Spring panfish on the fly. By Babe Winkelman
Spring panfish on the fly.
By Babe Winkelman
If you’re like me, then springtime for you means crappies and sunfish. I love finding them, catching them and eating them. My typical approach to spring panfish is with a spinning rod, 4-pound line, a slip bobber and jigs tipped with either plastic grub bodies, waxworms, minnows or small leeches.
But there are times when the fish are quite finicky and can be caught best on light fly tackle. There’s something about the natural finesse of a fly on a tippet that can coax negative fish into biters. And once they bite, it’s incredibly fun to fight a jumbo bluegill or slab crappie on a whippy 5-weight rod. So it’s always a good idea to have a fly rod in the boat.
Fly fishermen like to argue over the various nuances of the sport and their equipment. I don’t claim to be a fly fishing expert by any means, but I can give you my opinion on which rod set-up is best for panfish. An 8-foot 5 or 6-weight graphite rod is about as good as it gets. It makes long, accurate casts and has the backbone you need for big slabs and all the accidental bass and pike you’re bound to catch while prowling the spring panfish waters. I like 8-foot rods because they provide the leverage for good hook-sets and control over the fish.
Team up your rod with a good-quality reel, floating fly line and an 8-foot leader/tippet. I like weight forward line for casting performance, and opt for longer leaders if fishing wet flies in deeper water. But for spring panfish, most of your presentations will be in shallower water, so your 8-foot leader will be perfect.
There are as many flies out there as there are lures for spinning tackle. But you won’t need the giant arsenal that trout fishermen own to “match the hatch.” A small selection of classic panfish flies will do the trick.
During the pre-spawn and spawn, when the fish are either deeper (pre-spawn) or on the nest (spawn), wet flies will almost always outperform dry flies. That’s because they sink and get down into the strike zone where you need them. My favorites for springtime are Clouser Minnows, Dragonfly Nymphs and Wooly Buggers. Woolys are really effective during the spawn since they mimic a leech so well. They also fall slowly and hover naturally to trigger the defense mechanisms in spawning fish.
As water temperatures warm up during late spring and surface strikes become more and more prevalent, I like to switch things up and fish on top with dry flies. Poppers are a really good bet when the fish are aggressive, as are foam spiders, ants and bumblebees. When the surface striking fish are more picky, a traditional feathered fly like a small Royal Wulff is a good pick.
After you’ve located a school of panfish willing to rise for a bait, make a long cast to them and let the fly sit. Many strikes will come from that initial touchdown. If there’s no bite after 10-15 seconds, give the fly a twitch. Continue this twitch-and-pause retrieve and when a fish does bite, give him a second or two to get below the surface before lifting your rod to set the hook. A lot of fly fishermen set the hook too quickly and don’t give the sunfish or crappie time to get the whole fly in their mouths.
Sometimes a surface strike is more like a slurp, without a disruption of the water. When the bite is like that, or when you’re fishing with wet flies, it’s critical to watch your brightly-colored fly line to detect bites. The keen line-watching fisherman will always outfish the guy who’s constantly feeling for the bite. For that reason, a good pair of polarized sunglasses is necessary equipment for fly fishing too.
I hope this article inspires you to get out and hammer some panfish with a fly rod this spring and summer. During the pre-spawn and spawn, particularly when dealing with negative fish, it can be the most productive way to put big slabs in the livewell and on your family’s dinner table.