Growing up, my grandpa would take us out on an old rowboat each spring to catch bluegills. All we needed were a set of oars, a fish basket and some simple tackle, and we were ready for some of the fastest action of the year.
I prefer to eat fish caught in cold water, so I’m not talking about catching bluegills off their beds. We would do this from right after ice out until the water warmed to the 50s or low 60s. These fish were prespawn, hungry and aggressive. Finding them wasn’t to hard since we focused on small water, but a good starting point is the last place you ice fished or saw ice fisherman, as well as any cove, point or weedy flat. Other times it simply wouldn’t matter, especially later in the spring as the water was beginning to warm. If we got to the lake on a calm day, you would see gills popping at the surface everywhere feeding on invertebrates. But the general rule was the colder the water, the more specific we would have to be with our location.
I got quite a bit of practice rowing during this time of year, but some lakes we had a short enough walk we could use a Minn Kota transom mount trolling motor. That made searching for them a little bit easier and we were less likely to spook fish by banging the oars into the sides of the boat. Stealth was often important — the longer the cast the better, especially in cold water. Light action spinning rods spooled with braid were the best way to achieve those long casts, although we would switch to a 2-4 pound test mono leader if they were finicky. But if the bite is really on, I recommend running straight braid as hook ups with bass and big crappies are likely.
From there the plan was simple: a pencil bobber above an ice fishing jig, which has the perfect size hook for bluegills. It also has built-in weight, so no need for adding split shot or anything else to the line. Combined with a loop knot, any little ripple on the surface makes the jig move down there, and the bluegills love it. Another big advantage is even if your “bait” is stolen, bluegills will often still eat a plain ice jig. We would always tip the jig with either wax worms or spikes. Either is more effective than nightcrawlers on bluegills in cold water, and much less messy. One thing that’s important to note is you’ll often need a longer leader for really cold water, up to 8 feet. This can make casting difficult and dangerous for the other person in a small boat, so I recommend going to a long rod to help with that.
Now you’re ready to watch bobbers disappear for the rest of the day. The action can be unbelievable, and is a great way to get kids or beginners hooked on fishing. Several years ago when my wife and I were just dating, it felt right to give it a try. It had been some time since I’d done this, but the day was calm and temperatures were climbing to the 60s. I told her the action would be crazy, so we headed to the lake. We found the fish, anchored up and caught them on every single cast until we were tired of taking fish off the hook. She finally believed my stories about how good it can be and still talks about how fun that day was. It’s been a few years since we did that. It may be time to give it another shot!