If you just want to go out and catch a few fish, it’s hard to find a better quarry than the humble sunfish. The classic “sunfish” is the bluegill. But there are several other common members of this group that local anglers can catch in ponds, lakes and rivers in or near the Shenandoah Valley. These include redears, also called shellcrackers, redbreast sunfish, and pumpkinseeds.
One of the most reliable ways to catch these “sunfish” is with live bait. A worm or cricket is almost guaranteed to produce fast action. These “panfish” are also superb targets for the fly fisherman with a 4 or 5 weight outfit. They will eagerly nab rubber spiders on top and wet flies slow-crawled beneath the surface.
The sunfish clan are also great species to go after with ultralight lures on a spinning outfit.
The main feature any sunfish lure should have is compactness. With tiny mouths, bluegills simply can’t get their lips around a big lure. But if you keep this requirement of compactness in mind, bluegills will actually strike a wide variety of artificial baits. Some days they’ll nab a spinner flashing through their weedy lair, other times they’ll wallop a spoon or prefer a subtle grub slinking past a sunken log.
After years of fishing for these diminutive gamefish, I’ve found there are several lures that consistently yield the best results. Here’s a rundown on these top picks with details on how to fish them.
Grubs. A leadhead jig of 1/64 to 1/8 ounce with a soft plastic body is without question the single most productive bluegill lure of all. Sunfish like a lure that looks like an aquatic insect. They also like subtle, non-flashy offerings. A grub satisfies both these requirements.
The best grub bodies for bluegills and shellcrackers are short and stubby—either single or split tail. Top colors include pumpkinseed, motor oil, smoke, chartreuse, orange and black. The whole lure should measure an inch or less.
A slow, steady retrieve works best, though pausing occasionally helps in deep water. If you really need to slow things down, put a bobber on the line so the lure can suspend as you inch it back.
Spinnerbaits. While the plain grub is usually best, sometimes the same basic lure rigged on a safety-pin spinnerbait frame, such as the famous Beetle Spin, is a better bet. This gives a slightly larger offering and the small Colorado spinner adds a bit of flash. That can be helpful when the water is murky or when the fish are feeding aggressively.
Though a steady retrieve is usually best, sometimes a stop and go presentation works well. Cast out, let the spinnerbait sink near the bottom, and then begin a smooth retrieve. Half way back, or when you come to a log or weed bed, pause suddenly. Bluegills will nail the lure as it drops.
Spinners. Another top choice for cloudy water or actively-feeding fish is a plain spinner. Some I’ve had good luck with include the Mepps, Blue Fox, Panther Martin, Worden Rooster Tail and Luhr-Jensen Shyster. Choose small models and stock a variety of blade colors including silver, gold, black and fluorescent hues for murky water.
Retrieve spinners slowly and steadily. Reel just fast enough to get the blade revolving. Strikes are often belligerent with these lures.
Carolina-rigged Plastics. You’ve likely used this setup for bass, but Carolina-style rigging also offers a very productive way to catch bluegills. Rig an egg sinker weighing 1/8-3/8 ounce ahead of a barrel swivel and bead, with the lure trailing 18-36 inches behind. Alternately, use one large round split shot ahead of the offering.
For the lure, a good choice is a thin plastic worm in the 2-4 inch range with pre-rigged hooks, or a single exposed hook. Another option is a small grub, hooked lightly through the head, just 1/8-inch in from the tip, on a size 8-10 short-shank hook. This setup is especially appealing to fish on heavily-pressured waters and clear lakes. But be forewarned—you might also latch onto a 5-pound bass with this offering!
Spoons. Small versions of these wobbling chunks of metal can be excellent choices for bluegills in both lakes and rivers. Cast to cover or eddies in streams and retrieve just fast enough to make the spoon undulate seductively. Silver, gold, green and black are the best colors, with 3/4-1 ¼ inches a good length.
For fish holding in deep areas in winter or summer, slab-type jigging spoons are excellent choices. Position yourself above the quarry or good-looking structure in deep water. Then lower the spoon to the appropriate level and jig it slowly and rhythmically up and down 6-18 inches with pauses between the lifts.
Most fish will strike on the drop, so be ready. If a bull bluegill is nearby, a thumping take is almost guaranteed!
A 5-6 ½-foot light action rod coupled with an open-faced spinning reel with a smooth drag and 4-6 pound monofilament is perfect for almost all bluegill fishing. In some cases, you can also use a cane pole or fly rod effectively to simply reach out and flip grubs and spinnerbaits next to cover and tussle with your quarry up close.