Panfish on the Fly

News & Tips: Panfish on the Fly
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Panfish offer a great opportunity for fly anglers, especially beginners, to learn invaluable lessons.

Some things go hand in hand — largemouth bass and spinner baits, northern pike and red and white spoons, walleyes and jigs, and panfish and flies. Yes, panfish and flies.  

Okay, I'll concede that more anglers associate panfish with cane poles and floats than 5-weights and dry flies. But I believe that's only because they've never had the opportunity to try what has to be the most stress free, productive and fun fishing out there — fly fishing for panfish.

In fact, there are so many reasons to take your trout rig to the bluegill pond, perch grounds, rock bass shores that I'm not sure I'll be able to do them justice in the space of this article.  

An Embarrassment of Riches  

Let's first acknowledge the fishing opportunities that panfish provide. They are arguably the most prolific and widespread gamefish in southern Canada and the continental United States, especially east of the Rockies.  

Depending on where you live, the dominant panfish could be yellow perch, bluegill, pumpkinseed, rock bass, black or white crappie, or any of the other sunfishes.

Whatever your local species, they're probably plentiful. In fact, most jurisdictions have extremely generous limits on panfish, if they have any at all. And most of us live within an easy drive of good panfish water too.  

In other words, they offer excellent opportunities for fly anglers — especially those new to the sport — to make the most of their fly-fishing gear and gain invaluable fish-catching experience.

Going to School  

In fact, I've always thought that immediately after learning the basics, every new fly angler ought to be directed straight to a body of water that holds panfish. And if you're trying to teach a child about fly fishing, there's no better classroom.   Want to learn how to detect a subtle take? Try dead drifting a pheasant tail nymph through a school of Pumpkinseeds. 

Want to improve your hook up rate with streamers? Cast along a rock bass inhabited shoreline with a wooly bugger. And, if you need to refine your dry fly techniques, bluegills are only too happy to help — especially if you're offering a foam spider.

The point is simple: Panfish, because of their numbers and aggressive nature, give an experienced fly fisher plenty of opportunities to experiment — something that few of us want to do on a trout stream — and a new fly angler some much needed insights on casting, presentation, fly selection and a whole lot more. These lessons come in handy when chasing trout, bass or any other less-forgiving fish.

The Gear

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A float or canoe will help you get close to spooky fish.

Some fly anglers downsize their gear when targeting panfish. Three- and 4-weight (or even lighter) fly rods can make each fish more challenging and help when tiny, delicate flies are the order of the day. They're also a whole lot of fun and can do double duty on the trout stream.  

But a decent 5- or 6-weight rod will do just fine for panfish and most other species too. Add a balanced reel and a quality floating line and you pretty well have all the bases covered.

I like a 6-weight rod because it provides a fighting chance when the occasional bass enters into the fray — a common occurrence when panfishing. Heavier lines are also easier to cast on windy days or to spooky fish that are less approachable. Additionally, if you're prospecting a lake looking to find the schools, sometimes the additional casting ranges of heavier rods can be helpful.  

Other fly fishing accessories, including a good vest, can make an excursion more pleasant; but the one that ranks highest, in my opinion, is a pair of quality polarized fishing glasses. The eye protection (from the sun and from hooks) and the sight-fishing advantages they offer are simply indispensable. They're a must, especially for those new to casting.  

Lastly, a float tube or canoe will help you get close to spooky fish and are ideal for smaller lakes and ponds.  

The Flies  

Fly selection is really a matter of personal preference. I generally carry an assortment of flies that will cover the water column.

Having said that, I almost always start out fishing with streamers. They're simple, efficient and productive, if the fish are on the hunt.

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When panfish get picky, be prepared to try different fly presentations.

I have found size 10 bead-head wooly buggers in white, olive and black to be deadly on perch, crappie, and rock bass — the fish I encounter within my region. I'll go with white on bright days and, if fish aren't hitting soon, try olive, and then black. White, by the way, is an excellent and instructive color when streamer fishing because an angler can often see a white fly even when deeply submersed. If this is the case, set the hook as soon as the fly is bumped or disappears — this often signals a strike.  

I've also had exceptional success with Muddler minnows, silver outcasts, Black-nosed daces, and a slew of other well-known streamers. I prefer bucktails simply because they are more durable.  

It should also be noted that bluegills, pumpkinseeds and the like can be taken on topwater — a classic warm-water fly fishing scenario. If they're willing to play, my go-to flies are small cricket and hopper patterns, foam spiders, balsa poppers or floating ants. Standard dries such as an elk-hair caddis or parachute Adam's are also effective. Your best chance to encounter this type of action is early in the morning. As the sun or wind comes up they'll go deeper and, as a rule, be less surface oriented.  

When this is the case, I scale down to small woolly worms or, more often, go to a size 12 or 14 nymph under a strike indicator. Smaller streamers will work, but I have found that nothing beats a nymph set at the right depth (at the school's level or slightly higher) if they are in a less aggressive mood.  

I was reminded of this once again just two days prior to writing this article when nothing, it seemed, would work except a size 12 bead-head Pheasant tail nymph. But work it did. My catch rate went from two Pumpkinseeds in a half hour to a dozen in less than10 minutes. It was like flipping a switch. I'd have the same faith in a Gold-ribbed hare's ear as well as a Prince nymph or Zug bug, just to name a few.  

When it comes to wet flies, I like the simplicity of the Partridge and Orange or Partridge and Green patterns as well as Light Cahills, Alder flies and Black gnats. As long as they are size 10 or smaller and buggy looking, they're worth a try and often very effective.  

Finally, though panfish are generally easy to catch, there are times when the fuss factor is high. If that's the case, don't be afraid to try something new. A good panfish angler has a full bag of tricks.  

Slow Things Down  

With the right fly and the school located, it's time to slow things down. Most panfish stalk flies deliberately and will almost always examine a fly before striking. Sudden movement often spooks them.  

That's why slow-hand twist retrieves work well with streamers, wet flies, and nymphs. Poppers, foam spiders, and dry flies, on the other hand, should be activated after being allowed to sit for a while after hitting the surface. It's in those long pauses, when the ripples have almost died down, that you'll hear the plop sound of a surfacing sunfish sucking in your lure.

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Depending on where you live, the dominant panfish could be any of them.

Also, remember that panfish are cautious by nature, and you'll do better using fine tippets of 4 pounds or less. Also, try not to cast over your target fish — nothing will spook a school like the shadow and splash of a line.  

When a fish does take the fly, raise the rod deliberately and tug on the line. This isn't bass fishing; huge hook sets aren't required, but being alert and quick to respond is.  

And It's Okay To Keep Some Too...  

If you need one more good reason to consider panfish, shore lunch just might be it.

While many fly fishers feel pressured to practice catch-and-release with trout — even when it isn't regulated — with panfish, a fish fry is almost tradition. They are, as their name implies, tailor-made for the fry pan and their numbers are such that, in most places, they can sustain heavy fishing pressure. No one need feel guilty about having a feed of these tasty fish. If anything, thinning out numbers keeps a lake's population from getting stunted.  

It's All About Fun  

Fly fishing is an incredible pastime, but sometimes it can get a little too serious. So, when you're worn out from hatch-matching or from trying to figure out what highly selective fish are taking, panfish are there to remind you why you got into the sport in the first place — because it's fun.  

Give it a try. I think you'll see that panfish and flies really do go together.