Photo by Robert Sloan
David Jenkins drove the old truck across the bumpy field to a nondescript looking pond in the middle of nowhere. “It might not look like much, but you might be pleasantly surprised at what lurks beneath its surface,” said Jenkins, a long-time friend, and an ace at catching bluegills and other assorted members of the panfish family.
We sat on the tailgate of the pickup and rigged our fly rods. I had taken along a 2-weight rod, while Jenkins had a 4 weight. The 2-weight, three-piece fly rod is a personal favorite of mine. It’s been used to catch everything from big rainbow trout to small sunfish. Even the smallest fish put up a pretty good battle on a 2-weight rod.
I tied on a No. 10 white cork-bodied popper with four rubber legs and a chartreuse tail made of marabou. Jenkins opted to tie on a black sponge spider with orange legs.
“That looks like something you would see on Halloween,” I said.
“Well,” Jenkins replied, “you never know what a fickle bluegill is going to take. But this has been a good color pattern for early in the summer.”
The pond was no more than one acre in size. The water was semi-clear, and there was ample structure along the bank, such as brush and some assorted aquatic vegetation.
I cleared about 30 feet of line off the reel, made a simple double haul and laid the popper gently on the water’s surface, about 10 feet off the bank. I didn’t even have time to twitch the fly before a fat, hand-sized ‘gill sucked the fly under.
“With the water as cool as it is right now they will be feeding on the surface for at least a couple of hours,” Jenkins said. “Then as the sun gets up, we’ll have to go deeper.”
We worked that little pond hard and caught about 25 big bluegills each. My popper worked fine, but seemed to catch smaller fish than the spider Jenkins was using.
“I think the bigger ‘gills prefer something that looks like the real thing,” he said. “From now until the first frost in the fall, we’ll have lots of insects on the water.”
Fickle is the key word when talking about catching bluegills. I’ve seen days when they would pounce on a tiny cork-bodied popper, while passing on a good imitation of a cricket of grasshopper.
The early-morning hours are absolutely the best for taking numbers of big bluegills with surface flies. As the sun gets up, that bite will wane. That’s when you can go with a slow-sinking worm pattern or even a nymph pattern. Later on in the day, the sun will heat up the shallows. That’s when you’ll want to tie on a beadhead Woolly Bugger, ant or slow-sinking worm.
The early bite is my personal favorite. There is nothing quite like seeing a big bluegill crash into a tiny popper. The early bite is when you’ll catch sunfish in various sizes, but the action will invariably come from big bluegills.
A Gaines popping bug is without a doubt the best all-around fly for taking ‘gills at first light. They are made in a variety of sizes, but the No. 8 through 10 sizes seem to be the best producers. The Sneaky Pete and the Pan Pop flies produce in just about any morning situation.
The Pan Pop will be best when the water’s surface is slick as a mirror. This is a fly with a flat face, four rubber legs protruding from its sides, and two sticking out the rear. Its tail is made of marabou. When twitched, it’ll make a slight plopping noise. When twitched and allowed to rest a few seconds, this fly is deadly. The rubber legs will undulate, and the marabou tail will flutter. It’s not at all unusual to have this type of fly blasted when it’s sitting dead still in the water.
The Sneaky Pete is a balsa, cone-head fly with a set of rubber legs similar to the Pan Popper. It also has a marabou tail. The big difference is that the shape of the head on this fly makes it dive when twitched. It’s a great one to tie on when a breeze ripples the water’s surface.
Both of these flies are best worked close to structure like a log, vegetation or scattered brush. If you’ll be working a small pond, you might be surprised at how fast bluegills and other panfish get wise to rubber-legged balsa poppers. That’s especially true if the pond or lake gets a good bit of angling pressure. If this is the case, you’ll want to go with something that looks totally natural.
A black ant, grasshopper or cricket imitation will fool skittish panfish every time. These imitations are also very good in ponds and lakes that are crystal clear. Clear-water ‘gills can be very finicky. That’s when you want to go with a 2- to 4-pound-test tippet.
Generally speaking, a smaller fly is best in clear water where the fish can get a good look at what they are about to eat. In that situation, I like to start out with a No. 10 or No. 12 grasshopper imitation. You might also try a No. 14. These small hopper flies don’t require any action, if you’ve got a slight breeze. You can simply cast one out and let the breeze scoot it across the surface. The same thing applies to the cricket fly.
But if you don’t have a wind, you can twitch the hopper and cricket flies. It usually won’t take much to draw a strike. An ant imitation is an all-time killer on ‘gills that simply refuse to take anything else. A No. 14 or No. 16 floating ant won’t likely be passed up. The only problem is that you’ll catch a lot of small panfish on ants. I’m talking about fish in the 2- to 4-inch class. Ants are especially effective in very clear water.
A sinking ant is also a good choice when the topwater bite subsides. A slow-sinking red or black ant will catch panfish in just about any situation all day long. They are best fished on 2- to 4-pound-test tippet. I’ll also fish them a few feet under a tiny foam strike indicator. If you aren’t using a strike indicator, just watch for the line to twitch. I’ll fish ants on both floating and sink-tip lines.
Generally speaking, a smaller fly is best in clear water where the fish can get a good look at what they are about to eat.
Woolly Buggers will c
atch just about anything that swims, especially trout. But if you scale them down in size, say to a No. 10 or 12, an olive- or black-colored Woolly Bugger is tough to beat when going after suspended bluegills. A weighted Woolly Bugger is best for ‘gills that are suspended at depths of 4 to 10 feet.
As the water temperature warms, all panfish will move deep. That’s when you want to go with a sink-tip or full sinking line. A sink-tip is more user friendly. One of my favorite rigs is a sink-tip line, and a 3-foot section of leader with a 4-pound-test tippet that’s tied to a beadhead Woolly Bugger. This rig allows me to work deep structure along a shoreline. Generally, the bites you get on a beadhead Bugger are from some pretty respectable ‘gills.
A worm imitation is also a great go-to pattern for suspended and bottom-hugging panfish like bluegills. A No. 10 or 12 San Juan Worm in brown, wine or red is an excellent pattern to use alongside various types of structure like stumps and logs. You can fish this type of worm with or without a split shot. I’ll usually start out with no split shot for a more natural presentation. But if the ‘gills are holding deep, say 5 to 10 feet, I’ll pinch on enough split shot to get the worm down to the action, without wasting a whole lot of time.
The main thing you want to remember, when going after panfish like bluegills, is to keep your tippet as light as possible. A 4 weight is fine, though a 2 weight is likely better. That’s especially important if you’ll be using slow-sinking flies like an ant or worm. The thin diameter line will sink faster. Also, the lightweight tippet won’t kill the action of a popper or slider.
Catching assorted panfish, specifically bluegills, on lightweight fly rods is a hoot. I’ve been using a 2-weight, 7 1/2-foot fly rod for years. The next best thing is to go with a 1 weight. Catching panfish is all about having fun. The super lightweight rods allow even the smallest panfish to show its muscle. A 4-weight rod is about as heavy as you want to go. Otherwise, you’ll overpower the fish and cut down on the action.
The patterns discussed here will work throughout the summer months from top to bottom. Get three or four of each of the flies mentioned and you’ll be set for some classic panfish angling.