Dogwoods bloomed along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and wood ducks squealed as the johnboat drifted too close for comfort. A squirrel barked angrily from a white oak and the booming call of a gobbler drifted down from a nearby ridge.
We were searching for smallmouth bass, but my fishing partner soon saw a different gamefish. A school of bluegills was gathered in a quiet cove.
“Drop the anchor!” he said. Ditching his spinning outfit, he picked up a fly rod he had ready to go for just such a situation.
After dropping the anchor, I glanced up and saw what he was so excited about. Bluegills as big as a pie plate were amassed by the dozens in a weedy eddy preparing for their spawning ritual.
The water was transparent and sloped from one to three feet deep where the fish hovered over the sandy bottom, gently rotating their pectoral fins.
It was a marvelous sight. For a moment I simply stared in awe. Soon enough, though, I jumped into action and knotted a sponge rubber spider onto my fly line leader. False casting quickly, I dropped the small fly near the edge of the pack of swarming panfish. Within seconds I heard the sweet sound of a bluegill gently sucking in the topwater bug. The rod arched tight and I was connected to my first panfish of the day.
My boat partner by now was busy battling his second bluegill. Smallmouths would have to wait. 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; the others were close to 12 ounces. We caught lots of smallmouths during the rest of the float, but the hour we spent casting to those spawning bluegills in the backwater eddy was the highlight of the day.
That experience 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. You can find them in half-acre farm ponds, small natural lakes, sprawling impoundments, and rivers.
Bluegills 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 without feeling guilty.
Panfish also offer a terrific way to introduce a youngster to fly fishing. Bass can sometimes be difficult, and trout are often skittish, but bluegills are easy to catch on a fly.
You don’t need any elaborate equipment. A $75-$125 outfit will get you started, and only a small selection of flies and ancillary gear is required. During spring the fish are in shallow water so you won’t need a sinking line.
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.
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.
Next week we’ll cover more tactics for catching panfish and also include lure and bait fishing tips for anglers who prefer those methods.