Fish Facts: Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Bluegills are often the “easy” fish anglers learn on, but the big ones can be mighty tough to fool.
Photo courtesy Lousiville Zoo via wikipedia

Most of us have an early memory of reeling in bluegills from a local pond, using just a worm or some equally homey bait. The fact that the species, Lepomis macrochirus, goes by many different names—bream, blue bream, sun perch, blue sunfish, copperhead, copperbelly, roach—is a testament to its popularity in many regions of the country. But any avid bluegill angler will tell you that the big ones, known as “bulls,” are as wary and hard to catch as any trout.

Range and Habitat

The original range of the bluegill covers most of the eastern half of the U.S.—stretching from Quebec to northeastern Mexico, but they did not inhabit the coastal states north of Virginia. Because they are so prized as both a sport fish and a source of food, they were introduced throughout the country and now swim in every state except Alaska. They have also been exported to other parts of the world, where it is sometimes seen as an invasive species and a pest. Bluegills given as a gift by Chicago mayor Richard Daley to the emperor of Japan escaped a containment pond and have wreaked havoc with native species.

Bluegills can thrive in a wide variety of habitats, and they are found in lakes, ponds, and slow-moving rivers—especially those with fertile water containing lots of microinvertebrates. They prefer the same weedy habitat where you’re likely to find bass, with the larger fish holding in deeper water. In fact, predation by bass is often seen as a vital component of a healthy population of bluegills, especially larger ones.

In the spring, they spawn in colonies, digging circular, crater-like redds in sand or gravel. Bluegills reproduce rapidly—females can spawn up to nine times a season—a characteristic that makes them a good food fish but which often leads to overpopulation and stunted adults when there is no harvest. However, overfishing will also lead to a reduction in the average size of the fish.

Ounce-for-ounce, bluegills fight harder than most game fish, so even little’uns will scrap.
Photo by Beau Thebault

Tactics and Flies

The world-record bluegill, a 4-pound 12-ounce bull, was taken from Alabama’s Ketona Lake by T.S. Hudson in 1950. Although average bluegills feed frequently on the surface, making them susceptible to small poppers and sliders, the biggest specimens inhabit deeper water—often as deep as 30 feet—and require much more sophisticated tactics. All bluegills eat insects and worms, but the big boys will also feast on small crayfish and minnows. There are many different patterns designed to catch bluegills. To catch these big ones, try a slow-sinking Bully Bluegill Spider, a black leech, or a small streamer. For sheer fun, it’s hard to beat catching bluegills on the surface, using a small slider or popper.

The Bully Bluegill Spider is a sinking fly that can be used as a dropper off a popper.
Photo via

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Although bluegills live in many different water types, they are quite sensitive to water quality, and scientists have developed methods for exploiting this characteristic. In fact, the panfish are used to protect millions of Americans from a terrorist attack on drinking-water supplies. The U.S. Army originally developed the 1090 Intelligent BioMonitoring System—which monitors the behavior of eight bluegills swimming in tanks through which water is pumped—to keep tabs on groundwater quality. But since the attacks of 9/11, the fish have been protecting residents of New York City, as well as those of other major cities. Electrodes mounted on the fish tank read the fish’s respiratory behavior, and complex software determines when the fish experience distress.

14 thoughts on “Fish Facts: Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)”

  1. Phil, thanks so much for this! Bluegill are far too often ignored as easy fish, but you are absolutely right that the big ones can be very tough to catch and fight amazingly well. Folks often think they are easy to catch because they inevitably end up with one on the line because of the abundance of bluegills in general, but in clear water you can observe how many missed takes there really are – especially from the really big ones. Just like a trout, a bluegill can suck a fly in and spit it out without detection. And even if they do attack your fly vigorously they don’t always take the hook due to their small mouths. Bluegill fishing can also be challenging because they live near cover and dive for it immediately – whether or not they realized they have been hooked. So you often can’t let them run. Sometimes tippet as heavy as 3x is necessary to turn them and/or pull them out of sticks.

    A few suggestions for folks: 1. Pick a small hook size with a short shank, but relatively large gape. A size 6 egg fly or similar works well for big bluegills. 2. Try to make sure the materials don’t extend far beyond the hook, if at all. 3. To better odds of detecting bites, keep the fly moving once at depth BUT only moving very slowly. If the line is taught when the bluegill take the fly they are more likely to hook themselves. With the big ones in murky water this is your best bet. 4. If all you are catching is small bluegill, try carp flies up to an inch long (sizes 6-10 depending on the fly, hook style, etc) to up the size of your fish. Also, in the summer try terrestrials, especially grasshoppers. Twitching them is best. Bluegill seem to prefer action to realism. If you don’t get any solid takes, go down a size. Often a bunch of small bluegill will attack a hopper that is too large, and try to drown it and pull it apart like piranhas. A slightly smaller fly makes it one mouthful for a big one. Often a bluegill will take a hopper when it is underwater so keep it inching along even then.

    Hope that helps! Good luck all!

    1. I have a male red terror cichlid I will be breeding him with a female red tiger motaguense cichlid they will have hybrid babies i will put a pair in a seperate tank they will live on the left side of the tank in a big castle I will add citizen cichlids like 4 firemouth cichlids with houses for hiding and 2 big clown loach catfish. On the right side of the tank it will be dark with red coral trees and a cave with 1 single male bluegill sunfish.

  2. I learned how to flyfish on bluegills some 50 odd years ago. I used my grandpa’s old bamboo rod that had the eyes taped on, wired on and retied. I used to use a fly until it was so beat , it was just threads clinging.
    My uncle Don showed me how to tie flies so I could catch more. I tied flies out of everything from sparrows to the hair off our dog.
    We lived just south of Manchester VT on Pontoosuc lake in Massachusetts. As a treat, my dad would drive me to Orvis to by supplies to tie flies. Some old guy was always there tieing flies in the store. He used to show me a few tricks and I would go back and tie every one he showed me so I could catch more bluegills.
    Thats how I got hooked on Flyfishing.
    Bluegills are the best way to show someone how much fun it is to flyfish

    1. Bluegills and Crappies were my first targets with a fly rod also. It was a telescoping steel rod and an old well used reel that my dad gave me, and a hand full of poppers and said “go get em”. now that I’m almost pasted my mid 60’s I still want to be a Trout Bum when I grow up!

  3. One of the best flies that I have found for big Bluegills is a size 8 or 10 wooly bugger on a short shank nymph hook. Make sure that you keep the tail short though, no longer than the gape of the hook or you will get short strike after short strike. Throw a bead or some non-toxic wire weight on the hook to get it to sink and then strip if very, very, very slowly. If you think that you are stripping the fly to slow, slow down a little bit more. Every once in a while you can give your rod tip a little twitch but then just let the fly sink for a few seconds again…and then continue your “watching paint dry” slow retrieve. By doing this very slow retrieve and keeping in touch with the fly, you will feel the take…but let the fish have the fly for just a second before you set the hook. A strip strike also works wonders with this type of retrieve because you are not changing the angle of the hook when you set. The chance of you pulling the fly out of the fishes mouth is much less than the traditional way of setting the hook. Colors, black, black, and then black with another colored hackle. Red, purple, chartreuse for dingy water, and even brown and black work well. Hope that this also can help!


  4. Pingback: Tippets: Tying Tenkara Flies, Colorado Think Tank, Facts on Bluegill | MidCurrent
  5. Fly fishing for bluegill it’s a way of life! I learned how to tie flies at local fly shop. it’s just as challenging as trout fishing in my opinion. love to see those big gills rising on your fly and I believe matching the hatch and flipping rocks to see the stages of insect larvae will be the difference of 20 to 25 extra bluegills in your basket! Try to stay away from any glues and epoxy in your fly tying. I do believe Gills can smell it!

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