Many of our winter seasons are mild, and I am told that we have only had eight white Christmases the past 50 years. With that in mind, I look forward to catching big bluegills in local lakes and ponds when everybody else sits home and watches football or the outdoor shows.
My son Matt and I have had great success in catching bluegills well into January when the winters are mild. The gameplan is pretty simple, but specifically, you need to refine your gear to get the fish consistently. Lately, I have gone to two-pound test monos by Sufix and Trout Magnet to aid in strike detection and casting far. Tiny lures and jigs, down to 1/124th of an ounce, are also on the winter gilling list. This is a great article on winter pan fishing. Not only bluegill, but also for crappie and perch.
Throw in a variety of live baits or biodegradable options for tipping gigs and you are getting near the goal. Sensitive floats. A few BB sized split-shots, hooks to size 14 and we are just about there.
Now, let's hit the water!
It doesn't matter how sensitive your tackle and deliveries are if you don't fish quality bluegill water. I tend to favor farm and mill ponds and concentrate my efforts in one of two specific places ... near the earthen dams where the water is deepest, or in shallow coves or flat areas that can warm up several degrees during a mid-winter warm spell. The ponds of the Eastern Shore and Delaware have dark, tannin-stained waters that can heat up with sunlight penetration even on cold days.
In many of our shallow ponds and lakes throughout the Mid Atlantic bluegills can be taken all winter long as long as the waters don't freeze over. (Jim Gronaw photo)
Any warm, sun-exposed shoreline may also draw fish. Many of those little lakes are hot spots for largemouth bass and overlooked for the big bluegills they might have.
Two basic delivery options can get you in the winter gilling game. Suspend tiny jigs tipped with bait below bobbers or bounce heavier jigs gently off the bottom. Both require the finesse approach. By "heavier" jigs, I mean 1/32nd ounce, and no larger. That will seem mighty small to almost all anglers, but to a lethargic winter bluegill it is actually a big meal. Tip it with a wax worm, piece of nightcrawler or mealworm and it becomes a full entrée.
When bobber fishing, sensitive Thill Waggler floats or the smallest torpedo-style weighted floats from Conal will cover most bases.
We tend to start at three feet as a drop distance from the float and work down from there until we find the fish. Consider that most ponds are only 4 to 10 feet deep, and it is always a good idea to have one angler fish one depth, and the other drop deeper. We like to allow the wind to carry our lures along as movement is minimal in the cold to entice gills.
For wind-drifting baits in open water areas, consider the depths of your lake or pond and you may even want to start from the bottom and work up. If the depth is eight feet, then utilize a slip-bobber and set the bobber stop at 7.5 feet and work your way up in six inch increments until you get strikes or catch fish. Essentially, you will be doing the same presentation an ice fisherman would be doing if he where jigging tiny jigs right off the bottom for winter panfish. You're just doing it in an open-water venue.
Bottom bouncing is a little different, and a little tougher. Once water temperatures drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, bluegills tend to be bottom oriented. On mild, sunny days, they may make movements several feet above the lake floor to feed on plankton or chironomids (midge larvae) and then become vulnerable to float presentations. This is why we like a slightly heavier jig to make contact with the bottom and provide a much-needed "feel" for strike detection.
Coupled with two-pound text mono, feeling strikes on sensitive graphite rods is easier. Although bait tipping is optional, we do it simply as an added enticement.
My most recent winter gilling was just this past week at a local venue in chilly, 38-degree water. They were active, but not aggressive, in their feeding. Our tiny foam bobbers would scarecly move, seldom going completely under. More often, the bobber would just hold motionless in the wind, tilt sideways or sink very s-l-o-w-l-y, indicating that a bluegill had taken our 1/80th ounce jigs and was just "treading water."
Frequently, you could not tell that you even had a strike. But strike they did and I was blessed with 51 total panfish, including several 10-inch bluegills for the late December effort.
Winter time bluegills are often packed tightly into very confined areas and once you locate fish it might be quite a haul. We suggest you use discretion in how many you keep and how many big fish you remove from any given lake or pond. Yes, even bluegill numbers can be "fished-down" and a fishery thus damaged due to overharvest. I have seen this happen in small to medium sized lakes, so use caution.
For tipping baits, many of the Berkley Gulp! series of earthworms and maggots are more available than some live bait options in the winter. Live earthworms are my favorite, but are hard to get once the ground freezes and local shops in the East usually stop carrying them. Wax and meal worms, an ice angling favorite, are another good option but must be ordered in advance if you are doing a lot of winter panfishing.
This winter, after you have tagged your buck and grown tired of ballgames, why not try some winter gilling? Let's hope for milder conditions that will allow open water fishing this winter! Not only for bluegill, also for crappie and perch.