It’s always assumed that a big fish is better than a small fish, it seems. It’s surprising, then, how popular a fish named after its tendency to stay smaller than a frying pan (“panfish”) can be, both among those who fish “conventional” methods and fly anglers. True, some do lose that desire to pursue the smaller fish, in search of “the big boys”. For the rest of us, we recognize the unique perks that these fish provide and never get tired of it. Sunfish, including bluegills/bream in particular, are almost always available from north to south, are beautifully colored, abundant, and great fighters for their diminutive size. In warm conditions, these fish can be almost impossible to keep off of your fly. However, a few guidelines for changing conditions can help you have consistent success, fly fishing for bluegill and the various other species of sunfish.
FLY FISHING FOR BLUEGILL: THE MOST CONSISTENT TECHNIQUES
It’s never helpful to make broad generalizations about a species as wide-spread as bluegills and other sunfish, since they will adapt to their own unique watery environment. My experience fly fishing for bluegill has normally been in water ten feet and shallower, in both the Western and Eastern U.S. I just don’t fish for bluegills 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 vegetation or brush piles etc. They can be found in some more open water environments at times in the seasonal cycle, but spring to fall, you almost always find tons of bluegills 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.
In water temperatures from 60 degrees and above, the most versatile technique is underwater 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 beds, particularly if you’re fishing in early summer. As far as presentation goes, really, an intermediate line is all you need unless you’re fishing specific hatches like damsels and certain midge hatches, for which I use floating lines. Floating lines can also be used with flies that will sink without a sinking line. The horizontal orientation of the fly retrieve is quite natural for bluegills, since they have excellent eyesight and often prefer that horizontal orientation. As far as leaders and tippets, the larger diameter, the slower the fly will sink. I fish usually 3x – 5x, but let your presentation guide you. 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, see below.
As boring as it sounds, a smallish woolly bugger in sizes 10-12 is absolutely deadly, particularly if the fish are consistently between 8-10 inches. I like these because they hover in the water column and undulate, but I can give them a slight twitch and put some motion in them to trigger the bite, although I will fish weighted flies at close distances usually in ponds. I don’t retrieve particularly fast with bluegill and sunfish, since I want the fly in their face provoking them. I will, however, give a very deliberate retrieve with smaller nymphs and specifically damsels, which is my go to retrieve when I’m fishing slow and small for trout. Little nymphs with tiny rubber legs, articulated damsels, prince nymphs, micro buggers, red-fox squirrel nymphs, and soft hackles are killer on bluegills. Make sure to adjust your size to the size of the fish you are after. If you’re with the kids and want to catch a whole bunch of smaller fish and can’t hook them on the “bigger” stuff, then switch to imitations with smaller hooks. Finally, midge patterns and other small nymphs can be fished as a dropper, specifically see below.
There are times, however, particularly after a drop in water temperature or when the water temperature is low to begin with, when bluegills 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 bluegills 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 bluegills 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.
When bluegills 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 bluegills and 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 bluegills. 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 series applies quite well to sluggish bluegills.
Flies for me have three characteristics when bluegills get sluggish. 1) Smaller in size. Bluegills have amazing eyesight, and even in warm water, an entire school will follow your fly maybe taking a little shot at it from time to time. This is particularly true when the fish get fished to a bit as in smaller ponds. Make it easy for the fish to get the fly in its mouth with a smaller pattern. Also, use an imitation that fits primarily on the hook if possible, since the fish might short strike the fly. 2) Suspending or with a slow fall. Hardcore general tackle anglers have the ability to use heavier weight to get their pattern down to the fish and then get a tight line on the jig and move it slowly even with this heavier weight. Fly anglers, however, by and large need to have patterns that resist the water and thus drop very slowly or even suspend. Using nylon monofilament and/or patterns that have little weight will help your flies to just hover, giving the bluegill enough time to suck in your imitation. 3) The fly needs to have materials with inherent movement. Little hackle, tiny rubber legs, marabou, ostrich herl, craft fur etc. all allow your fly to move subtly to entice a bluegill, even when the fly suspends. Finally, in certain situations, you may fish a nymph off of a dry fly or with a greased leader technique etc. In this case, a solid profile is important for your fly, particularly when imitating midges. You can also fish a small pattern on a Czech nymph hook or a tiny jig hook with a non-slip mono loop knot to give your fly the horizontal orientation even when fished off of a dry fly. I also use those materials with inherent movement with these patterns as well.
FLY FISHING FOR BLUEGILL: TOPWATER
When bluegills are relatively shallow and the water temperature is up, above 60 degrees, bluegills will destroy topwater imitations. When the fish are on the edge of activity or there’s a specific hatch, you can fish specific imitations, for example, damsel adults, mayflies, and terrestrials like ants. Attractor dries like Chernobyl Ants 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 these fish are really on poppers. You can use a variety of poppers, but the BoogleBug is about as sure a thing as there is for bluegills 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 always know that they’re there. They are not, however, always destroying poppers at a clip of 100 fish per day. They definitely have their own nuance and adaptive strengths. 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 fisherman who have caught 9 inch bluegills 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!