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Madness and Big Bluegill

Fly Fishing for Bluegill

Chester Allen photo

On a basic level, all fly fishing is crazy. I mean, we’re using $800 rods and $400 reels to catch foot-long trout.

But just about every fly fisher’s life gets really weird from time to time.

Perhaps it is carp in a muddy, smelly city creek that is really a drainage ditch for street runoff and water from sewage treatment plants. People do fly fish the Los Angeles River…

Or it might be snook from a residential canal in Florida — or largemouth bass from a decorative pond in front of a tribal casino.

My latest bizarre obsession is the humble, easy-to-catch bluegill.

Now, in my defense, these are big bluegill, and they are damn hard to catch. Still, the biggest one I’ve landed was about 11 inches long and almost two pounds. That’s one heckuva bluegill in the Pacific Northwest, but it is still a modest fish in comparison to the largemouth bass that live in the same pond.

Those bass range up to 8 pounds, which is one hell of a bass almost anywhere, unless you live in the Southeastern United States or near some big lakes in Mexico.

“Oh My God”

I’ve fished this pond for a few years, and it gets almost no fishing pressure. Why? It’s a private farm pond — actually a small irrigation reservoir — and my wife owns the place.

Yes, I love her very much.

Anyway, I knew there were bluegill in the pond, as I’ve seen them sucking down bugs just before dark. This pond, like most ponds, teems with aquatic insects. Unlike most ponds, it has a massive Hexagenia mayfly hatch. These bugs are the size of quarters, and they hatch out each July on the pond.

The big bass suck them down in slurpy, bubbly rises, but these fish really focus on eating the bluegill and frogs.

Anyway, I knew the bluegill existed in the pond, but I didn’t fish for them. I figured they were the tiny, stunted wraiths you find in most lakes.

But a few things happened.

First, early in May, I watched bass chase bluegill up against the shore and eat them. It kind of looked like one of those National Geographic videos where Orca whales charge up onto a pebbly beach and grab seals for dinner.

I paddled the little boat over to watch the carnage, and I noticed a fish flopping in the shallows. I got closer, and it was a huge, stranded bluegill I reached down and slid my hand under the fish. I want to say it was as big as a Frisbee, but I know it was about 10 inches long, as it is nine inches from the tip of my outstretched thumb to my pinky.

Pretty cool. I let the fish go.

Then, one evening in early July, I was back on the pond, casting a big popper for bass. I caught a couple nice bass. Then the Hexagenia mayflies started to hatch. Fish were taking down my popper in strange, slow-motion boils, but I couldn’t hook them.

Finally, the popper went under and stayed under. I set the hook, and a fish thrummed off in a sideways run — just like a bluegill. Turns out it was a bluegill — a really big one.

A few days later, my friend Chic Sandifer hooked and landed a big bluegill on a bass popper. “My god, that is big bluegill,” he said.

Wow. Something was going on here.

A Nice Balance

The next day, I went back to the pond and rigged up a 4-weight rod. I tied on a size 10 Hare’s Ear nymph and plopped it into bluegilly places, such as near reeds, stumps and any kind of cover near deeper water.

I expect swarms of tiny bluegill to eat the fly. I got a few bluegill all right, but not nearly as many as I expected — and all of them looked pretty beefy. Even the little ones were fat and growing fast.

Then I hooked a big one. I got another big one about 20 feet further down the bank.

I got out my cell phone and called a friend. He’s a retired fisheries biologist.

“Do you have any baitfish in the pond, like minnows?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Do you keep any big bass from the pond?”

“We don’t keep anything. We only fish it a few times a year.”

My friend said the greedy, hungry bass were probably keeping the bluegill population whittled down. So, a small population of bluegill in a very fertile pond meant quite of few of the bluegill had a chance to get big.

That made sense to me. And that’s the point where sense flew out of my brain.

Falling Off the Edge

So, for most of the summer, I’ve been trying to catch the biggest bluegill in this pond. I mean, who knows how big it is? As a kid, I fished a lot with my uncles in Texas and Oklahoma, and they were experts at catching big bluegill and crappie. Some of those fish were as big as dinner plates — which is where they ended up later on.

So, I got a bunch of bluegill poppers. They’re yellow — just like those Hexagenia mayflies — and the bluegill love whacking them in the evenings.

I love casting these wee poppers to spots where the ‘gills are sucking down the big mayflies. I’ve caught some huge bluegills, but I lost the biggest one, which was about the size of a dinner plate.

I hope to hook a similar fish soon, but the damn bass are getting in the way. Turns out the largemouth bass like Hexes as well, and they keep eating the little popper. It makes my head explode when that popper goes down, and I’ve got a three-pound bass on the line instead of a big bluegill.

The disappointment corrodes my soul.

Of course, that three-pound bass is bigger than any bluegill in the state of Oregon.

I know I need help

I’ve been neglecting some fine dry-fly fishing on the Deschutes, Crooked and Metolius rivers. I haven’t even been to some of my favorite trout lakes. My yearly fall trip to Yellowstone is fast approaching, and I haven’t tied nearly enough flies for big runner brown trout.

I guess I need to go cold turkey on these bluegills, but who knows how long this precious ecological balance will last on the pond?

I’ll get over this. My cases of fly fishing weirdness never last long — there are just too many other great places to fish where I live. I just have to start fishing in other places.

I’ll make a list of places to fish tonight — after I get done casting poppers for bluegill.

I know I need help.