Gerald Almy: Fly fishing for panfish

Dogwoods bloomed along the river’s edge and wood ducks squealed plaintively as the olive johnboat drifted too close for comfort. A squirrel barked angrily from a white oak and the muted sound of a gobbler drifted down from a nearby ridge.

It was easy for our eyes to roam from their casting targets along shore where smallmouth bass were lurking. And roam they did, until my partner had his gaze  wrenched back to the water by a stunning sight.

“Drop the anchor. Quick!” he hissed, nearly choking on the words.

“Panfish! Look in there,” he said, gesturing wildly. Dropping his spinning outfit, he quickly picked up a fly rod he had rigged and ready to go beside him in the dented aluminum boat.

Having been mesmerized by the spring scene along Virginia’s Shenandoah River, I was too startled to do anything except grab the anchor and plunk it overboard, obeying my friend’s command. When the boat swung tight, though, I glanced up and saw what he was so excited about.

Bluegills as big as a saucer were amassed by the dozens in the weedy eddy of the river for their spawning ritual.

The water was transparent and sloped from 1 to 3 feet deep where the fish hovered. Most of the big panfish were on their spawning beds. They hung nearly motionless over the shallow depressions fanned out in the sandy bottom, the only sign of life were dozens of gently rotating pectoral fins.

It was a marvelous sight, and for a moment I simply stared in awe. Soon enough, though, I joined my partner and tied a sponge rubber spider onto my leader. False casting quickly, I dropped the small fly near the edge of the pack of swarming panfish as my friend deftly worked in a fish he had already hooked.

Watching my fly, I listened to the sweet sound of a bluegill gently sucking in the topwater bug. The rod arched tight and I too was connected to a feisty panfish.

My boat partner by now was battling his second fish and we both whopped with joy at the unplanned change of direction in the angling day. To heck with the smallmouth bass. Casting topwater bugs on a fly rod to a school of eager panfish was a thrill neither of us wanted to forego.

Before the fish grew wary and reluctant to strike, three dozen sunfish had been fought to the boat, most of which we carefully released unharmed. The top fish weighed a solid pound and the others were close to three-quarters of a pound apiece. What a day! Yes, we caught a few bass on the rest of the float, but the hour we spent casting to those spawning bluegills in the backwater eddy was by far the highlight of the day.

That experience, one of countless I’ve enjoyed with this humble quarry over the years, demonstrated many of the joys and attractions of fishing for panfish, especially with a fly rod

The abundance and widespread distribution of the various panfish species makes them extremely appealing as a fishing quarry. A variety of cooperative panfish are usually available within a reasonable drive for virtually any angler. You can find them in half-acre farm ponds, small natural lakes, sprawling impoundments and virtually all rivers.

Panfish are not only widely available, they are also prolific. A female can lay up to 30,000 eggs. Because of this, you can keep a few fish for the pan and not feel guilty about it. Chill them down on ice and you have the main ingredient for some great meals.

Panfish also offer a terrific way to introduce a youngster to fly fishing. Whereas bass can sometimes be difficult and trout are often skittish, panfish are easy to catch on a fly.

You don’t need any elaborate equipment. A $75-100 outfit will get you started, and only a small selection of flies and ancillary gear is required. Deliveries can be a bit “sloppy” and the fish won’t swim away scared.

I particularly like fly fishing for panfish when they’re in shallow water during late spring and summer. You don’t need any sinking lines and don’t have to wait until the fly “counts down” to the quarry.

You can often see them hovering over their beds or next to weeds and brush. This makes it a richly visual sport. Watch enthralled as the fish swims over, hovers under the fake bug, and then gently sips it in.

Look for good panfish action all summer in local ponds, lakes, and rivers. Often spawning is heaviest around the new or full moon, but fish can be caught any time during spring and summer even if they’re not mating. They’ll head to the shallows in the warmer water of summer because of the abundance of food found there.

Backwater bays and coves are particularly good bets, but if none are available, look for fish in arms or shallow areas of the main lake or river.

Hard bottom is favored for spawning, such as sand, clay or small gravel. Muddy bottoms are used as a last resort.

Often with the aid of polarizing sunglasses you can actually see the dark-colored fish hovering in depths of 1-4 feet. You can smell spawning panfish too, at times. They give off a distinct, sweet smell like ripe melons.

If you can’t pinpoint fish visually, try areas that fit the descriptions above and also probe weed beds, points, blowdowns, brush piles, docks and backwater sloughs.

Tackle need not be elaborate. I like a rod of 8-9 feet balanced with a 4-6 weight forward or bass bug floating line. Add a tapered leader of 7-9 feet with a tippet testing 3-4 pounds and you’re good to go.

Flies for spawning panfish come in many varieties, but be sure whatever types you choose they have small hooks. Sizes 6-12 are perfect. Poppers and sponge rubber spiders are two of the best bets. Add a wet fly or two and you’ll be well outfitted for catching panfish under any condition.

So if bass, trout, and stripers are proving tough to come by, don’t ignore the abundant bluegills waiting nearby. They’re a blast to catch and make a tasty meal when fried golden brown with a touch of garlic and drenched in lemon!