Missouri offers a wide variety of outdoor activities. Some are challenging and regularly serve up humble pie. Dove hunting, for example, often leaves skilled wingshooters shaking their heads. Wild turkeys, their brains no bigger than walnuts, routinely foil the best efforts of veteran hunters. Muskies, even in a lake that has good numbers of them, can seem as rare as dinosaurs.
Outdoor challenges are great, but a steady diet of them can wear you out. Now and again, it’s quite a relief to enjoy an outdoor activity that’s easy and in which success is almost guaranteed. This month, you can find easy outdoor fun at most farm ponds and other impoundments across the state. That’s because the bluegill spawn is on, offering some of the finest fishing action of the year.
If you live in Missouri, you are probably familiar with bluegill. These native fish are usually the most abundant panfish in small impoundments throughout our state. They’re not only prolific, but they have the same habitat requirements (warm, clear water where aquatic plants and other cover is present) as largemouth bass. That’s why bluegill are often stocked as forage for largemouth bass.
The bluegill is a member of the sunfish family, a strictly North American family of 30 species that also includes black bass and crappie. A casual observer might mistake bluegill for other panfish, such as green sunfish or hybrid sunfish. But the small mouth and brassy color of bluegill easily distinguish them.
Bluegill often top out at a length of 9.5 inches and a weight of 12 ounces, but when hooked, bluegill prove tenacious fighters. An 8-inch bluegill will put a serious bend in any lightaction rod, and bluegill can get bigger. The state record bluegill weighed 3 pounds.
Bluegill bite any time of the year, but in May, during the spring spawn, bluegill fishing is at its best. Action is fast, and you’re more likely to catch large, mature bluegill at this time. Immature bluegill—the little bait stealers that plague bluegill anglers at other times—are typically not part of the action in May.
When water temperatures reach into the 70s, male bluegills move to the shallows and fan out and guard nests, which appear as circular depressions, 15 to 20 inches wide. If water is murky, nests may be in water no deeper than 12 inches. In clearer water, nests may be as deep as 6 feet.
Males construct nests in clusters, forming beds that may consist of a few nests to a hundred or more. In clear ponds, finding the beds is easy. You can spot them as you walk the bank or boat around the pond edge. In muddy ponds, you must fish until you find them. Once you find a large bedding area, if the habitat doesn’t change, bluegill will use it year after year.
Techniques for catching spawning bluegill are simple. In clear water, whether fishing from the bank or a boat, it pays to keep a distance from the beds to prevent spooking the fish. Use light to medium tackle with 4- or 6-pound test line for casting light lures or bait.
Bluegill have small mouths, so keep whatever you throw small. 1/32-ounce leadhead jigs, either cast and retrieved, or suspended under a bobber, prove effective. Live bait is often most productive. Worms, grasshoppers and crickets all work well. Use small hooks—sizes 6 or 8. Hooks with long shanks are easier to remove from a bluegill’s mouth. A pair of needle-nosed pliers will help you extract hooks.
Use a small bobber and small split shot to suspend your bait just off the bottom. When using live bait over an active bluegill bed, the bobber often ducks under the water before it has time to settle. Conditions typically make no difference during the spawn. The bluegills bite morning, midday or evening, whether it’s cloudy, sunny or raining. Females that congregate at the edge of the beds bite readily, too.
Fishing usually requires patience—which many kids lack. Fishing for spawning bluegill, however, often produces brisk action. As soon as you rebait and cast, you’re into another fish. What with great fishing and beautiful May weather, there’s no better time to turn youngsters on to fishing.
To make the most of the opportunity, help your youngster at every turn. Rebait and cast for them until they learn how do those things themselves. It’s okay to let them set the hook when the bobber dips under. Spawning bluegill often won’t let go, so timing isn’t critical. Congratulate and praise them for every fish they reel in, and then help them unhook their catch.
Make the experience a party. Bring snacks and cool drinks and take photos of the kids with their best fish. At home let them watch or help as you clean the fish. Let them help with cooking, too. You’re taking advantage of a unique opportunity to connect them with nature, creating lasting memories, and introducing them to a pastime they can enjoy for life.
Managing bluegill in impoundments can be tricky. In natural waters, such as streams and rivers, many fish species consume bluegill, which helps stabilize their numbers.
Impoundments usually have fewer predators. Farm ponds commonly hold only bluegill, largemouth bass and channel catfish. The largemouth bass, particularly if overharvested, don’t consume enough bluegill to prevent overpopulation. Competition among bluegill for food becomes high, and overall bluegill growth becomes stunted.
Prevent this problem by harvesting more bluegill. Take out four to five bluegill for every bass taken—up to 100 bluegill per acre per year. If you want more big bluegill, harvest fewer bass. If you want big bass, take more bass from the impoundment. You either manage for larger bass or larger bluegill. It’s difficult to have both in one pond.
Many fish hatcheries cross green sunfish with bluegill to produce hybrid sunfish. These hybrids grow quickly and bite aggressively, which makes them popular with anglers.
Hybrid sunfish also reproduce at a slower rate than bluegill, so they are less likely to overpopulate. Because of their reduced reproduction, hybrids will not support a bass population. If you stock hybrid sunfish, you also must stock bluegill as a food source for your bass.
Bluegill meat has great flavor and is firm and flaky. It is well suited for most fish recipes. To get the best flavor out of your bluegill, place them on ice or keep them alive until just before cleaning.
Once you’ve filleted your catch, rinse them immediately and completely. This step is crucial. Fish mucus, blood and scales adhere to fillets during the cleaning process. If not removed, these will give the meat a fishy taste.
The following three recipes are favorites at our household
6 bacon strips, cut into 1-inch pieces
2/3 cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 cups water
½ cup chopped carrots
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon dill weed
¼ teaspoon garlic salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 pound bluegill fillets, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 cup half-and-half cream
In a 3-quart saucepan, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove bacon and set aside, discarding all but 2 tablespoons of drippings. Sauté onion and celery in drippings until tender. Add the next eight ingredients. Simmer until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. Add fish and bacon and simmer for 5 minutes. Add cream and heat through. Yield: 4–6 servings.
¾ cup corn meal
¼ cup all-purpose white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 pound bluegill fillets
In a large ziplock bag, thoroughly mix all the dry ingredients. Crack the egg over the fillets and mix thoroughly. The egg helps the breading bind to the fillets. Heat oil to 350 degrees. Put batches of six or seven fillets in the ziplock bag and shake well to coat.
Place fillets in hot oil. If you are deep frying, the fillets float when they are done. If you are pan frying, three or four minutes a side is about right. Avoid overcooking. Bluegill fillets are small pieces of meat. Overcooking toughens them.
When fish are done, remove them from the oil and let them drip. Place the fillets in a single layer on a doubled sheet of absorbent paper toweling. Don’t put one piece of fish on top of another. The oil from the top fish will soak into the fish on the bottom, making greasy fish.
Flip the fillets on the paper toweling and let that side drain. Before serving, place the fillets on a fresh layer of paper toweling. This treatment leaves the batter crispy and practically oil free. Yield: 4 servings.
¼ cup chopped onion
1/4 cup celery
1/4 cup green pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons olive oil
¾ cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon each dried basil
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/8 teaspoon each white, black, and cayenne pepper
½ cup diced Italian tomatoes, drained
1 pound bluegill fillets
Hot cooked rice
Minced fresh parsley
In a small skillet, sauté the onion, celery, green pepper and garlic in oil until tender. Add the broth, tomato paste and seasonings and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Stir in Italian tomatoes.
Arrange the fillets in a greased 13-inch x 9-inch x 2-inch baking dish; top with vegetable mixture. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Serve over rice and sprinkle with parsley. Yield: 4 servings.
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