North Dakota Banner Banner - visit
North Dakota Legendary - visit

Back Cast

Article By 
Ron Wilson

I read an article the other night before bed about fishing for bluegill. The author and his friends were fishing a pond within casting distance of one another, threading keepers onto metal stringers, while considering out loud the best way to cook bluegill fillets.

Dusted in yellow cornmeal and fried in peanut oil, it was decided.

I’ve been carrying the article around in my head for a few days, revisiting the best parts, or at least the parts that stuck, and I don’t know why that is. Maybe because it’s been such a long winter and anything concerning open water is appealing. Or perhaps it has more to do with bellying up to a plate of deep-fried bluegill, tartar sauce and coleslaw.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been involved in stringing up a mess of bluegill caught from open water, and I don’t know why that is, either. Big bluegill, fish that stretch from fingertip to beyond your wrist, are a hoot to catch on light tackle and are often amenable during spawning when the fish are frequently targeted.

When we moved to Bismarck nearly 20 years ago, I knew little about fishing in the area. I was freelancing at the time, which meant that I sometimes had time on my hands to explore a number of area lakes to get a feel for what they offered – bass, trout, crappie, pike, bluegill …

One of my early favorites was McDowell Dam, located just east of Bismarck, because I learned shortly after sunrise one morning that the bluegills were working the shallow water near shore. For days thereafter, I fished a handful of spots where dinner-plate-size nests haphazardly pocked the lake’s bottom.

Picking a bait was easy because the fish would hit anything they could get their smallish mouths around, anything at all that appeared to be a threat to their cache of eggs. Cast to the right spot, the fishing was mostly uninterrupted. It ended only after the bluegill finished spawning and moved to deeper water, farther than I could cast from shore.

The bluegills’ reckless, eat-anything attitude has everything to do with an assumed edginess that accompanies procreation, and has little to do with the angler’s prowess. (OK, the angler does have to know when to show up, find the nests and make decent casts, but other than that …)

Male bluegill move into the shallows when water temperatures warm into the low 50s, which on the Northern Plains is typically sometime in mid- to late May. They are in charge of picking the nest sites, constructing and guarding them until the females show sometime later. Spawning commences when water temperatures climb into the upper 60s, and hits its peak in mid-June or later.

None of this is news, of course, and has been going on as long as bluegills have haunted North Dakota waters. Yet, this narrow bluegill fishing window often goes unnoticed as the days lengthen and warm and the majority of anglers hound the hot walleye bite on the Missouri River System and elsewhere.

Today, right this minute, harassing spawning bluegills in open water sounds nearly irresistible. Then again, with more than 2 feet of ice jacketing North Dakota’s still waters at the time of this writing, casting to just about anything sounds appealing.