Often over looked and sometime even sneered at by fly fishing purist, panfish can be a fun and challenging species to fish for. Technical fishing is often linked to Trout but, if you want to find large panfish year round then look a little closer at these exciting fish.
Don’t worry too much about line weights or for that matter rod lengths to start with. You will find that with time you might want 5 or 6 different rods from 2-3 weights up to a 6 weight and in lengths from 6 to 10 feet. Your style and water will help you figure out what works best for you. As for me, my favorite wavers between a 7 foot 3 weight and a 9 foot 6 weight in fiberglass.
Most flies are going to be size 8 or smaller and I’ll let you in on a little secret, a bigger fly doesn’t always mean a bigger fish. While a size 8 will keep most small bream from getting it in their mouths it won’t stop them from hitting it in the first place. Remember a bream mouth is small so it makes sense that small flies get more fish.
Most large panfish didn’t get that way by being stupid. So they tend to stick to deeper depths and tight to cover. The majority of their food is taken below the surface so keep that in mind along with the water you are fishing.
Regardless if it’s a river or still water, study the water and see what’s going on insect wise. Pay attention to what you see flying around the bank. Watch the water and look for any insects that may be hatching. Most of all, watch for the fish. Is it an occasional hit of something on top, or non-stop strikes on the surface? Do they seem to feeding just under the surface? As you learn to watch for the subtlest of clues you will find your success rates increase.
For me it’s mostly still water, so midges are king. I regularly fish size 16 and smaller midges. I use an indicator and occasionally a small weight to get them deep off structure. I use a slow finger retrieve to simulate a slow-moving or dead drifting insect. I find zebra midges, copper johns and glass bead-head flies to work best for me. The colors vary throughout the year but white, rusty-brown, red and black get the job done most of the time.
Mayflies are another insect to focus on, I find my best fly in this category to be a bead-head pheasant tail nymph. Now, when they Mayflies are hatching, I carry several colors of dry flies to take advantage of the occasion. For my area, Cream, Furnace and Grizzly hackle works best for me. Another fly I tie a lot of in summer are damsel flies using foam bodies in the color that closely matches what I see flying around. This is the time to be ready for larger bass. They seem to strike them with abandon very soon after the fly touches the water.
What I am talking about here is hunting big fish. Bream would hit a pencil eraser if conditions are right but if you want to catch large fish and do it year around then you have to pay attention to nature and the cycles of it. For example with a size 18 zebra midge suspended about 7 feet under an indicator and slowly retrieved over a drop off or near some type of cover you will be surprised with the number and size of fish that you will hook. I always scratch my head as to why a fish so large would bother with such a tiny insect but considering the numbers of the insects that are available it makes sense.
In the spring small streamers size 10 or even 12 that simulate newly hatched fry will also work very well. Just watch the shallows and you can see the size and color that match your area. For me its bass fry in a copper brown color.
I do recommend you work on your casting skills. They will be more important than even your fly selection because at times you will have to cast in tight spaces and this is where practice in the yard at home pays off. Work on bow cast, roll cast, side arm cast and learning to shoot your back cast up at different angles. Double hauling and long cast are truly a rare thing the way I fish.
Leaders I like to use are 9 to 10 feet long tapered down with a tippet from 4x to 6x depending on the fly. I use tippet rings for the simple fact that I’m often having to change size or add length to a tippet. It gets worn and frayed quite easily.
Focus on the early morning or late evening when the heat is more bearable in summer. In winter I prefer mid-day for my comfort and heating of the water from the sun.
Light winds can be advantageous for you because you can drift a fly with it and the slight ripple can give it an enticing jigging motion. Watch that strike indicator! The strike will be more subtle than you would think of a warm water species. Often it will just be a slight pause if the fish just inhales the fly and starts to quickly reject it. The other and most common way is just a slow steady disappearance of the indicator.
Most people think the bigger the fish the harder the take but I’ve observed over the years that large panfish seemed to have a more subtle take. Young fish tend to think they are sharks and hit everything hard and fast. So watch for the slightest twitch or the slowly disappearing indicator.
The most important advice I can give is this, be patient. Work an area slowly and steadily, move you cast in a fanning pattern. If that doesn’t work, adjust your depth and repeat working the area. It might take several tries of depth and speed of the retrieve to find the fish but when you do it will be more than worth it.
Bottom line, don’t think that fly fishing for panfish is something to do between trout trips. Instead think of it for what it is. A challenging and rewarding species to target that will require as much skill and patience as trying to catch the traditionally thought of fly fishing species. I find it good to keep a fishing journal so from month to month and year to year I can track which flies and methods work best.
Remember, use realistic looking aquatic insects flies, work the area slow and steadily and watch the water.
Practice your casting skills!
Most of all relax and enjoy every minute you can spare on the water.