Featherweights on the Fly
Bluegills give you fight and flavor
Early May is a great time of year. The dogwoods are in full bloom, the scent of flowering lilacs perfume the air, redbuds glow crimson. And one of the greatest sweetwater fish species is, right now, moving into the shallows and picking out a spawning territory to defend.
Tossing a size-10 popping bug with a fly rod along a freshwater impoundment’s shoreline and waiting for the explosive take of a bull bluegill guarding his territory is a delight not to be missed. This battler is found just about anywhere there is fresh water, from lakes to ponds.
You don’t have to be particularly skilled at casting. Ready to attack anything that approaches, these bream will charge all but the clumsiest of presentations.
Rockfish trophy season is good except for the stiff easterly blowing the better part of the last three weeks. When the Bay is fishable, nice-sized stripers to 46 inches have been taken at the traditional hotspots: Love Point, the Bay Bridge, around the anchored container ships, Gum Thickets, Bloody Point and off Poplar Island. Western Shore areas producing fish have been the shipping channel south of Baltimore Light to Podickery Point, Hacketts and the Thomas Point Lighthouse. Down at Breezy Point they’ve also been doing well, and anglers are still scoring big fish at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant.
The top lure so far for trollers has been a white parachute rig. Anglers fishing bloodworms and fresh-cut menhaden have been doing well from the water as well as from the shore.
Any fly rod up to a six weight and up to eight feet will do the job. A six- to seven-foot leader of four- to six-pound test is more than adequate. A simple selection of small popping bugs in black, white, yellow and chartreuse will do just fine for matching the hatch. Bluegills consume beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, bees, moths and similar insects as well as small minnows, crawfish and aquatic larvae.
Ultra-light spin rods will also work almost as well as fly rods if you use a clear casting bubble for weight to carry out your bug. You can use a short section of wooden dowel with an eye screw at either end to the same effect.
Though popping bugs will definitely get you a full share of bluegill action, the 17-year cicada cycle is peaking this season. Since the cicada is a rather large flying bug, a proper imitation should draw strikes from particularly large bluegills — and often their much bigger cousin, the largemouth bass.
The bluegill is a saucer-shaped creature with a dark olive back and vertical bars down the length of its flanks. A dark blue earflap on the gill cover (operculum) gives the fish its name. The male sports a bright orange chest and blue and purple iridescence on its cheeks, which are especially bright during the spawn. The female has a less spectacular coloration, featuring a dark back and mostly muted olive colors down the flanks with a pale yellow breast.
Each spring, as soon as the waters warm, the males stake out shallow water to build nests. After sweeping clear a circular dish-shaped area up to two feet in diameter, called a bed, the bulls compete to attract a female to lay their eggs. The female remains around the nest for a few days, making multiple deposits of roe, which the male fertilizes.
The female then departs while the male continues to guard the area until the young hatch and grow big enough to leave the nest. Then he tries to attract another mate. Vigorously defending his nesting area against all interlopers, the male bluegills will continue to attract females and spawn throughout the summer, often into September. That, not coincidentally, is why there are so many of them.
A nine-inch ’gill is a remarkable battler on light tackle and easily big enough for the table. A 10-inch fish is a lunker and will test your line handling abilities. An 11-inch fish is a citation, and a 12-incher a trophy of trophies. Their meat has a sweet nutty flavor and is highly regarded by all lovers of seafood.