By Dan Johnson
Spring is a great time to find and catch bluegills and other sunfish. Like their speckled crappie cousins, sunfish invade fast-warming shallows each spring to feast on a variety of forage. Shortly after the feeding binge subsides, their thoughts turn to continuing the species, and the action shifts toward the spawning grounds.
To help you stay on the bite, the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance offers these time-tested tips on how to catch spring sunfish by the score.
Throughout spring, fish location and behavior is governed by factors including water temperature and weather conditions. In early spring, sunny days with balmy air temperatures draw hordes of hungry bluegills, pumpkinseeds and other sunfish into fast-warming shallows to feed. But cool nights and brutal cold fronts often force them out into deeper water offshore.
In many fisheries, panfish don’t get serious about hanging around the shallows until there are major insect hatches and young-of-the-year forage fish (such as perch fry) arrive on the scene. The timing of this depends on your location. It can be mid-May in northern fisheries and much earlier across the South.
In between shallow feeding flurries, veteran Northwoods fishing guide and USA friend Jeff Sundin targets offshore hotspots nearby. “Before the spawn begins, you can usually find fish hanging out along primary drop-offs that lead into deeper water,” he says.
He favors soft, marl-bottom flats near the bases of these shoreline breaks. “I look for the kind of bottom that sticks to the anchor when you bring it up, so you have to swish it back and forth in the water a minute or two before lifting it in the boat,” he laughs. “That kind of sticky mix of sand and clay breeds all forms of insect life.”
When fishing deep water, Sundin often ties on a 1/16-ounce standard jig head, but notes that, “Insect-imitating ice fishing jigs like the Lindy Toad and Ice Worm are great, too.” Tippings range from waxworms to crawler parts and tiny leeches. “This time of year you have all sorts of baits available, so you can mix and match until the bluegills show a preference for something,” he says.
“The presentation is similar to late-winter ice fishing,” he continues. “Get over the fish and hold the jig as still as possible, so sunfish can sneak up and inhale it.” While Sundin prefers tight-lining, he notes that bobber rigs work well, too.
Fellow sunfish stalker and USA ally Paul Fournier focuses on pressured lakes in Minnesota’s Twin Cities metropolitan area. “Big bluegills are skittish on these systems, so stealth and silence are key,” he cautions.
During the prespawn, Fournier focuses on bays rich in soft, mucky substrates. “Crappies are roamers and can show up anywhere, even on sand and rubble shorelines, but bluegills like to root around in the mud,” he says.
Given his quarry’s spookiness, Fournier favors long-range strikes with light jigs suspended under small bobbers. Wielding a 9½-foot steelhead-style rod loaded with 4- to 6-pound monofilament mainline, he fires Lindy Little Nippers and small ice lures into the strike zone. “Because sunfish have such amazing vision, I use a three-foot leader of 2-pound fluorocarbon,” he adds.
Addressing other tackle considerations, he says a USA-made Thill Wobble Bobber extends his reach and adds animation to the jig below. “Wobble Bobbers are extra dense for great casting, and their pear-shaped design makes them rock back and forth with the slightest twitch or ripple,” he explains.
To see the Wobble Bobber in action, courtesy of USA conservation and outreach supporters Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, CLICK HERE.
Secrets Of The Spawn
Water temperatures rising into the upper 60s trigger spawning activity. Sunfish nest in colonies, excavating beds on firm bottoms such as sand or gravel. Some fish stay in early season feeding areas if they can find suitable spawning habitat, but they’ll move if they have to. On one of my favorite central Minnesota sunfish lakes, for example, the fish flood into a complex of bays and canals to feed. Once the spawn draws near, most leave for hard-bottomed areas around the main lake shoreline, and along the edges of islands.
Sunfish are social butterflies and like to spawn in large colonies. Slip on a pair of polarized glasses and scout potential bedding areas, either by boat or on foot. Once you find a colony, make a mental note of its location—or better yet, jot it in a journal. The same spots tend to attract fish year after year, so once you establish a milk run of bedding areas, you can usually count on it for years to come.
Bed-fishing tactics include anything that triggers nest-guarding fish to strike. Fournier grabs a flyrod and fishes 1/64- to 1/32-ounce Little Nippers. “I use a pull-pause retrieve just like you would a streamer fly,” he explains.
Sundin works the shallows with a long, telescoping pole, dropping bobber rigs into colonies from afar.
“I set a small float a foot or two above a small jig tipped with bait, and fish it through the beds,” he says. “Sunfish hit just about anything that comes near the nest. To make it easier for them to see my presentation, I often slip a size 2 spinner blade on the line before tying on the jig. To keep it from interfering with hooksets, I pinch a split shot or two on the line a couple inches above the jig.”
Bedding fish are extremely aggressive and easy to catch, making it easy to quickly gather a few fish for a fine meal. Just remember to be selective about your harvest, leaving plenty of spawners to continue this rite of spring well into the future.