Timing the bluegill bite
Most fish, including bluegills, have spawned late this year due to a variety of factors. This giant female bluegill, full of eggs, was caught and released June 21, several weeks later than traditional spawning times. (Jim Gronaw photo)

This sure has been a funny year for fishing.

With March and April being as cold as it gets for spring, almost all species of fish have had late spawns this year, including both fresh and saltwater gamesters. With all that comes the issue of trying to “time” a particular bite, so as to maximize not only the catching but the enjoyment and possible harvesting of some fish for the table.


Crappies were late, bass were sporadic and shad and white perch runs were difficult to key in on as well. Other species followed suit in 2018.

Normally, I would tell people that around June 1 would see spawning bluegills and other sunfish species on almost any given year. I have seen them spawn as early as April 23 in the Mason Dixon and have caught bedding red ear sunfish as late as the first week of September.

However, this year I have seen bluegills on, and off, of nesting sites from the first week of May right up to this July 4 holiday. I have noticed that in some water and ponds that the gills will spawn more actively during full moon periods. However, this does not apply to all local waters.

Many lakes and ponds have a “one and done” scenario where bluegills spawn as soon as the water hits 70 degrees and then after about 10 days or so they have completed the love making and are heading deep.

This year I have seen active bedding in one pond, then the next day seen completely empty beds at another pond only a few miles away. And in some bodies of water, bluegills, pumpkinseeds and red ears tend to have a “rolling spawn”, that is, a period of many weeks where they never really cease to reproduce, instead, staying on bedding sites for a prolonged period of time.

So, it’s been a little tough to try and time it “just right” so we could enjoy some hectic, non-stop action on adult-sized bluegills.

This huge pumpkinseed sunfish X bluegill hybrid measured 11 inches and was caught from a spawning site back in mid-May, long before other waters were yielding bedding fish.
This huge pumpkinseed sunfish X bluegill hybrid measured 11 inches and was caught from a spawning site back in mid-May, long before other waters were yielding bedding fish. (Jim Gronaw photo)

My best, most consistent efforts have been at a few small public lakes where kayaking has put us on to several large colonies of spawning bluegills that have been undisturbed by anglers who seek other game like bass and crappies. These are not, however, big fish, but rather numerous 8-inch class bluegills … fine fish nonetheless by most people’s standards.

Along the way were a few really impressive catches including a sensational 11-inch pumpkinseed X bluegill hybrid sunfish that was a new “personal best” for me.

A great panfish angler, Jeffrey Abney of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, first alerted me to the influence of the lunar cycles to the outstanding coppernose bluegill populations of the rivers of the Albermarle Sound in coastal North Carolina. Two things struck me as amazing.

One, that bluegills reacted to full and new moon phases favorably, spawning often three times a summer. And two, that there was a tremendous population of very large and abundant coppernose bluegills in many tidal river systems in certain regions of the southeastern states. Abney has made quite a study of this and he averages anywhere from 6,000 to 7,000 bluegills a year for he and his parties of friends and family.

Along the way, he catches anywhere from 500 to 700 bluegills a year that exceed 10 inches in length. These are amazing, if not astonishing, numbers for this day and age, especially when you consider that all of his fish are taken from public, tidal river systems that see a lot of bass fishing pressure, but very little in the form of bluegill activity from anglers.

Oh, yeah — he smears the slab crappie in those tidal systems as well.

This large male bluegill was taken in late May. Notice the circular "spawning beds" in the background below the fish.
This large male bluegill was taken in late May. Notice the circular "spawning beds" in the background below the fish. (Jim Gronaw photo)

As almost a parallel pattern, I have fished a small, public lake this year in May, June, and July. On all three occasions, I have found bedding bluegills, in the same areas, even though each trip was a month apart. Each trip I have caught and released anywhere from 60 to 80 bluegills with most of them running around the 8-inch class, with a few larger and the occasional giant thrown in.

Conversely, in some of the private ponds I fish, bedding bluegills have been difficult at some, and predictable at other locations. Traditionally, almost all of the bluegills I catch that hit the 11-inch bench mark are “private water” fish.


For fish that run in the 10- to 11-inch class I’d say that 60 percent of those fish, over the past six years, have been public water catches.

Many years I won’t catch a single 11-inch bluegill but may catch many over 10.

An 11-inch bluegill is an exceptional fish in our area. Last year I caught seven over the 11-inch award minimum, my best year ever on “really big” bluegills.

So, similar to Abney’s observations, I fished July 2 and caught and observed spawning bluegills hot and heavy. We were three days from a waning full moon — prime time in Abney’s waters.

Yet at two other locations this week I noticed spawning beds that were empty and devoid of fish. So, the full moon thing doesn’t apply to all water bodies, at least not around here. Holding to the truth that many fish species spawned late this year, it will be interesting to see if there are actually spawning bluegills, on bedding sites, some time in early August.

I have only observed spawning sunfish in August, in Maryland, but twice in my lifetime.

Regardless of what happens, a certain percentage of bluegills will always remain shallow throughout the summer, enabling anglers to catch a variety of sunfish species, and in varying sizes, for food and sport.

Yes, bobbers, worms, small jigs and spoons will take their share of fish. And as for the fly rod angler, summer is a great time to catch bluegills and sunfish — the topic of my next column.