The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle
Bantam Brawlers of the Lily Pads
How I love bluegills!
A smashing surface strike threw water everywhere, and the fish’s momentum carried it up and out, giving me a brief glimpse of a colorful profile, thick and powerful. Setting the hook firmly, I tried to keep the fish away from the tangle of lily pads from which it had launched its attack. I could feel violent headshakes as it turned its broad body sideways and exerted a pressure that bent my slim rod down to the cork handle. I feared it was too much stress, but I also knew if the fish reached the roots of those pads, I would lose it for sure. Then, just as quickly, it was gone.
My heart still hammering, I retrieved my ravaged popper. The thin wire hook was bent open. I knew I had just lost a trophy. The bluegill had probably weighed almost a pound.
If you are not an intimate of this variety of fish common to Maryland, let me explain my excitement. The bluegill is a freshwater species that prefers the still waters of protected impoundments and lakes throughout the state. It has an oval-shaped body and small mouth. The male has an orange-red breast and a deep olive back with vertical bars running the length of its body. The female’s breast has more subdued tones of green. Both sexes have a gill cover that sports a dark blue tab, the source of its name.
A nine-inch fish is considered large; 11 inches is a trophy. Bluegills have a feisty disposition and exhibit a strength and vigor far out of proportion to size. As table fare, you will find that at a fish fry the platters of crispy bluegill are empty long before those of more heralded varieties. It is a firm, moist fish, sweet and savory.
Often youngsters start out fishing with a worm and bobber, and they catch more bluegills than any other fish, for it is not a particularly wary species. It depends on numbers for survival, and since it is essentially forever either searching for a mate, spawning or protecting eggs or young fry, it really doesn’t have the time or inclination to be very discerning about what it eats. So all forms of insects, worms, small fish and any vague artificial imitations thereof are readily and noisily engulfed, much to the delight of anglers of all ages.
This isn’t to say the bluegill can’t be a challenging fish. Although in the smaller sizes it is consistently an easy touch, as the fish approaches seven years old and nine inches in length, it becomes quite a bit more discriminating and not so easily apprehended. In the spring and early summer, these larger fish frequent shallow water: shore fronts with lily pads, tree overhangs and other protective structure, where they build their spawning sites.
A light spinning rod with four- to six-pound test line can be good tackle choice, but you must use a weighted casting bobber to deliver the small lure to the intended area. A fly rod may be the most appropriate choice for this particular fish. That rod’s ability to deliver a small, unobtrusive, insect-sized lure to a precise location over, and under, intervening obstacles is a decided advantage. The fly fisher can also lift the lure out of those areas and recast it without having to retrieve the line.
I prefer an eight-foot fly rod with a four- or five-weight line and an eight-foot, four-pound leader. A small, size 10 popper in black, green or white is a good choice of lure, and if it has wiggly rubber legs so much the better. A fly of this type, known as a Sneaky Pete, is particularly effective, and much larger sized bass, which sometimes frequent the same areas, have been known to inhale the bug. This often leads to angler-oriented problems of a panic-stricken nature, but that is another story.
Let us say that fishing for bluegill is as rewarding, exciting and just plain fun as any outdoor endeavor in Maryland. If you’re stressed out vying after the more glamorous game fish or just need a relaxing afternoon, pick up a pocketful of poppers and find a quiet pond or lake. Tangling with a few of these lily pad brawlers will set your spirits alight. I’ll bet you become as enamored of this fish as the rest of us.
Fish Are Biting
Trophy rockfish are available throughout the Bay, but many fish have spawned out and the bite we have been experiencing may not stay hot much longer. Recent rains have juiced the shad runs at Deer Creek and the Octoraro, but the white perch runs are mysteriously slack in the mid-Bay. Croaker stories continue to come in from commercial sources, but only anglers from the Choptank and South rivers are reporting rod-and-reel success. Bass and bluegills are on the spawning beds in the sweetwater zones.