April 19, 2021
As we stood on the dock, my young son Charlie clumsily made a cast, the fly landing in a pile with the line and leader next to some lily pads. No sooner had the fly disappeared from view and the rod bent over under the weight of a good bluegill. I don’t know who was prouder when he lifted it out of the water, Charlie or me.
While trout and other gamefish species require technical fly presentations, panfish are far more forgiving. They can be found just about everywhere: farm ponds, lakes, municipal duck ponds, streams and everywhere in between. Because they’re so aggressive and prolific, they offer ample opportunity to dial in your casting and work on your hook sets after the long winter.
Get out of the house and back on the water and load up on hungry sunfish, crappies and perch. And if you’ve ever wanted to learn to fly fish, spring panfish offer the perfect opportunity.
BACK TO LIFE
Old Man Winter has finally loosened his grip on the Northeast. The white blanket of snow has given way to the first sprouts of spring greenery, and the ice that covered ponds and lakes has returned to liquid form. Below the surface, aquatic creatures are springing to life as the temperature climbs.
The shallows are the first to warm, feeling the full effects of the sun as its rays strike the bottom. The warming water draws insects out of the mud, which attract minnows and gamefish alike. The increasing temps kick-start the metabolism of panfish, which feast on the nymphs and smaller fish. The combination of shallow water, ample bait and hungry fish make this the perfect time of year to catch them on a fly rod.
The temperature of a water body in the spring is highly variable, so you’ll need to stay on your toes to really score. The northern end of a pond is a good place to start, as it warms first since it receives the most sun this time of year, and the shoreline protects it from harsh northern winds that can chill the southern end. Plan on fishing later in the day, giving the sun some time to warm the water and get fish moving. The temperature can rise as much as five degrees in a day, which can have a big effect on fish behavior.
In early spring you can often find bluegills in as little as 2 feet of water. Look for them hanging around visible structure such as fallen timber and boat docks (if any are in yet). Bluegills also relate to floating vegetation, so once lily pads emerge you’ll find them there. Submerged weed beds also congregate ’gills, allowing them hide out until a tasty morsel swims by.
When water temps get to around 68 degrees, bluegills will begin to spawn. In the Northeast, this is usually around May. You’ll see the circular nests the males build on the bottom, usually in water less than 4 feet deep. When you find one there will be many more around, as males cluster in an area of suitable habitat to vie for available females. If a female does choose his nest, the male will stay and guard the eggs until the fry swim off on their own. Tossing flies at nesting bluegills is a surefire way to hook up.
Crappies tend to seek out the warmest water they can find in spring, so they often run up into the shallows right after ice-out. Look for them in areas with a dark bottom, as those tend to heat up the quickest. Creeks, backwaters and marinas are all good places to check. They also home in on structure, showing a strong preference for submerged bushes and the like. Areas of flooded dogwood or buckbrush are likely spots.
Crappies look to spawn when water temperatures reach 60 degrees—sometime around the beginning of April. Just like bluegills, crappies build bowl-like nests in 1 to 6 feet of water, which the males defend until the fry have left. Just about anything presented near these nests will be met by an aggravated crappie attacking the intruder with a vengeance.
Perch tend hang out in open water, hugging the bottom in depths of 10 to 30 feet. But in the spring they’ll move much shallower and can often be found in large schools on the water’s edge right after ice-out. They don’t cling to structure like bluegills do, but you can usually find them near some sort of bottom structure, such as humps or slopes.
Perch are early spawners, depositing their eggs when the water temperature hovers around 45 degrees. Unlike sunnies and crappies that build nests, female perch simply drop eggs into shallow cover such as fallen timber, brush or submerged vegetation and the males fertilize them. Once the eggs are laid, perch vacate the shallows and head back to their deep-water haunts. Though they don’t guard the eggs, you can usually find perch in really shallow water for a week or two around the spawn.
TACKLE and FLIES
You don’t need fancy tackle to pursue panfish. If you’re a trout angler, you probably have everything you need already. If you’re not, you can get in the game rather inexpensively. Nine-foot fly rods in the 3- to 5-weight range are ideal. Reels are spooled with a floating, weight-forward line. Going old school and selecting a fiberglass rod can make this even more fun, as each of these species will put a deep bend in such a rod. Reels can be of the click-and-pawl variety; you don’t need a heavy-duty drag system for these bantams. Knotless leaders in 4x or 5x are ideal, though you can step it up a bit if you’re fishing in heavy cover.
You’ll want a variety of flies in sizes from 10 to 14 to cover the water column from top to bottom. Classic nymphs and wet flies all work, with favorites such as Zug Bugs and Copper Johns excelling. Love them or hate them, there’s no denying the effectiveness of mop flies for panfish. Small streamers like Wooly Buggers and Clouser minnows both produce well. Foam spiders are a perennial favorite, getting sucked greedily off the surface. In areas with caddis or stoneflies, pack some stimulators and Elk Hair Caddis patterns. In my experience, perch and crappies will very rarely rise to hit a popper, but bluegills will smash them with abandon, so keep a few on hand.
If you can see some form of fish food around, like minnows darting about or caddis flying, dig into the box and tie on your closest imitation. But you don’t need to worry too much about matching the hatch, as panfish tend to be opportunists; it’s more important to put the fly in front of the fish than it is to imitate forage perfectly. Because they’re in the shallows, you probably can reach the bottom just by letting your fly sink. Once your fly is just about on the bottom, begin inching it to you. Because the fish can still be sluggish, you want to start out using slower retrieves, but you can increase speed if you find the fish willing to chase a bit.
This month, stay close to home and investigate your local panfish hole. You’ll sharpen your skills and have a blast in the process.
FOR THE KIDS
A few thoughts on getting young ones into fly fishing
- PRACTICE FIRST: One year, Santa brought my son one of those small rods designed for practicing casting indoors. He got the motion down once I shortened the line and attached it to the tip-top. Soon, he was “casting” 10 feet of line in the living room, much to the delight of the cats.
- THE REAL DEAL: I eventually got him his own fly rod, an inexpensive Eagle Claw Featherlight in 3/4 weight, and loaded it with a cheap double-taper line. The slow, forgiving nature of the fiberglass construction helps him throw a decent loop with a short amount of line—and I don’t have to worry when he smacks it against a tree or uses to prod the bottom.
- FORGIVING FISH: Panfish don’t require technical presentations, which makes them ideal quarry for youngsters and others just getting into fly fishing. They’re pretty forgiving of errant casts and flies that hit the surface less than gracefully, greedily slurping up nearly anything placed near them. And because of their numbers, catch rates are usually high.
- KEEP IT FUN: Keep in mind that kids’ attention spans are limited. You don’t want to make fishing a chore; keep it fun so they want to continue to go. This might mean that you fish for only a few minutes on some trips and spend the rest of the time chasing frogs and quacking at ducks.
- CREATURE COMFORTS: Make sure you dress kids warm enough for the weather and bring an extra layer just in case. And don’t forget to bring plenty of snacks. Finally, don’t hesitate to pull the plug if your little one gets cold, tired or just wants to leave. Above all else, fishing should be fun.