Dogwoods bloomed along the river’s edge and wood ducks squealed plaintively as the olive johnboat drifted down the river too close for their comfort. A squirrel barked angrily from a shoreline sycamore and the muted sound of a gobbler drifted down from a nearby ridge.
It was far too easy for our eyes to roam from their casting targets along shore where smallmouth bass were lurking. And roam they did, until my partner had his gazed wrenched back to the water by a stunning sight.
“Drop the anchor. Quick!” he hissed, nearly choking on the words.
“Panfish! Look in there,” he said, gesturing wildly. Dropping his spinning outfit, he quickly picked up a fly rod he had rigged and ready to go beside him in the dented aluminum boat.
Having been mesmerized by the spring scene along the South Fork of Virginia’s Shenandoah River, I was too startled to do anything except grab the anchor and plunk it overboard, obeying my friend’s command. When the boat swung tight, though, I glanced up and saw what my partner was so excited about.
Bluegills as big as a saucer were amassed by the dozens in the weedy eddy of the river for spawning. Did I say dozens? The more I looked, the more it seemed there were literally hundreds swarming in the weedy backwater slough. That’s probably an exaggeration, but it looked like it.
The water was transparent and sloped from one to three feet deep where the fish hovered. Most of the big panfish were on their spawning beds. They hung nearly motionless over the shallow depressions fanned out in the sandy bottom, the only sign of life dozens of gently rotating pectoral fins.
It was a marvelous sight, and for a moment I simply stared in awe. Soon enough, though, I joined my partner and tied a sponge rubber spider onto the three-pound leader tippet. False casting hurriedly, I dropped the small fly near the edge of the pack of swarming panfish as my partner deftly worked in a fish he had already hooked.
Watching my fly, I listened to the sweet sound of a bluegill gently sucking in a topwater bug. The rod arched tight and I too was connected to a chunky bluegill.
Minutes later I hoisted in the fat, colorful panfish. My partner by now was battling his second fish and we both whopped with joy at the unplanned change of direction in the angling day. To heck with bass. Casting topwater bugs on a fly rod to a school of eager panfish was a thrill neither of us wanted to forego.
Before the fish grew wary and reluctant to strike, 37 very fat sunfish had been fought to the boat. Twenty of the chunkiest fish were kept for filleting, dipping in batter and frying. The others were carefully released.
The top fish weighed a solid pound and most of the others were close to three-quarters of a pound. What a day! Yes, we caught a few bass on the rest of the float, but the couple of hours we spent casting to those spawning gamesters in the backwater eddy was by far the highlight of the day.
That experience, one of countless I’ve enjoyed with this humble quarry over the years, demonstrated many of the joys and attractions of fishing for panfish, especially with a fly rod.
For starters, there’s the sheer cooperativeness of the quarry. How often can you go out and catch 37 bass in a couple of hours? Or trout or walleyes? Not often.
The abundance and widespread distribution of the various panfish species also makes them appealing. A variety of cooperative panfish are usually available within a reasonable drive for virtually any angler in the country. You can find them in half-acre farm ponds, small natural lakes, sprawling impoundments and virtually all rivers.
Panfish are not only widely available, they are also prolific. A female can lay up to 30,000 eggs. Often the problem in many waters is too many panfish, not too few. Because of this, you can keep a few fish for the pan and not feel guilty about it. Chill them down on ice and you have the fixings for some grand dining.
Panfish are also great fish to introduce a youngster to fly fishing on. Whereas bass can sometimes be difficult and trout are often skittish, panfish are really fairly easy to catch on a fly.
You don’t need any elaborate equipment. A $75-100 outfit will get you started, and only a small selection of flies and ancillary gear is required. Deliveries can be a bit “sloppy” and the fish won’t swim away scared. In fact, a bug plopping onto the water often draws them over to suck it in. Perhaps it sounds like a cricket or beetle plopping onto the lake or stream surface.
I particularly like spring fly fishing for panfish when they’re in shallow water during late spring and summer. You don’t need any sinking lines and don’t have to wait until the fly “counts down” to the quarry.
You can often see them hovering over their beds or next to weeds and brush. This makes it a richly visual sport. Watch enthralled as the fish swims over, hovers under a bug, and then gently sips it in.
Look for good panfish action in spring as waters warm into the 50’s and even more consistent sport as it reaches the 60’s. Often spawning is heaviest around the new or full moon, but fish can be caught any time during spring and summer even if they’re not mating. They’ll head to the shallows in the warmer water of summer because of the abundance of food found there.
Locating your quarry involves searching likely shoreline areas until you pinpoint fish on the beds. If you can’t locate the quarry visually, simply fishing prime cover can be very productive.
Backwater bays and coves are particularly good bets, but if none are available, look for fish in arms or shallow areas of the main lake or river. Hard bottom is favored for spawning, such as sand, clay or small gravel. Muddy bottoms are used as a last resort.
Often with the aid of polarizing sunglasses you can actually see the dark-colored fish hovering in depths of 1-6 feet. You can smell spawning panfish too, at times. They give off a distinct, sweet smell like ripe melons.
If you can’t pinpoint fish visually, try areas that fit the descriptions above and also probe weed beds, points, blowdowns, brush piles, docks and backwater sloughs on rivers and streams.
Tackle need not be elaborate. I like a rod of 8-9 feet balanced with a 4-7 weight forward or bass bug floating line. Add a tapered leader of 7-9 feet with a tippet testing 3-4 pounds and you’re good to go.
Flies for spawning panfish come in many varieties, but be sure whatever types you choose they have small hooks. Sizes 6-12 are perfect. Poppers and sponge rubber spiders are two of the best bets. Add a wet fly or two and you’ll be well outfitted for catching spring panfish under any condition.
So if bass, walleyes, trout, and northerns are proving tough to come by, don’t ignore the abundant bluegills waiting in nearby lakes and ponds. They’re a blast to catch and make a tasty meal when fried up golden brown with a touch of garlic and drenched in lemon!
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