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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.

Largemouth bass taken on a Clouser Minnow

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 rod quickly.

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 fish.

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 the rod.

Thick gill taken on Dragonfly NymphMale 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!

Crappie double taken on Clouser Minnow & Wooly Worm dropper fly

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.

Dropper rig for crappie, sunfish, pike!...

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 Trout 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 trout.

And remember :: Keep your hook in the water.
- Erich Hartmann

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