Bankfishing 101: Catching More Bluegills From Your Local Pond
Patrick Mills

In common with most bank anglers, especially those on an outing with the kids in tow, my family and I tend to fish local forest preserve and park district ponds and lakes for a few hours on weekends or during those warm summer evenings. As I’m sure most parents will agree, there’s nothing worse than having the kids sit restlessly for the entire period while watching a motionless bobber – what’s needed are frequent takes from obliging fish, as nothing else will keep the youngsters enthralled! Thus, the issue then becomes “how can we catch good numbers of fish from our local pond” - a dilemma this article will address.

Typically, local venues such as retention ponds and lakes contain large populations of smaller fish, such as 'gills, other sunfish, bullheads and shiners. Thus, just based on sheer numbers, these fish will provide the necessary fast action kids and/or new anglers crave. While popular venues may also contain sport species such bass and/or catfish, these fish, although they do show up from time to time, are far less numerous than the smaller species, so should not be the focus during a casual family outing.

This introductory article provides a check list for the casual angler interested in significantly increasing his or her catches of pan fish. Indeed, as is discussed below, anglers should be able to boost their catch rates to over 60 fish an hour (yes, better than a fish a minute!) by making several simple modifications to their set up and approach. The following list of hints and tips are both cost effective and easy to implement and, by following the following instructions closely, the typical angler is essentially guaranteed a four fold or better increase in the number of pan fish they catch.

Tip 1 - Equipment

The good news is that most of us already posses the poles, rods and reels required for the job. Typically, 'gills can be captured easily from the margins so light actioned cane, glass fiber or carbon fiber fishing poles (sold as 'crappie poles' or similar at your local store) between 10 and 16 feet in length are ideal. Light action rods of 7 feet or greater in length are also adequate, but the simple pole is a cheaper and more effective approach. Since, as is discussed below, small hooks, delicate floats and light line are to be implemented, light or ultralight rods MUST be used in conjunction with these items of tackle.

Tip 2 - Floats (bobbers)

By far the biggest mistake people make when fishing for the smaller species is using a bobber that is just plain not suited to the task at hand. I know most of us used the good 'ol red and white bobbers when we were kids, and continue to do so to this day, but the use of  this particular style of float leads to a significant reduction in the number of 'hittable' takes - its not called a 'bobber' for nothing you know(!). The ineffectiveness of the 'red and white' can be explained in terms of the mechanics of the bite. Typically, we want to see a 'sail under' bite from the fish, with the bobber (float) disappearing beneath the surface. This unmistakable indication is then 'hit' by the angler and the fish hooked. In order for this to happen, the fish must apply enough force to sink the float on the take. Now, here in lies the problem - if the force required to sink the float is too great, the fish will feel an unnatural resistance on the take and will most likely reject the bait. Clearly, reducing this force would lead to more 'hittable' sail away bites, but how can this be accomplished? Well, it all comes down to two principle factors - 1) the buoyancy of the visible above water portion, or tip, of the float and  2) how streamlined, or hydrodynamic, the body of the float is. Essentially, less force is required to pull under a float possessing a low buoyancy tip and /or a streamlined body shape. The take home message here, that naturally follows from these facts, is that the angler should use a float with a slim, streamlined profile that also possesses a small visible tip. The most commonly available floats of this type in the US are the Little Lindy 'Thill' brand shy bite floats. These floats are reasonably cheap and may be purchased at most tackle stores.

Comparison of bobbers commonly available in the U.S.

Worst - the traditional red and white bobber. Most anglers fish this float with at least half the body (the white part) proud of the water. The 'tip' is therefore very buoyant. Bites are very difficult to detect with such floats, hence they 'bob' rather than slide under(!). Better - the Little Lindy, 'Thill mini-stealth'. The smaller yellow tip is less buoyant, and the float as a whole my streamlined, than the traditional 'red 'n white'. An adequate float for catching aggressive 'gills up in the water or in very shallow water. Best - the Little Lindy, 'Thill' shy bite'. The small  tip and narrow body of this float make it an ideal choice of most kinds of short range fishing. Bites are very easily detected as 'sail aways' with floats such as this.

Tip 3 - Hooks, line, sinkers and bait

During the warmer months, as well as most other times of the year, panfish generally feed by intercepting food (usually insects) as they fall or move through the waters surface layers. Thus, in order to catch panfish in an efficient manner, it is best to take advantage of this inherent feeding response. Thus, the angler must use a small, insect like bait that must in turn fall through the water slowly - in much the same way as a natural offering would. This method is called is called 'fishing on the drop' and is most efficiently achieved through the use of fine lines and small hooks, with ultra small split shot used on the line. The small hooks, light line and small split shot required are easily obtained the trout section of fishing stores. Each of these three components are vitally important to this style of fishing, as a slow fall of the bait through the water can only be achieved through implementing these components in tandem. Why is this so?....

Taking the split shot first. Small shot obviously fall through the water at slower rate than larger shot. Thus, by placing three or so evenly spaced  #8 or #10 shot down the line, the hook bait will have a slow drop through the water, while the shot will also allow for any movement of the bait (initiated by a fish) to be seen. Don't be tempted to put no shot whatsoever down the line as, although this will result in a very slow and natural drop of the hook bait, little indication will be seen when a fish takes the bait and many gut hooked fish will result. Several #8 or #10 shot down the line is the best compromise in terms of having a slow drop and detecting bites from the fish. A low diameter 'invisible' nylon or fluorocarbon line must also be used. In addition to the fact that fish cannot see low diameter lines very easily, thicker gauge lines have an inherent stiffness which, in turn, translates to an unnatural fall of the bait. Since the fish we are after generally don't top half a pound, a line of 2 - 4 lb breaking strain is good choice in terms of its suppleness, diameter and strength. Finally, it is important to match the size of the hook used to the bait employed. If a hook is too large for a bait, this may result in the bait either behaving unnaturally (the hook outweighs the bait, causing it to behave dissimilarly to any loose offerings of the same bait) or being difficult to take by the fish (small fish simply cannot 'swallow' larger sized hooks). Conversely, if a hook is too small for a bait, it's point often becomes masked by the bait, causing fish to be 'bumped' on the strike. Ideally, the hook and bait should be of approximately the same size and, when the bait is mounted on the hook, the point of the hook should be just slightly exposed.  A good 'gill / pan fish hook bait is either two spikes or a section of worm. Hooks of size 14 or 16 (again, available in the trout section) work best with these baits.

Putting it together

The following is a general description of how the most efficient competitive bank anglers put the above information to good use - often times catching in excess of 400 bluegills over the span of a four hour competition!

  The author used the  methods discussed here to catch a tournament wining ~30 pound net of bluegills during the 2005 US Open Bankfishing championships.

Prepare a short ( ~10 - 16 foot,)  pole rig. The rig should consist of a light 1 or 2 BB (1/64 or 1/32 oz) 'shy bite' or similar style float in tandem with line of less than 4 ponds b.s. and a fine wire trout hook of size 16 or so. The pole and line used should be of the same length - this will allow each fish hooked to be swung to hand. Start with the float depth set to around 2 or 3 feet (assuming the water is deeper than this, set to just under full depth if it is not), with only 3 or so evenly spaced  # 8 or #10 shot attached to the last 2 or 3 feet of line - this will ensure the hook bait drops slowly through the water. Have the last shot pinched on the line at around 4" - 6" from the hook, this will aid in detecting bites and avoid gut hooking fish. The balance of the split shot, most likely 3 or so #4 shot, should be pinched on to the line right under the float. When cast out, the float should settle so that only the red tip is visible. Adjust the 'bulk' shot under the float until this is so. Pinch down the barb of the hook - this will allow for easier hooking and unhooking of the fish. Very few fish will be lost by pinching the barb down, as most often the small quarry species will be swung directly to hand in one smooth strike and retrieve motion.

Regularly ‘loose feed’ in the vicinity of the rig. Most pan fish are classified as insectivores – they prey almost exclusively on insects, that in turn, fall into the water (this is especially true of bluegills ) Thus, the best way to attract panfish is to take advantage of their natural behaviors and introduce regular amounts of chopped worms or spikes to the fishing area. These free offerings (loose feed) will bring fish into a specific small area and force them to compete for food. Indeed they will essentially be waiting for a bait to fall past their noses and will jump on any hooked offering! Also, since hook baits unavoidably fall through the water a little more quickly than free offerings it is advisable to follow the loose feed with the rig – a deadly trick, as the heavy hook bait essentially catches up with the slower falling free offerings and a take usually ensues as the fish dart around, mopping up the available food items. It is generally not necessary to loose feed before every cast, as each helping of bait will keep the fish interested for a few minutes.

Advanced tip: Find the fish and judge their 'mood'. While the above advice will inevitably lead to more fish being caught, it is often possible to hone ones catch rate by playing a few tricks. Dependent on the weather conditions encountered, pan fish can suspend at virtually any depth from a few inches under the surface to just a few inches off the bottom. While fishing at 2 - 3 feet down is a good place to start, try moving the float up and down in increments of a foot or so until you attract more bites. Generally speaking, the warmer the conditions, the shallower the fish will be. Often times, fish will tend to move up in the water during a session. They do this to intercept the loose feed before their brethren, and so get a better shot at a meal. If bites tail off or become 'twitchy' during a session, shallow up the rig and see what happens - bites will likely start coming thick and fast once more. Occasionally, the fish seem hard to catch. During times such as these it often pays to try and goad the more aggressive fish into a take. Do this by either 'jigging' or 'trolling' the hook bait in and around the fishing area. This trick can really pay dividends, as often fish will only hit a moving bait.

In conclusion, by following the above tips the average angler cannot help but increase their catch rates of pan fish, particularly 'gills. These strategies really do work, so anglers are strongly urged to practice catch and release.