There’s something transcendent about your first fish. Whether you caught it as a child or later in life, holding that first wriggling, wet creature in your hands opens the door to the world of angling. While I’m sure there are a few truly blessed (or very lucky) anglers whose first fish was something extraordinary like a muskie or steelhead, most of us started out with a plentiful and easy-to-catch species. For me and I’m sure thousands of other anglers, that first fish was a bluegill.
I caught my first bluegill on a worm in a farm pond when I was 5 years old and since then these delightful little sunfish have held a special place in my heart. Every year I dedicate at least a small chunk of my angling year to pursuing them. I’ve targeted bluegills in big lakes and small streams throughout the year and have caught have them using dozens of different methods, from plunking worms and casting small inline spinners in the spring to dead drifting nymphs and stripping small poppers with a fly rod during the summer. Yet, my absolute favorite way to catch bluegills is a method many anglers may overlook—ice fishing.
How to Find Bluegill Under the Ice No matter where you drill your holes during hardwater season or what species you’re targeting, there’s probably an opportunity to land a few bluegills just beneath your feet. Unlike many gamefish species that become sluggish and moody once the ice freezes, bluegill will continue to feed heavily throughout the winter. Additionally, they gather in large schools and hold in areas where the feeding is good for months at a time, ensuring that once you find a few bluegills you’ll have hot fishing throughout the ice fishing season.
During early ice, finding bluegills is a fairly simple process. Just like in the summer when you spotted dozens of bluegills around almost every little patch of weeds, the key to finding bluegills during early winter is by finding the vegetation. In lakes, ponds, and large rivers, this underwater vegetation is usually located in shallow, flat-bottomed bays at depths of 4 to 10 feet. While these weed beds are easy enough to spot during the summer when the water is clear, they can be difficult to locate once the water is covered with an impenetrable sheet of ice. So, it’s best to scout the area you’re planning on fishing and find the weed beds before freeze-up. If you didn’t get a chance for a pre-season scout or are fishing a new area, you can find these weedy spots by looking at maps or aerial photos of your chosen body of water using an app like onX. If you can’t do that then just drill a few scouting holes in likely areas and look them over with an underwater camera or other electronic devices.
In the mid-winter, when the lack of light penetration has caused the weed growth to die off and oxygen levels decline, bluegill will begin to move away from the weeds into deeper water. During this time of year, bluegill schools will push into and hold in areas of 15 to 30 feet of water with flat, soft bottoms. These spots become choice bluegill haunts because they’re home to multiple species of insect larva—a favorite wintertime food source. You can locate such spots with a fish finder, a bathymetric map, or by simply drilling a series of holes out away from the deepest edge of the dying weed growth and jigging until you strike paydirt.
Late season ice will bring the bluegills back into the shallows again, where they begin to gather in preparation for the spring spawn. Start targeting the inside edges of known weed beds in 3 to 10 feet of water. Pay special attention to areas at the mouths of rivers and wetlands, the back ends of shallow bays, and the points of islands and peninsulas where the fish stage before moving into shallower water.
How to Jig for Bluegill One of the best things about bluegill is that they aren’t too particular when it comes to food. They’ll eat almost anything from insect larvae and worms to small minnows. If it looks or smells appetizing, it will usually draw some bluegill attention. This gives ice anglers an array of options when it comes to baits, lures, and ice fishing techniques.
Perhaps the most common and effective method for targeting bluegill through the ice is micro-jigging. This technique involves using tiny jigs made of a heavy, dense metal like tungsten, which sinks extremely fast. I like to bait these jigs and rapidly jigging them a few inches above the bottom. By varying your jigging speed—from a small vibration at the end of your line, to a long lift and drop, to holding the jig completely still—you can determine just what action the fish are in the mood for and target them accordingly. When micro-jigging, I prefer to use larger 3/32-ounce jigs in fluorescent colors for colored water and smaller 1/64-ounce jigs in white, silver, or gold for clear water. You can bait these jigs with anything that tickles your fancy, from small live or dead minnows or minnow heads, to chunks of cut-up nightcrawler, to small insect larva like spike grubs or maggots.
Micro-jigging will help you stack up a pile of bluegills on the ice, but if you’re after some true pan-sized slabs, you’ll need to try jigging with some heavier equipment. Larger round-head jigs like the Fuzz-E Grub or a Rapala Wing Ding tipped with either bait or a small soft plastic like a Squirmin’ Grub, are the perfect thing for pulling hog ‘gills out of deeper water. Bigger, aggressive fish will also respond well to a jigging spoon like a Swedish Pimple or a Kastmaster, so don’t be afraid to experiment when you’re hunting the large ones.
How to Set Up Tip-Ups for Bluegill Using tip-ups is another great way to target bluegill through the ice because it allows you to fish multiple locations and depths at once, helping you key in on the fish. When a bluegill strikes, the tip up will trigger, sending a flag in the air and letting you know you’ve got a fish in the line.
Most tip-up rigs come spooled with a heavy nylon line that helps anglers fight and pull heavy fish out onto the ice without the use of a net. While it’s helpful in landing a bluegill, the thick line is highly visible and can deter the fish from taking the bait, so you have to rig them accordingly. Tie the end of the nylon line to a small barrel swivel and then add 12 to 18 inches of 6-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon line to the other. Clip a small split-shot above the barrel swivel onto the nylon line so a finicky bluegill won’t feel any resistance until they run with the bait. Tie a small size 8 or 10 hook to the end of the line and then add your bait. Just like when you’re jigging, you can use a variety of baits on your tip-ups, but my favorites are small pin-head minnows or live grubs which move on their own and put out a significant amount of scent.
Once you’ve got a few tip-ups rigged for bluegill, all that’s left to do is set them up. Be sure to check your state laws on just how many rigs you can fish at once—most only allow anglers to fish two to six tip-ups at one time. Setting a tip-up is a fairly simple process. With no bait yet on the hook, drop your rig into the water and lower it down until it touches bottom. It’s helpful to use a clip-on, lead depth checkers. After you find your distance, wind a foot or two of line back onto the spool, bait the hook, and send the rig back down the hole. Set your flag once the line is hanging vertically in the hole and the bait is suspended a few feet above the bottom where bluegill are more likely to be feeding.
Your tip-ups should be set in the most productive areas, which can vary depending on the time of year you’re fishing. To find exactly where that is, you’ll want to drop tip-ups a good distance from one another initially so you can target bluegills in a variety of different depths, gradually bringing them closer together as you zero in on where the fish are feeding. I’ll set my first tip-up on the deepest edge of a weed bed and then move 10 to 15 yards into deeper water before setting another, leaving the last at the deepest point where I believe I’ll find fish. Once I’ve chased a few flags and caught a couple bluegill, I drill a few more holes and reset my unproductive tip-ups 10 to 15 feet to the right or left of the one that is catching the most fish. Once you’ve zeroed in on the bluegill, the action can be so hot it can be difficult to keep up with the flying flags and struggling fish.
Get Back to Your Roots There’s something infinitely pure and rewarding about fishing for bluegill. Their populations, willingness to bite, and uncomplicated palate often make for a welcome respite from the sometimes overcomplicated and patient pursuit of other species. Additionally, in the cold gray doldrums of a slow ice fishing day, targeting bluegills can kindle a fire of furious fishing action. It’s the type of fire that warms your soul with a remembered joy you perhaps have felt only once before, way back on that fateful day when you caught your first fish.