WABASHA, Minn. — Almost anybody who enjoys the sport of fishing has an affection for the bluegill.
It’s not the largest or most glamorous species, but bluegills can be found in most bodies of water from coast to coast and border to border. It’s a species for anglers young and old, a scrappy fish for its size and excellent table fare.
For some of us river rats who spend the majority of our angling hours on the Mississippi River chasing walleyes, bass, crappies and northern pike, bluegills are a late summer bonus species.
For much of the year after they spawn, bluegills on the big river bury themselves in the dense vegetation or flooded timber of backwater lakes where it can be difficult to get to them. However, when the flow slows and water levels are near or below normal pool in August and September, they start to show up on main channel wingdams where vegetation is present, oxygen is plentiful and there isn’t much current.
Adult bluegills feed primarily on aquatic insects, tiny crayfish, snails, small fish and sometimes fish eggs. On the Mississippi, they’ll gobble up just about any type of worm, from a piece of night crawler to redworms and waxworms. Their mouths are small so keeping your presentation small is important. Tiny leeches also can be deadly.
Some anglers like to fish ’gills under a bobber with small jigs, spoons or baited hooks although that limits how much of the water column you can cover. Others prefer to cast small jigs (1/32nd- to 1/16th ounce) tipped with bait.
The most effective approach is usually a slip-sinker rig. Slide an egg sinker or walking sinker in the 1/8th-ounce range onto your line, tie on a barrel swivel that prevents the sinker from sliding down to the hook, then add a 10- or 12-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon leader about two feet long with a No. 6 hook.
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The heavier test leader will give you a chance to subdue most of the other species you will catch around wingdams such as sheepshead, smallmouth bass, suckers, catfish, mooneyes and the occasional walleye. Long-shank hooks are helpful because they are easier to remove from a bluegill’s tiny mouth, and colored hooks can sometimes be the key to enticing more bites.
When the wingdam bite heats up, bluegills can concentrate either above or below those rock piles. Sometimes they are along the face of the dam and can be caught from the transition where the rock turns to sand or rubble. Other times they roam around below the dam, especially in areas where the depth is less than 10 or 12 feet and vegetation is present.
Some of these bluegills are absolute ’gill-zillas in the 10-inch range. Many will be over nine inches. Bluegills that size are fairly common in fertile farm ponds, some small northern lakes and in the south where the growing season is much longer, but those 9-to 10-inchers are brutes in the eyes of most Mississippi River anglers.
Iowa’s state record 3-pound, 2-ounce ’gill was caught in 1986 in a Madison County farm pond. Minnesota’s record is a 2-pound, 13-ouncer from Hubbard County in 1984. The all-tackle world record is a 4-pound, 12-ouncer caught in Ketona Lake in Alabama in 1950.
Although all pools of the upper Mississippi hold bluegills, they aren’t all great bluegill fisheries. Siltation and the loss of habitat and wintering areas have decreased panfish numbers in some pools, although fisheries biologists have recognized that relationship and are doing significant habitat work where needed.
If you get on the mighty Mississippi in the next few weeks, give the ’gills a go. It’s simple fishing with a lot of action to keep anglers busy. Bluegills may not become your go-to fish with everything else the river has to offer, but they’re a great option when they show up on the main channel dams.