On a warm, late spring afternoon recently, I found myself on a regional bass water with a Cabela’s CGR fiberglass fly rod in my hand.
At one point, my 7’6” fly rod propelled the floating fly line through the air and gently laid the small chartreuse popper along the edge of the shoreline.
And that’s when a local bass angler wandered by, looking at my gear with a slight bit of amusement.
“Any luck?” floated the standard question politely posed when two anglers pass each other on a water body.
“Yup,” I replied back with a mischievous grin. “I’ve caught several good bluegills so far.”
I could almost hear the wheels turning in this gentleman’s head, hearing the unspoken question that I was sure he wanted to ask: “Bluegills? You’re catching bluegills on purpose?”
As I turned and made another cast towards a shoreline littered with the indentations of numerous bluegill spawning beds, I thought silently: “Bluegills on purpose? You bet!”
If you’ve read the outdoors drivel I’ve cranked out in this space since the early 1990s, you’ve undoubtedly noticed an annual story or two dedicated to the bluegill, or bream, as many Red River Valley anglers call them.
The reasons for such stories are many, starting with the fact that it was big Mid-South bluegills near my boyhood Memphis, Tenn. home that got me started in fishing.
My love affair with fishing started innocently enough in the early 1970s with a trip to Herb Parsons Lake, a 177-acre water body named for Parsons, the late Winchester Ammunition exhibition shotgun shooter and the 1950 and 1951 world duck calling champ who hailed from nearby Somerville, Tenn.
Fishing that warm early summer afternoon with my grandfather and my dad, the combination of a plywood jon boat, some Catawba worms, and a few cane poles equipped with monofilament line, a few lightweight wire Aberdeen style bait hooks, and some bobbers was all that it took to hook me on a lifetime of angling.
That and the hand-sized bluegills that eagerly pulled those bobbers under, eventual limits that my granny used her cast iron skillet to turn into one of the greatest meals I’ve ever enjoyed.
As the years have tumbled along, my angling attention has turned to the largemouth bass, and eventually, to more exotic species that I’ve had to travel to pursue from rainbow trout in the Rocky Mountains to silver salmon at Charles Allen’s Alaska Expedition Company and its Driftwood Lodge on the Tsiu River to redfish and speckled trout swimming in the warm waters along the Texas Gulf Coast.
But I’ve never lost my appreciation for the bluegill, particularly for those plate sized specimens that weigh a pound or better, bull bream that use their wide bodies to put a serious bend in lightweight tackle.
Thanks to my friendship with Orvis endorsed fly fishing guide Rob Woodruff, that appreciation for bluegills — and their East Texas panfish cousins like green sunfish, longear sunfish, redbreast sunfish, redear sunfish and warmouths — has grown in recent years.
So much so that a few times each spring, my thoughts turn from the pursuit of big bass to the chase of big bluegills on Lone Star State bream hotspots like Athens, Caddo, Fork, Gilmer, and Toledo Bend, to name a few.
Of course, in a state where double-digit bass aren’t uncommon, big is a relative term when talking about bluegills.
Take for instance, the Texas state record bluegill, a 2.02-pound fly rod specimen caught by Gibbs Milliken on Nov. 21, 1999 as he fished a #6 copper Clouser Minnow on the Lampasas River. And then there’s the state record redear sunfish — or shellcracker as many call them — a 2.93-pound bruiser taken on April 1, 1997 at Austin’s Lady Bird Lake by John Runnels.
Obviously, those are a far cry from Barry St. Clair’s 18.18-pound largemouth or Mark Stevenson’s 17.67-pound largemouth (nicknamed Ethel), the current No. 1 and No. 2 largemouth bass in the Lone Star State, both coming from Lake Fork.
But you can’t weigh fishing fun, particularly when you’ve got a lightweight fly rod in your hand and are targeting bluegills.
If you’re interested in giving bluegills a try — on purpose, that is — there probably isn’t a pond, lake, river, or stream in Texas where most of the various sunfish species can’t be found.
On many such waters in the northern and eastern portions of the state, the annual late spring and early summer spawn for bluegills is winding down, giving anglers a couple of ways to find the sunfish.
First, use your eyes to search for bluegill bedding areas, small plate sized circles that are relatively easy to see in clearer water conditions. Many times, when you find one such bed, there will be dozens of them lying close together in shallow water conglomerations that have been described as looking like craters on the moon or a honeycomb.
While such spots are typically easy to see, don’t forget to use your nose in seeking out bluegill bedding areas.
“When you find (bluegill beds), 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,” said my friend Woodruff, the former Lake Fork bass guide now turned general manager of the Blue Damsel Lodge on Montana’s famed Rock Creek trout stream.
Once you locate a few bluegill beds — there are still plenty around now and likely will be again on the next full moon cycle — how do you go about catching them?
While light wire hooks and live bait — think worms, crickets, and grasshoppers here — will certainly work, lightweight fly rods were made to catch hard-fighting bluegills.
Standard graphite fly rods work here, but the soft tips of fiberglass rods excel in this pursuit, easily tossing a weight-forward floating fly line on the four or five-weights that I use or the one, two, or three-weights that Woodruff enjoys.
Whatever the rod weight, add a seven and a half foot leader ending in 3X or 4X tippet, a handful of small poppers or foam spiders, and you’re ready to get started.
“If the popper doesn’t produce better fish, then try something slow and sinking,” said Woodruff. “My favorite is Wilson’s Bluegill Bully, a fly from the Bluegill Fly Fishing & Flies book by Terry and Roxanne Wilson.”
I’d note that a few mayfly dry flies, nymph patterns, or even a slow sinking fly like the Cap Spider, a popular small pattern tied by late Pineywoods fly-tyer Michael Verduin on a 1/100-ounce jig hook, can also prove to be deadly on bluegills.
Find the right spot, and a number of good bluegills should come to hand. Find a great spot, and dozens — maybe even 100 plus on some outings — can be caught at the height of the spawn.
While I typically catch-and-release most of the bluegills I land, their sheer abundance in Texas waters — where there is no minimum size limit or daily bag limit — allows for the keeping of a few plump sized bream headed for the dinner table.
As with most fish species, keep only what you can use. Then clean them and scale them, rolling the bluegills in corn meal and/or flour, adding in a little Team Catfish Gourmet Fish Seasoning, and frying them up in a cast iron skillet bubbling with hot cooking oil.
The end result is a scrumptious meal for paupers and kings alike, one that comes to an angler on top of an afternoon of great fishing action, even if a few anglers might be tempted to roll their eyes.
“There aren’t many things more fun than fishing a light fly rod over a bream bed,” agrees Woodruff.
Especially when such fishing is actually done on purpose.