bluegill1Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT

Today’s fly lines are varied and sophisticated, crafted for all types of fishing situations. Such was not the case in the late 1970s early 1980s.

It’s probably unknown by most fly anglers, as it was by me until I heard the story, that the Bluegill had a little bit to do with helping create some of the lines we fish today.

Most anglers in the U.S. have fished for, at some time in their life, one of the most prolific and feisty of fish, the Bluegill. Native to areas east of the Rocky Mountains from Minnesota to Florida, the Bluegill has been widely introduced throughout the US. In suitable ponds, lakes and slow moving rivers and streams, Bluegills can be found and caught in impressive numbers. Because they are omnivorous feeders of any suitable forage and have small mouths, they are ideal targets for the fly angler. In general, Bluegills are easy to catch, especially during their spawning periods. Even average size adults, 6-8”, fight hard on light fly rods. Bigger adults, those approaching 10-12” are trophies and can pull up battles on light gear rivaling much bigger fish.

Typical concentration of shallow Bluegill beds
Typical concentration of shallow Bluegill beds

Unfortunately for the Bluegill, their prolific nature and diminutive size makes them an important forage fish for larger species such as pike, large and smallmouth bass, walleye, striped bass, catfish and such not to mention the usual terrestrial threats from snakes, birds and turtles. In other words, life is hard for the average Bluegill in most waters. Reaching larger adults sizes requires some wiliness and caution on their part, so connecting with larger specimens can be a challenge.

Fly selection for Bluegill is not really difficult. Just about any small dry or wet fly resembling insects, baitfish or small amphibians, etc. can entice a Bluegill to strike. Small poppers, resembling nothing in particular, are exceedingly popular when Bluegills are feeding close the surface or on their spawning beds. Their beds are generally made in shallow water and readily visible to the angler. This tends to concentrate a lot of fish in a very small area. A stealthy approach and a well-placed fly or popper anywhere near one of the beds generally results in an aggressive strike from a Bluegill defending its bed.

Done with some care and you can catch a lot of fish in a very short time, including larger adults. Fishing for Bluegill during their spawning period gives rise to the notion that they are really easy to catch. When spawning and when there are extraordinary Hexagenia hatches, large adults are easy to catch. Called Willow Flies down south, the hatches can sometimes be so prolific and concentrate feeding fish right at the edges of streams and lakes when overhanging vegetation can sag under the weight of 1000s of these large mayflies. Just about any fly tossed close to the shore near a concentration of Willow Flies will elicit aggressive strikes from adult fish. Under these two conditions, spawning and Willow Fly hatches, large adult Bluegill aren’t that hard to catch. But there are other times in the season where these larger Bluegill can be particularly difficult and this difficultly led to an interesting legacy.

If you’ve ever done much serious Bluegill fly fishing, especially in relatively clear water conditions, you’ll have noticed the following behavior. Before and after the aggressive behavior we see during spawning, in the spring and fall in the south where I have the most experience, large adult Bluegill can be very cautious. They can rise slowly to a floating fly or popper to within a ½” or so, sit there and inspect the fly. A tiny twitch may elicit a strike or scare the fish away. Even the take is generally a slow, sucking take where the angler needs to take care in not setting the hook too soon or too late.

Before and after the spawning period, the larger adults scatter into deeper water around structure and take up solo existences that provide more protection from predators. Catching large adults during these periods takes more skill and patience than you might think. Those subtle behaviors and takes you witness with surface flies are the same behaviors Bluegill exhibit at 10-15 feet out of sight of the angler. This challenge led to some interesting experimentation in fly lines and the legacies of those belong to the wily nature of the Bluegill.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bruce Richards, the fly line guru from Scientific Anglers would be fishing for Bluegills on Wakeley Lake, just east of Grayling, Michigan. Wakeley was known then and now as a trophy Bluegill destination in Central Michigan. Like all waters holding good populations of Bluegill, Wakeley made for easy fishing during the early summer spawning period. Yet once the big males left the beds and took up solo existences in deeper water, they became much more difficult to catch.

Bruce, fishing with traditional sink tip lines of the day, faced a common problem. Getting the fly down to the fish often left a large belly in the line as the long leader and floating section of the line sunk much slower than the short section of sink tip. The very deliberate, slow nature of Bluegill takes made detecting those takes with a big belly in the line problematic. Bruce became determined to figure out how to eliminate it.

Back in Midland, Michigan some 75 miles to the south at the Scientific Angler’s manufacturing facility, Bruce began experimenting. In the early 1980s, the fly line manufacturing process still required a lot of manual work as computer assisted, automated equipment had yet penetrated the industry. By combining various lengths of different sink rate types into a single longer tip, Bruce was eventually able to create a line that would still get a fly down to wily Bluegill in deep water but without a significant belly in the line.

On the water these experimental lines produced more hookups and more trophy Bluegills from Wakeley Lake. Once the concept was proved on the water, it didn’t take long for Bruce and SA to get manufacturing processes in place to produce these types of lines commercially. Bruce recollects that Scientific Anglers sold its first lines of this new configuration—Uniform Sinking Lines– around 1983. Other fly line manufacturers have claimed they invented these longer (15-30’) density compensated sink tip lines first, but the Bluegills of Wakeley Lake know better.

Today we take these lines for granted without realizing that the old proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention” rings true. Density compensated sink tips are used for all types of species and in all types of water. One would think they’ve always been with us. Of course someone would have eventually figured it out, but we can give the legacy and credit to those wise old Bluegills of Wakeley Lake and the innovative spirit of Bruce Richards and Scientific Anglers.

2 Comments

  1. I’ve often wondered what evolutionary advantage is afforded a fish species by being shaped like a saucer. In the ocean, large numbers of reef fish species are shaped thus, and I’ve noticed they tend to use their broad sides to good advantage, letting the surge take them when it suits their purposes and turning end-on to it when they don’t want to be swept in that direction.

    But I’m not sure fresh water species do that. I guess such a shape creates an elongated cross section in one dimension, requiring predator jaws to be able to open wide, but on the other hand the shape would also make them easier to hold onto, like a frisbee is far easier to “palm” than a volleyball. Once caught, a bluegill would be pretty firmly held in a river otter’s mouth.

    There doesn’t seem to be a lot of info readily available on the subject. Mass distributed vertically rather than horizontally tends to imply a need to minimize the profile that would be seen from above, so this suggests that avoiding the attention of predatory birds is the primary priority, rather than other dangers.

    Or I guess it could be easier to remain vertical, or…could possibly maximize gill area for body mass, or…I can speculate with the best, but…?

    Anyone ever explore this scientifically? Some species went down this road and many others did not.

    – Mike

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