Fresh Catch: Bluegill
These popular panfish are easy to catch and great to eat.
Story by Bailey Gilliam
Bluegill are among the most popular and abundant freshwater fish in the United States. And for many anglers, it’s the first fish they caught. Native to the eastern U.S., bluegill now exist nationwide in ponds and lakes – literally in every state except Alaska – due to stocking programs. They are a favorite among anglers, especially those who fish the old-fashioned way with live bait under a cork. Including the way it’s caught, nothing brings back memories like bluegill. When taking kids fishing, you must give them plenty of action to keep them interested because their attention spans are infuriatingly short. When you find bluegill, you can catch 10 in 10 minutes, and that’s the perfect kind of fishing for kids. Even if you aren’t out trying desperately to entertain children, who wouldn’t like a tasty fish fry? Traditional Southern fish fries, complete with hush puppies and coleslaw, comprise primarily bluegill and shellcracker, so there’s something nostalgic about catching and frying up the humble bluegill.
Bluegill are recognized by the black spot or “ear” on the bottom of each soft dorsal fin. The fish is generally olive green with an orange-to-yellow belly and transparent fins. It has several wide dark vertical bars on the side of its body, and the operculum (or gill cover) is tipped distinctly with black. The bluegill name comes from breeding males who exhibit pale blue to violet on the top half of the body with powder blue on the lower jaw and lower portion of the gill cover. Structurally this fish is laterally compressed or flattened and has a small mouth. They grow 5-10 inches long and 3-8 pounds.
The state record is a 3-pound, 4-ounce bluegill caught by J.P. Hegler of Heath Springs, South Carolina. He caught the fish in 1973 while fishing in Lancaster County.
Where to find them
These fish are highly tolerant of a wide range of habitats. Small ponds, creeks, rivers, swamps, lakes, retention basins and drainage ditches are acceptable for bluegills. Anglers often find bluegill close to some structures like flooded vegetation, tree stumps, downed timber, rock walls or sunken debris. In warmer weather bluegill are found in shallow water; in winter bluegill can be seen as deep as 60 feet in lakes.
How to catch them
Despite their small size, bluegill are highly spirited fighters on the end of a fishing line and are among North America’s most popular hook-and-line-caught fish. Bluegills are opportunistic carnivores and feed on mature and immature insects, small invertebrates, crayfish, mollusks and other fish. They primarily feed near the surface, so that’s where you’ll likely catch them.
Grant Kaple, general manager of The Boathouse, recommends Bream Buster and a bucket of crickets to catch these agile fish. Try cane pole fishing against banks, grass beds or flood timber tree lines. “Any freshwater river, pond, lake or small stream will hold a bluegill,” Kaple says. “For the fancy fishing trolling, a beetle spin on your favorite ultra lite spinning rod is also fun.”
Amateur anglers often misidentify bluegill and sunfish due to their similarities in color and length, but there are a few factors to tell them apart. Bluegill have dark spots on their dorsal fins. They also have a bluish-tinge of scales on their faces, while other sunfish do not. You also can tell them apart by their preferred snack. Bluegill are known for eating insects, tiny crustaceans, fish eggs and virtually any bait.
Simple is better
Bluegill is a very mild-tasting fish. When fried, it is crunchy on the outside and flaky, white and moist on the inside. While the most popular way to eat bluegill is a good old-fashioned fish fry, it can be prepared in many ways. The general rule is to enjoy fresh fish’s subtleties and keep it simple.
Dip fillets in eggs, then coat with crumb mixture. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook fillets in batches in 2 tablespoons of oil for 2-3 minutes on each side or until fish flakes easily with a fork, adding oil as needed.
Grease the grill grates with vegetable oil. Grill the whole fish for 3-5 minutes on each side or until cooked through.
Bake at 350 for 15 minutes. Turn fillets and bake an additional 10 minutes.
Dip fillets in batter and coat with crumbs.  Deep fry at 370-375 degrees until fillets are floating and golden brown, about 3-4 minutes.
Boil a pot of water and add a generous amount of salt. Add skinless fillets and boil for about 1-2 minutes. Remove from water and place in a bowl of ice water until chilled.
Set the sous vide cooker to 135. Season fish with salt and pepper, and vacuum seal in a bag. Boil for 30 minutes.
- The bluegill is a common host fish for freshwater mussels. The fish provides the mussel with a place to live (usually on their gills) for the first part of its life.
- Bluegill can swim in a backward motion. They use specific muscles in their pectoral, anal and dorsal fins to move this way.
- Bluegill is also referred to as “bream,” “brim,” “sunny” or “copper nose.”
- To capture prey, bluegill use a suction system to accelerate water and prey into their mouths. Only a limited amount of water can be suctioned, so the fish must get within 1.75 centimeters of the prey.
- The life expectancy of bluegill is 11 years.
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 pound bluegill
 Place butter in a shallow bowl. In another shallow bowl, combine the bread crumbs, cheese and seasonings. Dip fish in butter, then coat with crumb mixture.  Place in a greased 15×10-inch baking pan. Bake, uncovered, at 350 for 20 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork. Serve with sliced lemon.
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Zest of 1 small lime
1 teaspoon agave nectar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
Small pinch freshly ground black pepper
Add sour cream, lime juice, zest, agave nectar, cumin, salt and pepper to a small mixing bowl and mix well. If the crema is too thick, add a little water to make it a sauce consistency. Cover and refrigerate.
Ingredients (pico de gallo)
1 1/2 pounds chopped tomatoes, seeds removed
3/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
Small handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
1 medium jalapeño, finely chopped
Smoked chipotle hot sauce, to taste
1/4 teaspoon salt
Small pinch freshly ground black pepper to taste
Add the tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, jalapeño, hot sauce, salt and pepper to a small bowl. Mix well and set aside.
1 pound bluegill, cut into 1×3 inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon mild chili powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
Zest of 1/2 lime
1/4 teaspoon salt
Small pinch freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon canola oil
 Mix the chili powder, cumin, coriander, oregano, paprika, lime zest, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl. Coat all sides of the bluegill with the mix.  Add the canola oil to a sauté pan over medium heat. Once the oil has heated, carefully add the bluegill. Cook for 2 minutes on each side.
4 corn tortillas
Shredded cabbage for garnish
Add bluegill meat to the bottom of a corn tortilla. Top with shredded cabbage, pico de gallo and crema.