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Early May Starts Best Fishing for Bluegill, Redear Sunfish

By: Art Lander Jr., Kentucky Afield Outdoors

From Kentucky Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Early May in Kentucky is not only a good time to set out tomato plants in backyard gardens, but it’s the start of the best fishing of the year for bluegill and redear sunfish.

When water temperatures approach 70 degrees, these two native sunfish species move into the shallows of ponds, small lakes and large reservoirs in preparation for spawning.

“If I was to pick a time here it would be the second week in May,” said Paul Rister, western district fishery biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, who manages fish populations in Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.

Both lakes support excellent populations of the sunfish species. “When they are spawning, generally the redear sunfish will be out from the banks in a little deeper water than the bluegills,” said Rister.

Anglers should try to time their fishing trips to coincide with rising or stable lake levels. “By the time bluegills and redears go on the bed, both lakes are usually stable at summer pool,” said Rister. The ideal fishing area is a shallow embayment that has flooded vegetation on the mudflats, close to gravel shores.

Rister said meal worms and crickets are the preferred live baits for redear sunfish, while red worms and crickets are tops for bluegills.

The recommended strategy for both species is suspending the bait under a float. “Redears want the bait close to the bottom, with as little weight (split shot) on the line as possible,” said Rister.

Bluegill strike bait suspended a little shallower than redears, along weed lines. Light wire, long-shank hooks in size # 8 or #10 are recommended for both species.

These sunfish spawn in colonies, their saucer-shaped nests clustered together. Spawning can continue into June, if water conditions are ideal.

The redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus) is commonly called the “shellcracker” because it likes to feed on mussels, snails and insects on the bottom. A special plate of teeth in the back of the fish’s throat enables them to crush shells. The preferred habitat for redear sunfish is clear water where rooted aquatic vegetation often grows.

On Aug. 27, 2004, the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to give the redear sunfish sport fish status, and protected populations from overharvest by creating a statewide 20-fish daily creel limit.

Other Kentucky waters that support quality populations of redear sunfish include Beaver Lake in Anderson County, Elmer Davis Lake in Owen County, McNeeley Lake in Jefferson County and Pan Bowl Lake in Breathitt County.

The bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) is arguably the most popular panfish in Kentucky. An abundant species that’s present in all the state’s river drainages, bluegill are easy to catch and their white flesh is sweet and firm. Bluegill thrive in ponds and small lakes across Kentucky.

Statewide, there’s no daily creel limit on bluegills, but Fishing in Neighborhoods (FINs) lakes have restrictions on the number of bluegills and redears that can be kept.

Redear sunfish and bluegill are willing strikers all day long, perfect for introducing a child or adult novice to fishing.

The license year expired Feb. 28, 2013. You’ll need to buy a new fishing license, available in the sporting goods section of department stores and tackle shops, to fish now. Licenses and permits may also be purchased online from the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife homepage at fw.ky.gov or by calling 1-877-598-2401. The entire Spring Fishing Frenzy series will be posted at this same website for future access to these articles.

Author Art Lander Jr. has been writing about the outdoors since the 1970s. He is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources manages, regulates, enforces and promotes responsible use of all fish and wildlife species, their habitats, public wildlife areas and waterways for the benefit of those resources and for public enjoyment. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife is an agency of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. For more information on the department, visit our website at fw.ky.gov.

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