Fly Fishing for Bluegill: Essential How-To Guide

Fly Fishing For Bluegill Feature image

Some of my earliest memories are of stepping through a barbed-wire fence and following my dad and brother down a dirt trail leading to a local pond to chase hungry bluegills. The sun just barely breaking over the horizon, we found an opening in the cattails to bait a hook and launch an earthworm that I helped dig the day before into the water.

It wouldn’t be long before the red and white bobber started twitching. Setting the hook was a skill to be learned later, but boy, could I crank that snoopy rod with gusto, and within seconds I had a small, brilliantly decorated bluegill on shore and quickly into a bucket. The fish was no trophy, but I didn’t care. The experience left a lasting impression on me. 

Catching bluegill never gets old. While I spend most of my time fly fishing rivers for trout, the carefree memories of my youth remain. Every once in a while, I return to my roots to go after these eager sunfish – only these days I’m fly fishing for bluegill. 

How effective is Fly Fishing for Bluegill?

Fly fishing for Bluegill
Fly fishing is a great technique for catching bluegill

Bluegill can be caught with a variety of fishing techniques, including fly fishing. Small bluegill are opportunistic feeders offering fly anglers options in their pursuit. We may have grown up fishing for these guys with a container of worms, but today, you can have just as much fun casting an assortment of small poppers, dry flies; go subsurface with nymphs and even tiny streamers. If it fits in their mouth, a tied fly should be considered fair game for fly fishing to bluegill.

Choosing the Right Gear to Catch Bluegills: Fly Rod, Fly Line & Leader

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You don’t need fancy gear to catch bluegill on the fly

What’s the Best Fly Rod for Bluegill?

You can leave your standard trout fly rod at home. Even what is consider a big bluegill will only reach about a pound in weight. A seven- or eight-foot, three-weight fly rod will allow you to cast your ultra-light rig to areas of structure where bluegill will congregate. A medium to slow action rod will provide an exhilarating bend from these little fighters.

Fly Reels for Bluegill fishing

Add a reel that matches your 3-weight rod. You don’t need to worry about the drag because you won’t use it. Instead, you will only need the reel to hold your fly line and release enough to reach the fish. 

What’s the Best Fly Line for Bluegill?

Choose a weight forward line, that floats and balances the weight of your fly rod. Anglers will find most bluegill in shallows, which a short, tapered leader will be able to reach. Even the larger fish, which prefer to remain deeper than the rest, can be caught with floating line and an eight to nine-foot tapered leader. 

Best Fly Fishing Leader Setup for Bluegill

While bluegill are not particularly leader-shy, it is worth considering the type of leader you add to your bluegill setup. I am unlikely to add a tapered leader that is stronger than 5X. Most of the fish you will catch will be small but feisty. Refrain from loading up on 7X. There is always a chance that a big bluegill lurks just beyond the little guys. Such a bluegill is only 10 to 12 inches long. However, these once-in-a-lifetime ‘gills will fight like a solid trout. I’d hate to lose that fish because I was all too happy playing the eight-inch ones. Go with a 5- or 6X leader.

Where to Fly Fish for Bluegill: Finding Great Panfish Water

Bluegill, along with its many sunfish cousins, can be found in every state in the US and worldwide. Bluegill prefer clear ponds, lakes, and slow-moving rivers. Because of their prevalence, bluegill is a favored fish to pursue in suburban and urban waters close to home. 

Once you have identified a piece of water with bluegill, a savvy fly angler will look for shallow structure to locate bluegill. Docks, rocks, old car tires, I’ve even found them hiding under a sunken board. Bluegill, especially young fish, love to congregate around structure. Larger fish prefer structure, but choose these types of habitat in deeper water, five feet or deeper. 

Besides structure, bluegill fly anglers will be wise to identify bluegill spawning areas. Bluegill are nesting fish. They use their tails and fins to dig out indentations on the floor of the body of water. Bluegill will spawn in the spring when the water remains in the upper 60s Fahrenheit. 

After spawning, which may occur several times a year, the male will stay with the nest of eggs, defending them from predators until the fry hatch and sometimes longer. Look for nests in shallow water and know that bluegill will reside near the spawning site in staging areas not far away. Identify the nesting sites, and you can be sure bluegill will not be far away.

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Find the right bluefish spots and you will have some great action

What Kind of Flies Work for Bluegills?

Fly fishermen can catch bluegill on all kinds of flies. Small poppers are a favorite fly to coax aggressive takes, with multiple bluegills competing for your fly. Bluegill are opportunistic fish, limited by a small mouth, will all kinds of insects and small crustaceans. Some bluegill will pursue leeches, small crawdads, and minnows. Any imitation fly, dry or wet fly, that resembles the local forage are good flies to have in your fly box.

When to Fish for Bluegill: Time of Year and Time of Day

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Nymphs, streamers and dry flies will all catch bluegill

Pre-spawn Fly Fishing for Bluegill

Bluegill will congregate in staging areas adjacent to spawning beds when the water temperature reaches 60 Degrees F. Staging areas can be pretty shallow but often deeper than the spawning area. Areas of water where the bottom is darkly colored will warm sooner in the spring. These areas are likely to attract staging bluegill.

Fly Fishing for Bluegill During the Spawn

Bluegill can spawn multiple times a year – in some areas throughout the year – but spawning season will start when the water is consistently in the upper sixties. Bluegill are nesting fish and will carve out nests from the lake bottom with their tail and fins. A nest is around 12 inches across and two inches deep. 

A female can deposit up to 40,000 eggs which she then leaves to deeper water. The male then takes over housekeeping and security duties. 

During the spawn, male bluegill are very aggressive in protecting the nest and will strike flies that they deem are encroaching on their area. Because of their success spawning, fishing to spawning bluegill do not carry the same ethical weight that trout anglers carry. The spawn is fair game and the action can be hot. Casting small streamers past the nests to the deeper staging areas can coax a large female out.

Post-Spawn Bluegill Fly Fishing

Staging areas and deeper water are good places to search for post-spawn bluegill. Bluegill will move back to structure and can be found in water six to seven feet deep, if not deeper. Look for weed lines and lily pads that will offer bluegill shelter and places to escape predators. The hot action of the spawn quiets, and bluegill are more selective. 

I find that adding action to a fly is the more important than fly selection when bluegill become selective. It is helpful to select flies that benefit from movement; the rubber legs of a beetle, the flash of a bead head hares ear, and even the marabou tail of a small streamer help to elicit a take. 

Summer Bluegill Fly Fishing

The dog days of summer can be tough fishing all around. Water temperature will dictate if bluegill find refuge from the summer heat in deeper water. If this is the case, bluegill are more likely to return to the shallows during the cooler periods of the day, namely at sun-up and sun-down. If fishing in the afternoon, focus your attention along weed lines in five feet of water and deeper, letting the fly sink to the fish. As the day ends, put away the subsurface fly tackle for small poppers or terrestrials near cattails or docks. 

Fall Bluegill Fly Fishing

Bluegill will spend their time in shallow water as the summer heat resides. Bluegill will continue to feed as the water cools into the mid-fifties. Then they will head back to deeper water until spring. Slowly stripping a wooly bugger with your rod tip low or twitching a hare’s ear under an indicator are great tactics to take advantage of these late-season bluegill.

Selecting a Fly Fishing Technique for Catching Bluegills

Fly fishermen are less dependent on matching the hatch when fly fishing for bluegill. Bluegill eat aquatic insects, terrestrial insects, annelids, small crustaceans, such as scuds and crayfish, and small minnows. At times, they can be frustratingly fickle, yet I find that adding action to a fly can help your odds of getting a bluegill to take. 

Dry Fly Fishing for Bluegills

I like highly visible surface flies when casting to bluegill, saving my eye straining for trout fishing. Bluegill fishing should be fun, and casting a bulbous humpy or beetle pattern to willing bluegill is fun. 

Panfish poppers are very popular with many anglers and imitate dying bait fish or tiny frogs, sticking to size 12 or smaller will help with takes. 

Nymphing for Bluegills

As a child, I distinctly remember watching a yard-dug worm slowly sink below a bobber just off a dock and watching numerous bluegill take turns inhaling it and exhaling it. Why they just wanted a taste, I am unsure, but it taught me to be ready to set the hook later in life. It also proves that bluegill are subsurface feeders that will take sinking flies, in addition to a wooly worm or San Juan worm, Hare’s Ears, Pheasant Tails, Epoxy Back Scuds, dragonfly nymphs, or any type nymph or wet flies that resemble their standard fare. Fishing your chosen nymph under a strike indicator hearkens back to memories of my youth, but making long casts and slowly retrieving these nymphs can be just as effective and fun. 

Streamer Fishing for Bluegills

Male bluegill are territorial and aggressive when guarding their nest of eggs. The spawn makes for an excellent time to tie on small streamers. I prefer a small woolly bugger because the marabou provides a lot of movement. 

A streamer can be great for bluegill at other times of the year, especially when fish have moved a bit deeper. Again, weighted flies on an 8 to 9-foot leader can help the stream to reach the strike zone without needing a sink tip line. Larger fish tend to remain in deep water, and a streamer can be just the ticket to hook into a 12-inch bluegill.

Final Thoughts on Using Fly Gear to Catch Bluegill

Bluegill offer much more than just a few hours of distraction. These feisty panfish are eager to take a fly regardless of the angler’s fly fishing skills, making them a fantastic fish to learn or to teach the art of fly fishing. Despite their size, they make for outstanding fun fishing and remind us that fly fishing should (and is) fun. These fish make up for that size in fight, and you never know; you might find you prefer chasing trophy bluegill more than some of the more traditional sport fish, like trout and largemouth bass

Now that I have a son of my own, I know that the first time I take him out to learn fly fishing, it will be at a local lake for bluegill instead of a trout stream. I can’t wait!

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Andy is a Colorado kid and lifelong angler. From bluegills in area ponds to high alpine lakes of the Rocky Mountains, he's fished it all. Andy enjoys helping other anglers catch more fish and sharing his passion for the sport.
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