Summertime Bluegills on a Fly Rod

The Blues of Summer (Fly Fishing for Summertime Bluegills)

Last summer my bluegill fishing was definitely weird. The fish wouldn’t hit anything, shallow or deep, cork, rubber or feather. They just weren’t interested.  I followed the same time patterns as previous years.  Late afternoon outings that have proven effective, haunting those productive spots.  Things weren’t right, after several trips I concluded – “It couldn’t be me.”

Normally, here in Michigan we have regular rains, but it was drier than usual which slowed my trout trips.  Low warm water had put those beauties off, and I hoped bluegills would satisfy my urge to toss a fly.

So instead of keeping my rod rigged in the car, I broke it down and waited for something to change. 

The Rains Came and Things Turned On

The dry spell ended in late August and I made and I stepped out into freshly washed air, pungent with crushed grass and steaming earth. On the lake a ring appeared and then another as bluegills of all sizes moved into the shoreline to reap a rich reward of drowned insects.

Read about record breaking bluegills in this article:

It was a bluegiller’s dream come true. Big dark-blue bulls jostled shoulder to shoulder with bass and smaller panfish to wolf down the bounty, and anything I threw, from wet flies to surface lures, was grist for their mill. I left with 15 carefully chosen bluegills that had tested my fly rod to the fullest.

Rain and Tossing Flies to Bluegills

The next time it rains I plan to be fishing not loafing. Fly fishing for big spring bluegills is lively sport-easy-simply a matter of traveling to a “borrow ponds” or small lake, walking its shorelines or padding along in a canoe until you find bedding (spawning) fish. Tie on anything that’s reasonably small, and have a field day!

Bedding bluegills are all male, all hungry and all willing to hit anything small that looks remotely like food. But when summer comes along and they’re off the beds, many fly fishermen either give up bluegill fishing or work at it haphazardly.

best time to catch bluegills
just before the sunset can be the best time to catch bluegills

I like summer bluegilling as much as spring fishing, and I catch almost as many big ones as I do in spring. I may work a little harder for my catch and prospect a bit more, but when tasty fillets are sizzling in my skillet, the extra effort seems well worth it. Here’s how I make summer bluegill habits work for me.

Bluegill Movement in Summertime

Bluegills are much like largemouth bass, and one behavioral trait they share is a dislike for wandering. Bluegill form resident groups, even in one acre farm ponds a population will make its home off one point while another occupies a particular bay.

And the groups are more prone to move from deep water to shallow water to do their feeding than to move laterally up and down the shoreline. Also, the populations just don’t mix, except for stragglers.

Bluegills are inclined to leave their summertime deep-water living quarters for shallow water at dawn and dusk. On quiet summer mornings, I’m there just at gray daylight. Then I let the lake decide what pattern I first offer the fish. On many occasions when I reach a quiet lake at dawn, I find it alive with fish dimpling the surface near weedbeds.

Guide Tip: Pay attention to the quirks of the fish and “their pond” the bluegill pods will develop patterns.  In the morning rising to surface bugs and a dusk – taking sub-surface nymphs.

It’s obvious what causes fish to perk up on such occasions: There’s been a hatch of some kind even if the insects are not visible as they come off the water. Often there will be heavy concentrations of rings and boils in some spots.  If possible, I’ll snag some bugs and attempt to match the hatch.

The match is only rough because hungry panfish are unselective feeders. If nothing is showing, I usually tie on a tiny yellow or red-and-white surface popper or beetle, colors that turn bluegills on.

Where to Find Summertime Blues

Then it’s a matter of tossing the bug gently against the edge of weedbeds and other places where activity is high, twitching my offering a time or two and fighting a husky fish. Summer bluegills aren’t hard to please, but in clear waters, a light tippet should be used. Small bluegills are carefree but the larger fish can be spooked by a heavy leader.

My Fly Rod Setup for HOT Bluegills

I prefer a 4X leader in heavy weed cover, finer for open water. If the pond is still at dawn, with few or no signs of feeding fish. I’ll begin with a surface popper, but if it doesn’t produce within 10 minutes I switch to small, dark-colored flies. Again, the fish are not picky. I work the fly around lilypads, weedbeds, and shoreline cover.

If strikes are still slow in coming. I switch to two flies or even three. (A cast of flies is legal in my state.) Two of the flies are short droppers, about a foot apart.

I love fly fishing for bluegills, sunsets on a quiet lake, paddling a canoe – my definition of washing away stress.  I have a complete guide – HERE

Favorite Summertime Flies for Bluegills

If you learn to tie flies, panfish flies are some of the easiest to learn.   A hook around size 14, some craft foam, rubber legs and hackle.  With those items you could catch plenty of slab side bluegills and most other panfish.

Guide Tip: Read more about the flies’ bluegill love in this article.

I’ve got a video about my favorite bluegill flies – check it out below.

Dancing to with the Blues

As morning wears on, I extend my casts a bit farther, and if I’m wet wading I’ll walk 5 to 15 feet offshore where the bottom allows. During these hours bluegill will be moving offshore in gradual migration lingering here or there where they find food. At such times I work weedbeds outer edge rather than the inside edges and sides, and I cast into water from three to five feet deep.

I use small, dark-colored flies, sometimes more than one, but since I’m fishing deeper I either wrap the heads with a tiny bit of lead wire or add a very small split shot to keep the flies from riding up and passing over the heads of prospective customers.

Last year, in midsummer, I tried such techniques on a heavily populated bluegill-and-bass pond, and I learned something that I should have guessed years ago. The pond was a textbook example of good management: “Don’t ever throw back a bluegill. And don’t ever keep a bass unless you’ve hooked it in the throat or gills.”

Smallmouth Bass Fly Fishing
Smallmouth Bass Fly Fishing

Bass are bluegill predators, keeping population numbers down so there will be food for all. The result is rapid fish growth. If the anglers fishing the pond kept bass, the bluegills would quickly overpopulate the pond and become stunted.

In small ponds I simply cast randomly because I’ll cover it all anyway in several hours of fishing.

But in bigger waters that I know will take more than a couple hours to fish, I’ll drag out my canoe.  Remember ‘Gills are most active in those couple hours around sunrise and sunset.

With the canoe I can work where the fish are – weedbeds, shore vegetation; overhanging timber and stumps covered the shoreline, while in other spots the shore was relatively barren of cover. When time is limited, you must be selective and skip less fishy waters.

Catching Bluegills from a Canoe
Catching Bluegills from a Canoe

When the bluegills migrated into the shallows to feed, they do so in or around cover.  When the afternoon heat rolls in that same pod of fish will congregate around deep structure like stump piles and drop-offs.

Deep Water Bluegills

After about 9 am or even as late as 10 the bluegills will be deep, but in a large pond or small lake not as deep as you might think. By midsummer the thermocline (a layer or stratification of water that separates cooler layers below from warmer layers above) in firmly established in many ponds and that band of water effectively cuts the pond’s depths in two, with little or no water circulation in the deeper layers.

Guide Tip: Many shallow lakes and ponds-those less than 10 feet deep-do not stratify.

Some lakes stratify but are occasionally mixed by wind action. Most lakes and ponds less than from 12 to 15 feet deep either don’t stratify or stratify during zero-wind periods and then mix during windy days. The body of water stratifies by water temperature-cold below and warm above-and the fish behave in the best interests of survival.

Guide Tip: Yes, you can nymph for bluegills, learn how in this article.

During the summer plants and aquatic animal life grow and die in the pond’s upper water layers and rain down into the bottom. Bacteria attack the dead matter (detritus) and in the decaying process oxygen is taken from the water. 

Setting Up for Deep Bluegills

I usually don’t chase bluegills deep with a fly rod.  By midday I usually either pack up and take a nap or dig-out spinning gear.

If you’re going to fish through the mid-day heat.  I suggest rigging a black rubber spider, and if it’s not a sinking type, I will add a split shot to the leader to tippet knot.   With a floating line the leader reaches down about six feet. Floating along, gently twitching the spider occasionally and watching ducks dabble along the shoreline.

Floating in a Canoe Fly Fishing for Summertime Blues
Floating in a Canoe Fly Fishing for Summertime Blues

I prefer my 12-foot canoe to find those mid-day bluegills, and if breezes are gently, I’ll drift until I find fish. Larger bluegills have a tendency to gather in loose groups at particularly favored spots, and when I have my first strike, I paddle up wind and drop a small anchor.

It’s just a matter of letting the fly sink to proper depth, twitching it back and being ready for an instant strike. If the fishing slacks off, I pull the anchor and continue the drift.

Guide Tip: Drifting and fishing along the shoreline is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.  Take care and apply sun-screen, fighting fish is fun, but fighting skin cancer sucks!

If you’re shoreline fishing, you’ll follow much the same procedure of moving until you find fish, but since they will usually be in from five to eight feet of water you should stick to the deeper parts of the pond. Most ponds are shallow at one end, deep at the dam end, and of medium depth in between. I simply start at the middle and work toward deep water, ignoring the pond’s shallow end.

Last Cast for the Summer Thinking about Blues

There are fishing variations that can be practiced on summer bluegills, but little more than basic is needed: Fish the shoreline with wet or dry offerings at dawn, slightly deeper water with wets a bit later, then deep water fishing above the thermocline during the day. In the afternoon reverse the process finishing up along the shoreline at twilight. You’ll catch bluegills and plenty of them.

Are you looking for some great How To Fly Fish Articles? Checkout this list:

Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How to Fly Fish

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