Nothing puts the sizzle back in that poor overworked adjective “fun” better than fly fishing for the freshwater pan-fishes of North America. Pan-fishes—both crappies, pumpkinseeds, yellow perch, rock bass, and more—run a serious range of colors, shapes, habitats, and behaviors, and every one of these species is a delight for those fly fishers who know and seek him.
What all pan-fishes have in common is that they tend to run small (“pan-size,” as those who haul a few home for dinner might say), and tend to propagate in lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and sluggish streams with the sort of enthusiasm that results in abundance—though you won’t always find pan-fishes in swarms, it’s a common enough sight.
Get to know pan-fishes and you’ll find that one stands above all the others as the embodiment of most of what’s best about these delightful half pints: the bluegill. It’s beloved for its gameness (fights like a little bulldog), its eagerness to feed on top of the water, its curiosity that brings it out to stare in at an angler standing at the water’s edge, and the usual pan-fish propensity to make ever more copies of itself—add to all that its generous distribution (found in every state but Alaska) and you can understand its widespread popularity. So when you speak of pan-fish flies, your listeners, if they have any real experience with those loveable little guys, will assume you’re talking mainly about bluegills unless you tell them otherwise. And when I speak of the pan-fish flies presented here, you bet I’m talking about bluegills first. Still, the pan-fishes having so much in common, almost any good bluegill fly is a good fly for almost any pan-fish.
Flies for bluegills and other pan-fishes share one characteristic: they’re small enough for these smaller-than-average freshwater fishes, but not so small as those diminutive size 18, 22, and even tinier flies fly fishers sometimes toss at even some large trout. So, hooks of size 12 and 10 are typical for your typical pan-fishes. A hunt for the big ones could include flies of size 8. A size 8 fly also raises the chances of a respectable largemouth bass taking hold.
Bluegills hang out in much the same shallow-water places as most other pan-fishes (and largemouth bass): in or near or under such edge cover as weed beds, docks, moored boats, and fallen timber. If you’re seeking them at the edges, your fly should land within a foot of such cover. Fishing shallow cover is a blast with a floating fly or popper: Drop the fly on the water and then give it a twitch or gurgle, let it sit motionless for a while (pan-fish will often take a resting fly), give it a light twitch or draw, wait a bit more, and then start working it back. The next cast drops the fly a couple of feet further down the cover and thus you work your way along the shoreline.
Sometimes bluegills are in a mood to ignore the surface of the water—even if they’re in fairly shallow water, they just won’t come all the way up. Then, a weighted nymph (such as the F-C Mackie Bug or Woolly Worm), dropped quietly and close to cover, should be allowed to sink a bit before it’s slowly retrieved. If the fish are holding down close to the bottom around the outer edges of cover, let a fly that rides with its hook upside down (such as the Clouser or SMP) drop all the way down to land on the lake bed, or at least near it, and then retrieve it slowly enough that it stays very low.
Deep-water bluegills I find challenging. Like largemouth bass they’ll seek structure down there—sunken weed beds, drop-offs, the underwater ridges of shoreline points, old creek beds in reservoirs…—and you have to figure out where that stuff is before you find much action. A sonar device called a “fish finder” can be a great help with this. But you can also just fish deep and note the spot when you find bluegills, so you can return to fish that spot in the future; you can bet the bluegills will return there.
Generally though, if bluegills (and other pan-fishes) find good conditions for spawning in a lake, pond, or reservoir, you won’t have to work very hard to either find them or catch them—simply because they’re so abundant that they’re almost everywhere and at least a modest percentage are bound to be feeling impulsive… That above all else is probably what’s best about these little tigers: they’re typically just waiting to be caught. Oh, and they’re a ton of fun—did I mention that?
A popper is just a short cylinder usually of cork (sometimes buoyant foam rubber), mounted on a hook and painted. To snazz the whole thing up a tail of marabou or hackles or rubber-strands or some combination of these is added behind the popper body. Some fly fishers prefer hair bugs and other such chewy flies over hard poppers, but poppers float forever and have been catching pan-fish for generations of fly fishers.
2. Sponge Spider
The true floating stealth fly of pan-fish fishing, the Sponge Spider, worked in quiet twitches between pauses, can move fish that something more flamboyant (a popper for instance) won’t. It’s all a matter of timing. If bluegills or other pan-fishes are coming short to my floating flies, I show them a Sponge Spider, and I usually end up glad I did.
My poor little Predator fly has developed a personality disorder—it began life as a buoyant dragonfly nymph meant to rise above lake-bed snags on a sinking line, morphed into a trout dry fly, and finally became a stunningly popular pattern for pan-fishes and largemouth bass (I use it for smallmouth bass, too). Chris Helm, on his video “Panfish Flies That Work,” presents his version of my original Predator and describes it as an absolute killer for pan-fishes. I’ve since taken Chris’s wise alterations into consideration on my own pan-fish (and bass) version of the fly.
Strangely, it’s not commercially tied right now, so here’s the tan version of the dressing (tie it in green and brown or even white if you like):
HOOK: Heavy wire, short-shank wet-fly hook (I like the Daiichi 1550), sizes 10 and 8 (8 and larger for the basses).
THREAD: Tan 3/0.
TAILS: Pearl Krystal Flash cut short. Outside the Krystal Flash, fine yellow (or white or black) rubber-strand pushed through the foam body in a needle and bound to the shank.
BODY, HEAD, and COLLAR: Tan foam sheeting, 2mm, cut into a strip, bound down the shank, doubled back for a head, trimmed for a collar.
RIB: Pearl Ice Dub spun on the working thread and spiraled up the bound strip.
EYES: Black plastic barbell eyes
LEGS: Black-barred-yellow medium-diameter rubber-strand, one section bound on each side of the shank back behind the collar and against the body.
4. F-C Mackie Bug
Most subsurface pan-fish flies, like the Feather-Craft company’s F-C Mackie Bug, are sort of goofy. For starters, they imitate nothing. And they often carry unnatural flashiness (the Mackie Bug’s metallic rib), something that wiggles or pulses in the water (its rubber-strand tails and legs, if legs they are, being atop the fly), and an overall plump appearance to make them worth the effort to chase down. This is a proven pan-fish getter.
5. J’s Grinchworm
Quite the oddity this one. I caught a wild 14-inch cutthroat trout on it just last week on an Idaho river, but J’s Grinchworm seems to get the most attention from those who seek pan-fishes—and I’ve caught plenty of those on this fly. Besides its obviously unnatural bright-chartreuse coloring that must make bluegills and their relatives stop and stare, the Grinchworm’s supple rubber-strand legs and unique jointed body provide plenty of live motion.
I’ve probably fished this one over a hundred days, maybe two hundred, to catch scads of rock bass, both white and black crappies, bluegills, a bunch of other pan-fishes, and (always to my surprise) hefty largemouth and smallmouth bass on it. I use it whenever pan-fishes won’t come up; I just let it drift down to where they are, and then tease it slowly back…until my line tightens, of course. Rides inverted to help avoid snagging.
It’s my fly, but despite its effectiveness and popularity it’s not yet been picked up by a fly company. Hence the dressing below.
HOOK: Standard to heavy wire, standard length to 1X long (I like the Daiichi 1560), sizes 12 to 8 (for pan-fishes, bigger for the basses).
THREAD: Orange flat waxed nylon.
EYES: Lead-substitute barbell (for a fast-sinking fly) or bead-chain eyes.
BODY: Sparkling orange synthetic dubbing (Antron, SLF, AZ Sparkle Nymph…).
WING: An orange marabou plume over a yellow plume; a few strands of fine pearl Mylar such as Angel Hair between the plumes is optional. If you bind the wing on with crisscrossed turns of thread over the stem of the eyes, and whip finish the thread crossways between the eyes, the wing will be fuller than if you bind the plumes directly around the shank.
Comments: Tie it in purple, black, red, green—whatever color or colors you like.
7. Carrot Nymph
I love the cheery old Carrot, a fly I first encountered while reading Enos Bradner’s Northwest Angling, a now pleasantly old-timey little volume published in 1969. I’ve caught pan-fishes on Carrots for decades, some of the flies sporting metal beads for heads. Such soft-hackled flies as the Partridge and Orange, Partridge and Green, and March Brown Spider are fairly interchangeable with the Carrot, so either purchase one of these substitutes or tie the Carrot, whose dressing follows.
HOOK: Heavy wire, standard length to 1X long, size 14 to 10.
THREAD: Black 8/0.
TAG (I consider the tag optional): Flat gold tinsel.
BODY: Orange shiny dubbing (Antron, SLF…), full.
HACKLE: A gray or brown partridge flank feather.
8. Woolly Worm
This isn’t your or your father’s Woolly Bugger; it’s your granddad’s Woolly Worm—which is really just a Woolly Bugger with a little tail instead of a great puff of marabou. The Woolly Worm is still a hit with pan-fishes, and generally easy to pry out of their little mouths thanks to its long-shank hook.
9. Clouser Minnow
Tied small, this universal streamer for smallmouth bass and saltwater Pacific salmon and man-size tarpon and, well…you name it, is a reliable fly for every pan-fish I know.
10. Fat Head Diver
A pan-fish-size version of the ever-popular Dahlberg Diver bass fly; it chugs, gurgles, and slips under the surface of the water on a long draw. Not currently tied commercially, to the best of my knowledge, so here’s the dressing.
FAT HEAD DIVER
HOOK: Standard to heavy wire, short shank to 1X long, sizes 10 and 8.
THREAD: Red 3/0 for the tail, heavy hair-spinning thread (such as size A rod-winding thread) for the body and collar.
TAIL: Squirrel tail under red marabou under brown marabou.
BODY, COLLAR, and SKIRT: Natural tan-gray deer hair. The evened tips of the hair make the skirt, the butts of that hair (and perhaps another bunch) make the collar, and the body is just more bunches of hair spun or flared and then trimmed to shape.
Skip has spent the past three-plus decades writing and speaking about fly fishing and fly tying. This career choice has protected him from the strain that accompanies wealth while filling his days with the fascination of learning and exploring the grand sport. Skip has written 18 books (among them, Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple, Trout Flies for Rivers, and The Art of Tying the Bass Fly) and around 300 magazine articles on fly-fishing subjects and has spoken and taught at fly-fishing expos, fly clubs, and general sportsmen’s shows all over North America and overseas. He lives with his photographer-illustrator wife, Carol, on Washington State’s lushly forested wilderness playground, the Olympic Peninsula.
Visit Skip at www.skip-morris-fly-tying.com