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Catching bluegill and other species of sunfish is an enjoyable and
productive self sufficiency skill that anyone can learn. What these
little fish don't have in size, they more than make up for in quantity,
aggressiveness, and flavor!
If you're willing to learn a bit about their habits and haunts, you can keep your freezer well stocked with enough fresh fish to keep your family eating year round.
The family of panfish that include Bluegill, also includes quite a few other species that are native or have been introduced in most bodies of water across the US. In addition to bluegill, some of the more common ones are Redear (shellcracker), Pumpkinseed, Redbreast, Warmouth (Goggle Eye), Longear, and Green Sunfish.
In the southern US you'll hear folks talking about catching sunfish or catching bream or perch - they're all the same thing - just different regional names. Scientifically they all belong to the genus Lepomis.
They are all fun to catch and put up a fight that you wouldn't expect for such a small fish. They are also in my opinion, one of the best fish for eating there is. The flavor is mild, and the meat is white and flaky. There's nothing better!
Bluegill and other sunfish can be found in practically any permanent body of water, from small farm and city park ponds, to some of the largest reservoirs in North America, even in the great lakes. They can also be found in slow moving creeks, streams, rivers and bayous.
I have 3 local lakes that I fish regularly, one of which I consider my "home lake". I've made it a point to learn as much as I could about these lakes.
Details like: depth, contour of the bottom, and structure (like old creek channels, submerged stumps and stick-ups, humps, sandy shallows, weed beds and deep flats), are all important at certain times of the year. The more you know about your home body of water, the more successful you will be in putting fish in your freezer.
Fish really have five seasons during the year - the same four that we experience -spring, summer, fall, and winter. Their fifth season is spawning time, which for bluegill is the month or so that transitions between spring and summer. Here in Southern Indiana that's usually May.
Spring bluegill are HUNGRY. They've been fairly inactive all winter, waiting on warmer weather, and increased food. They have to rebuild their body mass and strength that they lost over the winter, plus build energy for spawning. Females for making eggs, and males for building and guarding their nests.
I've found that you can catch spring bluegill feeding over open mud flats in relatively deep water. My favorite lake is 15 feet at it's deepest, and spring bluegill can be found in the range of 10 feet of water.
Slow fishing with live baits like crickets or earthworms will get the Job done. Use light line with small swivels and hooks. I don't like to use weights, but on a windy day a weighted hook can help.
Cast as far as you can, and let the bait drift slowly and naturally to the bottom, then use a very slow retrieve to assure that the bait stays on on near the bottom. Strikes this early in the year often start as a series of light rapid taps.
If you feel a tap on the bait, stop reeling and wait for the strike. If after about 30 seconds you don't get a hit, start your slow retrieve again. A couple of really warm days can get the fish to move into the shallow sun warmed water to feed there, but usually fish stay relatively deep this time of year. A morning of fishing like this can easily yield 25 to 50 fish.
Spawning time is when you can REALLY stock up your fish stores. Bluegill nest in colonies in shallow water. Colonies of nesting bluegill can be as small as a handful of nests, or can number in the hundreds. Catching bluegill at this time can be incredibly easy, even for the most inexperienced of anglers.
Shallow sandy bottoms, and moderately weedy shallows, and shallows under overhanging trees are ideal places to find spawning bluegill. In open water look for groupings of nearly perfectly round craters roughly a foot across dug into the bottom.
I've heard people refer to these craters as looking like elephant tracks. Bluegill will build nests in water as shallow as 6 inches to as deep as 6 feet. Each crater is a nest, and each nest is protected by an aggressive male that will strike anything that falls into his nest or moves across his territory.
Spawning sites in weedy bottoms are harder to locate, but can be just a productive once you do. Look for swirling water in very shallow weeds. The aggressive males will fight and chase one another to protect their nests. This activity can be your clue to finding these nest sites, as the actual nests may be hidden by the weeds.
Catching bluegill like this can be fast and furious. In early spring fishing, I'll often fish with two poles, but during spawn - forget it. When you find a spawning site be ready for some fun.
Normally, you will get a strike almost as soon as your bait hits the water, and how many fish you take home can often be limited only to how many you're willing to clean.
Keep a close watch on your numbers. It's easy to get excited, loose count, and wind up with more fish than you really want to clean. My biggest single day haul was 135 bluegill all in the 8-10 inch range. It was loads of fun, but it took a LONG TIME to fillet them all.
As a general rule, nearly all of the fish you catch from spawning sites will be males guarding nests. Females come into shallows just long enough to deposit their eggs into a male's nest and head back out to deeper water.
Females can be caught more readily around the edges of a spawning site, generally towards deeper water, but never in the same numbers as males. Some people worry about taking so many fish from a spawning site, but for every male that has a nest, there are probably ten more waiting in the wings to take over any abandoned nests.
After spawning is complete, Bluegill will move back out to deeper water. The larger fish will hang around the deep water side of weed beds, and the real monsters will hang around in even deeper water on structure like submerged stumps and brush piles. I fish for numbers not size, so I'll fish the edges of the weed beds with live baits like crickets and earthworms.
You can fish with small bobbers to see strikes, or fish by "feel" without a bobber, similar to what I described above for spring fishing. The advantage of using a bobber is that you have a bit more ballast which will allow you to cast further, and you can see strikes when they occur. The disadvantage is that you can only fish at one depth per cast.
A small hook and swivel on a light line (4-6 pound test) is my preferred method. Cast to the edge of the weed line, and allow the bait to fall slowly along the front of the weed edge. Bluegill will dart out and grab your bait with little reservations, and lots of gusto.
They'll SLAM it and all you have to do is set the hook and reel them in. It's no where as crazy as fishing the spawn, but it can still get pretty hectic at times. The best summer bluegill fishing can be found during the couple of hours after daylight, and couple of hours before dark. They don't stop feeding during the rest of the day, they just slow down.
By early fall, Bluegill will return to shallow waters to feed. By mid to late fall, the surface water temperature cools to the same as deeper water, and most of the aquatic plants have died back. At this point cover is becoming scarce, so they will move back to the deeper flats where they were in early spring. By late fall, bluegill have shut down active feeding for the most part, until spring.
Some hardy anglers will take advantage of extended periods of really cold weather here in Southern Indiana. After there is enough ice on the lakes and ponds, they will go ice fishing.
I don't have much experience with ice fishing, but I do know that it can be a very productive time for catching bluegill - if you know what you are doing and stay safe. Best advice is to find someone who DOES know what their doing and get them to teach you how it's done.
This Bluegill World Webpage has some good basic information about ice fishing for panfish.
Bait - as a general rule, live baits will produce more bluegill than lures. There are exceptions, but for me, I'll use live bait every time. My preferred live bait is crickets, followed by worms & night crawlers. There are many other varieties available, you just have to experiment and talk to local anglers to see what works in your area.
Gear - gear for catching bluegill doesn't have to be expensive or lots of it. Basic gear includes rod and reel, tackle (hooks, swivels, bobbers, etc), something to keep your bait in, and some way to keep your fish alive and fresh until you can clean them. Follow the link for more information on basic fishing gear
Light Watercraft - I use a canoe for catching bluegill. It allows me into get to places that can't be accessed from the bank. You can catch loads of bluegill bank fishing, but if you're really serious about putting fish in the freezer and on the table, I highly recommend having some kind of small boat like a canoe, kayak, or john boat. You can find used boats fairly inexpensively if you watch classified ads, yard sales, auctions and local bait shop bulletin boards. Even try asking around at bait shops, and boating stores.
Once you have a big mess of bluegill, what do you do with them??? There are two schools of thought regarding cleaning fish. Some folks like to cut off the heads, gut the carcass and strip off the scales then fry the whole fish. Others prefer to fillet the fish. Filleting takes a bit longer, but you wind up with two pieces of fish with no bones, skin or anything else. It makes for easier, and more enjoyable eating. And isn't that the point?
In my opinion filleting is the only way to go. With bluegill, you can pretty well tell how much meat you will have. Smaller fish in the 6-7 inch range will take about a dozen fish to make a pound of fillets. Fish in the 7-8 inch range will take about 10 fish to make a pound. 8-9 inch fish (generally as large as I catch consistently) will take roughly 8 fish to make a pound. I do catch larger bluegill and especially Redear (Shellcrackers for those of you in the deep south...), but they are few and far between.
Once you have your fish cleaned, here's the best method I've found for freezing your catch
Bluegill fillets can be fried, baked, grilled, and made into chowder. My favorite is simply breaded and fried. One of the best fish breading I have found is JR Mad's Madgic Fish Breading It's has just the right amount of spices to add some zest, but not enough to overpower the delicate flavor of the fish.
If you're serious about catching fish to feed your family, there's no better or easier choice than catching bluegill. They're an easy to find and catch and are an abundant renewable resource. The meat is tasty, healthy and easy to prepare. So, get out there and catch some fish for your family.
Most folks don't realize just how many bluegill per acre a healthy lake can support, or how many fry a single spawning pair can produce.
A single female can spawn as many as 4 times in a year, and can produce as many as 80,000 eggs per spawn.
Combine that with the fact that most small to medium sized ponds are understocked with predator fish like largemouth bass.
With the exception of VERY small ponds, it's nearly impossible to over-fish bluegill, and affect their population.
Normally bluegill are under fished, and in smaller ponds, they can become stunted as a result.
So, the lesson is don't worry about overfishing bluegill - keep as many as you care to catch and clean.