Get Ready to Start Bustin’ Bluegill

Bluegill are the most prolific game fish in area waters. A large female will lay up to 18,000 eggs. (Photo: Richard Simms)

Bluegill and shellcrackers will soon be bustin’ out all over.

Right now most anglers fishing for the freezer still have crappie on the brain. But in a couple of weeks it will “bluegill time in Tennessee.”

The scientific name for bluegill is Lepomis macrochirus. Lepomis is Greek for “scaled gill cover.” Macrochirus means “large hand.” A fairly accurate description of these feisty fighters.

Tom Morgan shows off a bragging-sized shellcracker he caught on Chickamauga Lake a few years ago. (Photo: Richard Simms)
Tom Morgan shows off a bragging-sized shellcracker he caught on Chickamauga Lake a few years ago. (Photo: Richard Simms)

Most bluegill fishermen agree, if they grew as large as bass, we’d have to convert to oversized saltwater tackle to take them. Their broad little bodies shaped like dinner plates allow them to exert a lot of resistance in the water. On light, or even medium-sized spinning tackle, catching one is fun. Catching 50 or 100 of them is that much more fun… and it’s not hard to do.

As the water temperatures climb into the high 60’s, bluegill will be “going on the beds,” which means they’re spawning. While the sunfish, especially the shellcrackers will start bedding earlier, we will have a full moon on May 14. That’s when the fishing should peak, according to most hardcore bluegill busters.

Bluegill spawn, or “make beds,” en masse. Meaning if you find one, you’re likely to find dozens. Sometimes on a calm day in clear water, you can actually see the dinner plate-sized beds the males have swept out on a sandy bottom. It will look like the bottom is pockmarked with several black spots 12-to-18 inches across. Each one is a bluegill bed.

Even if you can’t see them, they’re there, usually in the back of sloughs or coves. They especially like corners where they only have to protect their beds from marauding predators approaching from one direction, rather than a 360-degree angle.

When I’m searching for bluegill beds I typically like to “drag the bottom.” I use a slip-sinker rig with an eighth-ounce sliding bullet sinker with an extremely tiny clamp-on-sinker to peg the sliding sinker 12-18 inches away from the bream hook. I personally prefer wax worms for bait, but crickets are excellent as well. If you’re specifically targetting shellcrackers, you will probably do better with redworms.

Whatever the bait, I like to drag it along the bottom with a small BB split shot whether it’s 2-feet deep or 8-feet deep. I can cover every depth from bank-to-boat. I just drag it along slowly, feeling for a little “tic” on the rod tip… or watching for the line to jump or move sideways. Strike detection is harder than using a float, but in short order you’ll figure it out, and it’s 10 times more effective in locating concentrations of fish. Once I locate a bed in a certain depth, I might switch to a float, especially if there are kids with me. But dragging the bottom is much more effective in figuring out where they are.

How do you know when you’ve found a bed?

If you catch one bedding “bull bream,” he’ll be colored up… extremely dark on the back and bright vivid orange yellow on the belly. Those are breeding colors. Squeeze his belly just a little and you’ll get a second clue as to their “breeding condition.”

And I guarantee you. If you catch one of those in late April or the month of May, there are more with him. It might just be eight or ten, or it might be 110.

Bill Swan shows off a good comparison of a bluegill (on the left) and a shellcracker, or redear (on the right). (Photo: Richard Simms)
Bill Swan shows off a good comparison of a bluegill (on the left) and a shellcracker, or redear (on the right). (Photo: Richard Simms)

Don’t worry about catching too many bluegill. There is no creel limit in Tennessee.  Each female will lay a minimum of 2,000 eggs. Older, larger females will lay up to 18,000 eggs. It’s easy to tell the females. They’ll typically be lighter on the back and their bellies will be yellow rather than orange.

However there is a creel limit of 20 per person on shellcrackers, so learn how to tell the difference.

While most people collectively refer to them all as bluegill, or bream…. there are actually 6 or 8 different species of sunfish in area waters. Bluegill are the most common. Others include green sunfish, warmouth, pumpkinseeds, longears, redbreast and redear. The redear ir a little bit more elongated than a bluegill and has a small, but dinstinctive red edge on it’s blue gill flap.  They are more commonly called shellcrackers.

The Tennessee state record bluegill is 3-pounds even. The state record shellcracker is 3 pounds, 6 ounces.

The average shellcracker is much larger than a bluegill, and highly prized. Chickamauga Lake is an excellent shellcracker producer.

Remember that “dragging the bottom” trick for locating beds. But grab the kids, grab the wife, grab the wax worms or crickets and go!

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Richard Simms is a professional journalist and fishing guide in Chattanooga. (See He is also a former wildlife officer for TWRA, a book author and a self-proclaimed "River Rat" with a sincere desire for spreading the message about our bountiful natural resources and the people charged with using, or protecting them.



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