By Dan Johnson

Just like their crappie cousins, bluegills and other sunfish invade the shallows en masse each spring to strap on the feedbag. Shortly after the feeding binge subsides, their thoughts turn to procreation and the action shifts toward the spawning grounds.

Along the way, fish location and behavior is governed by a number of factors ranging from water temperature and weather conditions to bottom content and subtle variations in cover and structure.

Early in the season, sunny spring days with balmy air temperatures draw waves of hungry bluegills, pumpkinseeds and other “sunnies” into fast-warming shallows to feed. But, cool nights and punishing cold fronts often force them back into deeper water.

Veteran northern Minnesota fishing guide Jeff Sundin says sunfish don’t linger long in skinny water until major bug hatches and the appearance of tiny perch and walleye fry help lure them in.

“Sunfish don’t get serious about staying in the shallows until young-of-the-year forage starts hatching,” he says.
In his Northwoods stomping grounds, that can be mid-May or later. In between shallow flurries leading up to the spawn, Sundin plies offshore hotspots near traditional shallow spawning areas.

“Before the spawn begins, you can usually find fish hanging out along primary drop-offs that lead into deeper water,” he says.

He favors soft, marl-bottom flats near the bases of these shoreline breaks. It’s the kind of bottom that sticks to the anchor when you bring it up, he says. That sticky mix of sand and clay is the perfect breeding/hatching grounds for many forms of insect life.

In deep water, Sundin ties on a small jig such as a 1/16-ounce Lindy Watsit, standard Lindy Jig or an insect-imitating ice jig like the Toad or Ice Worm. Tippings range from waxworms to crawler parts and tiny leeches.

“This time of year you have all sorts of baits available, so you can mix and match until the bluegills show a preference for something. The presentation is similar to late-winter ice fishing,” he continues. “Get over the fish and hold the jig as still as possible so sunfish can sneak up and inhale it.”

Fellow sunfish stalker Paul Fournier focuses on pressured lakes a bit farther south in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Big bluegills are skittish on these systems, so stealth and silence are keys. During the prespawn, Fournier focuses on bays rich in soft, mucky substrates.

Given his quarry’s spookiness, Fournier favors long-range strikes with light jigs suspended under small bobbers. Wielding a 9½-foot steelhead-style rod loaded with 4- to 6-lb monofilament mainline, he fires Lindy Little Nippers, Watsit Jigs and pint-sized ice lures into the strike zone. “

Because sunfish have such amazing vision, I use a 3-foot leader of 2-lb fluorocarbon,” Fournier said.

Addressing other tackle considerations, he says a Thill Wobble Bobber extends his reach and adds animation to the jig below.

“Wobble Bobbers are extra-dense for great casting, and their pear-shaped design makes them rock back and forth with the slightest twitch or ripple.”

Water temperatures rising into the upper 60s trigger spawning activity. Sunfish nest in colonies, excavating beds on firm bottoms such as sand or gravel. Some fish stay in early season feeding areas if they can find suitable spawning habitat, but they’ll move if they have to.

On one of my favorite central Minnesota sunfish lakes, for example, the fish flood into a complex of bays and canals to feed. Once the spawn draws near, most leave for hard-bottomed areas around the main lake shoreline and along the edges of islands.
Sunfish are social butterflies and like to spawn in large colonies. Slip on a pair of polarized glasses and scout potential bedding areas either by boat or on foot. Once you find a colony, make a mental note of its location—or better yet, jot it in a journal. The same spots tend to attract fish year after year, so once you establish a milk run of bedding areas, you can usually count on it for years to come.

Bed-fishing tactics include anything that triggers nest-guarding fish to strike. Fournier grabs a flyrod and fishes 1/64- to 1/32-ounce Little Nippers.

“I use a pull-pause retrieve just like you would a streamer fly,” he said.

Sundin works the shallows with a long, telescoping pole, dropping bobber rigs into colonies from afar.

“I set a small float a foot or two above a small jig tipped with bait, and fish it through the beds,” he says. “Sunfish hit just about anything that comes near the nest. To make it easier for them to see my presentation, I often slip a size 2 Lindy spinner blade on the line before tying on the jig. To keep it from interfering with hooksets, I pinch a split shot or two on the line a couple inches above the jig.”

Bedding fish are extremely aggressive and easy to catch, making it easy to quickly gather a few fish for a fine meal. Just remember to be selective about your harvest, leaving plenty of spawners to continue this rite of spring well into the future.