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Beginner's Guide Bluegill How To

Fly Fishing for Sunfish and Panfish

by Dave and Emily Whitlock   |  April 6th, 2012 1

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.

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