ON FISH LAKE NEAR DULUTH - Nathanael Deloach and his dad were walleye fishing on a Duluth-area lake back in 2007 when his dad decided to take a nap.
“I thought I’d try for panfish,” said Deloach, 34, of Saginaw. “By the time my dad woke up I had caught 40 bluegills. That got me going on these local lakes.”
These days, Deloach will fish walleyes on opening weekend. But that’s about it.
“I’m always panfishing first,” he said.
He pitched his bobber and pink ice-fly over some emerging reeds on Fish Lake early on a June morning. He waited 5, 10 seconds.
Bloop. His egg-shaped bobber - actually a strike indicator - dimpled the lake’s surface. Deloach had another bluegill.
This happened countless times throughout the morning as the two of us enjoyed nearly nonstop action. We could have kept count of how many we caught, but with two of us reeling in bluegill after bluegill, we simply lost track. We figured we had caught about 75 by the time I left at midday. Deloach went back for more.
“Normally, if I’m out four or five hours, I’ll catch 100,” Deloach said.
He is not a boastful person. He is matter-of-fact about this kind of fishing. Deloach has refined his techniques and presentation. He knows the biology of bluegills. He catches a lot of fish.
And there’s still a lot of little boy left in him.
“There’s something about watching that bobber go down,” he said, reeling in another 8-inch bluegill.
While Deloach catches a lot of bluegills and fishes frequently, he limits his take. The Minnesota bluegill limit is 20, but he won’t take more than a dozen.
“I slot-limit myself,” he said. “And it goes lake-to-lake. On Grand Lake, there are a lot of 8- to 9-inchers, so that’s what I keep. On Fish Lake, it’s the 8- to 8½-inchers I’ll keep. They’re plentiful.”
Grand Lake, however, is out of the picture for a while. The lake suffered a fish kill at ice-out that took an estimated 35,000 fish, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The kill was a result of low dissolved-oxygen levels. Lots of the fish that died were panfish.
The bluegill rig
Unlike a lot of people who fish for bluegills, Deloach doesn’t use live bait. He has developed a bait-free system that works well for him. On his 6-pound-test line, he ties a large swivel and then 18 to 21 inches of leader. Above the swivel, he uses a 1¼-inch Thill strike indicator as a slip-bobber.
At the end of his line, he uses a snap to which he attaches his 1/64th-ounce “ice-fly” feathered jigs. On each jig, he threads a tiny Berkley Power Wiggler, a scent-impregnated soft-plastic that resembles larvae.
“They act like the thorax of the fly,” Deloach said. “And they help keep the jig horizontal in the water.”
He typically tosses the rig over the reeds and lets it sit for 5 or 10 seconds. If nothing happens, he reels it in slowly. Small wave action also helps give the jig life.
He prefers flies in pink or black this time of year, with matching Power Wigglers. Later on, he’ll go to green or yellow flies with white Power Wigglers.
He uses one word to describe this rig: “Deadly.”
And it would be if he didn’t release so many bluegills alive. We happened onto a school of crappies, too, and must have taken a dozen or 15, releasing most of them.
“I call them my bonus fish,” Deloach said.
Where it began
Deloach’s original fascination with bluegills occurred during a stint in North Carolina, where he hoped to become a NASCAR driver. He crewed with several drivers before giving up the pursuit in favor of a family. He picked up a small boat in North Carolina and, one weekend at a friend’s lake place, tried fishing panfish. He was using a couple of $15 Wal-Mart rods.
“My first cast, the bobber went down,” he said. “It was a bluegill. We caught a whole bunch of panfish that day. It just grew from there.”
Once back home, he dabbled with walleyes. But since that day in 2007 when he caught all those bluegills while his dad napped, he’s been almost exclusively a panfish guy.
He’s hooked on bluegills for two reasons, he said.
“They’re the best-tasting fish you’re ever going to eat,” he said. “And pound for pound, outside of smallmouth bass, if you use light gear, they’re the best-fighting fish.”
When you hook a bluegill, it doesn’t dive. It begins carving wide arcs in the water, resisting with surprising force. Deloach swung another 8½-incher aboard. It was a male, with its characteristic swatch of orange behind its jaw and the deep blue tab on its gill, from which the species derives its name. Its mouth is tiny - thus, the little jigs with their diminutive hooks.
“Pretty fish,” Deloach said. “We’ll keep him.”
Deloach caught bluegills up to 10¾ inches long in North Carolina, he said. He measures the big ones like a walleye angler measures big walleyes. That morning on Fish Lake, he caught bluegills up to 9¼ inches. Ten-inchers are rare in Minnesota.
“The biggest I’ve caught here in Minnesota has been 10 inches, on Lake Vermilion,” he said.
At midmorning, we moved to another shoreline and began catching bluegills mixed with crappies on nearly every cast. If you set your rod across the gunwales and left your jig dangling in the water to take a photo, the rod would invariably begin bouncing on the gunwale. Another bluegill wanted an ice-fly.
We worked our way down the shoreline. Bobbers blooped. Deloach smiled.
“This is the way it should be,” he said.
Nathanael Deloach keeps up with fellow bluegill anglers at this website: bigbluegill.com. Deloach has a page on that website, too. Here’s the web address: bigbluegill.com/profile/NathanaelDeloach.