Fly fishing for Bluegill and Panfish
Capt. Jim Klopfer is a saltwater fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida. However, in this article he will talk about fly fishing for bluegill and panfish. These diminutive battlers are every bit as much fun as other game fish when pursued using the right tackle. Fly fishing is easier than many anglers think. This is especially true when chasing bluegill and panfish. Also, many of these trips end up with enough fish for a meal. In most waters, taking out abundant panfish can actually help the fishery.
The primary difference between fly fishing and spin fishing is really very simple. With spin fishing, the lure or bait provides the weight. It is cast out and the line just follows behind. With fly fishing, it is the opposite. Flies weigh relatively nothing. Therefore, the line provides the weight and it is cast and the fly tags along for the ride. And that is really all there is to the difference between the two!
How is fly fishing different than spin fishing?
Fly casting is quite different from spin fishing. There is a skill and nuance to it and it does require special tackle and some practice. However, of all the fish species that anglers can chase with the fly rod, pan fish and bluegill are perhaps the easiest. This is one reason that Capt. Jim enjoys doing this so much. Believe it or not, on a day off of “work” he really enjoys fly fishing for bluegill and panfish.
We will not really address fly casting in this article. There are a ton of great resources out there already for that, whether it be online blogs, YouTube, videos, or books. Suffice it to say, most anglers can learn to cast 15 or 20 feet in an afternoon. And, that is all that is required in order to catch bluegill and panfish on fly.
Fly Fishing Equipment
We will discuss the equipment required for fly fishing for bluegill and panfish. A complete outfit suitable for this endeavor can be purchased for less than $100. Anglers do not need to spend a lot of money in order to get a functioning rod, reel, and line. However, as in most hobbies, Capt. Jim recommends buying the best equipment that an angler can reasonably afford. This usually results in more enjoyment of the sport.
Fly tackle is designated by “weight”. This is true for the rods, reels, and lines. A 4 weight outfit appears as 4wt. This will be on the base of the rod near the handle. Most lines are similarly marked near the end. This really makes it easy to match all the tackle components by simply staying within the same weight designation.
In these designations, the smaller the number the lighter the tackle. A 1wt outfit is extremely light. Conversely, anglers chasing giant tarpon and saltwater would use a 12wt outfit. Anglers fly fishing for bluegill and panfish will do well with a 3wt or 4wt outfit.
The fly rod is much more important in this type of fishing than is the reel. The rod is used to cast and to fight the fish. The reel basically just holds the line. In most cases even when fighting a fish, the reel is not used. Instead, the fish is brought in by hand. We will explain this more later.
Fly Lines for bluegill and panfish
Fly lines are extremely important. This is definitely not the place to skimp when it comes to fly fishing tackle. Fly lines come in various configurations; weight forward, tapered, floating, sink tip, and full sinking. There are other choices as well.
Fortunately, when fly fishing for bluegill and panfish the choices really simple. A weight forward floating line is the best choice in 95% of these fishing applications. A weight forward line is a bit heavier at the end. This helps anglers cast a bit easier and further.
A floating line is pretty self-explanatory. It simply means that the line floats. It will sink after a while. Anglers occasionally dress the line to clean and add flotation. As most bluegill and pan fishing is done in relatively shallow water, floating lines are the best choice. They are also easier to cast.
Fly fishing leaders for panfish
A leader is used between the end of the fly line in the fly. Fly lines are thick and easy to see. If the fly was attached right to it, no fish would bite it. These leaders are generally tapered. That means that they are thicker at the fly line or butt section than they are at the end of the leader. This helps the fly roll and “turn over” on a cast. These tapered leaders are available commercially. A 5x leader is fine when fly fishing for panfish and bluegill.
Fly selection can run the gamut. However, it does not really need to be complicated. Bluegill and panfish for the most part are not fussy. The two different types of flies are surface flies and sinking flies. Surface flies lie at rest on top of the water. They generally have some type of action which draws the fish up from the bottom. Poppers and rubber spiders are good examples of these flies.
Sinking flies are generally bait fish imitations or “buggy” type flies. In reality, any small black fly that has any kind a hackles or tail will catch bluegill and panfish. They really are not fussy at all in most instances. Also, anglers usually don’t lose a lot of flies when fly fishing for bluegill and panfish. Here is a link to a decent starter outfit for $75 that includes rod, reel, line, leader, flies, and case. Make sure to click on the 3wt outfit!
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Fly fishing techniques
So, we have now acquired a decent fly fishing outfit, a couple of leaders, and a selection of flies. A few hours of practice in the backyard or the local pond has us ready to go out and catch a few fish. Anglers can choose to fish from shore, a boat or even wade.
The locations that anglers will fish are the same whether using spinning tackle or fly tackle. Weed edges, submerged weed beds, docks, feeder creeks, submerged rocks, riprap, and fallen or submerged trees are all prime spots. Big bluegill in particular love wood of any type. In most cases, it is important to keep moving and fishing different areas until a school of fish is located.
The fly is cast out towards some likely fish holding structure. This can be a weed line, dock, fallen tree, or even just over some submerged vegetation. The fly is retrieved using the free hand, the one that is not used to cast and hold the rod. With the rod tip low near the surface, the fly is manipulated using that freehand. That is how it is retrieved.
When a fish strikes, the angler keeps the rod tip low and pulls back sharply with the free hand. This gets all of the slack out of the line and gets the fly started in the fishes mouth. The rod tip is then raised sharply and held up while fighting the fish. This is called a “strip set” and is a bit different than what trout fisherman are usually used to. Once hooked, the angler simply strips the fish back in. Seldom will the reel be required when catching a bluegill or panfish.
Fly fishing for panfish with surface flies
Anglers using floating flies or poppers will allow the fly to settle until the rings disappear. Then, with the rod tip low and the line tight, they use the free or stripping hand to give the line a short, sharp pull. This will result in the fly twitching or popping on the surface. The fly is allowed to settle and the process repeated. It is great fun to see a bluegill or panfish viciously attack the fly on the surface!
While catching fish on the surface is great fun, anglers will experience more action learning to fish sinking flies. These flies more thoroughly cover the entire water column. Also, there are days when fish just will not feed on the surface. In these situations, small bait fish patterns and buggy flies will produce best.
The fly is cast out towards the structure and allowed to sink several seconds. Then, with the rod tip low the angler used to stripping hand to retrieve the fly. As in all forms of fishing, angler should vary the retrieve until a productive pattern emerges. Generally speaking with bluegill and panfish, short subtle strips work best.
One mistake many novice anglers make when fly fishing for bluegill and panfish is to work the fly too quickly. Bluegill are aggressive, however they can spook off of the fly if it looks unnatural. It is surprising at times how long a popper can sit on the surface motionless before a fish attacks. The same applies to fishing subsurface flies, slower is generally better. Although, when fishing sinking flies anglers do need to keep it off of the bottom weeds or structure.
Popper Dropper Rig
One very productive rig is called the popper dropper. With this anglers use both a floating fly and a subsurface fly at the same time. The angler ties the popper onto the end of the leader. Then, an 18 inch piece of for pound line is tied to the bend of the hook. A small sinking fly or nymph is tied to the other end of the line.
The rig is cast out towards some structure. It is then fish exactly is an angler would a popper or surface fly alone. The difference is that at times a commotion of the surface fly will draw fish to the submerge fly. The surface fly also acts as a bobber to give the angler an indication when a strike on the subsurface fly occurs. This is a great approach to fly fishing for bluegill and panfish. It does take a little bit of practice to keep the flies from tangling. However, once mastered, this technique will produce a lot a fish!
Fly fishing beds in spring and summer
One of the best times to go fly fishing for bluegill and panfish is in the spring when the fish are on the beds. When bluegill and panfish spawn, they dig out little circular holes in the weeds. This is where they lay their eggs. When the water is clear and the sun is up, these areas are very easy to see. It almost like little moon craters scattered about in a tight area.
These panfish are extremely aggressive during this time as they are guarding the nests and eggs. Rarely will a well presented popper be ignored. The time of year that this occurs varies in the United States. Generally speaking, the warmer them weather the better the panfishing is. This is a great time of year to practice fly fishing and put a bunch of fish in the boat.
Bluegill and panfish flies
as mentioned above, flies used for this type of fishing are simple and basic. There is no need to get over complicated or overwhelmed. A selection of poppers, foam rubber spiders, sinking flies, and streamers is all that is required when fly fishing for bluegill and panfish.
Surface flies are great fun to fish. No matter what the style of fishing, when an angler can see the strike on top it only adds to the fun. The two primary types of surface flies used are poppers and foam rubber bugs. Poppers are a small piece of plastic, foam, or cork that have rubber legs and a tail. When twitched sharply, the face of the popper digs into the water giving at the distinct “popping” sound.
Foam rubber bugs come in many different sizes, shapes, and colors. However, they all basically work the same. They are better choice when fish are a little bit less aggressive as the action is much more subtle than a popper. Basically, the bug is twitched a bit and then allowed to sit on the surface with the rubber legs undulating back and forth. Pan fish find us irresistible and will attack this fly with gusto.
Sinking flies come in many different sizes, shapes, colors, and patterns as well. Again, anglers do not need to get overwhelmed when it comes to fly selection for panfish. One of the best all round sinking flies is the woolly worm. This is a buggy looking little fly that bluegill find irresistible. They are also tied with a little bead had to give it weight, these are called woolly debuggers and work better and slightly deeper water.
Nim sit are traditionally used for freshwater trout fish and can be dynamite on bluegill and panfish as well. Hairs near and Prince of tides are just a couple of examples. These flies can be fished under a popper as mentioned above. They can also be fished alone. Often times take is quite subtle when using the smaller nymphs.
Most streamers are basically small bait fish patterns. Any tiny fly such as a lefty’s deceiver can be tied to mimic very small bait fish. These patterns are worked a bit more quickly than our woolly worms and other sinking flies. Bluegill in particular seem to be taken on them. Perhaps this is true because of their aggressive nature. Anglers fishing in areas that have good populations of small bass will have great fun as well as a 2 pound bass hooked on this very light tackle is great fun!
Anglers fly fishing for bluegill and panfish will have a variety of species to catch, depending on their geographical location. Bluegill are the most widely distributed and aggressive of the panfish family. They are also the easiest species to catch on fly.
Redear sunfish or shell crackers are the largest of the panfish family but are a bit more difficult to fool on fly. They are normally found in slightly deeper water and primarily feed on crustaceans. Woolly worms and other sinking flies work very slowly on the bottom will fool a few.
Green sunfish or stump knocker are a bit smaller than bluegill but highly aggressive as well. Pumpkinseed, longhair, red breast, and war mouth are just other examples of the various species of pan fish that are available to many anglers. Some even consider crappie a panfish. They will most certainly had a fly, especially a minnow imitating streamer. As mentioned above, it is not at all uncommon to hook small largemouth bass when fishing for panfish as well.
In conclusion, this article on fly fishing for bluegill and panfish will hopefully encourage anglers new to the sport of fly fishing to give these feisty little game fish a try!