Fishing for bluegills is a favorite Minnesota pastime. The state's most commonly caught fish, the bluegill is abundant in most Minnesota lakes and many of its rivers.
A member of the sunfish family, the bluegill is prized table fare, and large "gills" put up a surprisingly good fight.
If you have never fished for bluegill now is a great time to start. They are relatively easy to catch with the proper tackle and technique.
- When to fish
Fishing for bluegill is continuous, meaning you can target bluegill at any time of year. Limits can vary from place to place, size restrictions may exist and fishing for them in a particular lake could be closed or limited.
Statewide regulations apply in many lakes, rivers and streams entirely within Minnesota. As mentioned above, some Minnesota waters have special regulations specific to a particular waterbody. Regulations also may differ on Minnesota's border waters with Canada, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Complete and comprehensive fishing regulations are in the fishing regulations booklet. The most up-to-date version is available online. Printed copies, which do not include the most-recent updates, are available where fishing licenses are sold.
- Where to fish
Most Minnesota lakes and rivers contain bluegill and other sunfish but not all. So, if you intend to target bluegills, a good place to start is our LakeFinder tool, which contains fish population information for more than 4,500 fishing lakes.
Bluegills can be in shallow or deep water in winter. Their location varies from lake to lake based on lake depth, lake shape, water clarity, vegetation growth, time of year, food availability, oxygen levels and other environmental factors. There is no one answer for where you will find sunfish.
Still, there are places you are more likely to catch fish. These include deep holes, humps, vegetated structure, shallow weedy flats, narrows and along or just off points that jut into deeper water. Lakefinder includes contour maps that can help you find some of these prime locations.
Sunfish are often found in and around underwater vegetation, especially cabbage-like growth and coontail. However, if these weeds have died and turned brown they are less likely to hold fish.
Those who fish with an underwater camera or sonar unit clearly have an advantage in determining where sunfish are or aren’t. Still, even if you do not have these types of fishing aids, you can get a pretty good sense of where fish have been biting by simply observing where ice fishing houses are congregated or where others have driven and drilled holes. There is no guarantee these people were fishing for bluegill but they likely were fishing in an area where there is underwater structure that attracts and holds fish.
- How to fish
Basic equipment for fishing for sunfish includes a short flexible rod, reel, an assortment of small ice fishing lures, bobber, bobber stop, clip-on weight (to help set the bobber at the proper depth), split-shot weights and live bait, which is typically wigglers/Eurolarvae, meal worms or wax worms. Entry level ice-fishing rod-and-reel combinations can be purchased for about $25.
Some anglers prefer to fish without a bobber. These anglers drop their lure to the bottom of the lake, wait for the line to go slack (this signals the lure has hit bottom) and then lift the lure a few feet off the bottom. After that, they pay close attention to the line and rod tip. They set the hook if the rod tip twitches, the line goes slack or if the line moves in an unusual way. Those fishing with a camera or sonar unit drop their lure to the depth where they see or are marking fish. Those without these technological advantages tend to start fishing near the bottom of the lake and then experiment at higher locations until they either find fish or decide to move elsewhere.
Many other anglers prefer to fish with a bobber. Anglers who fish with a bobber, especially those fishing in deep water, typically do the following:
- Thread a bobber stop onto their line;
- Thread a slip bobber onto their line;
- Tie a lure to their line;
- Clip a heavy weight to their lure;
- Drop the weight down the hole to determine the water’s depth;
- Pull the line back out of the hole using a hand-over-hand motion;
- Take off the clip-on weight;
- Slide the bobber stop to a location on the line that will place the lure at the depth they want; and;
- Drop the lure and bobber rig back down the hole. You set the hook if the bobber jiggles, sinks or behaves oddly.
A common technique when fishing for bluegills is to “jig,” meaning you twitch or lift the rod to entice a bite. This up-and-down motion creates the appearance of food naturally falling through the water. While there is no universal rule on how often to jig do know you can over-jig, thereby scaring sunfish away rather than attracting them to your lure.
Large jigging motions work best for attracting distant fish and more subtle motions work best for enticing fish already near your lure.
You can fish with two lines in Minnesota when fishing through the ice. Bluegill anglers commonly jig with one rod and leave the other alone. Sometimes the rod that is jigged catches most of the fish; sometimes the untouched rod that dangles a motionless bait catches more fish.
If the rod that isn’t being jigged catches most of the fish that’s a clue you may be jigging too aggressively. On the other hand, the purpose of the jigging rod is to attract fish. If fish bite on the rod that isn’t being jigged, well, that is okay, too.
Ice fishing jigs, flies and spoons come in many difference colors and shapes. It’s best to have a variety and to experiment as some lures may work better than others on particular body of water. When fishing weedbed areas it’s best to fish just over the tops of them or along the edges rather than in them.
Because sunfish have small mouths and their diet is largely macroinvertebrates (insects and small crustaceans), start by using smaller sized jigs to more appropriately match your quarry and their preferred prey.
- Auger for drilling a hole
- Scoop for removing ice and slush from the hole
- Rod, reel, lure and live bait
- Plastic bucket or chair to sit on or, more commonly a pop-up fishing shelter
- Warm clothes and boots
Useful & handy
- Sled or plastic bucket for hauling your gear
- Emergency ice picks to stab into ice in the event you break through
- Pop-up ice fishing shelter
- Propane heater
- Disposable hand and toe warmers
- Face mask
- Sunscreen to prevent sunburn
- Fish-finding sonar unit
- Underwater camera
- A Smartphone app (they are quite inexpensive) that will show you lake depths and where you are in relation to bottom contours
- Small towel or rag for drying hands
- Warm, waterproof gloves
- Headlamp or flashlight for seeing in low-light conditions
- Tackle box with a variety of lures, weights and bobbers
- Ruler for measuring fish if fishing on a lake where special sunfish regulations are in place
- Compass in the event snow squalls prevent you from being able to see shore
- Slip-on ice cleats for your boots
- What's important to know
- Line diameter matters. You want your line to be as invisible as possible because bluegills often inspect what they are about to eat before biting. Successful anglers often fish with 2- to 4-pound test line.
- You will want your lure to be heavy enough to take kinks out of the line but not so large that it is too big for the fish to inhale. Common sunfish lure sizes are one-sixteenth ounce, one-thirty-second ounce and one-sixty-fourth ounce. You can make lures fall faster toward the bottom by adding a split shot or two about a foot above the lure. Tungsten (lead-free) jigs are denser than lead and therefore fall faster than same-sized lead jigs.
- You will want to experiment with different types of lures. Heavier jigs fall through the water faster than very light lures, thereby getting your bait to the preferred location quicker. But sometimes a very light jig – one that seems to take forever to reach its destination – is more effective. So, experiment. The easiest lure to fish may not produce the best results.
- Fishing success is often the best near dawn and dusk, the times of day when fish tend to be the most active.
- If you are going to drill multiple holes drill them in one session rather than a drill-fish-drill-fish approach. There are benefits to being quiet, especially when fishing shallow water.
- The bait shop near where you intend to fish can he a helpful source of information. Bait shop owners tend to know the size, colors and styles of lures that successful anglers are using, and because it is in their interest for you to be successful, they will offer good advice.
- Some lakes are subject to special regulations that restrict harvest beyond the normal statewide regulations. Make you know how many fish you can keep by checking the fishing regulations booklet. Many lakes with special regulations have very good fish populations, and though you can keep fewer fish the size quality may be better.
- When cleaning your catch it is common to see small black spots on the fillets. These pepper-like appearances – called neascus – are not harmful nor does it alter the flavor of the fish.
- Fish are a healthy source of protein but any fish – even those bought in a store – can contain contaminants that can harm human health, especially in children and fetuses. You can learn more by checking out fish consumption guidelines in the fishing regulations booklet.
- Ice is never 100 percent safe. Follow DNR ice safety guidelines.
- Basic biology
- Bluegills begin to spawn when water temperatures reach about 60 degrees. In Minnesota, bluegills spawn from May into early July.
- Most bluegills are light to dark olive though older fish may have a purplish tinge. Cheeks are often bluish and the ear flap is black. Breeding males are marked by bright blue and orange. Females and younger fish are often marked by dark vertical bars on their olive backs.
- The male fans out a nest in firm-bottomed shallows, often within a colony of dozens of other nests. A single female can deposit more than 50,000 eggs. The male then guards the eggs and fry.
- Bluegills feed mostly on aquatic insects and other small invertebrates. Bluegills large enough to be of no interest to bass often swim freely in more open water, feeding heavily on tiny drifting zooplankton.
- You can support bluegill conservation by releasing large sunfish, which are important for maintaining a population that does not become stunted.
- Helpful information
- An internet search of "how to ice fish for bluegills" will yield various articles and videos that further expand on how to catch bluegills.
- An internet search of “ice fishing augers” is something you may want to research because drilling a hole is the very first step to catching fish. Hand and power augers come in a wide variety of price ranges and styles with battery powered augers increasingly popular because they start reliably with the flip of a switch. If you choose a hand auger, you may want to consider one with cutting blades no larger than five inches in length. That’s large enough for bluegill yet easier on your body because you will be making a smaller diameter cutting through less ice.
- An internet search of “ice fishing electronics” will yield various articles and videos on sonar units, underwater cameras and GPS units. These days the majority of ice fishing anglers use some sort of fish-finding technology rather than, as they say, “fishing blind.”