills swirling in shallow water provided a fishing extravaganza as they slashed at every presentation and provided non-stop fishing excitement. Soon our counter read 25 fish each, and we stowed rods, iced down the catch, and headed for the cleaning table.
This kind of fishing excitement is available on Michigan waterways across the entire state. Perhaps the hottest panfishing of the entire year and limit catches come easy and tasty fillets in the frying pan make outings even more worthwhile. However, most Michigan anglers miss the prime ’gill bite because they don’t understand the species and deadly fishing tactics that guarantee results. If you want more and bigger ’gills in 2021, listen up. I’ve got good news and hot strategies that will turn boring outings into fish-catching frenzies.
The trick to unbelievable bluegill fishing fun beyond your wildest imagination hinges on timing. Go too early, and fish are still deep, too late, and the majority have finished spawning chores and disappeared. The trick to monumental bluegill action hinges on timing and understanding the species. First, go in May. Sure, southern Michigan lakes have great panfish action a tad earlier than northern locations, but the second half of May is prime time.
My mentor, Stan Lievense, taught me that bluegills began to move shallow when water temperatures hit the 60-degree mark. The migration begins when males move onto spawning locations and begin fanning, digging out saucer-shaped depressions. Ideal water temperature that draws them shallow is around 64 degrees. Early fish tend to congregate on sand bars on the north side of lakes facing south, where sunlight penetrates and warms the skinny water.
Calm water, bright sun, warm air, warm spring rain all contribute to the warming lake water trend drawing zillions of ’gills from deep water lairs to the shallows. Females arrive when water temperatures reach 65-70 degrees. Most spawning takes place in less than three feet of water, although I’ve seen big ’gills dig out huge beds on the east end of Lake Cadillac in 4-6 feet of water. My guess for the best bluegill days for 2021 would be now until the end of May. Hopefully, Memorial Day will be highlighted by family boating, opening up cottages, outside barbecues, and beach fires, along with superb bluegill fishing.
The secret to fantastic fishing hinges on your ability to locate fish in spawning lockdown, circling beds, fanning, fighting off other fish, and congregating in relatively small areas. Spawning ’gills stick close to beds and dash out and smack any presentation entering their core spawning location. Hefty catches are guaranteed to those who master the art of accurate casting and can place presentations in the spawning bull’s eye, which is about the size of a washtub.
If air temperatures cool or if we have constant overcast weather highlighted by cold rain, it can cause water temperatures to fall, and ’gills will move off beds and sulk in deeper water. Cooling water temperatures and brisk weather conditions can extend the spawn for several weeks. Two years ago, the bite was off the hook fantastic all May through Father’s Day in June into early July. But last year, the weather shifted from heavy rain to super-hot days, and just when the bite was going strong, the water got too hot, algae bloomed, and the bite was destroyed at lightning speed.
Fast warming water can quickly draw droves of breeding-crazed ’gills to shallow spawning areas, and sand bars soon become congested with aggressive males seeking female companionship. Males aggressively defend their spawning territory and smack just about any presentation; worms, flies, poppers, spinners, or any live bait on a bare hook and tiny jigs tipped with bait. This is not a feeding frenzy but an aggressive instinctual strike commonly associated with territorial protection.
Finding fish is easy. Walk the shore or motor along the beach using polarized sunglasses to spot beds and fish. Concentrate on super skinny water one to three feet deep and use an electric motor or stalk along shore and sneak up on target areas. Gills love to spawn on sand bars, around pebbles, reeds, docks, sunken brush, or logs and seldom are found where the bottom substrate is dark in color, mud layered, or soft muck. Cottages with docks and sandy beaches provide ideal spawning habitats for gills. Fish frequently return to exact locations where you have found them on past fishing outings unless the bottom structure has changed. Once you nail down a hot spot, it is easy to determine if the bite is hot by simply checking pinpointed locations regularly.
My favorite sunglasses are Special Ops HD Vision with wrap-around lens to keep the sun from filtering into your eye and anti-reflective polarized technology. They are designed by the military for any active lifestyle and have high definition with superior color, clarity and definition, and UV 400 protection. The scratch-resistant lens can survive harsh fishing conditions, and the light filtering technology helps you spot fish with ease.
Years ago, I set a new IGFA (International Gamefish Association) 2-pound line class World Record by catching a two-pound, two-ounce monster ’gill. Back then, Berkley issued $1000 checks for anyone catching record fish using their line. I cashed eight checks in less than two years for catching record king salmon, brown trout, walleye, whitefish, smallmouth bass, Coho salmon, steelhead, and bluegill. While the king salmon weighed almost 29 pounds, the small bluegill was my favorite catch. The truth is, I got permission on a private stocked lake having a reputation for monster ’gills. Then waited until the May spawn and stalked along the bank with rod in hand, followed by my sweetheart. Soon I spotted two huge ’gills in the shallows, dropped a spider fly on the redd, and ‘Pow’ hooked the largest gill of my life. The Dick Swan custom rod did its job, and soon I beached the monster. We rushed to a food store with certified scales, and Deb signed as a witness, and the 13-incher became a record on Trilene two-pound.
Today I often use spider flies but prefer six-pound fluorocarbon leader because it is strong and lays straight on the water, helping with maximum hook-ups. I love good ol’ Zebco 33 spinning reels for ’gilling because the line seldom tangles, you can cast long distances, and fishing family and friends can use the spinning gear with ease.
If you want more and bigger ’gills, here’s my advice. First, learn tactics that are deadly for skinny water panfish. Second, get rid of heavy line and forget pencil bobbers, split shot, and heavy hooks. The trick to fantastic ’gill fishing hinges on how accurately you can cast. I recommend an eight-pound main line attached to a Blackbird itsy barrel swivel with a two-foot, six-pound fluorocarbon leader. Above the barrel, use an A-Just-A Bubble floating bobber. The bobber is cone-shaped, and when you drag it through the water, it makes a natural V-shaped ripple that attracts fish to the trailing hook. The A-Just-A-Bubble can be set any distance from your hook. When fish are in 18 inches of water, there is no need for a long lead and forget split shot. Here’s why.
Noisy round red/white bobbers spook fish and split shot force the hook toward the bottom. The trick to non-stop ’gilling action is to use a slow sinking presentation, the slower, the better. Gills see the hook tipped with waxworm hit the water, and they charge the bait. They frequently smash the hook immediately, but many let the bait slowly sink and suck up the rig when it touches the bed. Sometimes you need a longer lead when fish are holding in three feet or deeper water. The majority of my May ’gilling is done in less than three feet of water.
Forget about big crawlers, large hooks, and swivels attached to your line. This is finesse fishing at its finest. My presentations are simple, small, and very effective. My best presentation is a bare hook with no weight, size #8 eagle Claw style 181 barbed bronze hook used to give waxworms a natural look, slow wiggling fall that guarantees strikes. Another deadly presentation is a brim fly complete with legs colored black, chartreuse, or brown and tipped with a waxie. If fish keep breaking water, I use a spider fly, usually black with long legs that wiggle and move, send out vibrations that attract savage strikes. Each day is different, and you need to experiment with slow fall presentations to hit on the hot combination. Some days you get hit every time the bait touches the water. Other days fish charge the presentation, slam on the brakes, follow the falling bait until it touches their bed, and then they smash the hook.
Once I’ve taken a few fish from a given location, I move along the shore and locate a new casting spot. You know the gig; different places provide different faces, and soon your live well is stuffed with aggressive ’gills. Boat control is paramount, ideal boat position is essential if you want to be in accurate casting distance. Some days wind will take you out, blow you off your drift, make it difficult to spot and catch fish. The solution is to move to the opposite shore, search for new water and find new locations full of eager biters.
Some folks like to scale panfish. I prefer to use a flexible grapefruit knife with a thin sharp blade, and I fillet gills, remove the skin and have boneless, skinless, scaleless fresh white meat. I know butter is bad for your health, but I prefer to roll ’gill fillets in Andy’s yellow seasoning and pan fry golden brown. The sweet taste of fresh ’gills is fantastic, but the trick to tasty fish hinges on how fast you chill the flesh. I often keep fish lively in the aerated live well, and at the end of the trip, I place them on ice, pronto. Dead fish should be iced immediately, and forget those wire baskets that bake your fish in warm water, making them taste like river mud.
Keep in mind Michigan law limits your possession to 25 panfish per angler. That includes ’gills, crappie, sunfish, and red eye, in any combination. Never have more than 25 per person in your possession, at any time, period. You cannot practice catch and release after catching your limit. Don’t be like my fishing pal who would fish for hours, then count his catch and toss any fish over-limit back before quitting for the day. One day the CO jumped in his boat and found he was 10 fish over the limit. He paid $175 per bluegill, that’s $1,750, and he lost his fishing license for two years. Tough on a retired 83-year-old angler who utilized his catch for a church fish fry! You can avoid this embarrassment by using a hand tally counter and constantly keep track of your catch, then recount before leaving the water.
Hit the water when ’gills are crushing the shallows, actively spawning, and protecting their turf by smacking just about any presentation, and you are guaranteed some fantastic fishing fun. The great thing about ’gills is when the bite is hot, it is borderline insane fishing fun, and you can do it from shore, riverbank, pontoon boat, boat, kayak, canoe, or wading; from sunrise until dark. Some of the best fishing occurs during midday in calm, sunny weather when it’s best to spot fish and the sun’s rays increase water temperature causing a bluegill frenzy.