Tips for catching lily-pad bluegills

By Keith Sutton Published September 10, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.
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Keith Sutton

Small topwater plugs resembling insects work great for catching bluegills in lily pads.

As the end of summer draws nigh, many sportsmen have hunting, not fishing, on their minds. But each year about this time, I like to spend some time on the water catching bluegills for the freezer, and often as not when I go, I find these delicious panfish hiding in the beds of water lilies found in many of Arkansas’ public fishing lakes.

Bluegills and lily pads go together like crappie and brush piles. Where you find one, you’re likely to find the other.

Why? Lily pads shield bluegills from bright sunlight and predators, and the plants attract heavy concentrations of insects, insect larvae, grass shrimp, worms and other aquatic invertebrates that bluegills eat. Lilies provide cooler, oxygen-rich water. In a field of water lilies, bluegills find all the amenities of home — food, comfort and safety.

Unfortunately, many bluegill anglers have no idea how to properly fish a bed of water lilies. Most look at the dense tangles of vegetation, assume they’re too difficult to fish and continue fishing only along the edges. They don’t realize that most big bluegills are deep within the greenery, and the proper tackle and techniques are needed to catch them. These tips can help.

Get to the Point

Bluegills prefer parcels of cover and structure that interrupt the continuity of a lily bed. In other words, look for something different to fish — an isolated log or treetop surrounded by pads, an open cut, an inner pocket of water or some other distinguishing feature.

A point of pads along an otherwise straight edge is one feature worth checking. Points in the pads are evidence of a subtle change in bottom structure, usually an inundated point that rises above the surrounding bottom and falls off into deeper water. This is ideal bluegill structure, and you should fish these points thoroughly.

Work slowly up and down both sides of the point and at different depths along its length. This is especially productive when an abrupt change in weather is imminent.

Pick a Pocket

Pay special attention to large isolated openings out in the pads. Bluegills love these cool pockets, and fish found within the interior confines of a lily-pad bed are more likely to strike than those on an edge pounded by anglers. Carry a stout push pole, and pole your way through the pads to these openings.

Fish these pockets from a distance to avoid flushing your quarry from its hidey-hole. If you’re good with a fly rod, try flipping a popping bug into the opening. Pretty good with a spinning outfit? Rig a bobber over your bait, and cast to the hole. If a bluegill takes it, you can drag it back over the pads. If no bite is forthcoming, you can move closer and extract your rig.

Shady Business

Often, one side of a point, pocket or edge in the pads produces better than the other. Why? Because bluegills like shade.

Early and late in the day, the angle of the sun casts shade farther from the edge. If the sun is shining from the east at a 45-degree angle, the west side will naturally have more shade, and bluegills on the east side will be driven back farther under the pads. That’s why, on a sunny day, you may catch lots of bluegills on one edge of the pads in the morning and then do better on the other side in the afternoon. The same phenomenon occurs in open pockets and points.

Structure Your Success

Remember these two things about water lilies: 1) they won’t grow in water deeper than 6 or 7 feet; and 2) lilies are rooted in the soil and require a soft bottom in which to grow.

Knowing these things, you can study lily pads to determine the bottom structure beneath them. For instance, lily growth commencing along the shoreline and extending out 30 or 40 feet indicates a shallow flat. The bottom may drop sharply where the lily pads end, something you should investigate in late summer when big bluegills frequent cool depths.

A long open path through the pads may indicate an inundated creek channel — prime territory for big panfish. If there’s a large round opening in the pads, the bottom beneath it could be hardpan or gravel, an ideal bedding site for spawning fish. By “reading” the pads for structures like these, you can improve your fishing success.

Match the Hatch

Crickets and worms are great baits for lily-pad bluegills, but if you want to try something different, take a peak under the pads. Small aquatic invertebrates like dragonfly and mayfly nymphs, grass shrimp, grubs and worms often cling to the underside of the leaves. Scrape a few into a container with a little water, and fish them on a fine-wire hook. Because they’re a regular part of the diet for local fish, they may outproduce conventional baits.

Play It By Ear

When bluegills are feeding on invertebrates that cling to the undersides of pads, the fish often make a loud smacking noise that can be heard several yards away. This sound is created when bluegills extend their lips and “kiss” the smooth bottom surface of a pad, sucking up a bug in the process. It’s a distinctive sound made only by sunfish, and anglers who are attuned to it can zero in on hungry bluegills.

Dance a Jig

If you enjoy the added challenge of fishing artificial lures, try using a long pole to work small lead-head jigs (1/100 to 1/32-ounce) in lily-pad pockets. A 10- to 16-foot cane pole or jigging pole is tops for fishing pads because it allows you to reach likely honey holes from a distance with fewer hangups and less disturbance. Tiny squirrel-hair or rubber-shirted jigs closely resemble food animals that live in the pads, providing an irresistible enticement for big boat-shy bluegills.

Start by attaching a clear bobber above the jig. Position the bobber so the lure floats just above bottom, away from roots and stems. Lower the rig into a pocket; then move it with little jerks and twitches. Probe every key area, changing the bobber’s position occasionally to determine the depth where fish are feeding.

If bluegills seem finicky, remove the bobber. Flip the jig atop a pad; then slowly pull it off the edge, and let it flutter enticingly through the water. You’ll quickly discover that bluegills can’t resist a morsel that topples into the water from above.

Topwater Temptations

Small topwater plugs are excellent for catching lily-pad bream. These plugs are available in models mimicking natural bluegill forage such as grasshoppers, small crayfish, little frogs and tiny shad.

Cast the bantam plug to an opening in or beside the pads; then let it sit, with only an occasional twitch to ripple the water’s surface. A curious bluegill, if one is close by, will soon rush in to hit the lure.

If you don’t get a strike on the first cast, make another cast to the same spot. A repeated presentation may coax bluegills into striking.

Blindly working acres of lily pads can be an exercise in frustration. But if you approach a salad bowl with a well-prepared game plan, you can fill your plate with fat bluegills other anglers pass by.

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .

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