Now that fall is here and winter isn’t far away, most Arkansas anglers have quit fishing for bluegills and stored away their panfishing tackle until spring rolls around again. Many Natural State fishermen believe bluegills quit biting when the water gets cold, so fishing for these delicious fish is fruitless. Fortunately, that’s untrue. Bluegills actually stay active throughout the cold months, and this is a great time of year to catch dozens if you use the proper fishing tactics.
Catching bluegills this season can be challenging, no doubt. These popular panfish may get very lethargic when the water falls to frigid extremes, making it difficult to coax the fish to strike. Those that will grab a bait or lure may do so in a manner that’s almost undetectable.
Despite these difficulties, however, bluegills can be caught in cold water if you employ some of the following tactics I’ve learned during several decades of fishing for them.
Use the right bait
You’ll catch more fish if you use live baits or lures resembling the bottom invertebrates that winter bluegills relish. Small red wiggler worms weighted with just one or two tiny split shot are my favorite bait this season, but I’ve also enjoyed success fishing with tiny jigs, freshwater shrimp, mealworms, waxworms and crickets.
If you enjoy fly-fishing, wet flies resembling insect larvae and nymphs are especially effective. A sinking fly line can carry these patterns down where big bluegills are feeding, where you work the fly with little twitches. The sight of such a fidgety tidbit tempts even the most jaded piscatorial taste buds.
If you try jigs, stick to the smallest sizes. I prefer 1/100- or 1/64-ounce leadheads in winter because these tinier versions sink slower and more naturally. That can make an important difference in the catch rate when bluegills aren’t aggressive.
Use light tackle
I prefer a 6- or 7-foot ultralight rod with a soft tip and a small spinning or underspin reel filled with 2-pound-test fluorocarbon or monofilament line this season. This rig exhibits sensitivity not found with larger tackle and permits you to detect the most delicate nibbles.
Four- to 6-pound-test line may seem small enough, but if panfish are finning their noses at your offerings, dropping to 2-pound-test can greatly increase your catch. Light line also permits longer casts with tiny panfish lures and small live baits. By keeping a distance from your fishing hole, you’re less likely to spook wary fish.
Fish on the bottom in deep water
You probably won’t find cold-water bluegills in shallow cover near shore. When the water cools, these panfish move to deeper structure such as creek channels, bluff edges, deep ends of points and deep holes in ponds. The best spots have timber, undercut banks, crevices between rocks and other cover where bluegills can hide from predators. A fish-finder and underwater camera can help you find these locales.
Because there are fewer insects for bluegills to eat, the fish change to a diet consisting largely of bottom invertebrates such as insect larvae, nymphs and various worms. Thus, you’ll usually catch more fish if you present your bait or lure directly on, or just inches above, the bottom.
Try European-style floats
If you prefer to fish with a float so you can see when a fish bites, avoid plastic snap-on bobbers and foam or cork floats that you peg on your line. Instead, try a European-style “antenna” float like Thill’s Super Shy Bite.
If a bluegill is feeding on or near the bottom and takes your bait, it may swim upward after inhaling the enticement. A regular bobber never moves, leading to missed fish. But a European-style float will signal a taker.
Attach the float to your line according to package directions. Then tie on a hook, and start adding small split-shot between the hook and float. Use just enough split shot so 1/4-inch of the bobber protrudes above the water when it floats. Now if a bluegill swims upward after grabbing the bait, it removes some weight off the line, and the super-sensitive bobber rises enough to clearly indicate a bite. Watch closely and be prepared to set the hook.
Be prepared for light bites
The strikes of winter bluegills are usually “soft.” They feel like the hook has snagged a leaf. Be prepared to set the hook the instant your line goes slack or your bait doesn’t feel right. Don’t wait for anything else. Set the hook and note where the fish was when it struck. Where you catch one bluegill, you’ll usually find several more.
Vary your presentation
On really tough days, you may find it’s little things that keep bluegills from biting. Take split shot for instance. When bream won’t bite, it may help to remove all split shot and try fishing wigglers, mealworms or waxworms without any weight. Many times this is all it takes to stir fish into action.
Another way to arouse the feeding instincts of persnickety winter bluegills is to slow your retrieve. Let’s say, for example, you’ve found bluegills suspended at mid-depths and are trying to catch them on a small spinner. In this case, you may need to move the lure at a snail’s pace to garner a strike. You can do this by rigging a sliding bobber on the line so the lure is suspended at the depth fish are holding. This allows you to slow your presentation and keep the spinner in the strike zone. Use a variety of retrieves — small twitches, a slow steady retrieve or long pulls with a few seconds of motionlessness between — until you determine the best pattern.
Trying new presentations like these may be just what the panfish doctor ordered.
Regardless of the season, the key to finding and catching bluegills is flexibility. You must be willing to try different lures and baits, various depths, different types of cover and structure, and a variety of presentations until you strike pay dirt.
When you do establish a productive pattern, remember it for future reference. If you visit the same body of water or one similar to it during the same season under similar weather and water conditions, chances are good the same fishing pattern will bring you luck again.
And if the bluegills won’t bite? Well, kick back, relax, breathe some fresh air and enjoy yourself. They’ll start biting sooner or later. They always do. And when they do, you’ll have some fresh memories to remind you of the fun outing you had.