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For The Love of Bluegill

Article by Mike Graham

I didn’t come from a big fishing and hunting household. My father loves the outdoors, but he wasn’t much of an angler when I was a kid. He loved to hike and I remember him building a blind so he could take wildlife photos. Chances are he learned to fish with me as I got interested in it.

My introduction to fishing came from my grandfather who was an avid bass angler. He chased bass with as much passion as I’ve seen anyone put into anything since then. From his ever present Bass Pro Shops hat to his Bassmaster magazine jacket, he wore that piece of his heart on his sleeve. So with him as a mentor I came into fishing with my eyes focused on bass.

Like any kid who picks up a fishing rod, inevitably you run into bluegill and other panfish. For me they were instrumental in my fishing education. They taught me to set a hook, where fish live, how fish feed, proper handling of fish, and good catch and release tactics. Most importantly, they gave me a huge appreciation for what was living under the water in the lakes and ponds around me. The variations of size, shape, and color still fascinate me to this day! The fish in the pet store have nothing on a really colored up pumpkinseed in my book.

For The Love of Bluegill - Tenkara Angler - Mike Graham - Pumpkinseed

I remember them being referred to as “trash fish” or “junk fish” by other anglers and never understanding it beyond the feeling that catching anything other than a bass was somehow a “lesser catch”. I mean, sure, anyone who learned to fish with a worm under a bobber has had a moment of annoyance as their bait is continually stripped from their hook by a school of tiny hungry panfish. It never occurred to me to be dismissive of them though, frankly I’m not impressed with anyone categorizing an entire species as “trash”.  I‘ve always been just happy to catch a fish!

It felt natural when I was learning to fish with a tenkara rod, to fish for panfish again. To channel that nostalgia I have for childhood fishing trips and learning the ins and outs of fishing at all into learning a new way to approach fishing. Feeling, once again, in myself the same kind of joy I’ve seen on the faces of my own kids when they watch a panfish take their bobber under. I’m watching the line instead of a bobber these days, but the joy is the very same.

Panfish have become my species of choice lately and I’m not at all embarrassed to admit it. They hit like a truck, pound for pound, fight just as hard as any bass, and have some of the most brilliant colors this side of the tropics. It’s just as challenging to fish for large bluegill as it is for large bass. 10” is considered a “Trophy Fish” in my state, I’ve come close but I’m still chasing that state pin.

For The Love of Bluegill - Tenkara Angler - Mike Graham

I got to the spot in the late morning and was greeted by an empty stretch of lake shore with the sun bathing the whole area in its warmth. Already looking at the water I could see small bluegills chasing each other in the shallow water, fighting over food.

Last time I was out fishing, I walked down to the shore and started getting the line on my rod. I had tied on a big green Boogle Bullet fly in moss green on a size 4 hook.

I cast out near the edge of a bed of lily pads and let the fly sit. Eventually, after the rings had vanished, I popped my rod and watched the fly dart forward and come to rest. No sooner had that fly stopped when the water under it erupted! My fly disappeared and my rod bent like a question mark. I was thrilled to break in my new HELLbender with what felt like a small bass.

I laughed to myself as I fought the fish to shore because as it got closer it was clearly not a bass but a big fat bluegill! I smiled ear to ear watching the fish angrily splash away from my hands. That scene repeated itself half a dozen times while I was there.

There’s just something about big aggressive bluegill that I’ve come to love so much.

Maybe that’s what I was looking for when I took up tenkara in the first place. Re-living that innocence by forcing myself out of my comfort zone into uncharted territory.

 Maybe I was trying to reconnect with that kid in me who wanted nothing more than to interact with something mysterious under the water. Going back to a time in life when everything you did felt fresh and exciting. That seems to get harder to find as you get older, at least it has for me. Nowadays though, nothing puts that grin back on my face more than seeing a big old bluegill going after my fly. Especially if it’s one I tied myself!

I may not have inherited my grandfather’s passion for bass, but he definitely instilled in me his passion for fishing. I’m just doing things my way and I think that anyone who mentors someone else wants to see that happen. You want to ignite that spark in someone else for something you hold so dearly and see where they take it. I can almost picture the look my grandfather would give me if I put a tenkara rod in his hands.

Mike Graham is one of the founding members of the “Esoteric Anglers Club” and arguably the most esoteric member so far.

This article originally appeared in the 2022-23 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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  1. I too target panfish, they are just so much fun to catch. Went out to a medium sized pond in an industrial complex near me last night. There were 2 guys fishing for bass. I was there for only an hour and caught 20 or so nice gills. Those guys caught 2 small bass during the same time. I had a blast and often people see me catching so many fish and come over and ask about my Hellbender! Great times!

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