Bluegills aren’t the biggest or most glamorous fish to catch with a fly rod, but when you fish for them, the fundamentals are still touched: rigging your equipment, reading the water, casting, presentation, and fly selection. And with bluegills found in abundance in ponds and lakes across the country, catching bluegills and other panfish is the perfect opportunity to hone your fly fishing skills and enjoy being outdoors.
So how do you catch bluegill on a fly rod?
- Bring the right gear. A 3-weight fly rod is about perfect with a floating fly line. Most any reel will work but one with a strong, smooth drag will help you land that occasional bass or pike you may hook into.
- Locate a body of water that panfish love. Luckily, bluegills are super common in North America so finding them shouldn’t be too difficult. Your state’s fish and game agency (like the Natural Resource Commision here in Michigan) is a good source for finding bluegill-holding waters in your area.
- Use the right flies. Many different dry flies, poppers, nymphs, and streamers in smaller sizes are all appealing to bluegills. Looking for a go-to bluegill fly? Read on to see the KILLER fly I use that catches me more ‘gills than any other!
- Time it right and position yourself correctly. Early mornings and evenings are when bluegills are most active, but depending on the time of year, the midday bite could be productive, too. Bluegills tend to stay close to structure, so when in doubt, position yourself within casting range of drop-offs and weedlines.
- Try different fly fishing techniques for bluegill until you unlock the bite code. When bluegills are eating on the surface, sight casting dry flies and poppers is very effective and a great way to practice casting accuracy. Switching to subsurface techniques, tying on either a nymph or a streamer, will help you continue catching as the day (and water) heats up.
My Idea of a Perfect Bluegill Moment
Picture yourself on a lakeside after a hike, your fly rod is in your hand. The sun is 30 minutes from setting—I call this “magic time.” You swat away the occasional mosquito and the frogs are just starting to chirp. You stumble out on a rocky point and sit for a minute soaking in all the sweetness of summer. You cast and feel a tug immediately after the fly hits the water—nothing big, but still exciting. The moment is perfect, the definition of summer in my mind.
So it’s your turn—what do you need to catch bluegill on a fly rod and how can you have your own perfect moment?
Let’s get into it!
Selecting the Gear to Catch Bluegills: Fly Rod, Fly Line & Leader
It seems like every fishing outing starts with this question: what to take? Luckily, a panfish outing doesn’t require much equipment beyond a rod, a line, and a few flies.
When you’re bluegill fishing, keep things simple. Go with minimal gear and focus on getting back to the basics. Having the essentials will allow you to concentrate on casting, observation, and presentation, helping you hone your skills as an angler.
What’s the Best Fly Rod for Bluegill?
I’ve found that a 9-foot 3-weight fast action fly rod is the best all-around choice for catching bluegills. A 3-weight is light enough for an exciting fight with a nice bluegill but still has enough backbone to tame the occasional bass. A rod with a fast action helps punch wind-resistant flies out to 30 or 40 feet.
What’s the Best Fly Line for Bluegill?
For a fly line, a weight-forward line balanced to your rod works well. With a weight forward line, you’ll be able to perform all the bluegill fly fishing techniques I share below. And since you typically have plenty of backcasting room on a bluegill pond, a specialty line for roll casting isn’t needed.
My Go-To Fly Fishing Leader Setup for Bluegill
For a leader, tie on a 9-foot, 4Xt tapered leader plus an additional 16 inches of 5X nylon tippet. I like going with this longer setup because I typically start the day tossing dry flies, then later I’ll switch over to nymphs or small streamers if nothing is happening on top of the water—this simple leader setup covers it all.
My Personal Choice for a Great All-Around Bluegill Fly Rod Setup
If you’re just starting out, don’t over-complicate the gear you buy to catch bluegill. There are many exceptional entry-level fly rods on the market that will give you a solid foundation to start catching: the Redington Classic Trout or the Echo Base are two high quality, affordable options that would serve you well for years to come.
If you’re looking for something that’s a bit more of an investment but delivers a lot more versatility and performance, I highly recommend checking my fly rod of choice: the TFO Drift Fly Rod.
What’s unique about the TFO Drift is that it’s essentially three fly rods in one. Using a set of interchangeable rod sections, the Drift can be fished as a 9’ rod (what I use for bluegills), a 10’ rod, an 11’ 3” inch rod, or a 12’ 3” rod. It also comes with an interchangeable weighted fighting butt and a lower 3-inch cork grip, transforming the Drift from a single-handed rod to a two-handed switch rod.
That’s a lot of options, right?! What’s cool about bluegill fishing, is that if you’re up for it, you could easily try out every iteration of the TFO Drift Fly Rod and start practicing the different techniques for when you hit the trout stream in the fall.
And for My Reel . . .
For a fly fishing reel, if all you’re going to fish for is bluegill and other panfish, having a high-quality reel isn’t super important. Occasionally though, you’re going to hook into something with a little more fight, like a bass or pike. When that happens, having a reel with a decent drag is important.
For the last two years, I’ve been using the TFO BVKII fly reel. It’s a lightweight reel with a super large arbor that balances out my TFO Drift fly rod perfectly. Bluegills never test its drag, but when I get the surprise hit of a bass, I know I have a good chance at landing it with the BVKII.
Other Important Items to Bring when Fly Fishing for Bluegill
Of course, you’ll need a decent selection of flies . . . more on those later but you’ll also need a few other odds and ends to make your bluegill fishing efforts successful.
- Split shot — Add a few tiny split shot to help nymphs get down when fishing to deeper-holding bluegills.
- 5X and 6X tippet — For rebuilding leaders and tying on dropper flies.
- Scissor/hemostat combo — Used to pinch barbs on hooks for easier releases, remove hooks from fish’s mouths, and the scissors can be used for snipping line.
Where to Fly Fish for Bluegill: Finding the Type of Water Panfish Love
Most local ponds and lakes near urban areas in North America probably support populations of sunfish. If a pond doesn’t freeze solid in the winter or dry out completely in the summer, your chances are good that bluegills and panfish will be present.
In Michigan, we have countless ponds and borrow pits in the 5 to 100-acre range that average in depth from 3 to 18 feet deep and provide ideal habitat for bluegills. Finding where the bluegills are holding in these waters can be hit or miss, but by studying the water for a few minutes, you’ll be able to “read” the likely holding areas.
Here are some clues to begin your bluegill search:
- Structure like drop-offs, bars, and points — Look for areas that go from shallow to suddenly deep as these areas give bluegills access to food in the shallows with a quick escape to the protection of deeper water. Bars and points tend to congregate bluegills because as fish move throughout the pond or lake, they must go around these types of structures.
- Weed lines and water lilies — Bluegills love feasting on aquatic insects and anywhere there’s vegetation in the water serves as breeding grounds for the bugs and a constant source of nutrition for bluegills.
- Overhanging trees — Bluegills are pretty low on the food chain and rely on overhead protection to evade airborne predators. Plus, terrestrial insects like ants, beetles, and spiders tend to fall out of such trees directly into the water where they’re promptly slurped up by hungry bluegills. You’ll have to fine-tune your casting to sneak a fly under all those branches, but finding an overhanging tree can be a bluegill gold mine.
- Wind — Gusty conditions can make for difficult fly casting, but light winds break up the surface of the water enough to cause bluegills to let down their guard a bit.
- Lake bottom substrate — Different types of bottom substrate like rocks, gravel, mud, clay, and silt will all attract bluegill.
- Shallow flats during the spawning season — Paddle along the shoreline of a bluegill lake and you’ll see countless saucer-shaped beds dug out along the bottom. These are the nests where bluegills lay their eggs during spawning season and when active, will defend them viciously. Strip a small streamer through a bed and you’re almost guaranteed a hit.
What Kind of Flies for Bluegills?
Just think buggy and squiggly and if you’re over the fish, you’ve got a decent chance of catching one of these yellow belly beauties. But I understand that’s a vague description, so below I’ve included my tried and true flies.
Regardless of the specific fly you’re using, I highly recommend bending down the barbs on your hooks. Although panfish have tiny mouths, they tend to inhale flies deeply. I don’t go out to fill a stringer, so easy hook removal without tearing up the fish is essential.
Onto the flies!
My favorite bluegill fly selection and why:
- White or yellow popper in size 10 — It’s fun to cast poppers and bluegills seem to love them, but these small floating flies made of cork, balsa, or foam can be quite wind-resistant so don’t try to hail mary your casts. Focus on making short 30-foot-ish casts with just enough line out to practice a double haul. As soon as your popper lands on the surface, let it rest for 20 to 30 seconds, then you can try giving the fly some action by twitching and popping to entice a bite.
- Rubber Leg Spider, size 10, black with a little white to help me see it — This is a fly that seldom lets me down. It imitates a spider or beetle squirming around on top of the water and those squiggly legs just draw the ‘gills in.
- Black Elk Hair Caddis, size 14 . . . ‘cause it just looks like so many bugs — A staple in all my fly boxes, an elk hair caddis floats well and is super durable. Plus, bluegills seem to love them!
- Wooly Bugger or Wooly Worm, I like a size 12 on a heavy hook — Not that a ‘gill will bend it, but a heavy hook adds a bit of extra weight to help the fly sink. Lately, I’ve been fishing a variation with an orange bead head with good luck. If the fish are nibbling at the tail without committing, I’ll switch over to the wooly worm and the shorter tail usually does the trick. I like to strip in these small streamers at varying speeds, jump them along the bottom, or even suspend them below an indicator. The flexibility of the Wooly is what made it famous.
- San Juan Worm, size 12 or 14 — Kind of a no-brainer . . . right? Let it drift down slowly, usually if fish are around, it’ll never reach the bottom.
- Clouser Minnow, size 12 — Silver mixed with red and white seems to work best for me. I fish the Clouser by casting parallel to the shore above any drop-offs. Then, I strip it back at a slow to moderate speed. Do the same thing along weed lines and you’ll draw out the occasional bass . . . so hang on!
And now, without further ado . . .
My KILLER Fly — Ready → a SCUD Below a SPIDER!
So I’ll tie on a green size 16 scud dropper below a spider. I’ll toss it as close as I can to lily pads and work it back ever so slowly. As it slowly drops down through the water—BAM! Game on!
When to Fish for Bluegills and Panfish: Time of Year and Time of Day
You can fish for ‘gills all year, but May is one of my favorite times to target them. The ice is out and they seem to be putting on some fat in preparation for spawning. The water is warming so they’ll be moving from deep water to the warmer shallows.
I have great luck fishing those transitions from deep areas to the warmer, shallower bays where the sunfish will be looking for bug life. Remember all those pollywogs from your childhood? That’s a bluegill buffet line.
Bluegills start to spawn in mid-June here in Michigan and it’s all triggered by water temperature. As soon as it climbs to around 70 degrees, the bluegills will start looking to build their nests.
It still amazes me to see dimple after dimple in a shallow bay. I like to think of the beds as a nest. In a local pond, the “nests” will have a little piece of freshwater clam shell shining up from the center. Do the bluegills move the shell there or do they build the bed around it? I guess it’s just another one of Mother Nature’s mysteries.
Sunfish, especially bluegills, are extremely territorial over their nests and anything that gets close is aggressively ambushed and scared off. It’s almost unfair to fish for them at this time. Strip a Clouser minnow over the nest and you’re almost guaranteed a strike.
During the late summer, larger ‘gills will be seeking moderately deep water in the 8 to 15-foot range. These are tougher to catch on the fly but weighted nymphs and streamers will work if you give them time to sink. You’ll still find the little guys hanging out in shallow water, but the big thrillers will have moved deep. I’ve also had luck in late summer casting into the shady areas of a shoreline as panfish (sometimes known as bream) will look for relief from the summer sun.
So What Time of Day to Catch Panfish on a Fly?
I like to describe my favorite time of day for catching bluegill like this:
It’s late June and I just finished dinner and cleaning up the kitchen. By 7 p.m., my wife and I pack up the canoe, a bottle of wine, and our fly rods and head over to the local lake. The lake is about 120 acres and a quick five-minute drive from the house. My canoe always sits on a small trailer so getting out for a quick trip is painless.
At the lake, we paddle to the downwind side of the lake and drop a small anchor 30 feet from the weed line. The water is about 4 to 5 feet deep and shallows to about 3 feet. The water lilies are closing up for the day. We pour a couple glasses of a semi-sweet red and soak in the beauty. By 8:15 pm, the sun is getting close to the treetops and some sparrows will start darting over the water surface.
As the sun dips into the trees, the lake seems to come alive. Tiny frogs start chirping, more sparrows flit over the water. We’ll cast toward the lilies and work the spider with scud dropper back to the canoe. The little wave each quick strip makes can be mesmerizing. We know the fish are there and usually, something will smack the fly about every third cast.
Moral of the story? You can’t go wrong heading out for bluegills right around sunset.
Selecting a Fly Fishing Technique for Catching Bluegills
Now, I’d like to go over the three core techniques you’ll want to try when fly fishing for bluegills.
Dry Fly Fishing for Bluegills
Early in the morning and late in the evening, you’ll see—and hear—bluegills feeding on the surface. The little splashes they make are punctuated by a distinct tail-slapping sound. This is the perfect time to fish dry flies.
Rigging up for dry fly fishing is as simple as it gets. Just tie on your favorite popper or Elk Hair Caddis to the tippet end of the long nylon leader I mentioned previously. You’re ready to fish!
Watch for action on the surface, and when you see a fish rise, make a controlled cast to land your dry fly in the general vicinity of the commotion. If your fly isn’t gulped up instantly, let it sit for a few counts or as long as it takes for the ripples to dissipate.
Then, it’s time to start adding action to the fly. Give it some twitchy movement, but don’t overdo it. If still no hit, pick up and cast again.
Nymphing for Bluegills (With and Without a Strike Indicator)
When bluegills stop hitting on the surface, switching to nymphs will keep you catching as the day progresses. The simplest form of nymphing for bluegills is to tie on a nymph to your tippet just like you would a dry fly. Cast it out, let it sink, and wait for the little thump at the end of your line. If no strike, strip in the fly with some action with plenty of twitches and pauses. Often times, a bluegill will strike as you let the nymph fall.
If you suspect bluegills are holding deeper and aren’t as active, suspending one or two nymphs under a strike indicator can be an effective strategy. You’ll have to adjust the depth of your indicator and play around with fly selection until you find a combination that works. But when you do, you’ll be catching subsurface ‘gills like clockwork.
Streamer Fishing for Bluegills
Based on their size, you wouldn’t think of bluegills as being predatory or overly aggressive. But taunt them with a well-presented Clouser Minnow and you just might unleash the beast.
This is especially true when bluegills are on their spawning beds defending their eggs and newly hatched young against invaders. And when you’re a spawning bluegill, just about everything qualifies as an invader—that includes streamer flies.
With a streamer like Wooly Bugger, Wooly Worm, or Clouser Minnow tied to your leader, cast beyond your target, then slowly and twitchily strip the streamer through or over the bed. If the bluegill doesn’t attack immediately, let the fly sink and rest on the bottom. Bluegills keep their nests extremely tidy and will remove any pieces of debris from their nest.
But don’t think of streamers as a spawn-time-only technique when fishing for bluegills. Try fishing streamers along weed lines, under overhanging trees, over and around rocks on the bottom, and if there are bluegills around, you’ll know it by the tug.
Catch More Bluegills to Hone Your Skills for Your Other Fly Fishing Pursuits!
Fly fishing for bluegills is a target-rich activity. And as with anything that takes practice to get good at, the more time you spend with a fly rod in your hand and a fish on the line, the more skilled you’ll become as an angler. So even though bluegills aren’t as sexy or sporty as other species like trout and salmon in freshwater or bonefish and tarpon in saltwater, here’s the key takeaway:
The skills you learn and hone through fly fishing for bluegills will directly translate into better fishing on your more exotic fly fishing pursuits.
From rigging up and choosing the perfect fly to developing better casting accuracy and distance, every ‘gill you haul in will take you one step closer to fly fishing mastery. Plus, if you have children or family members who want to learn how to fly fish, bluegills serve as a great introduction to the world of fly fishing in a low pressure, convenient way. At the very least, you’ll get the benefit of fresh air and beautiful scenery. It’s a win all the way around!