Art Lander’s Outdoors: As spring warms and summer begins, fishing for bluegill, redear sunfish heats up

The best fishing of the year for sunfish occurs as spring warms into summer as fish are spawning, raising their young and actively feeding.

The two most popular, and widely-distributed, sunfish in Kentucky are the bluegill and redear sunfish.

Search the 2023 Fishing Forecast for the best bluegill and redear sunfish waters near you.

Bluegill (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

• The Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) is a real scrapper, and is one of our best-tasting fish. The bluegill’s white flesh is sweet and firm, especially when taken from cool, clear waters.

Adults are four to nine inches long, rarely more than 11 inches.

Large, hand-sized bluegill, about seven to eight inches long, are saucer-shaped, beautiful fish. Their mouths are small, and bodies slab-sided.

Coloration is variable, but generally they are olive green with emerald, copper, and bluish reflections on their sides, dark above the lateral line. Their lower sides and belly are whitish to yellow. Breeding males may have bright red breasts.

Bluegills are present in all river drainages in Kentucky, but are most successful in standing waters — farm ponds, small lakes and large reservoirs.

Bluegills are omnivores, eating both plant and animal material.Young readily consume algae, but the diet of the bluegill consists mainly of larval and adult aquatic and terrestrial insects, crustaceans, and small fish. They often raid the nests of other fish, including black bass, preying on fish eggs, and fry.

Bluegill tackle and techniques

This time of year bluegill are close to the banks, and are drawn to areas where trees over-hang the shoreline.

Fly fishing is a productive way to catch bluegill (Photo from Google Images)

When water temperatures reach into the 70s bluegills build circular nests, clustered in colonies in shoreline shallows, in one to four feet of water.

Males makes the nests by fanning with their tails, and lead females to the nest. Multiple females may deposit eggs in the same nest. The female leaves after spawning. The male guards the nest and becomes very territorial, biting aggressively when a baited hook or tiny fly is near their nest.

When fishing from the banks in farm ponds or from fishing piers on small lakes, poles are a good tackle option.

A 10-to-12 foot pole made from river cane works great. Another option is a telescoping fiberglass pole, light enough for even small children to handle.

Rig the pole with 10-pound test monofilament line to avoid line twist. A little heavier line also makes it possible to straighten out light wire hooks rather than break the line when snagged on cover.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

A good terminal tackle choice is a No. 4 lead split shot, balsa wood or plastic float, and a No. 8 or 10 long shank light wire hook. The long shank hook is easier to remove when a sunfish swallows the bait. Hemostats are a great help when removing hooks lodged way down in a fish’s throat.

It’s hard to beat red worms, which can be dug just about anywhere there are leaves and plant debris covering the ground. Other good baits are bits of nightcrawler, crickets, meal worms, and wax worms.

When fishing from a boat, spinning tackle offers the advantage over a pole because bait can be cast to likely fish-holding structure, the edges of weed beds and submerged wood structure, from a distance.

Another tackle option is combining artificial lures with live bait.

A small lead head jig, typically 1/16 or 1/32-ounce, tipped with a wax worm, is irresistible to bluegills.

Fish the jigs on ultralight spinning tackle using a clear hard-plastic casting float, which has eyelets on both ends.

The jig is tied to an 18-inch leader, which is attached to one end of the float. The line from the reel and rod is tied to the eyelet on the other end of the float. The rig is easily cast because of the weight of the float. The best retrieve is an erratic stop-and-go.

Fishing for bluegills with a fly rod is also very productive and a fun strategy. Tiny poppers, foam spiders, and wet flies, such as bead head flies (size 10 and 12) will catch fish throughout the summer.

• The redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus) is found throughout Kentucky, but most common in clear waters — farm ponds, small lakes, and major reservoirs where submerged, rooted aquatic vegetation is present.

The redear sunfish is often difficult to catch, in part because this sunfish prefers to stay close to the bottom in deeper water (up to 10 feet in depth), and if it feels any resistance on the line, is apt to drop the bait.

Redear sunfish (Photo from Flickr Commons)

A moderately large, fast-growing sunfish, adults are eight to 10 inches in length, and can average three-quarters of a pound or more in productive waters. Trophy-sized fish up to 12 inches are possible.

Deep bodied, slab-sided sunfish, redears have relatively long, pointed snouts and small mouths. Their upper jaw does not extend past the front of the eye.

They have long pointed pectoral fins, which aid in lateral movement, and distinctive opercle flaps — the adult male’s has a bright cherry red margin, the female’s is light orange.

Coloration is a mottled blueish-green, with a yellow-orange belly.

Redear Sunfish Tackle and Techniques

Redear sunfish demand a different approach.

(Photo from KDFWR)

Their nests are in deeper water than bluegills, typically on mud flats. Males make the nests, and guard it, becoming very territorial, biting aggressively, after the eggs hatch.

Redear nest sites are typically away from the shoreline, not where bluegills are, in deeper water.

Since the bait must be on, or near the bottom, a modified drop shot rig works great.

Place a lead spit shot about 12 to 16 inches above the hook. Rig with a buoyant small soft plastic worm, minnow imitation or grub. If fishing red worms, attach a tiny foam float a few inches above the hook so that the bait rides a just off the bottom.

Late May into June is a great time to be on the water, especially fishing for sunfish, who are active, and easy to catch.

Don’t miss out on this prime opportunity to be a mentor and take a kid fishing.

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