Bluegills on the rocks

By Capt. Ted Peck

Jenna Doyle with bluegills. (submitted photo)

One of the most predictable and productive fishing patterns on the immortal Mississippi River is catching “bull” bluegills relating to rocky structures on the river mainstem the last couple weeks of August. Exact timing for this aggressive bite is driven by nature rather than the Gregorian calendar. Exact location bluegill catching instead of fishing is driven by river level, which results in subtle changes in current.

There are 77 man-made rocky structures, called wingdams and closing dams, on Pool 9. Closing dams run parallel to the main channel. Wingdams are perpendicular, often with three to five of these stony fingers spread along a quarter mile of shoreline to coax the river into maintaining a nine-foot-deep navigational channel where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers thinks the channel ought to be.

USACE has been tasked with this directive since 1878 by mandate of the U.S. Congress. Countless bureaucrats have upheld this mandate since this time, failing to realize the maker of the moon and stars is the ultimate judge of the river’s course.

Those who realize this ultimate natural truth tend to realize a consistent bend in their fishin’ poles throughout passage of the seasons and changes of river behavior. Not all of the 77 wingdams and closing dams will give up fish on any given day. Bluegills and their forage base are influenced by the current. Experiencing the joyful condition of catching instead of just fishing can happen on a dozen of these structures at any point in time for folks who can decipher subtle changes in the grand scheme of things.

Bait presentation is key in hooking up on pretty much every cast. Fish will be tightly schooled in relatively small areas. Sometimes they will be cruising on top of the rocks in 1-3 feet of water. Pegging a pencil bobber about 18 inches above a #8 light wire hook and allowing a tiny pinch of nightcrawler to float downstream with the current can be profoundly effective.

More often, schools of these feisty panfish will be holding in slightly deeper water on the upstream or channel side of the rocks. Allowing the boat to track along the eight-to-nine-foot current breakline while pitching a 1/32-ounce light wire jighead can result in fish-a-minute action once you have the critical depth dialed in.

To accomplish this, simply pitch the jighead into shallow water and allow it to pendulum back to a vertical position at the edge of the boat. The easiest way to accomplish this is with a long pole. The venerable cane pole is a versatile wand which has been putting river ‘gills in the boat since mankind discovered the elation of catching fish.

Of course, anyone who has invested up to a year’s annual wage in a fishing platform wouldn’t be caught dead with a cane pole in their hands. The optimum stick for the fashion-conscious bluegill catcher is a nine-foot St. Croix panfish-specific rod equipped with a Pfleuger, Okuma or soon to be released Seviin spinning reel spooled with 10 lb. test line.

I prefer superbraid line. Superbraid doesn’t stretch, transmitting the thrill of the gill from hook to hand with great efficiency. Getting snagged up on the rocks is part of the program if you’re fishing where the fish are. Pulling straight back on the line without putting any stress on the rod will free the light wire hook from the snag 90 percent of the time.

Exact fish location can change in a day or even an hour. Return to the spot exactly 12 feet offshore from a lone tree on the riverbank the day after bragging to a buddy about catching a limit in 20 minutes will probably result in a litany of excuses. Might as well paint a big “X” on the side of your boat and say the fish are directly out from it, 10 feet away.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Archidophilus, may have been influenced by copious consumption of the grape. But he was spot on when he said, “it is impossible to step into the same river twice.” Listen to the river! Odds are the bluegills didn’t move much. Maybe a current change pushed them a few feet away or just a foot deeper than the “fish on every cast” thrill you’ve recently enjoyed.

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