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Pond Life

Pond Life
Poppers are a fun way to catch sunfish, but most fly fishers use surface flies that are too large, and they give them too much action. A small fly like a Foam Ant or a Micro Chubby Chernobyl (both with rubber legs) will catch more fish. Move the fly just enough to make the legs wiggle. Jay Nichols photo  

I think Stephen Stills summed up my feelings on pond fishing best when he wrote the immortal lyrics “if you can’t be with the one you love . . . love the one you’re with.” When I daydream of an upcoming fly-fishing excursion, it usually involves my annual trip out West. I fantasize about pods of gulpers breaking the glassy water on Hebgen Lake, feeding on Callibaetis spinners. I think about large cutthroat sipping Green Drakes from the surface of the upper Yellowstone River. Most of all, my wife and I enjoy sharing the scenery and natural beauty of the American West with our two children. Then reality sets in, and I realize there’s another 11 months of the year, and I need to find closer locations to fish. But this “first world problem” has become a blessing as it has led me to search for exciting alternatives close to home, and for me that means pond fishing.

I’m a recovering trout snob, and pond fishing has helped alleviate many of my withdrawal symptoms. More important, it’s the simplest and most effective way to get my kids out catching fish. When I take them trout fishing, I’m careful to pick only the best times and locations, so my kids have the best opportunity to catch fish. This means there are times I won’t take my kids trout fishing, as I believe the action will be too slow for them. On the flip side, pond fish provide more consistent action. Conditions have to be really tough for me not to take them to a pond. 

Ponds are just about everywhere, and most have fish that are eager to take our flies. I’veseen estimates saying there are 6.1 million ponds in both the U.S. and Canada. These opportunities are simply everywhere. Whenever I travel to a new urban area, I pack a tenkara rod and box of flies, just in case a pond is nearby. Hotels, golf courses, farms, and community parks are all examples of possible pond opportunities. And the best thing about ponds is the lack of fishing pressure.

In some ways, ponds have become my “secret gems,” although they are not secret at all. They are in the plain view. Maybe scarcity creates demand in fishing, and the vast supply of pond fishing opportunities reduces demand? The thought processes of other fishermen are sometimes difficult to decipher, but I’m happy to target willing fish, on waters that are easier to access. Sometimes it’s nice to get an easy victory.

The sunfish family includes bluegills, largemouth bass, green sunfish, redear sunfish, white crappie, smallmouth bass, and black crappie (shown here). They thrive in shallow ponds in urban and rural areas across the country. George Daniel photo

At other times, I enjoy the challenge of targeting large sunfish. While my two children are busy catching whatever comes their way, I can focus on large sunfish. Picking out a larger sunny, and feeding that particular fish, is consistently a challenge. A sunfish larger than your hand is a hard-fighting fish if you’ve got the right tackle.

The largest bluegills in our favorite pond are often positioned in slightly deeper water, just off the shelf where you can plainly see numbers of small and medium fish. The bigger fish only come into the shallows to spawn, and even then they are spooky. To target these larger fish, I slightly upsize my flies and downsize my tackle so I can better detect strikes.

With lighter tackle, I can better feel the difference between a nibble (from a small fish) and a larger fish inhaling the fly. Nibbles are like taps on the line, while takes from bigger fish feel more like subtle pulls that are more difficult to detect. I believe that lighter tackle helps you feel these subtle takes more effectively so you can quickly set the hook on these bigger sunfish. They can inhale and then reject a fly just as quickly as a trout.

Compared to trout streams, pond access is common. Very few people have their own private trout stream, but having a pond to yourself is fairly easy to accomplish. A farmer in Ohio is more likely to grant access to his farm pond than a Western rancher who gets bombarded with requests to use his river access. In most instances, the rancher has already leased those fishing rights to a guide or outfitter.

Even if you don’t own property, it’s pretty easy to obtain your own little fishing paradise . . . just ask. Pick up some trash while you’re there. Bring some smoked salmon or a bottle of whiskey for a gift on your second trip. Being a good neighbor still goes a long way in rural America.

Here’s a hot tip: If you want to increase your chance of gaining access, bring your kids along. Not many people can say no to the idea of kids enjoying an afternoon of fishing with their father. It’s a free “hall pass.” Why do you think I take my kids fishing all the time? If you don’t have children, find some. Your nieces, nephews, or the kid down the street would love to learn how to fly fish. Everybody wins.

Pond Basics

A pond is any hole in the ground with enough water in it to hold fish. They can be large or small, shallow or deep. Some are named lakes, while others are no more than suburban catch basins for street runoff. City parks are often built around natural lakes and ponds, and a number of ponds I fish locally are the result of mitigation work around highways or developments. Some of the best fishing I’ve found is in small hotel ponds. While the scenery isn’t always ideal, the catching is usually good.


What always amazes me is how these fish get in there. No one stocks sunfish, but they find their way in there and even just two years after the backhoe finished, I’ve found booming sunfish populations in new ponds where the grass seeds are still taking root. I’ve heard sunfish are introduced to new ponds from the legs of herons, but it’s more likely the sunfish get in there from the buckets of kids, fishermen, or they just swim into the pond from other bodies of water. Even just a little trickle of an outflow can turn
into a navigable tributary during a flood event.

One of the great joys of pond fishing is that you don’t know what you’ll find. The focus of this article is sunfish, which are by far the most prolific and abundant pond fish in America. But if you start poking around enough ponds in this country you’ll find some strange things. There are peacock bass in service plaza ponds on the Ronald Reagan Turnpike just outside of Miami. Other places might occasional have channel catfish, perch, common carp, and in upscale neighborhoods where they want to keep the algae growth to a minimum, you may find enormous grass carp. If you want a challenge, there it is. Numerous friends have reported finding goldfish (or koi) swimming happily alongside bass and bluegills. Yes, they take flies.

Smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are regular pond denizens, but you may also run into common carp, grass carp, catfish, or exotics like koi or oscars. Amidea Daniel photo

The sunfish family is like the Brady Bunch. There’s more than a few members. Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bluegills, green sunfish, black crappie, white crappie, and redear sunfish are some of the more popular sunfish species found in these secret gems. 

Sunfish are like any other fish, their behaviors are related to a number of environmental and biological factors. There’s a reason we call them sunfish. They are creatures of warmer waters, which is why they thrive in shallow bodies of water that warm quickly. 

Although some ponds may offer year-round opportunities, springtime is the best time, because that’s when sunfish spawn and move closer to the shallows. This creates easier access when I decide to fish the bank, and the aggressive nature of spawning fish makes for easier fishing.

It’s easy to locate spawning beds. Just wade along the banks and look for small piles of polished gravel. If you look closer, you’ll likely see fish nearby. After spawning, the female bluegill leaves the nest while the male remains behind to guard the spawning bed. This protective attitude makes for an easy target. This is the time to fish small streamers. By small, I don’t mean your standard size 8 Woolly Bugger. Standard-size trout streamers are often too big for sunfish to inhale. For the typical 6- to 10-inch sunfish, I use #12 or smaller streamers that may imitate small baitfish or insects.

The great thing about pond fishing is pattern selection isn’t all that critical. If it moves and is the right size, sunfish will eat it. That is another reason why pond fishing is great for kids and other beginners—you can have them tie their own fly and catch a fish with it. It’s not just an opportunity to catch a fish, it’s a chance to enjoy the complete fly-fishing experience: tie a fly, catch a fish, and release the fish.

Even poorly tied flies still catch pond fish. My two children have tied some of the ugliest patterns I’ve seen come off a fly-tying vise, and they still caught pond fish. And I believe this is the reason why both my children still enjoy tying flies today—they got off to a successful start, and even while just learning they knew their flies would catch fish.

When they were younger, I took them to the fly shop every week just so they could pick our whatever gaudy fly-tying material caught their eyes. They couldn’t’ wait to get home and tie sunfish patterns and then go fishing.

I still remember the first times pond fish ate their flies. It’s something I’ll never forget. Catching fish on flies you tie seals an everlasting bond between angler and fish.

Pond Tools

As noted above, light tackle makes it easier to detect strikes. It also makes playing smaller fish more enjoyable. A softer rod allows you to use lighter tippet and can turn the whole pond experience into more of a finesse game.

Lighter rods are also easier for kids and beginners to cast because they are easier to load. Since most pond fishing is done close to the banks, distance is usually not a concern, so why not use a rod that is easy to cast at short distances? While pond fish can be caught on any fly rod, I’ve found the soft-tip Euro-style nymphing rods, or even tenkara rods, are best suited.

For strike detection and for short, easy casting, lighter lines and leaders help create a more natural presentation. The less line and leader weight you have inside and outside the guides, the greater sensitivity you’ll have. Less mass equals less sag, which translates into better connection between you and your fly. This is why I prefer to use a thin, level Euro-style leader when jigging patterns deep, and matched with a light, delicate weight-forward line like a Scientific Anglers Mastery Trout line when I need to cast and retrieve flies. 

Yvon Chouinard—owner of Patagonia—advocated tenkara rods for beginners in his book Simple Fly Fishing (Patagonia, 2014) and he was right. My kids started pond fishing at age five with tenkara rods and were able to cast 20 feet their first time on the water. Most standard-action fly rods require some degree of speed and timing to load the rod tip, a significant obstacle for young kids and beginners. All you need to cast tenkara rods is a simple wrist flick, a movement anyone can do. There’s rarely a need to cast farther than about 20 feet, so you can save the double-hauling and line-stripping techniques for your first trip to the Madison. Your goal here is to make it easy to succeed. You can introduce more complicated concepts as they grow into the sport.

Forceps. Don’t head to your pond without a long/skinny pair of forceps. Most pond fish have tiny mouths and take flies deep, so using your hands/fingers for fly retrieval is out of the question, and most fishing pliers are just too large for these small flies and small mouths. Release these fish back into the pond unharmed, just as you would a trout.

Barbless hooks. It’s challenging enough to retrieve flies from most pond fish—barbless flies make it easier and safer for everyone. I’ve recently changed all my subsurface pond flies to jig-style barbless competition hooks. Besides the benefits of a barbless fly, the bent hook shank in combination with a slotted tungsten bead gives you more opportunity to jig the fly with an up-and-down movement. This means you can turn any small nymph into a miniature Clouser Minnow. Movement in stillwaters is key. Unlike moving water, where trout often have less time to decide to eat a potential food item, stillwater fish have time to follow and inspect prey. This is why a fly that has enticing movement, with the right presentation, is a key to success on the pond. A jig fly can be dead-drifted, retrieved with a strip, a hand-twist retrieve, or jigged with the rod tip.

Fly modification

I prefer to fish smaller patterns for pond fish, and I tie all my nymphs and streamers with tails made of soft materials like rabbit or marabou. Even on a fly like a Hare’s-ear Nymph, I replace the standard tail with marabou. This tail creates more movement if I decide to strip-retrieve the pattern. Even with midges (a common food item), I put a tuft of marabou on the tail—that’s a tip I learned from Davy Wotton.

Just about any subsurface trout nymphs work for sunfish in ponds. Variations of Hare’s-ears, Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns, Pat’s Rubber Legs all catch fish, but I also recommend brightly colored Squirmy Wormies in orange, chartreuse, yellow, or bright red. The advantage is that you can see these flies in the water. Most sunfish takes are subtle and can go unnoticed if there is any slack in the line. If you can see the pattern in the water, it removes a lot of guesswork. If the fly suddenly disappears, set the hook. [For more on visible tracer patterns, see George Daniel’s article “Weighting is the Hardest Part” in the Feb.-Mar. 2019 issue. The Editor.]

When fish are not hunting along the shallows, they position themselves in the safety of deeper water. This often occurs during the hottest parts of summer or during a cold snap when there’s little reason to be in the shallows. In these situations, the fish are not chasing food, so swim the pattern slow and deep. This is the time to jig a fly—at a fixed depth—in conjunction with a sighter. A sighter is just a term for a brightly colored monofilament (nylon or fluorocarbon) leader section used to detect strikes. The sighter is also a useful tool to help gauge water depth. 

The sighter I use includes three different colors, each separated by equal distance and connected to each other with a blood knot. Leave 1/2" tags on the knots for added visibility. The sighters my kids use are approximately 2' long (three different colors, each color approximately 8" long). The equal distance between each color acts as a depth gauge and helps you keep your flies at the depth where the fish are holding.

I use 0X Orvis Tactical Sighter Material. It’s a single-strand multicolored nylon monofilament, made of three separate colors (chartreuse, orange, and white), each color approximately 10 inches in length. Below the sighter I add a small tippet ring, followed by a level piece of thin tippet (often 3 or 4 feet long, made using 6X tippet) attached to the fly.

If my kids are consistently snagging bottom, I have them look at the height of the sighter in relation to the water, and have them hold the sighter a foot higher above the water. If action is slow and the fish are holding deep, I encourage them to lower the sighter, sometimes burying one section into the water. If you’re not catching fish, changing depth is often a potential solution.

The sighter is made of soft nylon monofilament, which helps you see twitches or hesitation during the up-and-down jigging motion. Fish often grab the fly after you lower the rod tip and the fly is dropping. Since you’re intentionally introducing slack to allow the fly to drop, you won’t feel those strikes, and the visual aid of the sighter becomes critical.

When the fish are actively feeding or defending spawning beds in the spring, a standard stripping retrieve or a hand-twist retrieve are both appropriate. John Horsey—one of England’s most decorated competitive lake anglers—once told me that many fly fishers miss strikes while retrieving because they wait to feel the strike, rather than look for it.

During the retrieve, the line outside the rid tip and in the guides gets tighter when you retrieve line, and loosens during the pauses. Pond fish may not take the fly hard enough to feel the strike, but you can watch for those slack bits to tighten just slightly. Always find a reason to set the hook. 

Surface movement

During the warmer months, dry flies become an important part of your strategy. Where I live in central Pennsylvania, the best dry-fly fishing is often early or late in the day, so just an hour or two of spare time in the evening after work provides and opportunity to take advantage of the best fishing of the day.

Some of my favorite dry-fly patterns include Foam Ants, Micro Chubby Chernobyls, and Elk-hair Caddis with micro rubber legs. Poppers are also useful tools, though most poppers made for bass are too big for average bluegills to inhale. The Boogle Bug shown in the opening photo is a size 8, which is still a mouthful.

Poppers are fun to fish, but I find that merely adding small rubber legs to any favorite dry fly will suffice for pond fish. Pond fish are not choosy about patterns, but the right topwater presentation is critical. One of the best tips I’ve gotten for fishing small ponds with surface flies is to wait for the rings created by the “plop” of the dry fly to disappear before moving the fly. When I began fishing ponds, I too often skated and skittered my fly as soon as it hit the water.

This was also mentioned in the excellent new book Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Methods, Tactics, and Techniques by Dave Karczynski & Tim Landwehr. The authors recommend just enough movement to wiggle the legs. Actively twitching and popping a surface pattern is fun to see, but is rarely as productive as more subtle movements. My catch rate rose significantly when I slowed down my retrieves, with just enough movement to make the fly seem alive. Don’t overdo it.

Family Time

Our tiny private pond is a special place for my family because it’s a place where my wife, daughter, son, and our new dog have spent countless hours together. It’s a great feeling to come home after a day of guiding to find my family waiting for me to take them pond fishing. We take a backpack with a picnic supper, a few lanyards with fly boxes and essential equipment, and four tenkara rods. Amidea and I haul the fishing equipment and walk our kids to the pond. I hold my daughter’s hand, and my son escorts his mother.

We each talk about our day while our Boykin spaniel makes figure eights in the field, sniffing every blade of grass. In the late evening, the soft light reflects off the grass as we move toward the pond. The last hour often goes far too quickly. Nothing is perfect, but those hours of family time on the pond are as perfect as anything I can imagine.

Pond fishing has helped my children become deeply engaged in a joyful activity they can enjoy for the rest of their lives. As the world moves faster, they (and everyone) will need to find a place to escape. A pond may be a good place to start.

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