August 31, 2022
One of fly fishing’s greatest pleasures is spending a spring or summer afternoon throwing topwater bugs to feisty and willing bluegills. The fishing can be fast and furious, with strikes coming on almost every cast. Bluegills and other sunfish have a reputation for being pushovers because of their willingness to attack anything that crosses their path at this time of year. They are easy pickings when on their spawning beds—fly selection is seldom critical, and even sloppy presentations often still yield results.
Fast forward a few months to the middle of summer, and those shallows formerly full of fish can seem devoid of life. Many fly fishers give up chasing panfish once the spawning activity ends, and turn their attention to other fish species. However, when it gets too hot in the summer for trout, and the springtime hatches fade, that’s exactly when you should switch your attention to the challenge of midsummer fly fishing for panfish. All you need to do is figure out where all those sunfish swam off to.
Bluegills and other members of the sunfish family, which includes other fish such as crappies and black bass, make dynamic seasonal movements. These fish spend a lot of time in shallow water, especially in spring and early summer, when they are busy procreating. In northern climates, where the water stays relatively cool, these fish may remain in the shallows all summer. However, in most parts of North America, the dog days of summer heat the shallows to a point where it becomes uncomfortable even for panfish, and force adult fish to seek the comfort of deeper water.
How deep is deep? Well, it depends. Water clarity plays an essential role in determining how deep fish will go to find suitable water temperatures. In stained or dark water, mature sunfish may find refuge in 6 to 8 feet of water. In clear water, they may retreat much deeper.
The overall depth of the body of water you are fishing also plays a role. When things heat up, big bluegills generally seek out the deepest weed edges they can find. But if you are fishing a shallow farm pond with a maximum depth of 6 to 10 feet, you may find bluegills holding in water 4 to 8 feet deep. These fish are easily within the range of an angler armed with a fly rod. When sunfish are holding in water deeper than 8 feet, a change in tactics and equipment is necessary to target them. My most reliable summer tactic for big bluegills is fishing weed beds in or near deep water. I concentrate my efforts on the outside edge—the deep-water side—of these weed beds.
I often find more significant concentrations of fish around these transition areas, and it’s not just weed beds. Such transitions could be changes in bottom composition, points of land, and underwater drop-offs. I also find that cuts or irregularities in the weed edges can be great places to find pods of fish.
You can also still find fish holding along the shoreline, as long as there is adequate depth and shade. Overhanging trees that provide full shade can significantly reduce the water temperature compared to stretches of shoreline fully exposed to the sun. Artificial structures such as docks and bridges can also be hot spots, particularly if the water beneath them is deep enough—and it often is. Docks are often situated in the deeper areas sunfish prefer in the summer.
Extensive areas of lily pads can also shelter fish from the sun’s harsh rays and provide a never-ending buffet line for the fish beneath them. Unfortunately, fields of continuous lily pads can be challenging to fish. However, if you can drop flies into pockets, or if you can work the deep-water edges of these areas, you’ll find fish.
While it is possible to catch fish off deep weed edges in the middle of the day, low-light periods often bring fish back to shallower water. Overcast days may also allow fish to find comfortable conditions higher in the water column, causing them to suspend above the weed beds. Increased feeding activity is often associated with low light levels as well. While fish often begin to feed near or on the surface in the evening, during the summer, I prefer to fly fish early in the morning. At first light, the water is at its coolest temperature of the day, and bluegills and other sunfish often return to their shallow-water haunts to feed. As the sun rises in the sky, they eventually seek out the shelter of shade or deep water.
During the warmest months of the year, you quickly find that the panfish that greedily gobbled your flies on their spawning beds have not only moved, but have grown more selective. Time of day, fly selection, and presentation all play essential roles in determining your success. Depending on the body of water, just reaching fish holding on deep-water weed edges may require some changes to your tackle. To catch fish in deeper water, you may need to use sinking-tip, intermediate, or full-sinking lines to get your flies down to the fish.
Many panfish enthusiasts prefer to cast 2- and 3-weight fly rods that allow you to appreciate the fighting abilities of these scrappy fish. Unfortunately, finding sinking lines in these light line weights is a challenge. So, this is one of the times I break out a 5-weight trout rod. These heavier rods may seem like overkill, but they allow you to cast the intermediate or full-sinking lines you need to get those flies down to the fish. Heavier rods also come in handy for casting the indicator and popper/dropper rigs I’ll discuss later.
Today’s modern intermediate and sinking lines are a pleasure to cast compared to the lines available 20 or 30 years ago. One of the difficulties some fly fishers have with these fly lines is strike detection. Having a straight-line connection to your flies helps you detect subtle underwater takes. Use a fly line that sinks quickly at the tip and more slowly at the rear, and sinks in a straight line—not with a U-shaped profile that reduces your feel and connection with the fly. Scientific Anglers Sonar Stillwater Seamless Density is a good example of this type of line, and it comes in line weights as light as 4.
You’ll have to do your part to maintain good contact with your flies by eliminating as much slack as possible, and by keeping your rod tip close to the surface. At times, I even submerge the rod tip a few inches under the water. Sometimes a take feels like a bump or a soft tug, or it may just be a heaviness on the line. Set the hook on anything that feels out of the ordinary.
Often you can detect the take of a fish by watching your line where it enters the water. Look for anything out of the ordinary, and set the hook when you see something that doesn’t look right. You will be surprised how many times you end up hooking a fish despite never feeling a thing—you’ll just sense something out of the ordinary. Practice this, and after a while, you’ll develop a sixth sense for visually detecting the take of a fish.
One of the benefits of fly fishing is we can present our offerings more slowly than spinning or baitcasting anglers. We can use painfully slow hand-twist retrieves to keep flies in the zone when fishing deep water. In addition, we can fish patterns that sink very slowly. When fish are dealing with high water temperatures, they may be unwilling to chase down a meal. If your standard retrieves are not working, try slowing down your presentation.
If the fish are holding in water deeper than about 6 feet, another option is suspending sinking flies under an indicator. You can follow the lead of stillwater trout anglers and use a slip float/indicator system to present flies at greater depths—it’s just a matter of how well you can cast this rig.
Stillwater trout anglers use an indicator system to suspend chironomid patterns just off the bottom in 20 feet of water, but they do this from a boat, with little casting.
Monofilament rigs and Euro nymphing for trout have become enormously popular in recent years, and offer distinct advantages for sunfish as well. A monofilament rig allows your flies to sink quickly, eliminates line sag caused by a heavy weight-forward fly line, and results in more sensitivity and direct contact with your flies. I prefer to use a stiff monofilament such as Amnesia or Maxima for my monofilament rigs, as this makes handling the line easier.
It’s an unconventional approach, but I occasionally use a fly reel loaded with monofilament to present weighted flies under a slip float at extreme depths. A small Balanced Leech suspended deep under a slip float can be deadly. Any chop on the water’s surface causes the fly to dance up and down—an action that is irresistible to the fish.
Flies and Techniques for Panfish
When targeting panfish in deeper water, you have a few options, depending on water depth. Weighted flies allow you to probe down to about 6 feet deep, but if I need to fish deeper I prefer to switch to a sinking line instead of adding more weight to my leader. Split-shot on your leader catches on weeds and algae, and interferes with your ability to detect subtle takes. When using sinking lines, I prefer unweighted or lightly weighted flies fished on a relatively short leader (3 to 6 feet) to maintain the depth of the sinking line and allow for that straight-line connection and better strike detection I discussed previously.
Another technique with sinking lines is to fish a foam floating fly on a sinking line. As the fly line descends toward the bottom, the fly rides above it. By fine tuning your leader length, you can present your fly at the perfect depth—just above the weeds and other bottom debris. This is a technique adapted from stillwater trout anglers in the U.K., who use a fly called the Booby. It does reduce your ability to feel strikes, but with this technique it sometimes doesn’t matter. The fish will grab the fly and hook themselves.
Summer Fly Box for Panfish
My summer panfish fly box contains an assortment of dry flies, nymphs, wet flies, and streamers. I always carry a selection of both fast- and slow-sinking wet flies and nymphs. All your traditional trout nymphs work, as do flies designed with sunfish in mind. Many warmwater patterns incorporate materials such as rubber legs or bright colors to attract panfish—it’s funny how trout flies are becoming more and more that way as well! Old warmwater standbys, including Terry and Roxanne’s Bully Spider or the old Ligon Bream Killer are great sunfish patterns, whether fished independently or under an indicator.
Wet flies and soft-hackles are favorite flies at any time of year, and they see plenty of action during the summer as well. Sunfish and crappies can’t resist a wet fly retrieved along the edges or the tops of submerged weed beds. You’ll also always find a selection of small streamer patterns in my fly box. A small Woolly Bugger is a versatile fly that you can fish in various ways. In addition to Buggers, I keep a variety of other imitative and attractor-style streamer patterns on hand.
Topwater patterns deserve a place in the summer fly box. Early and late in the day, sunfish often feed on the surface. The same can hold true on cooler, overcast days. When the mosquitoes begin to feed on you in the last hour of light in the evening, it’s a good time to use a small dry fly such as an Elk-hair Caddis or a Parachute Adams—both are irresistible to panfish. In addition, terrestrials such as ants, beetles, hoppers, and crickets come in handy, especially when fishing under trees along shaded banks.
Finally, you can’t forget small foam and deer-hair bugs. These large, high-floating patterns are perfect for dropping a nymph or wet fly off the back—this way you can fish both on top and subsurface simultaneously. This method also allows you to present a fly in weed-choked waters where the weeds rise to just a few feet below the surface. By adjusting the length of the dropper, you can prevent your flies from fouling in the weeds. Scuds and freshwater shrimp imitations can be particularly deadly when fishing over the tops of weed beds this way. As a side benefit, popper/dropper rigs often result in two fish taking your flies simultaneously. If you think a 10-inch bluegill puts a good bend in your rod, you’ll be amazed at what two can do!
Fly Fishing from a Boat for Panfish
Much of what I’ve discussed here may prove difficult for wading anglers.
While shallow-water fish in the spring are easy from shore, deeper water is always more challenging when you have two feet planted firmly on land. My preferred watercraft for fly fishing is a kayak. Modern sit-on-top kayaks make ideal angling platforms. Craft such as the Jackson Kayak Mayfly are built solely with fly fishers in mind. The Mayfly’s cockpit is designed to minimize the tangles sometimes associated with fly fishing from a conventional boat. This kayak also has rod and fly storage options specifically designed for fly fishers. You can also equip most kayaks with fish finders and anchor systems to help you locate fish in deep water and stay on them. On larger lakes where I need to cover more water, I fish out of a larger boat and make it as fly-fishing-friendly as possible by eliminating or covering up anything that may inadvertently snag a fly line.
I often use a fish finder to locate sunfish and crappies holding in deeper water. I keep a few floating plastic markers on the boat, and when I discover fish, I drop the little buoys overboard. Their weighted lines play out, and the marker stays in position, giving me a visual reference so I can set up my boat in the ideal casting position.
One of the most economical and enjoyable ways to get out on the water is with a float tube. When temperatures are approaching triple digits, I prefer to keep part of my body submerged in cool water instead of baking on top of a sheet of plastic! A modern U- or V-shaped float tube is much easier to get in and out of than the traditional doughnut tubes. Float tubes are very stealthy, and they allow you to carry more gear—even an extra rod—than you can while wading. However, they have their disadvantages as well. They are not as maneuverable as other watercraft and are at the mercy of the wind. They should not be used on very large bodies of water or on windy days, as you may find yourself being pushed offshore and unable to combat the wind. They should also never be used on moving water. Although it is possible to trick out a float tube, I keep mine simple and use it on smaller waters that I know intimately, and that don’t require the assistance of a fish finder.
Panfish are readily available and can be found close to home, regardless of where you live. They are a blast to catch and provide the makings of a fine meal, if you are so inclined. So, when hoot owl closures force you off your favorite trout stream, there is still a way to enjoy some of the best fly fishing of the summer.
An avid angler and fly tier for more than 40 years, Bart Lombardo is the founder of the popular website panfishonthefly.com. He guides fly fishers through Shannon’s Fly & Tackle (shannonsflytackle.com) in Califon, New Jersey and is currently working on a book about panfish fly fishing. It’s due to be released in June of 2024 by Imbrifex Books.