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Part One Hundred fourty

Fly Rodding for River Bluegills

By Ronald A. Kanarr


How do you remember bluegills? For many it was probably the first fish you caught as a child when your parents took you fishing.

Remember how bored you became from catching nothing but bluegills several years later with a bobber and worm? At this point you must have graduated to largemouth bass with shiners and lures. Trout fishing is usually in the mix also as you got older.

But what ever happened to the bluegill? When you fished for the largemouth bass and you caught bluegill instead either you or your fishing buddy said "Lets move to where the fish are." We're all guilty of it - losing respect for the bluegill and moving on to bigger quarry. It is a part of learning the whole fishing process and learning new types of fishing. Besides, who doesn't want to catch big fish?

Now that you have used advanced techniques, caught those big fish, traveled to those exotic places to catch a fish of a lifetime and all of your fishing dreams are now memories, what do you do? What do you fish for when fishing in exotic places gets boring? When there is no enthusiasm for landing sea run brown trout in Argentina?

For most of us, fishing is too much a part of our lives, rooted too deeply in who we are, flows through our veins like red blood cells, to give up all together.

So what do you do? Try going back to basics and catch monster bluegill. If you think finding monster bluegill is easy, think again. If you have gone to far off places, surely you have some advanced skills that you can apply to catching monster bluegill.

Can you remember where to find bluegill? The following techniques I have found to be productive in rivers with slow meandering currents, particularly the lower Lehigh River in southeastern Pennsylvania. This is where I have fine tuned the techniques to catch bluegill. However these techniques can be used on virtually any river.

The lower Lehigh River has great bluegill opportunities with a fly rod. The slow, deep waters of the lower portion of the river mimic lakes such as Beltzville and Nockimixon and have the same dinner-plate-sized bluegill.

With a flyrod and a handful of nymphs and poppers you too can catch these big little fish.

The lower Lehigh River is popular for muskie, catfish and smallmouth bass. Boaters and jetskies stir up the water to the point where fishing for bass and catfish can be difficult. But the stirred up water has little or no effect on the bluegill, especially in the summer when water sports are at their height.

The spring's pre-spawn and spawn are the best and most productive time to catch bluegill. At this time, the male bluegills are moving into shallow water to build the nest while the females are waiting nearby in the deep water for the proper conditions to arise to join the males and spawn. The males get very protective of the nest and will chase smaller fish away and bite at just about anything that gets close.

This is the time to use nymphs if you know there are fish in an area that is too deep for surface poppers (more than forty inches). Nymphs such as Bully's Bluegill Spider in sizes 8 to 12, Pheasant Tail Nymphs in size 12 to 16, Woolly Buggers and Crawfish patterns in sizes 10 and 12 also work well. Any nymph that looks buggy enough to be a good meal will work.

Poppers are my all-time favorite to use for bluegill. I learned to fly fish with poppers and thus they hold a place in my heart. Just as using a Heddon Torpedo for bass, you want all the ripples to fade before giving the popper any action. Once the ripples fade, I twitch for several inches and pause, then twitch. This is hard to do for more than six to eight feet before you need to mend the line since the current is swinging your line downstream. You also may not have the time to wait for the ripples to fade since the current is moving your line downstream. Try to keep your cast within twelve feet of the bank upstream, twitching and pausing and twitching as the current brings the line and popper below you or over your target. Bluegill wack the poppers most when it has paused. Trust me, if your are not paying attention to the popper you will hear it and your natural hook-set instinct will take over. Poppers work best in the shallow water, under overhanging trees and at the edges of exposed and over submerged brush piles.

The size of the poppers I use are 10 and 12, mostly the ten. I have lost many nice smallmouth because of the size 12. Because bluegill have small mouths, keep in mind that poppers should stay small. You want the fish to be able to fit the popper in it's mouth.

The color of the popper is always important but the action of the rubber legs is what triggers the bluegill to strike. Bumblebee patterns with more yellow than black don't work well for me. But if I have a bumble bee pattern with equal amounts of yellow and black and a couple rubber legs, I can catch surprisingly more fish. Therefore, I stay away from large amounts of yellow and look for the rubber legs.

I experiment with different colors and color combinations and stick with the one that is getting the most action. From experience, though, white with white trailing feathers and rubber legs or solid black with either white or black feathers and rubber legs work all spring through summer. The majority of the poppers sold in K-Mart and Wal-Mart come in many different color combinations. My best advice is to have many combinations with you and try them all.

I also use what I call a tandem setup. It has two poppers about twelve inches apart, one large popper and one smaller popper or one popper and a nymph. These setups are action packed; if you aren't hooking fish at least you are getting action.

I like to use a big White Sneaky Pete with a size twelve black popper. Keep the big popper up front; doing so will help get the energy for the trailing smaller popper to land farther away, and not on top of the forward popper. I hardly ever miss a bass on the larger Sneaky Pete.

If there are many bluegill nests in a small area, the two small poppers are a lot of fun; especially if you get a double hook up. One popper and one nymph works well when you are searching an unfamiliar area. The popper covers the shallow water and the nymph covers the deeper water. Be careful that the nymph is not so big that it pulls the popper under. The popper can also serve as a strike indicator for the nymph.

Since I can't afford a fancy rod for all my fishing needs, I use an inexpensive nine foot, six weight with the floating line. Stick with rods that are at least seven feet long at a six weight or less.

To fish to these protective males, which also have a voracious appetite in pre-spawn and spawn, I use two types of line. One is a sink tip and the other is a full floating weight forward line. The sink-tip works well if all you are going to do is use nymphs. I stick with the weight forward line since I use poppers seventy-five percent of the time. If I'm using nymphs and need to get it down a little deeper, I will add micro shot. If I want to go to a popper I just have to put on a popper, not change lines or use another rod.

Leaders can be scientific but not in the case of bluegill fishing. To get started, use a new six to seven foot trout leader with a three pound tippet. This long leader will not function well with a size ten nymph or a popper because the energy cannot be transferred quickly down the leader. As you change your offering, the leader will get shorter and the energy will transfer quicker to the offering and will splash on the water.

When a leader gets too short, I tie on tippet material. For bluegill I use two or three pound test. The tippet material can be joined with blood, nail or loop knots. I prefer the latter because it's quick and easy, although it can get clogged with dirt and grass.

In the slow currents of the lower Lehigh River, bluegill locate themselves close to the bank. Generally there is deep water nearby where they can escape in emergencies. Walking along the banks, you can see there are fallen trees and brush piles that hold the bluegill. This is where to fish in the morning and evening of hot summer months. Using a single popper fished slowly will get a 'wack' from a bluegill.

Casting around fallen trees is often difficult. There may be tree branches surrounding your casting area. With my nine foot rod, I have to do a lot flipping and tossing of the popper to get it placed just right and not get it tangled in any branches. This is the most challenging of bluegill fishing on the river, but if you hook into a couple and land them without tangling in branches, give yourself a pat on the back.

Deep water fishing needs a bit more patience. Unlike shallow water fishing, the fish in deep water, over 36 inches, don't have much of a chance of a seeing a popper on the surface.

In deep water, a tandem setup with a popper and a nymph on a 36 inch dropper leader works well. A single or double nymph or woolly bugger works best. Fish these slowly and several inches off the bottom with a sink tip line. Along the Lehigh River is a canal, starting at Canal Park in Allentown and going downstream to the Bethlehem Boat Club. At the start of the canal in Allentown, the water moves very slowly and there is also vegetation for largemouth bass. There are also overhanging tress that a roll cast can get your popper under. Poppers and hopper patterns are fantastic here. Don't be embarrassed to fish these as they hold bluegill, rock bass, smallmouth and pickerel.

The canal starts again at Island Park in Bethlehem down to the forks of the Delaware River. At this section, the canal has concrete walls where you can sight fish and actually see them take your offering is very exciting. Water falls in this section help debris collect and fish stay near.

Go out and try these techniques. See how hard bluegill fishing really is. When you catch them ask yourself, "How much do I respect bluegills?" Once you have found that enthusiasm again, you will start to think back to when you first caught your first bluegill. Memories will dance in your head of past fishing experiences with friends, family or by yourself. You will feel things that you may have forgotten while you were off fishing in an exotic place. ~ Ronald A. Kanarr

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