Weather is the No. 1 factor that influences targeting and catching early-season ‘gills, according to Rose. If the weather is warming the water up, it is time to get out on the lake.
By David Rose
It doesn’t take long for ice cover on a lake to melt away once spring-like weather loosens winter’s frigid grasp. For avid anglers, the newly-open water of a lake known for its booming bluegill population is a welcome sight.
The moment the solidified surface disappears, water temperatures quickly rise and panfish immediately start migrating towards the warmest areas in the system. The water is the clearest it will be all year, and the likely locations bluegill will be are easy to spot with nothing more than a pair of polarized sunglasses, you may even see the fish.
What is the best part of targeting ‘gills this time of year? The fish are hungry, and fooling them with artificial offerings over live bait is a great way to go. And once you figure out what bait, exactly, is triggering the most strikes, the catching will come easy.
But there’s more to catching pre-spawn ‘gills than just an aimless cast out into the abyss; several environmental factors need to be taken into consideration before fooling them with fake baits can begin.
The heat is on
Generally, anglers head for the shallows to find panfish in the spring; which, overall, is a good ploy. But the fish aren’t always lurking within the skinniest water.
Shallow bays with a dark, silted bottom will warm first as the blackened lake base absorbs sun rays and heats the surroundings. Also, it’s the shorelines on the northern half of a lake that sees the most sunshine due to the position of the sun during this time of year. And bluegills, being the cold-blooded creatures they are, will head right for these warming waters as soon as they start warming into the 40’s.
But a springtime cold front can kill a good shallow-water bite. The panfish that had once been basking in the warmth while searching for the year’s first hatching insects will vacate the shallows in mere minutes the moment the weather starts to turn.
Overall, fish won’t go far when the pressure starts falling and the wind kicks up. The first steep drop-offs nearest the shallow water are where the majority of bluegill will head; there they’ll stick tight to structure like weeds, wood or rock. Depending on the lake, the fish may move off into the water in the 10- to 20-foot depth.
If the weather turns severe enough, the fish may belly-up to bottom amongst the structure and become lethargic. As the cold front passes, however, the fish will start to rise higher in the water column along the steep breaks before it turns warm enough for fish to head back in the shallows.
Rose displays a nicely-colored pumpkinseed that he caught using a jig in early spring. Pumpkinseeds are very similar to bluegill and can often be caught on the same lakes.
Do you see what I see?
The structure you should be casting to is easy to spot this time of year by donning nothing more than a pair of high-quality polarized sunglasses to cut surface glare. A long-brimmed also helps to cast shade over your eyes.
Most structure will show up as dark patches under the surface, no matter what type it is. And whether you’re in a boat or wading, the key is to stay as far back from the structure as possible so as not to spook fish. And fish are easily scared off in the clear-water conditions of spring, with nothing more than a shadow or the slightest movement sending them into a panic. One tip is to keep your clothing to dull, natural colors to help camouflage your actions.
While short rods create more accurate casts, long rods will send a lure flying farther. Light and ultralight spinning rods of 7 feet and longer are best for bluegills this time of year. A soft, subtle line of 2- to 4-pound test is perfect for tying tiny jigs to, as the small diameter allows your lure the most natural movement under water.
While monofilament has been a go-to line for decades, it has enough stretch to it that getting a good hook set on a long cast can be difficult. Fluorocarbon, on the other hand, has much less stretch to it, is smaller in diameter than monofilament of the same pound test and is nearly invisible in the water. And unlike the lines of yesteryear, modern-day fluorocarbon is much softer and has less memory, so coiling off the spool is no longer an issue and allows it to be cast farther.
The great fake bait debate
Walk into an aisle full of softbaits and jigs for catching panfish in your favorite tackle shop and you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the choices. And to tell you the truth, most every artificial will catch fish.
With that said, bluegills are targeting the tinniest forage this time of year — minuscule morsels such as bloodworms, water daphnia and freshwater shrimp filling their gullets. It’s the smallest jigs you can find, including some of the very ice-fishing baits you offered up during the ice season, that best emulate the forage ‘gills are feasting on.
Don’t overlook slightly bigger baits you’d consider throwing for bass, though. The old adage “bigger baits catch bigger fish” holds true with big bluegills, too. Rubber worms up to 4 inches have taken plenty of big bull bluegills in the past.
Overall, choose the softest soft-plastics you can find, and use small jigs with fine hackle or marabou feathers tied in. Even when the jig is sitting still, the pliable baits and feathers will waft in the water current, similar to the lags and gills of aquatic insects and crustaceans.
While catching bluegills before they spawn is actually quite easy, it’s also far from a no-brainer.
The key to catching success lies in paying attention to the weather conditions and then start probing for fish. If the weather has been warm for several days, search the shallows, and if a cold front is creating chaos, make your casts into deeper water near their shallow-water haunts. Tie your tiny tidbits to ultra-light line, and make as long of casts as you can muster to structure. You’ll be eating bluegill for supper in no time.