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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The perfect fish for beginning anglers, the Bluegill is state’s most popular sunfish


Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series about Kentucky’s native sunfish species.

The bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) is Kentucky’s most popular sunfish, a native species most common in farm ponds, small lakes, and major reservoirs.

A perfect fish for beginning anglers, the bluegill is a real scrapper when hooked on light tackle, and is one of our best-tasting fish. The bluegill’s white flesh is sweet and firm, especially when taken from cool or cold waters.

The bluegill was first described in 1810 by French naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who was a botany and natural science professor at Transylvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky, from 1819 to 1826.

The bluegill is a member of family Centrarchidae, the sunfish family, which includes 18 species of fish in Kentucky.

Size and Coloration

Bluegill (Photo courtesy of Iowa Department of natural Resources)

Adults are four to nine inches long, rarely more than 11 inches.

Large, hand-sized bluegill, about seven to eight inches long, are saucer-shaped, beautiful fish.

Their mouths are small, and bodies slab-sided.

Coloration is variable, but generally they are olive green with emerald, copper, and bluish reflections on their sides, dark above the lateral line.

Their lower sides and belly are whitish to yellow. Breeding males may have bright red breasts.

The current Kentucky state record bluegill weighed four pounds, three ounces.

It was caught on Aug. 5, 1980 by Phil M. Conyers of Madisonville. Conyers was bass fishing with spinning tackle and a 6-inch plastic worm in a stripmine lake in Hopkins County when the giant bluegill struck.

Geographic Range

The bluegill’s native range is east of the Rocky Mountains, from coastal Virginia to Florida, west to Texas and northeastern Mexico, and north to western Minnesota, and western New York.

Bluegills have been introduced to almost everywhere else in North America, and have been found in the Chesapeake Bay, indicating they can tolerate up to 1.8 percent salinity.

Bluegills are present in all river drainages in Kentucky, but are most successful in standing waters, ponds and small lakes, or sluggish flowing streams.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources recently reported that the top four small, state-owned lakes in Central Kentucky with the highest catch rates of bluegill, eight inches and longer, were: 158-acre Beaver Lake, in Anderson County; 149-acre Elmer Davis Lake, in Owen County; 51-acre McNeely Lake, in Jefferson County, and 96-acre Corinth Lake, in Grant County. This is based on electrofishing sampling of fish populations in the lakes in 2018.

Food Habits

Bluegills are omnivores, eating both plant and animal material.

Young readily consume algae, but the diet of the bluegill consists mainly of larval and adult aquatic and terrestrial insects, crustaceans, and small fish. They often raid the nests of other fish, including black bass, preying on fish eggs, and small fry.

Spawning

When water temperatures reach into the 70s bluegills build circular nests, clustered in colonies in shoreline shallows, in one to four feet of water.

Males makes the nests by fanning with their tails, and lead females to the nest. Multiple females may deposit eggs in the same nest. The female leaves after spawning.

The makes guards the nest and becomes very territorial, biting aggressively when a baited hook or tiny fly is near their nest.

Fishing for Bluegills

When fishing for bluegills, keep the tackle simple and lightweight.

Two excellent tackle options are a pole or an ultralight spinning rod and reel.

Fly fishing is one of the many fun ways to catch Bluegill. (Photo provided)

A 10-to-12 foot pole made from river cane works great. Another option is a telescoping fiberglass pole, light enough for even small children to handle.

Use 10-pound test monofilament line on poles to avoid line twist. A little heavier line also makes it possible to straighten out light wire hooks rather than break the line when snagged on cover.

Rig the line on your pole with a No. 4 lead split shot, balsa wood or plastic float, and No. 10 long shank light wire hook. The long shank hook is easier to remove when the bluegill shallows the bait. Hemostats are a great help when removing hooks lodged way down in a bluegill’s throat.

For live bait, it’s hard to beat red worms, which can be dug in the backyard. A compost pile, made from grass clippings, vegetable kitchen waste, leaves, and weeds, will attract earthworms to shady areas of your yard. A compost pile will not only keep you in red worms but create rich, organic soil for your garden or flower bed.

Other good baits are bits of nightcrawler, crickets, meal worms, wax worms, and bag worms, found on evergreens (especially Eastern red cedar) in August.

Spinning tackle has an obvious advantage over a pole because bait can be cast to likely fish-holding structure, far beyond the edge of weed beds.

Bluegills are great fun when caught with fly fishing tackle.

Early in the season cast bead head nymphs, which imitate aquatic insects. Any small trout pattern flies will catch bluegills too. During the spawn, small topwater poppers, or foam flies that imitate grasshoppers or spiders, will draw strikes when bluegills are in the shallows.

Bluegills are abundant, found statewide and easy to catch.

Late spring and early summer during the spawn is one of the best times to fish for bluegills, but anytime water levels are stable, bluegills will cooperate.

They are the ideal fish for youngsters or beginning adult anglers.

Listing of top Kentucky lakes for Bluegill varities. (Click for larger image)

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.


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