SAMBURG, Tenn. – As we troll past a couple of the 200-year-old cypress trees that dot northwest Tennessee’s Reelfoot Lake, Alan Clemons gets a whiff of his childhood.
It's a hint of stale sweetness, akin to a slightly over-ripe cantaloupe or watermelon. Not unpleasant and immediately recognizable.
“In the spring when they’re spawning, you can smell them,” says Clemons. “It’s a very distinctive smell.”
It’s also something of a time portal.
“I learned that when I was about 7 or 8 years old and fishing with my mother and father on Big Nance Creek in northern Alabama,” the 52-year-old married father of two explains. “My mother could smell them. She would say, ‘We need to stop right here.’ And we’d stop and anchor up and start catching bluegill.
“I’ve never forgotten that spring bluegill spawning aroma. It’s different than what people know as a fishy odor, like at the market or docks. Once you get a whiff and realize what it is, you'll not forget it.”
That’s what bluegill can do for you. They bind us to memories that span generations. Clemons’ mother, Ann, died in 1984. But the scent of spawning bluegill pulled her presence into the boat as if she were sitting in the bow seat.
“If you’re trolling along a bank calmly and quietly, and if the water is clear enough, you’ll probably smell that; that sweet smell,” Clemons adds. “And you’ll know you are in the right spot.”
Perhaps that’s why bluegill — scrappy, hard-fighting and one of the most widely distributed fish in America and beyond — are so popular among anglers of all ages and skill levels.
Or it could be because they’re so darn fun to catch.
“Nothing will paste a silly grin on the face of even the most seasoned angler (faster) than catching a bluegill he or she can barely wrap their hand around,” says Jeff Samsel, content specialist for Thill Floats and a dedicated bluegill fisherman. “I’ve heard people jest that if a bluegill got as big as a bass you couldn’t reel it in, and that’s almost true. They’re flat-sided and all muscle. A bluegill is brutally strong for its size, making for great sport.
“They don’t draw many headlines, but every angler enjoys catching them. They are every angler’s fish.”
Bluegill, like their aquatic cousin the largemouth bass and 25 other kindred species, are members of the sunfish family. They are found across most the United States, Mexico and southern Canada, and have been introduced to waters in Europe, Asia, South America and beyond.
They are popular with fishermen for several reasons: They swim nearly everywhere freshwater flows, they provide tremendous sport on light tackle, they’re delicious when lightly battered and fried. And they are relatively easy to catch, particularly in spring and summer during the spawn.
A bluegill spawning bed can contain 50 or more nests. These are roundish areas fanned out by males on a relatively firm, smooth bottom. Find one bluegill and you’ll typically find a bunch. Presented with bait they will usually strike. Hard.
While spawning bluegill are found in bunches, they are not inextinguishable, cautions Billy Blakley. He is the head guide at Blue Bank Resort on Reelfoot Lake, a bluegill lodestone folded into the northwest corner of Tennessee. When fishing a spawning bed, Blakley only puts male bluegill on ice. Males typically are darker than females and have an orangish colored breast.
“Don’t keep females off a (spawning) bed,” says Blakley. “That’s a bad thing to do. It will dry the bed up.”
During the spawn, look for bluegill in 2 to 6 feet of water, often near woody cover or vegetation. Later in the summer when fish move away from spawning areas you’ll find them in deeper, cooler water. But they tend to travel in bunches, strike with vengeance and fight with fury.
“Bluegill can be fished for almost year-round,” says retired Kentucky fisheries biologist Paul Rister. “During the spawning period you want to fish shallow. If you are in an area with vegetation or fallen brush, I’d fish the edges of that cover. After the spawn the bigger bluegill might be found on deeper banks. But bluegill are not picky eaters.”
Pound for pound, bluegill might be one of the strongest freshwater fish. They are often described in colorful, shirtsleeve terms: For most anglers a hand-size bluegill (6 to 9 inches, roughly, depending the size of one’s had) would be a keeper fish. An 8-inch fish would be about a half-pound bluegill. A 1-pound bluegill (an 11- to 12-inch fish) is rare and a 2-pound 'gill is the catch of a lifetime for most bluegill fishermen. However, bigger bluegill do swim. The International Game Fish Association’s all tackle world record bluegill is a 4-pound 12-ounce brute — a heavyweight mark that has stood 68 years.
You’re probably not far from good bluegill fishing. Reelfoot is a top destination for big bluegill and plenty of them. But it’s hardly the only one. Clemons also recommends Guntersville Lake in northern Alabama and Lake Seminole on the Georgia-Florida line for strong numbers of big 'gills.
I’ve fished for bluegills from the Dakotas (North and South) to Virginia, including in my home state of Kentucky. But the largest bluegills I’ve caught came from a small remote lake in Ontario’s Killarney Provincial Park.
Samsel suggests South Carolina’s Santee Cooper and Pymatuning Reservoir, which straddles the Pennsylvania-Ohio border about 50 miles northeast of Youngstown, Ohio, as other don’t miss bluegill spots.
But good fishing is likely closer than you think.
“Some waters are more productive than others, of course,” Samsel says. “But one of the very best things about bluegill fishing is that the action can be good in so many places — and the best place to fish for many people is as close as a neighborhood pond, county park lake or creek that runs through town.”
Successful tactics for bluegill fishing fit any fishing budget or style; from a cane pole and a box of worms to a four-figure fly rod tipped with a hand-tied fly.
Blakley is a cricket-fished-under-a-bobber man.
“When they’re on the beds it’s nothing but crickets for me,” he says. “I like 6-pound (test) line, a small Thill slip bobber, a small sinker and a No. 6 wire hook and a cricket. You can’t beat it.”
That’s one method but not the only one. Catch 'gills with fly or spinning gear and artificial or live bait via boat, canoe, kayak, float tube or wading.
“An added appeal of bluegill fishing is that these fish can be caught so many different ways,” Samsel notes, “including bait fishing or spin fishing with ultralight lures and fly-fishing.
Bluegill aren’t the perfect fish. But they might be close, says Samsel, who is an internationally traveled angler who has landed dozens of species. Like many anglers, he loves returning to his roots.
“I don't know of anything else that can make someone who has fished around the world or caught other species of big fish get so happy and excited as when they catch a big bluegill,” he says. “It just takes them back to being a kid no matter how old they are or where they've fished or what size fish they've caught.”
If you go:
Blue Bank Resort: bluebankresort.com; (877) 258-3226
Scientific name: Lepomis macrochirus
Other common names: Bream (also brim). Copper nose.
Bluegill are a natural forage fish for bass. Proper pond management hinges on the right balance of bluegill and bass.
Fishing tip No. 1: If you’re not catching bluegill, move, says Jeff Samsel, content specialist for Thill Floats. “One of the biggest mistakes is sitting still too long when you haven’t found a fish. When you move along until you find them, that’s when you want to stop and capitalize on that spot. But if you get too camped out on an area and the fish aren’t biting, there’s no reason to do that. They’re somewhere.”
The bluegill spawn is typically driven by water temperatures, not the moon phase or calendar date. “At Reelfoot Lake (northwest Tennessee) it usually starts around mid-May when the water temperature gets around 75,” says veteran guide Billy Blakley. “Last year I caught them on beds into the third week of August. When the weather gets hot we start at daybreak and fish until around 11 o’clock.”
Fishing tip No. 2: Fish quietly. “Don’t make a lot of racket in the boat,” advises Blakley. “That’s the worst thing you can do.”
Bluegill will fit almost any fishing style: “Bluegills can be caught many ways,” says Samsel, who employs several approaches to catching the tasty, hard-fighting panfish. “I like to fish a Rebel Crickhopper and cast it near cover. It’s a shallow-running crankbait that looks like a cricket. But when you reel it real slow, it wakes on the surface. You can also twitch it on the surface and kind of dance it around.”
Samsel also likes to fish a duel rig with a nymph fished under a Rebel Micro Pop-R. “Bluegill will sometimes come up and smack the popper, then take the fly and the popper will shoot under like a bobber,” he says. “It’s a fun way to catch them.”
Few tactics, Samsel adds, are more efficient and productive than bait: “It’s tough to top a simple float rig, with a small float set a few feet above a small, long-shank hook and a split shot about 6 inches above the hook. Bait the hook with a live cricket or a worm, cast it near shallow cover and watch for the cork to dart out of sight.”
Fishing tip No. 3: Put the bait in front of the fish. “I like to fish about eight inches off the bottom,” says Blakley. “If I’m in 4 feet of water, I’ll fish about 40 inches deep.”
Fishing tip No. 4: After the spawn. “One of the things you do then is take a spinning rod and create a drop-shot rig,” says Alan Clemons. “Use the same weight line and hook as with the shallow-water rig. But when you tie on the hook, leave the tag end of the line about 18 to 24 inches long. Don’t cut that off but add the weight (¼- to ½-ounce sinker depending on how deep you’re fishing) to it. You want go down to get them. It’s a very effective rig later in the year when they are out in deeper water. You can do that at any depth. It might be 8 feet and it might be 28 feet.”