Bluegills and other panfish on a fly rod are fun for kids, but they’re fun for adults, too. The nice thing about these species is their simplicity. If they’re hungry, they eat, and they’re generally not as selective as trout. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be picky. In fact, they can be downright infuriating, and I think the greatest insults I’ve ever received on the water were from panfish that came up, sniffed my fly, and deemed it unworthy.
For the sake of this post, bluegills, sunfish, crappies, and other palm-sized fish fall into the category of panfish. No matter where you go, big lake or small pond, at least one of these species will be plentiful and ready to hit. But that doesn’t mean they’re always easy to catch.
Occasionally I fish lakes and ponds that receive a lot of pressure and the panfish aren’t as inclined to take surface flies. Or maybe I just happen to be there during a hot, sunny stretch of weather when the fish are in deeper water — or they’re in the shallows early and move deeper as it warms up.
In all these cases, you need to make adjustments, and it helps to have a good selection of patterns to cover all levels in the water column where fish might be feeding. Here are a few of my favorite panfish flies that I have in my box at all times and a little bit about how I like to fish them.
Dry Flies for Panfish
The Madam X is perhaps my favorite fly for panfish. The deer hair head and wing makes it extremely buoyant while the rubber legs entice the strikes. I first learned of the Madam X from Doug Swisher’s VHS tape (yes, I know I’m dating myself here) “Strategies for Selective Trout.” One of the attractor dry flies he suggests for trout is this fly. Well, it’s pretty darn awesome for all species of panfish, too.
I fish the Madam X by picking up the rod and skating the fly a foot or so and then letting it sit. Bluegills usually hit as soon as the fly stops.
The Madam X is so effective I once practically fished out a campground pond down the road from where I grew up. My friend Paul worked as a lifeguard for the campground pool one summer and got us permission to fish the small lake. We hit it every evening after he was done working and sometimes on weekends. Campers started complaining that the bluegills and bass weren’t as easy to catch anymore because we caught so many. And they were right. We caught hundreds of them, basically one after another every time there, and after a month or so, we had to go subsurface because the fish would not feed on the surface anymore. The campground owner eventually revoked our permission.
The Madam X is one of my favorite flies for panfish. The combination of rubber legs and deer hair makes it a durable fly that can catch a ton of fish. This particular one has certainly caught its share!
Another favorite dry fly pattern is a Letort Cricket. This Ed Shenk pattern is deadly on trout around the globe, and equally deadly on bluegills, sunfish, and crappies. Fish this around lake edges, right at the weed line.
For something more subtle, if ever I do run across “selective” panfish, a true oxymoron to say the least, I have a variety of mosquito and ants (both foam and winged fur ants) that’ll do the trick.
Oddly, I’m not a big fan of poppers for panfish, mainly because I miss a lot of small fish when I use them. I know they work — heck, anything with rubber legs will catch panfish — but they’re not my first choice as I feel like hair or fur patterns will outperform poppers 90% of the time.
If I do use a popper, I use one with a wide gap hook. That hook gap between the point of the hook and the cork body of the popper makes a lot of difference between hooking and missing fish. The best panfish poppers I’ve used are tied on long shank hooks and the back half of the hook is wrapped with feathers. The foam popper body is a little undersized, which allows enough space there to hook fish more often.
Basically, these poppers aren’t really designed for “popping” like the larger, bass-sized poppers. Panfish poppers are most effectively fished by stripping them just a couple inches at a time, enough to make the legs move, and then let them rest for a few seconds before stripping again.
Wet Flies and Streamers for Panfish
Panfish, and most species, are the most fun when they’re hitting surface bugs. Seeing the take adds a lot of excitement to it. However, the best surface action is usually in shallower water early in the morning or on cooler, overcast days. As the shallows warm later in the day, panfish (especially the larger-sized ones) vacate these areas and seek thermal refuge in deeper water. If all you’re catching are 3-4-inch bluegills and sunfish, it’s usually because the bigger fish have moved deep. This is the time to break out your soft hackles.
Panfish love soft hackle wet flies in all colors. I usually have Partridge and Orange, Partridge and Olive, or partridge and anything on hand everywhere I go. Also, classic panfish patterns such as the McGinty Wet Fly and The Professor work well in these situations. You can usually buy a bunch of these cheap in the big box stores. They label them as trout flies, but they usually have oversized hackles in a variety of colors and are much better suited for panfish.
Another favorite subsurface pattern is a scaled down Woolly Bugger or Woolly Worm, usually in size 10 or 12, although it won’t hurt to drop down to a 14.
The Woolly Worm is a classic fly pattern that catches trout and panfish equally well. They work exceptionally well when fished deep later in the day.
I fish Soft Hackles, Woolly Buggers, and Woolly Worms all the same way. I cast them out and let them sink for a few seconds, and then slowly strip them in 2-3 inches at a time. The key is to let them hang in the lower half of the water column and strip just fast enough to keep them from getting snagged on the bottom. If it’s a weedy bottom, you’ll want to fish these just above the tops of the submerged weeds.
Nymphs for Panfish
Another method for catching bluegills, sunfish, crappies and others in deeper water is to use Squirmy Wormies and nymphs. In fact, I keep a selection of Squirmy Wormies in my box for just this occasion, and I’m not ashamed to fish them under a bobber…er, I mean strike indicator!…when the going gets tough.
And sometimes it does get tough with a fly rod when there’s a cloudless blue sky and a hot sun baking down and panfish go deep. What makes the Squirmy so effective is that the material has such great natural movement. You barely have to twitch the rod to get strike-evoking movement, and it’s provocative enough to make the bluegills still come up to hit it.
Squirmy Wormies are great flies for panfish. Try them in both bright colors like this chartreuse one as well as in more natural earthworm colors.
If a more natural presentation is needed, a basic Hares Ear Nymph or Pheasant Tail will catch panfish in these situations, too. I drop them under an indicator so that they’re near the bottom, or at least in the lower half of the water column, and every few seconds I pick up the rod and skate the indicator 4-5 inches and then let it sit. It’s really no different than how I fish the Madam X on the surface, and the strike usually comes as soon as the fly stops.
Almost any trout-sized fly will catch panfish. These are my personal favorites, but there are hundreds of others that will also work.
Can panfish get picky? Yes, they can, and I’ve seen it happen. But they can still be caught as long as you have a selection of flies to help you match the depth at which they’re feeding. Just because they’re small doesn’t mean they’re always easy to catch. Sometimes you have to adjust to their mood, and having a variety of patterns in the fly box helps you do that.
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