Catching Summer ‘Gills & ‘Crackers Made Easy

By Vernon Summerlin

Bluegill and shellcracker, the two most popular sunfishes, are about through spawning. They will hang around the shallows until the water temp begins to rise into the upper 70s for shellcracker and lower 80s for bluegill, and then they head for deep water.

You can tell when they move deep because you have fished the weeds, docks, piers, shallow brush piles, and all the other hot spots without getting a hit. The next place to fish is deeper water.

Deeper water is one thing – and there is a lot of it – but you’ve got to fish the cover on the deep-water points. Fish will remain in these areas during the day, but they swim to the shallower areas to feed late in the day and may remain there until mid morning the next day.

A study by the Alabama Department of Conservation established where bluegills go in the summer. They trapped bluegill in wire-mesh traps set at various depths from two to nine feet in a two-acre pond and from four to eight feet in a 22-acre pond. The traps were checked once or twice daily, but occasionally they were checked every two days. Water samples were collected from the various depths and analyzed for dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide.

The results: The depth the bluegills could live was five feet in the two-acre pond and seven feet in the 22-acre pond during the summer stratification from June through September. They found the bluegill were unable to live in the deep water for more than six to 45 hours where the dissolved oxygen was low at 0.3 parts per million and a carbon dioxide concentration of 4.4 parts per million or more.

The surface areas of the two-acre pond and the 22-acre pond made a difference in the deeper mixing of the waters due to wave action. The depth these fish could live increased in all ponds following strong winds, heavy rainfalls, or cool periods. And the depth bluegill could live decreased during periods of reduced photosynthesis due to extended periods of cloudiness. That will be important for those of you fishing ponds.

In larger bodies of water, such as our reservoirs, a greater depth of oxygenated water is readily available. Run-of-the-river reservoirs, such as Barkley, Cheatham, and Old Hickory, don’t stratify in the summer but some of their tributaries may. Within these reservoirs are many points with long, gently slanting slopes that ease into deeper depths. On these points you can find brush, trees, rock piles, weedbeds, and other cover that attract bluegill and shellcracker. Sloping points are usually better habitat for these fish than the vertical drops.

So where are the big’uns? The first place to look is in the thermocline on tributary lakes, such as Priest, Normandy, Dale Hollow, Center Hill, Tims Ford, and Woods. Any good sonar unit can pick up this cool layer of water. Look for where the thermocline hits a sloping point, and then look for cover on that point within the thermocline. Bingo! You should be on fish. Bass, crappie, and other species like these conditions also, so the bait you present will help determine what you catch.

Typically, you’ll fish deep and slow for ‘gills and ‘crackers in summer. You’ll need to use lures that will imitate small flies and nymphs. I suggest using ultralight spinning gear with four-pound line with a five-foot leader of two-pound test. To the bottom of the leader tie a 1/8-ounce jig. About 10 inches above the jig tie a 1/2-inch dropper loop that you tie on a fly or nymph with two inches of two-pound test line. Tie another loop with a fly and nymph about 10 inches above that one.

Lower your line to the cover on the point in the thermocline, and Happy Hooking!