Fly fishing for bluegill might seem boring for some. We often assume that a big fish is better than a small fish. It’s surprising, then, how popular bluegill are with both conventional tackle and fly anglers. We recognize the unique perks that these fish provide and rarely get tired of them.
Sunfish, including bluegill/bream in particular, are almost always available from north to south, are beautifully colored, abundant, and great fighters for their small size. In warm conditions, these fish can be almost impossible to keep off of your fly. However, a few guidelines can help you have consistent success, fly fishing for bluegill and the various other species of sunfish.
Bluegill are first and foremost a social species. You will pretty much always find them in groups. This is because they are always a prey species, no matter how big they get. Find one bluegill, and you’ll find a bunch more. In fact, you will probably find other sunfish species as well with them. They will regularly interbreed with these sunfish as well, showing just how social they are.
A bluegill’s social nature also makes it competitive. You snooze, and you lose with bluegill. If one of the school doesn’t eat something, another ten will go after it. Bluegill competition is good for the fly antler.
Bluegill are voracious. They will eat anything that swims if they can get it in their mouth. I have been absolutely blown away by the flies they’ve fit into their mouth, which is not very big I might add. Because of their nature, your flies and presentation can reflect lots of different prey species.
Bluegill are a versatile feeder as well. They will eat at any level of the water column, and eat extremely well throughout the year, even during the winter, as they are a favorite of ice anglers.
Like all sunfish/bass species, bluegill spawn in the spring. The males create a nest and spawn with the females of the species. Then the males will protect the nest until the little bluegill are able to move into the shallows where they will live until they are around three to five inches, when they can begin to spawn. They will then become more adventurous in their movements throughout the body of water.
BLUEGILL FEEDING HABITS
Bluegill use ram-suction to feed. That means that they can slurp stuff off the bottom or suspended, and they can ram into a larger prey item to gulp it down. Because of this, bluegill feed at all levels of the water column and for really anything they can get in their mouth.
Bluegill are not as adept at catching minnow species like a smallmouth bass for example. They can normally find a large variety of smaller crustaceans, eggs, zooplankton, and insects. Fish fry are also fair game.
Bluegill are very opportunistic and will eat basically anything that they can get in their mouth. Water temperature will determine what and how aggressively the bluegill are eating. They are also incredibly curious and prone to feed with excellent eyesight. In other words, the perfect fish for flies.
My experience fly fishing for bluegill has normally been in water ten feet and shallower, from the Western to Eastern U.S. I just don’t fish for bluegill and sunfish in water that is twenty feet deep unless I’m fishing vegetation or steep inclines right next to this depth of water, so for me, bluegill are synonymous with cover.
They can be found in open-water environments at times in the seasonal cycle, but spring to fall, you almost always find tons of bluegill in vegetation and cover. Besides this generalization, invertebrate and zooplankton activity will determine where you find the fish as long as there is enough oxygen present for them to stay relatively shallow.
The best bluegill water that I have ever seen is normally shallow lakes and larger ponds. These normally have lots of reeds/cattails and have enormous amounts of food. Bluegill are very adaptive, though, and can be found in most types of water. Normally, they do not like current, like smallmouth bass do. In fact, you’ll normally find a few bluegill in slow sections of smallmouth bass rivers.
Because bluegill are smaller fish, they feed on lots of invertebrates. That means that virtually every fly that imitates a bug will work on bluegill. Imitative fly patterns with rubber legs, hackle, marabou, etc., are deadly on bluegill. For more in-depth information on bluegill flies see this article.
BLUEGILL FLY FISHING EQUIPMENT
BLUEGILL FLY REELS
Absolutely any fly reel will work on bluegill. In fact, I’m not even sure I’ve ever used my reel to land a bluegill. Use anything to hold your line, and hit the water.
BLUEGILL FLY RODS
Because bluegill are almost always in ponds and lakes, I prefer a standard 9 foot rod, or around there. If you’re casting close, you can get away with a shorter rod, but even here, a longer rod allows you to dap flies easier. As to fly rod weight, a 3wt to a 5wt is perfect. If you’re on a larger body of water with cover and big bluegill, go with a 5wt.
BLUEGILL FLY LINES
You can get away with 2 fly lines total for bluegill: a floating line and a clear intermediate. Use the floating line for most applications near the surface or with dries/poppers, and use the clear floating line for times when you want to fish a little deeper/slower with submerged retrieves.
Simplicity is the theme, and we don’t stop with bluegill tippets and leaders. For materials, use nylon or fluorocarbon. For the most part, it makes no difference at all. For dries and poppers, you may want to go with nylon monofilament since it floats easier than fluorocarbon.
Leaders should be 6 to 10 feet in length. For floating lines, go shorter if you are casting very close, and if you’re casting out into the open water you can increase the length of your leader. For a clear intermediate, go with a 6- or 7-foot leader. You can use a knotless commercial leader for the most part, or tie your own if you like to do this.
Tippets should match the leader, and in most cases, you’ll only use them to maintain leader length or to fish two flies. 4x to 3x is perfect for the majority of flies and situations you’ll find yourself in when going after bluegill. If you fish some bigger topwater flies, you can bump up to 2x, so your line doesn’t twist. You can even go to 5x if you are fishing super small flies for some reason.
BLUEGILL FLY FISHING PRESENTATIONS
Presentations for bluegill are normally not super complex. However, the more skilled you are at stillwater fly fishing, the more consistently you’ll catch lots of big bluegill.
MOST VERSATILE BLUEGILL FLY FISHING PRESENTATION
The most versatile technique for bluegill is subsurface presentations. Retrieving your fly along weed beds and the outsides of reeds, etc., is the prime place to begin. You can also find fish in vast labyrinths of weeds, tucked back in the open pockets. At times you can’t even see these pockets because they will become grown over with weeds, particularly later in the year.
If you are not finding fish in the shallows within 100 feet of the shore, then try the first large bunch of weeds or brush adjacent from prime locations on the shore. A good way to find these locations is to locate the old spawning beds, particularly if you’re fishing in early summer.
As far as presentation goes, use your intermediate line unless you’re fishing specific hatches like damsels, certain midge hatches, or small ponds. In this case, you can use floating lines. Floating lines can also be used with flies that will sink without a sinking line, like beadheads.
The horizontal orientation of the fly retrieve is quite natural for bluegill, since they have excellent eyesight and often prefer that horizontal orientation.
If you have electronics, you can locate fish, otherwise just cover water near vegetation/cover and stop when you find activity. In ponds, this is almost anywhere.
The other main method is to fish a dropper, but I do this only if I need to plop my fly into small open areas in weed beds or if the fish are sluggish or I’m sight fishing to a lot of fish.
SLUGGISH BLUEGILL ON THE FLY
There are times, particularly after a drop in water temperature or when the water temperature is low to begin with, when bluegill are lethargic and will absolutely not eat anything unless you adjust.
I remember a trip to an amazing bluegill fishery with tons of nine-to-ten-inch bluegill and the occasional fish approaching eleven. I brought along my buddy and his dad, who didn’t fly fish, since in late May hundred-fish days of trophy bluegill per person were expected.
A recent storm had dropped the water temp, and we had to adjust in both location and technique. I ended up catching around thirty on flies, my friend’s dad caught around six on bait, and my buddy, a very competent fly angler, caught zero! The difference between us was presentation speed.
When bluegill get sluggish, the first step, as with all fish, is to locate them. As said above, if you are not finding fish in the shallows, try to find adjacent deeper water with structure, particularly more vegetation or brush piles. Humps and flats can also produce fish depending on the invertebrates that are active. In many ponds, you can reach most parts of it, so try deeper water with weed beds, but in many cases, you don’t have to worry about locating fish, since it’s small enough to have fish in most spots. This all depends on the size of the pond, though.
When you’ve located fish, it is critical that you slow down your presentation. As pointed out, the inherent horizontal presentation of the fly rod allows your fly to sit in a more natural position, and this is great for sluggish bluegill and other sunfish.
Your presentation must be super slow in many cases, so slow, that your fly will hover in one place, with the movement of your materials enticing the fish. Very tiny strips are a way to get the fish’s attention, but pauses often produce a large amount of the takes.
This requires a practiced ability to recognize the very elastic-feeling take of bluegill. You must have constant contact with your fly to feel these subtle takes. I will anchor and cast with the wind, so that I am retrieving into the wind in order to feel these takes. The advice found in this article applies quite well to sluggish bluegill.
FLY FISHING FOR BLUEGILL: TOPWATER
When bluegill are relatively shallow and the water temperature is up, above 60 degrees, bluegill will destroy topwater imitations. When there’s a specific hatch, you can fish specific imitations, for example, damsel adults, mayflies, and terrestrials like ants.
Attractor dries like Chernobyl Ants, smaller Mr. Peanut Hoppers, and Humpies will take fish all day long. However, poppers are what most anglers really enjoy when going after these fish, and it’s a ton of fun when bluegill are really on poppers.
You can use a variety of poppers, but the BoogleBug is about as sure a bet as there is for bluegill and sunfish. Yellow, blue, black, and white are all super effective. Fish these along the weed patches, in open pockets, and through cover when the water temp’s up, and you won’t be disappointed.
Bluegill and sunfish are sometimes neglected because we take them for granted. They do not, however, always destroy poppers at a clip of 100 fish per day. They definitely have their own nuance and adaptive strengths.
BLUEGILL FLY FISHING STILL SO MUCH FUN!
They are a very special fish for many of us and provide a great opportunity for testing flies and techniques, introducing kids to fishing, and just having a blast catching a lot of fish. I have been guilty of taking them for granted, but I never get tired of their beauty and tenacious attitude. Many bass anglers who have caught nine-inch bluegill on a monster bass lure can attest to that. Maybe they are small enough to fit in a pan, but hey, they’re not going there willingly!