Fly Fishing for Sunfish and Panfish
April 06, 2012
I'd like you to consider three questions: What is the first fish most of us catch on a fly? What is the most widely distributed and plentiful fish to catch on a fly? What fish is the most fun to catch on a fly? If your answer to any of these questions is bluegill, I agree with you 100 percent.
I'll bet you've never given much thought to how important bluegill are to our sport, unless, like myself, you specialize in these wonderful, wild, and strong gamesters. I pursue them during all four seasons with the same dedication I devote to fly fishing for big, selective trout. The prospect of catching a 2-pound bluegill always gives me goose bumps.
One of my most vivid and pleasant bluegill memories happened on a balmy spring morning on a small, Scotch-tinted winding bayou near Mobile, Alabama. My soul brother Wayne Stracener and I paddled his canoe as the sun's early rays illuminated the graceful plumes of rising fog. A constant background chorus of frogs, mockingbirds, and redwing blackbirds accompanied the rhythmic music of our paddles as we propelled our canoe against the smooth, foam-flecked flow.
After a half hour of pushing through several cypress- and willow-lined pools, Wayne slowed his paddling and I got ready to fish. I'd brought a delicate, soft-action, 8-foot 2-weight rod with a floating double-taper line and a 71/2-foot leader with 2 feet of 4X tippet.
With a twinkle in his dark brown eyes, Wayne handed me a barbless, #12, orange-bellied Humpy and urged me to fish it instead of the tiny chartreuse and black popper I was about to tie on. He stealthily positioned the canoe along the shallow inside bend of the run, and pointed to an eddy on the opposite side of a small cluster of white blossoms and shiny green lily pads.
My little rod, light line, and nearly weightless dry fly felt sweetly alive as I made two or three false casts to get the distance and accuracy right. I let Wayne's fly settle to the water in an opening of the lilies. It had hardly touched the surface when a dark dinner plate-size fish arched out of the water and down onto the Humpy. Before I could react, the fly and fish disappeared into a foamy splash. The fly line snapped tight and the little rod arched into a half circle as the self-hooked mini-monster bore downstream.
No other fish puts such a sensation into the bend of a 2-weight like a big bull bluegill. For the next five minutes Wayne, with his paddle, and I, with my rod, jousted for advantage with the charging 'gill, and eventually our two-to-one odds won out. The warrior came to the surface and flashed its surrender flag of bright orange, blue, purple, and gold.
He was a magnificent male bayou bluegill. As spectacular as he was in strength, color, and size, it was his surface strike that most impressed me. I turned to Wayne, who had a proud grin on his face, and asked, "Wow, did you ever in your life see a bluegill strike like that?"
"Yes," he said immediately, "that's actually pretty common on the bayou this time of the year with dry flies, and especially on that orange-bellied Humpy."
That day, we were treated to several more leaping strikes, always followed by an awesome bluegill battle. Sharing time with Wayne and his beloved bayou is one of my most cherished fly-fishing experiences. It was also the last time we fly fished together because Wayne died that winter from lung cancer.
The Sunfish Fraternity
The large sunfish family consists of spiny-rayed predators such as largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, and five other Southern bass species.
Bluegill and their fraternity of sunfish cousins—coppernose, redear, yellowbelly, longear, crappie, green sunfish, common sunfish, warmouth, and rock bass—take well to trout flies and techniques. They are widely distributed, self-proliferating, hardy, strong, beautiful, and aggressive fly eaters. After a lifetime of fly fishing, I'm always eager to take on sunfish.
Seasons of Bluegill
Although most bluegill are caught in the spring and early summer, they eat flies during all four seasons. The entire family spawns in spring, moving into sheltered ponds, lake coves, and stream sloughs when water temperature exceeds 70 degrees F. Males create nests by digging small depressions in water ranging from 1 to 4 feet deep. Soon after, the females join them to spawn.
The ladies depart after spawning but the guys hang around to guard the eggs, circulating water over the nest to aerate it and prevent silt from settling around the eggs. Some fish return to these same bedding areas in the fall to spawn before water temperatures drop below 70 degrees.
Just before, during, and a week after spawning, males are aggressive near their nests and strike almost any fly that comes into range. In most bluegill fisheries, larger males tend to spawn in deeper water. I've observed them on nests 10 to 25 feet deep. I've also found that each season some males spawn so often they waste away and die—what a way to go!
I generally avoid targeting spawning fish of any species in order to protect future stocks. I believe the best sport for bluegill and other panfish begins in the spring, before they spawn, and then again at postspawn, and in fall and winter. At these times, they still feed aggressively but are more widely distributed in low-gradient, cool- and warmwater streams, and in stillwaters. Bluegill generally hang around structure where they find food, shelter, and comfort, and it's great fun to try to match their natural foods and search for them with accurate casts.
Picking up one or two bluegill per spot and then searching for the next holding cover is infinitely more interesting than casting over 20 or 100 nests and getting a strike every cast for hours. On days when the water is clear and the surface calm, sight-casting is an added pleasure, and large bluegill can be as spooky and selective as any trout, bonefish, or carp.
On mild, sunny, late summer and fall days, bluegill form loose schools and cruise just under the surface to locate topwater terrestrials and midges. Watch for their frequent rises just offshore. They are spooky in the open, but small, well-presented terrestrial imitations cast in front or to the side of a moving group can draw aggressive responses.
Although less active in the winter, bluegill readily feed on midges and other aquatic insects, as well as freshwater shrimp and tiny minnows. On mild days—from late afternoon until dark—big bluegill slip quietly and deliberately out of deeper water into coves 2 to 6 feet deep and eat midge larvae, pupae, and even adults. They can be caught on #18-22 midge imitations with 6X and 7X tippets.
If I do not see rises, I present slow-sinking, Brassie-type patterns to an area and watch the leader for subtle twitches that indicate the take of a big, winter-midging bluegill. If the light is wrong and you can't see the leader on the surface, use a tiny strike indicator 3 or 4 feet up from the fly.
Occasionally, #16 or #18 mini egg flies fished the same way as the slow-sinking midge larvae or pupae provides good fishing on winter evenings. Fluorescent yellow and pink seem to be the best colors.
During warm spells or on calm, sunny, late winter afternoons, bluegill often move into shallow, sun-exposedcoves to feed. They are extremely spooky, so use longer, lighter leaders, longer casts, and small nymphs or egg flies.
Winter bluegill seem to be full-bodied and fight surprisingly hard considering the cold water temperatures. It always amazes me that ice fishermen catch these "warmwater" fish. Bluegill are so aggressive not even frigid water stops them from eating.
During the wet weather transition from winter to spring, or in the north at ice-out, bluegill first congregate where brooks or streams pour warmer, food-laden water into pond or lake coves. I've seen hundreds to thousands in these tepid lagoons. If there's a disadvantage to these massive concentrations, it's that the fish are skittish and can all spook at once if your approach and presentations are not stealthy.
Use light lines, long fine leaders, and small nymphs presented to the edges of schools to catch them before they flee to deeper water. Usually they calm down and cautiously return within an hour or two.
Bluegill are fun to hook on the same fly tackle you'd use for trout. In order to get the best sport from these 4- to 10-inch fish, I recommend using 1-, 2-, or 3-weight rods 7 to 8 feet long with medium or slow action, and light fly reels.
I never use heavier tippet than 4X—and 5X, or 6X, and even 7X draws more takes and adds a special challenge to successfully landing bigger bluegills. Hooking and landing an 11- to 12-inch bluegill is like catching a 20-inch-plus trout, except even more rare and thrilling.
Bluegill Foods and Flies
Bluegill love the same foods as trout: insects, crustacean, worms, leeches, and small minnows—in that order. Other than matching the most abundant natural foods with flies, think small (#10-18).
This may surprise you—or you may disagree because you've caught them on bass flies, Woolly Buggers, and other big flies—but a lifetime of bluegill devotion leads me to believe that they prefer small foods and eat them more frequently. Most of the big bluegill I hook are caught on small flies. Even 8- or 10-inch fish have tiny mouths, so they find small foods easier to bite and swallow. Big, mature bluegill—when not "bedding"—are more selective feeders than young fish, and they take small flies readily.
Small, barbless flies typically catch bluegill in the lip and are easy to remove from small mouths. Large, barbed hooks tend to hook deeper and are more difficult to remove. Hemostats or hook removal tools are musts for sunfish.
After a lifetime of fly fishing for bluegill, I've also found that the slower you fish the fly, the more and larger fish you can expect. Bluegill and other sunfish often miss and quickly lose interest in fast-moving foods and flies. Dry flies, Sponge Spiders, Sneaky Petes, mini jigs, San Juan Worms, eggs, nymphs, and midge larvae are magic if simply suspended just above or at a lurking bluegill's level.
Occasionally, a large hair or popping bug raises a moody bluegill when small flies won't, but it's hard to hook them on these big bites. When this occurs, attach 8 to 10 inches of 4X or 5X tippet at the bend of the big hook with a tight Duncan loop and tie on a #12-14 nymph dropper.
This attractor-imitator rig can be irresistible to stubborn or snoozing 'gills. When bass buggin', this is a good way to enjoy a few bonus sunfish. Several springs ago, while fishing this two-fly combo with an 8-foot, 5-weight rod in an east Texas lake, I hooked and eventually landed a nearly 8-pound largemouth bass on a #12 damsel nymph dropper.
When suspending surface flies or subsurface flies under an a indicator or a floating bug, cast close to structure and let the flies sit where they land for a second or two before slowly twitching them along a foot or so. If you don't get a rise after 30 to 60 seconds, try another spot. This method works because bluegill prefer the safety of cover and commonly don't venture far to feed. Long retrieves are far less productive.
Large bluegill prefer deep water in summer and winter and can be taken over open, aquatic vegetation or brushy water structures by using weighted flies such as #10-14 nymphs, shrimp, Woolly Buggers, Marabou Minnows, or leeches, and using long, slow, deep retrieves. The best line for this is a slow-sinking, colorless fly line such as the Scientific Anglers Stillwater. After letting the fly sink to the intended depth, begin your retrieve. The slow sink rate allows the fly to swim slowly at fish-holding depths.
I use a 6-foot leader with a 24-inch fluorocarbon tippet and a fly that is weighted to have the same, or a just slightly greater, sink rate than the fly line. This straight-line connection with the fly keeps it at the depth you want and allows you to detect subtle strikes. The transparent line does not disturb the fish as you retrieve it over or through them.
This method works best when fishing from a relatively fixed position and requires dedicated focus on the slightest changes in the feel of the slow retrieve. Any resistance or sudden lack of resistance means a fish has softly eaten the fly. Strip-strike immediately to hook the fish, or the fly will likely be ejected.
Keep the rod tip low to the water and animate the fly with line strips rather using the rod tip. Moving the fly with the rod tip creates slack line, which greatly reduces strike detection. This is a great way to go for crappie, yellow perch, big largemouth, and smallmouth bass, as well as deep-water redear and yellowbelly sunfish.
During mild winters, when large bluegill are on an early prespawn pattern, they can be caught with a floating line, long leader, and sinking flies in 3 to 12 feet of water off shorelines. Do this by suspending the fly with a small adjustable strike indicator. A 1/80- to 1/125-ounce marabou mini jig is the best fly for this type of fishing. This set-up gives flies great action, even when not being retrieved, and the patterns are mostly snag-resistant.
Adjust the float on your knotless leader or 12-foot-long section of level tippet to suspend the fly at a specific depth, say 6 feet. Cast the rig several feet away from the shoreline structure, let the fly sink, and slowly retrieve it. If there's a slight riffle or small waves on the surface, the water movement perfectly animates the suspended marabou jig or nymph.
I continue to adjust the float and leader position until I locate the biggest bluegill. Sometimes the float barely twitches when a bluegill sucks it in. This is usually an indication that the fly is suspended at exactly the same level or below the fish. If it twitches and dives beneath the surface the fly is well above the fish.
This float-fishing technique makes strike detection easier and more fun than the slow-sinking-line method. It also draws strikes from an amazing variety of other fish, especially crappie and bass.
Bluegill provide four seasons of pure fly-fishing pleasure, especially if you challenge them with the lightest fly tackle, thinnest tippets, and tiny flies. Trophy bluegill test your skills and finesse, and there's a seemingly endless variety of other sunfish to join bluegill and entertain us. They are truly our best fly-fishing bargain.
Dave Whitlock is a Fly Fisherman editor-at-large. His website is davewhitlock.com.