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Bluegills offer sizzling spring, summer action

5/16/2006

One warm, summer afternoon many years ago, a young boy stepped into a plywood boat and went fishing with his dad, his granddad and a supply of catawba worms.

Before the afternoon had run its course, that young lad — yours truly — had not only hooked a pile of bluegills for his granny's frying pan, he had been snared hook, line and sinker by the fishing adventure that can be found the world over.

Such is the power of bluegills, or bream, depending on your preferred name for these spunky, little panfish.

Given the fact that bluegills typically do not spawn and bed until after largemouth bass have finished their shallow-water spawning efforts, and the months of May into June are ready-made for bluegill fishing in many areas of the country.

That's true for anglers ranging from a young child to an adult newbie to even a seasoned BASS pro looking for some simple fishing fun.

"Most people cut their angling wings on fishing for bluegills," said Bruce Hysmith, an inland fisheries biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

"Bluegills are a great introductory fish since they occupy the shallow-water zone near the bank."

Since spawning bluegills will eagerly attack an angler's offering at this time of the year, Hysmith often practices what he preaches by taking his grandchildren bluegill fishing.

He suggests anglers, especially younger ones, keep their tackle selections simple.

For children, that can be nothing more complex than an old-fashioned cane pole with a short length of monofilament line, a small hook, a small sinker and a bobber attached.

For adults looking for something a little bit sportier, lightweight or even ultra-lightweight spinning gear coupled with 4-pound monofilament line is a solid choice.

What type of baits should an angler use for spunky 'gills?

There are a number of possibilities, including small artificial flies, lures, and jigs. The key word here is small, since these panfish have very tiny mouths.

Most of the time, bream fishing is easiest with some sort of live bait attached to a small, wire hook under a split shot and a porcupine-quill bobber.

Such live-bait choices range from small minnows to catawba (catalpa) worms and crickets to wasp larvae and red earthworms, the latter being rated by Hysmith as his personal favorite.

For artificial-tackle enthusiasts, solid lure choices for bream include small crappie jigs, a diminutive Beetle Spin or even tiny crankbaits.

Many anglers consider these feisty panfish to be a bona fide challenge on artificial flies tossed with lightweight flyfishing gear.

"Absolutely," said Chris White, an avid flyangler from Longview, Texas, and a member of the East Texas Fly Fishers club. "Bluegills, those suckers will fight you to the boat."

White should know, nearly wearing out his 1-weight fly rod on east Texas bluegill haunts ranging from the sprawling Lake of the Pines to small private ponds near his home.

"From a pure standpoint of fun fighting, you just can't beat the action you're going to get," White said.

For those interested in pursuing 'gills on the fly, a 1, 2, 3 or 4-weight fly rod with a floating line; a 7½-foot leader with 3X or 4X tippet; and a popper is tough to beat at this time of the year.

Whatever the lure and tackle choices might be, Hysmith suggests anglers generally keep their search for late-spring and early-summer bluegills confined to shallow-water areas near weedbeds, brushpiles, stick-ups and stumps.

The fish usually are visible in and around such shallow confines, especially near easy-to-spot spawning beds.

In some places, anglers can find numerous bream beds together in shallow areas that vaguely resemble craters on the moon's surface or a very large wasp nest.

But an angler's eyesight is only one way to locate catchable numbers of bream during springtime.

When it comes to locating 'gills, the nose often knows the way, according to entomologist and flyfishing guide Rob Woodruff of Quitman, Texas.

"When you find them, there's almost a watermelon rind kind of smell in the air, kind of like how people on the (Gulf) coast can find speckled trout by smell," Woodruff said.

However you are able to locate one bluegill, you should be able to locate many more in the same general vicinity.

That's because when it comes to spring and summer bluegills — and their cousins, including redear sunfish, longear sunfish, redbreast sunfish, green sunfish, warmouth, hybrid sunfish and copper-nosed bluegill — the more, the merrier.

Because of that, some sage crappie-fishing advice once given to me by the North American Fishing Club's Steve Pennaz is highly applicable here: "Don't spend a lot of time in a place where the fish aren't biting."

While these panfish are relatively easy and fun to catch, perhaps the best reason to chase bluegills is because they make excellent table fare.

With generous limits in place across much of bluegill country, these prolific sunfish can provide many a memorable meal in an era of catch-and-release angling.

"Oh, I love 'em," Hysmith said. "My favorite recipe is to head 'em, gut 'em, scale 'em, roll 'em in corn meal, salt and pepper to taste and deep-fry them.

"You can take a hand-size bluegill and, if you've got 10 or 15 of those, I guarantee you've got a meal."

And maybe, just maybe, a lifelong angler, too.