A good time of year for the autumn 'bulls'

A good time of year for the autumn 'bulls'
Major-league pumpkinseed sunfish often join the party during the bluegill bash. (Jim Gronaw photo)

I know there are some anglers out there who hate to see this time of year, thinking that the better fishing of the year is behind us, and upcoming hunting seasons are the only game in town. But to me and some other hardy anglers, the autumn bite triggers many species that are normally considered summertime fare.

One of the best times of the year to catch big, bullish bluegills is right now, and right until ice up.


I used to think that once September rolled around that fishing was over. But over time, I kept fishing deeper and deeper into the autumn season and early, even mid-winter on some of our milder winters. To my great surprise we found that big panfish, especially mombo bluegills, could be had with a little patience and savvy.

With our shallow and fertile farm ponds and smaller public lakes of the Mid Atlantic the waters can often stay in the mid to upper 40's during mild winters and it is game-on for a variety of fish. Big bluegills tend to make daily movements to remaining green weed bed areas and often are close to shore. Making them easy targets for shoreline efforts. They can be up or down in the water column, but if the lake or pond is but 6-10 feet deep then delicate presentations with sensitive bobbers and tiny micro-jigs can pay off with quality fish.

For the past 6 weeks I have been splitting my angling efforts between five different small lakes that are coughing up good sized bluegills, pumpkinseed sunfish and the occasional hybrid sunfish. Most of these fish are of quality (8-inch) size and many are over the 9-inch mark. On the year, I have caught and released 121 bluegills over the 10-inch mark ... a "self-imposed" standard for the releasing of trophy-class bluegills.

The simple truth is, if you don't release the great majority of those top-end bluegills, there just won't be many around in our waters in the next few years. Some bodies of water can tolerate some harvest and others even less. I just think a 10-inch bluegill is a rare and special fish well worth being caught more than once.

On one of our more recent trips my son Matt and I targeted chubber gills at a Mason Dixon pond where we knew bulls roamed. We used long, ultralight spinning rods of 7.5 to 8.5 feet and tossed grass shrimp patterned jigs about 5 feet below small bobbers.

Seems like "kids stuff," but we actually had to work pretty hard for a couple dozen fish during the afternoon foray. Several of our fish were in the coveted 10-inch class and three of which were just over that benchmark. Initially, we tipped our 1/32nd- and 1/64th-ounce jigs with pieces of garden worms, which helped trigger strikes from fish that were waking up from an early morning temperature drop of 32 degrees. Later, Matt would put on small inch-long plastic trailers to entice some big fish as well with a straight retrieve.

He used the Stank X Poly Wogz in white and cream color, and the big bulls dug it.

A lot of these fish were still shoreline oriented and would submerse our bobbers 20 or so feet from the bank. Traditionally, I like to allow the wind to drift our small baits over wind swept areas and the corners of lakes and ponds where bluegills stack up and feast on any small insects or invertebrates that are pushed into these areas by the wind. More often than not, we catch the bulk of our fish with the wind blowing directly in our faces.

As waters continue to cool down, look for slab bluegills to favor smaller offerings, even down to the 1/200th shad dart head made by Trout Magnet. Once waters are below 50, we scale everything down ... 2-pound line is prefered, 1/100th ounce jigs and super sensitive bobbers like the Thill Shy Bite or the Comal 1.5 inch weighed 'cigar-shaped' floats work nicely. Look for gills, and other species, to hug the breast or dam faces of small lakes and ponds in our region right up until the ice forms. The micro-jig, micro-float gig is not a long casting affair. Most strikes will have the fish barely move the bobber as it gets colder into the season.

Keep the little floats within your eyesight and expect to have days where the bobber doesn't even go under ... it just trails around as a big gill tows it.

Most fish will roam 4 to 5 feet blow the surface, but some much deeper. Around about the first of December, I like to tip my jigs with one or two maggots as they seem to have more appeal to cold-water gills than most other baits, Recently, we have also had success with Gulp! Maggots and Minnows in the 1-inch size as tipping agents.

A standard for many ice fishermen, Gulp! baits are easier to transport or acquire when bait shops run out of other the real McCoy. Keep your jigs tiny and watch your bobber and bundle up for the fall, and winter, harvest of abundant bluegills and sunfish!