Think of fly fishing and most anglers envision casting to rising trout or drifting egg patterns to finicky Steelhead. While I enjoy those moments, too, once summer rolls around, I have a different species that I love to target: the mighty Bluegill.
Like many anglers, the first fish that ever tugged my line was a Bluegill. I couldn’t get enough of them, as a matter of fact. They’re plentiful in most places, eager biters, and fight well for their size. They’re the perfect quarry for kids, but as I got older, I realized that Bluegills are just as much fun for adults, and even more so when catching them on the fly.
The summer months are primetime for Bluegills on the surface. Poppers and foam bugs are typical choices for panfish on top, but don’t overlook simple dry fly patterns. Not all panfish are aggressive all of the time, and their eagerness to eat is often a direct reflection of the local fishing pressure. I can tell you from personal experience that panfish can become just as fly-shy and selective as any trout, and nothing will damage your ego as much as a Bluegill shunning your perfectly decent presentation.
An assortment of flies that will catch bluegills on the surface. Counterclockwise from left: Poppers, Humpies, Madam X, Parachute Adams, and Beetles.
Some of my favorite dry flies for Bluegills and other panfish are the Parachute Adams, Mosquito, Red Humpy, and Madam X. Where shallow enough, I prefer to wade parallel to the shoreline and cast ahead along the edge of the lily pads or whatever structure is present. Sometimes the fly landing on the water produces an immediate, territorial strike. Other times, I let the fly sit for a few seconds before giving the rod tip the slightest twitch, just enough to cause the fly to skate an inch or two, and then let it rest a few more seconds before repeating the process. The long pause before twitching the fly is important if fish are a little skittish. I’ve fished ponds and lakes where Bluegills scattered as soon as my fly hit the water, so you have to give them a chance to settle down again.
If fish are more aggressive, or if there are so many that they get competitive, a quicker retrieve can be effective. In this situation, I tie on a foam spider or Madam X, both of which have rubber legs, and skate it on the surface a foot at a time. The strike typically occurs as soon as the fly stops.
Weather conditions also play a role in how particular Bluegills can be. During cool or overcast days, panfish will feed all day in the shallows. But if it’s going to be a hot day with lots of sun, hit the water early for the best action. You may still catch Bluegills all day, especially in shaded areas, but the size of them usually gets smaller as the larger fish move to deeper and cooler water.
A selection of flies that will catch bluegills subsurface. Counterclockwise from left: White Woolly Bugger, black and natural Hare’s Ear Nymphs, and Squirmy Wormies in a variety of colors.
To target larger fish in the middle of the day, switch to subsurface flies such as small Woolly Buggers in sizes 12 and 14, nymphs, and Squirmy Wormies. I let the Woolly Buggers sink down to where the fish are feeding before beginning the retrieve. The nymphs and Squirmy Wormies, though, I often suspend under an indicator the same way I would if I were fishing for trout. If a few minutes pass with no strikes, I lift the rod tip and skate the indicator a few feet to get my fly into new water.
You don’t need any special gear to fly fish for Bluegills and other panfish. Whatever you use for trout will work just fine, but lighter, 2-4-weight rods and lines allow for a better fight and more enjoyment. And when summer rolls around, I find few things more enjoyable than heading to lake with my two young kids, fly rod in hand and a box of panfish flies in my pocket. Some days, I even let them fish!