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Saluting the lowly bluegill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Bluegills are about the coolest un-cool fish on the planet.

There, I've said it. Yes, the same guy who has caught steelhead in Alaska, redfish in Florida, bass in North Carolina and trout throughout most of the Rocky Mountains is, and shall remain, an unabashed fan of the lowly bluegill.

I like bluegills because they're generous.

When bass have lockjaw and trout are being snooty, bluegills cooperate. When fishing for one of the glamor species involves a lengthy road trip, bluegills are just minutes away. When weather conditions are less than ideal, bluegills put on slickers and weather the storm.

Granted, bluegills aren't top-end predators like muskies or largemouth bass. In fact, bluegills occupy a spot only a few rungs off the bottom of the food-chain ladder.

Creatures toward the lower end of the food chain tend to 1.) be small; 2.) be abundant; 3.) get eaten by larger creatures; and 4.) feed opportunistically on even smaller creatures.

Bluegills exhibit all those characteristics, and therein lies part of their charm.

Let's address size. Yes, bluegills tend to run small. If one tips the scale at just 1 pound or more, it qualifies for a Division of Natural Resources Trophy Fish Citation. But what 'gills lack in size they make up for in spunk.

Their flattened, oval-shaped bodies help them seem much larger than they are. When hooked, they turn their bodies in a way that makes them difficult to reel straight in. A couple of years ago, I hooked a 9-inch bluegill and a 13-inch bass on consecutive casts, and I sincerely believe the bluegill put up the better fight.

Bluegills' prolific nature, coupled with their ability to adapt to less-than-ideal water conditions, makes them available nearly everywhere. I've caught them from backyard ponds, clear-running streams, large lakes and the slow-flowing backwaters of major rivers. A golf course near my house has four ponds teeming with the critters. When I need a quick and easy fishing fix, I head there.

Fortunately for me and for other aficionados, bluegills eat a lot. When the weather is warm, they consume about 35 percent of their body weight each week in insects, crustaceans and smaller fish.

With that sort of appetite at work, 'gills often engage in breakneck feeding binges. Anglers who show up in the right place at the right time can enjoy seriously epic fishing.

Case in point: A friend's wife got him a fly rod for Christmas. He had never used fly tackle before, and he asked me to give him some pointers.

He lived next to a golf course that had bluegill ponds. We rigged our rods and walked to one of them. After a brief casting lesson, I showed him where bluegills were likely to be holding offshore and turned him loose on them. He landed more than 30. I have no idea how many I caught. I stopped counting after 50.

My favorite bluegill spot is on a small flood-control lake in west-central West Virginia. A sunken asphalt road parallels the shoreline a few feet from the bank, and during the spawning season the roadway's shoulders teem with big, fat female 'gills and oodles of belligerent males.

It's a flat-out hoot to fish. Small poppers and streamers seem to work best. Spawning bluegills see them as nest-robbing intruders and attack them viciously. On a good day, my casting arm wears out long before my desire to keep catching fish.

So yes, I'm an unabashed fan of the so-called "lowly" bluegill, and for good reason. To me, these scrappy little members of the sunfish family are anything but a species of last resort.

They're a go-to species, and I fish for them enthusiastically - and proudly.


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