Fly Rod Tactics for Spring Panfish
by Erich Hartmann
Whether you are a fly rod newbie who wants some practice catching
fish or an avid fly veteran stranded miles from a trout stream,
spring panfish offer some unique opportunities on the long rod.
When fish move in shallow and assume their territorial characteristics
they are often best targeted with a light presentation. Near
shore fish can be extremely spooky, so bobbers aren’t always
an option. If the spawn is in full force then you won’t likely
scare any fish away, but they won’t move far to take your offering,
either. The light, subtle profile of a fly can be the perfect
enticement for finicky springtime panfish. Flies can get into
the zone without creating too much disturbance and then hover
with the seemingly neutral buoyancy of a natural minnow or bug.
A wealth of spring panfish opportunities open to the fly angler
as soon as the ice relinquishes its grip on our lakes. That
happened mid-last week (April 7th) on my favorite central Minnesota
lake when it sprang to life from the edges in. Clouds of midges
(best described as stinger-less mosquitoes) hatching in the
shallows caused schools of minnows to move in to feed on the
midge pupae. Silver streaks broke the surface as bass and schools
of crappies ate the minnows.
From ice-out until after the spawn, panfish can be found milling
around the relatively warm shallows. If the weather is calm
and sunny you might find some sunfish willing to take a dry
fly. When the spring wind blows, nymphs and streamers are better
options. Nymphs are fished “wet,” or below the surface, to represent
the myriad of aquatic insects eaten by fish (like the midge
pupae). Streamers are flies that imitate minnows. Of course,
they are also fished wet. Some decry the missing visual aspect
with wet flies but when an aggressive predator slams your streamer,
there will be no regrets in your mind.
Last weekend I targeted crappies using a Clouser Minnow. The
Clouser is an excellent streamer because its lead eyes get down
deep, and they cause the hook to ride tip-up. Even the notorious
“papermouth” rarely comes off when hooked in the upper lip.
I cast my Clouser toward shore and started to “strip” line (retrieving
line with a pulling motion using your non-rod hand) in slow
twelve to fifteen-inch spurts. After a few casts my line suddenly
pulled taut. I lifted my rod, and the tip immediately started
dancing; the crappies were willing that evening.
The next time my line tightened there was a little more force
behind it. When I set the hook a largemouth bass started tail
walking with its mouth agape. More crappies came to the fly,
but the bass seemed to out compete them. Of course, all bass
were returned immediately.
The next morning periods of rain broke up the fishing into
one-hour windows. I pulled my canoe into a little cove just
as the sun burned through Sunday's iron curtain of clouds. The
crappies were less eager to take a Clouser Minnow; after a dozen
casts, I switched to a Dragonfly Nymph. I cast toward shore
and used the same slow fifteen-inch strip retrieve. The sunfish
hits were more subtle. Small waves created slack in my line
so when the line pulled tight, I knew to set the hook. Sometimes
with sunfish you have to give them a teaser pull with your line
hand - just enough to feel them bite down - and then lift your
When they bite this lightly detection can be difficult. Floating
fly line offers the advantage of an integrated strike indicator.
It is easy to see when your fly line moves or tightens. Sometimes
finicky early season panfish prefer a subtle presentation. They
want you to coax them into biting with a little movement and
a natural hovering pause. Flies are the perfect enticement for
such picky fish. Most fish hit during the pause between strips.
Always pinch your line against the rod grip using your index
finger on the rod hand. Good line control will result in more
But bait fishers catch more fish, right? Not necessarily. During
the spawn last spring I sight-fished a school of bluegills while
a pontoon full of anglers parked fifteen feet away proceeded
to catch nothing. The sky was clear and calm, and I was using
a Royal Wulff dry fly. I think the other anglers were watching
my fly more than their own bobbers. Every time a sunfish took
it there was a hushed gasp from the pontoon's direction.
The wind usually calms down a little when sunfish start spawning,
which means dry fly fishing picks up. Small poppers work great
for sunnies, but I also use some attractor trout flies like
the Royal Wulff or Humpy. Cast your fly over a school of fish
and let it sit there. If nothing hits in ten seconds or so then
give it some movement. When a fish rises to take your fly, be
patient. Sunfish tend to "peck" your fly off the surface.
Wait until the fish is all the way underwater before lifting
sunfish are the nest-builders and protectors. Like most animal
species, they are also more brightly colored than the females.
Try to keep only the medium-sized males and release all of the
females. Some day when you show a kid how to catch panfish you'll
be glad you let the big fish reproduce.
After the spawn you can still catch sunfish in the shallows
while crappies gradually move to deeper water and provide some
rod-bending action. When the willow trees have their leaves
and others are budding heavily, cast a Clouser Minnow along
a drop-off and retrieve it steadily. The crappies will clamp
on and follow your fly until you set the hook. Try tying on
a Wooly Bugger as a dropper, and you might be graced with a
double - two crappies at once!
Fishing a two fly rig on the open water requires a medium 5-
to 7-weight rod. It is wise to err on the side of too big because
of the wind factor on lakes. Crappie water beyond the breaks
is also northern domain. Pike will greedily slam your fly and
speed off into deep water. Landing even a five or six pound
northern on a six pound tippet can be a tricky ordeal, especially
since you won't be using steel leaders when targeting panfish.
An 8-foot rod is sufficient, but it doesn't hurt to go longer,
again because of the wind.
Sight fishing with dry flies is a little different. A 4- or
5-weight rod will sufficiently handle any bluegill. If a bass
grabs your fly that 4-weight really doubles over, but in early
spring there won't be massive weed beds for largemouth to dive
into. Your leader and tippet should total about 9 feet in length
for sunfish or crappies.
If you are miles from a trout stream and want to do some practicing,
panfish can be the perfect fly species. To learn more about
fly fishing - and add the element of moving water - come to
Day at Forestville Mystery Cave State Park on April 30th.
It's a free family event catered to all skill levels and disciplines,
spin and fly. After landing dozens of bluegills and crappies
on your fly rod, you'll be ready to hunt for the elusive stream
And remember :: Keep your hook in the water.
- Erich Hartmann
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