It’s early May, and a farm pond that floods about 3 acres shimmers in the late afternoon sunlight. The pond lies close to a busy county road, but thanks to the gentle roll of the landscape, it is beyond the sight of passing motorists. It is also rumored to harbor some “monster-sized” bluegill.
I am here at the invitation of the landowner, whom I only recently met. She doesn’t fish, but apparently isn’t opposed to people who do, if they ask first and mind their manners. When I inquired about the fishing, I was greeted by an uncomfortably long pause before being presented with agreeable terms: “Close the gate. And don’t leave any trash.”
The pond forms behind a rock-faced dam and pools into a fat V shape before bending into a sharp dogleg. The upper end of the dogleg shows some grass and can be thoroughly fished from the bank. By summer’s end, this tip of the pond will likely be a mud flat, but today, it’s a couple of feet deep and clear.
I’m carrying a TFO 8-foot 2-weight fly rod and a handful of small popping bugs in various colors. But an ultralight spinning rod tipped with almost any small jig—or better yet, a No. 10 long-shanked hook baited with a cricket—would be an equally effective tool. Bluegill aren’t picky.
For no specific reason, I pick a brown-and-black colored popping bug. The balsa wood plug is about a half-inch long and the diameter of a pencil with two white rubber legs near the head and a chartreuse tail curling around the small hook. I’ve tied dozens of these generic-looking plugs, but bought this one off a sale rack ($.89 each or four for $3) at an Arkansas fly shop last year.
My casting is herky-jerky and hurried, and the fly hits the water with enough of a “plop” to spook a trout or enrage a largemouth bass. I twitch the rod and the bug scoots across the surface, producing the erratic gurgle that means nothing to the fish but everything to the fishermen. Another twitch and the bug vanishes in a splashy swirl. The rod tip is pulsing, the line ripping through the water like a ricocheting pinball. Bluegill are ferocious fighters. If they grew to 10 pounds, it would require saltwater gear to land them. This one is about 9 inches, slightly above average but hardly “monster sized.”
I unhook the fish and toss it back into the pond. Bluegill produce firm, white meat fillets that are slightly sweet and terrific when lightly battered and flash fried. But I neglected to ask the landowner about keeping a few fish for the skillet, so until given permission to do so, I’m self-limited to catch and release. I make another cast and this time, the splashy swirl and rod tip surge are immediate.
Bluegill are a members of the panfish family, a group that includes fellow Kentucky aquatic natives rock bass, green sunfish, warmouth, longear sunfish, redear sunfish, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, largemouth bass, white crappie and black crappie.
Bluegill might arguably be the most widely distributed fish in North America, and the most easily caught. They are found nearly everywhere freshwater flows, from small ponds and creeks to sprawling reservoirs like Kentucky Lake and Lake Cumberland.
Bluegill can be caught year-round, but May is prime time because that is when the feisty, hard-fighting panfish begin their spawn. Spawning activity can and does continue throughout the summer, but conventional wisdom—blended with a dash of folklore—claims the best bluegill action revolves around the May full moon (May 3 this year). The May moon does usually coincide with the peak of the bluegill spawn, but the full moon doesn’t trigger it. Water temperature does that. Seventy degrees seems to be the magic number.
Bluegill typically spawn in water 1 to 3 feet deep, preferably over a gravel or hard sandy bottom. Beds are about plate-size, and after the females drop their eggs, the males guard the nests. Bluegill are nearly always aggressive but no more so than when nesting.
Bluegill are not considered a sport fish by Kentucky game officials and, therefore, not governed by statewide creel or size limits, although special regulations apply to some waters. However, prudence is called for when fishing a spawning bed. Even bluegill can be overfished.
I’ve lost count of the number of fish caught—four dozen, maybe, all bluegill save for one stubby largemouth bass. Near the dam, the water is deeper than in the dogleg, and a sinking fly would likely garner more strikes than the surface popper. Then a roll cast near the dam results in another swirly splash, ferocious zigzag slice of line through water, and a rod tip surging fight that ends with another 9-incher, nearly identical to the fish that took the first cast. And enough.