I caught a dozen bluegills the other morning.
Pretty ho-hum news, right? Anyone with a fishing pole and a handful of bait can hook a practically endless supply of pint-sized sunfish. Neither fishing expertise nor fancy tackle is required. Bluegill are everywhere and they’re easy.
But now let me add that when I got home, I weighed each individual fish on a digital kitchen scale. The combined weight of my total catch was 11.16 pounds. Just under a pound each! The biggest fish measured a tad shy of eleven inches and weighed a hefty 1.27 pounds!
Genuine jumbos! Dark in overall coloration, thick through the shoulders. Saucers with fins! Real dandies! Certainly worth a bit of bragging.
My father always referred to such oversized specimens as “bulls.” Though smallish bluegill abound in nearly every lake, pond or stream, bulls are the panfish version of a will-o’-the-wisp — secretive, mysterious of habit, generally hidden, about as elusive as sasquatch.
Not all waters hold big bluegills. Not even all those places where nice but average-sized fish are abundant. In addition, true bulls are apt to be limited in distribution, even on waters where average fish are widely scattered.
The place where I caught my recent dandies — public water, by the way — is an old gravel quarry, perhaps 40–50 acres in size. The water isn’t particularly deep, and unlike many flooded pits, rather than an abrupt drop-off, has shallow edges sloping out from most stretches of the perimeter bank. There are lots of cattails and fringing willows, with only a 200 foot section along the northeast bank bounded by mature, overhanging trees. It’s also the only place along the ponds’s entire circumference where deep water is adjacent to the bank.
This is the bull bluegills’s hangout.
I accidentally discovered the fish one mid-May morning a decade ago. Early-morning sun was what gave them away. Light slanting down at just the right angle through the still-sparse sycamore leaves on the towering trees which line the edge. A bright shaft, like a spotlight, beaming through the surface glare, plumbing the depths, illuminating an astonishing number of dark shapes hanging just above the light-colored rock on the bottom.
At first I thought they were bass. Then one of those shadowy shapes rose to within a couple of feet below the surface, paused to examine something, tilted on it’s side for just a moment … then slowly sank back down to the level of his mates. Bluegill! In text acronym, an OMG moment.
My heart skipped several beats!
Even discounting the water’s magnification factor, I knew that bluegill was huge. A true dandy. I’d stumbled onto a motherlode of bull bluegills!
Naturally I was frantic to catch one.
However … knowing there were bull bluegills to be caught and actually catching one isn’t the same thing. Big bluegills aren’t chumps. Little guys may be pushovers, but dinner-plate size bluegills are wary, suspicious of everything.
I’ve had them hang an inch below a sponge bug for well over a minute — on guard, cautious, giving my offering a serious scrutiny while trying to decide whether or not to eat that odd, orange, leggy-looking thing floating above.
Unnerving? Oh, yeah!
When a bluegill refuses to make the first move, and you can’t take the inspection any longer, you give that little orange bug a twitch — just the merest hint of life-mimicking movement.
Sometimes it works. The fish lunges up like a starving Rottweiler savaging a steak. There’s a smacking ker-pock—a sound which causes a primordial tingle up your spine — and the sponge bug disappears in splashy swirl the diameter of a washtub. A moment later you’re engaged in a tussle that’s, ounce-for-ounce, as good as any in all anglingdom! Bull bluegill take a back seat to no fish when it comes to fight.
However…just as often, even the tiniest of sponge bug twitches has an opposite effect on distrustful and close-inspecting fish. Bull bluegill are finicky appraisers. Worse, when their doubts put them off, they seldom turn tail and flee. Instead, they merely begin a slow, disdainful sink — as though contemptuous of both your angling skills and your proffered fakes. Humiliating!
When the situation allows, I prefer doing my bluegilling with fly tackle. Sponge spiders, balsa or cork poppers, and clipped deerhair bugs are my favorite offerings. Nothing is more fun to me than tolling these big bull sunfish to the surface where I get to watch them take a fly.
But the other morning, the fish were concentrated along only a small stretch of the deepwater edge. Bankside vegetation ruled out a standard cast, and roll casting invariably spooks them straightaway. They were also holding fairly shallow, no more than six feet down, and thus especially wary.
All this dictated a switch to an ultra-light spinning rig. I used 2-pound test monofilament, a size 10 fine-wire hook, and mealworms. No split shot, so a thirty foot cast was about my maximum. Good enough.
The first couple of fish came quickly. I made a short toss, the mealworm hit the water with barely a ripple, and a huge bluegill darted up and inhaled it before it sank an inch. The next three or four were almost as easy — except the mealworm sank a bit more before getting nabbed by a bluegill.
Then things got tougher.
Big savvy bluegill aren’t like gullible little bluegill. If they sense a hint of something amiss — not so strong as to trigger alarm, just an inkling — they slow down, adopting a stance of belligerent procrastination. A militant, wait-and-see attitude which slowly builds.
Fish by fish, the mealworms needed to sink ever deeper before being taken. I out-waited a few, allowed them time to overcome their wariness, garnering every fish I could manage.
Then they simply quit. My mealworms were unanimously disregarded. Not even a seductive micro-twitch provoked a hit. A total boycott.
But a good thing, actually. I looked up. A few other folks had started showing up around the water. Time to boogie. These fish can’t stand much pressure. I work them only three or four times per season, and always quit fishing and skulk back home the moment any potential witnesses and piscatorial spies appear.
Paranoia is the first rule for keeping secret fishing holes secret. Knowing when to quit fishing is another. A fellow has to take care of life’s important things … and a bull bluegill hotspot is a rare treasure.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org