Trolling, Consistency, and Michigan Bluegill


I fear I’m corrupting Denny Hettig.

Hettig fishes two or three days a week, usually for two or three hours. He likes to catch about a dozen bluegills and call it a day. A dozen is enough to feed his family (with enough left over for a fish sandwich for lunch the next day, he says) without beating up the lake’s fish population too badly.

“If I started taking 25 fish a day, what would I do with them all?” he asked. “I’d run out of people to give them to.”

That’s where I come in. Because I only fish for bluegills a couple of days of soft-water season, I try to catch a limit (25 apiece) so I can get two or three fries out of a day’s fishing. But Hettig warned me that eyeing a limit may be setting my sights a little high this year.

“There’s been no consistency,” he said, as we shoved off in his aluminum boat on a smallish Van Buren County lake in southwest Michigan. “The weather’s been inconsistent, too—warm, cold, rainy, windy. No consistency.”

Denny Hettig shows off a bluegill taken trolling.
Denny Hettig shows off a bluegill taken trolling.

Funny thing is, Hettig’s been the absolute model of consistency since I started fishing for bluegills with him a decade ago or so. We’ve never not caught a good bunch of fish.

This day started the same way. Not five minutes after he lowered the trolling motor and gave it the juice, I reeled in a 7-1/2-inch ‘gill. By 7 a.m. (an hour after we’d started) we had 13 in the livewell and had thrown back half that many little ones.

Hettig’s approach is simple. He trolls, slowly, using a small worm harness (Bo’s Bluegill Buster) of his own design, dressed with a red worm. He likes to troll slowly (.8 miles an hour is his preferred speed) and cover the water column by varying the weights on his rigs.

For instance, we fished four rods (two apiece) with three different weights (from 1/16 to 3/16 of an ounce) ahead of the worm rig. My first fish came on the 1/16 rig from 50 feet of water, my next on a 3/16 in 28 feet. We trolled from .7 to 1.2 mph.

There are two keys Hettig’s success, the keys to all successful angling, he said.

“It’s location and presentation and that’s all there is to it,” he said. “You’ve got find fish to fish to. And you’ve got to give it to them the way they want it.

“If you cover a lot of water, you’re going to eventually find fish,” continued Hettig, who theorizes that there are more fish at different depths in the water column more often than there are more fish hugging the bottom. “And by varying the weights on the rigs and the trolling speed, you’re giving them a wide variety of presentations.”

By 8 a.m., we’d put 12 more fish in the livewell—half a two-man limit. At that point, Hettig would usually head for home. But I convinced him to stay.

About that time, the fish slowed significantly. We’d been catching fish in anywhere from 12 to 50-plus feet of water on any rig we trolled. After the sun got up, all of our fish came on the bigger weights (at least 3/16) and generally from deeper water. That’s not unusual, Hettig said.

Part of that slow-down was our own doing. Hettig caught a perch (a nice one, too) so we spent about 20 minutes trolling back and forth over that same area without success. When we did hit ‘gills again, it was in 17 feet of water and they were largely males.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were down there on the beds,” he said, which, of course, would be contrary to anything any of us know about bluegill fishing.

A small worm harness with a red worm is deadly on open-water bluegills.
A small worm harness with a red worm is deadly on open-water bluegills.

Hettig has perfected his system over the years (and he’s still experimenting; he showed me a new trick this day) but it’s pretty simple. His harnesses are tied on 30 inches of four-pound monofilament with premium (VMC) No. 8 hooks. The lengthy leader allows anglers to re-tie once, he said, should they need to. (“It takes about a foot of line to re-tie and once that leader gets shorter than about 18 inches, it doesn’t work as well,” he said. “Don’t ask me why, it just doesn’t.”)

His harness terminates in a swivel; above that, on the main line, he threads on a snap swivel to hold the pencil weight. That makes changing weights a snap.

The only other variable is he prefers a lengthy (say, eight-foot) slow-action rod (a stiff tip fails to hook the fish as consistently). That’s it.

Bo’s Bluegill Busters come packaged with two blades: a nickel and a brass blade. He prefers the brighter blade on sunny days, though we did a lot of our damage on the brass blades this bright day, for whatever reason. And the new trick? He carries a handful of felt-tip markers to add a little color to the blades (though I’ll be darned if I could ascertain any rhyme or reason to which colors he used when).

At 10:20 a.m. we had 43 in the livewell. As we were all the way across the lake from the launch ramp, Hettig headed the boat that way. We went 20 minutes without a fish, then we started hitting them again in deep water (40 to 50 feet) on the heaviest weights. We caught No. 50 at 10:59 a.m. Five hours; 10 an hour, not bad at all, eh?

About the only things that confuses me about Hettig’s system is why every bluegill angler in America hasn’t adopted it. It works. I’ve fished with him from just after ice-out to just before ice-up and most times in between on a handful of different lakes. We always catch them.

If you’re interested in trying this technique—and can’t find Bo’s Bluegill Busters in your local bait shop—Hettig recommends ordering them from D&R Sports in Kalamazoo.

“They’ll ship anywhere,” he said.

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