Most fly fishermen relish those first few moments of the hookset because it signals you’ve not only detected what can be a long-sought strike, but even better, you’re a millisecond or two away from determining just how big a fish you’ve duped. And the powerful, head-shaking response to my strike during the morning of Minnesota’s May 13, 2017, fishing opener told me plenty. The small bright streamer I was casting to shallow shoreline cover along a north-suburban Minneapolis lake had just been ambushed by something Big. Much bigger, even, than the largest pre spawn bull bluegill I had been seeking; my first guess was a lunker largemouth bass.
But I was wrong. In the next instant, the unseen fish simply took off; all I could do was hold my severely bent 9-foot, 6-weight rod high as my reel began screaming. Bass don’t do that. Almost instantly I knew I’d hooked not a bass or a Florida Keys bonefish, but a big pike, yet I couldn’t remember a pike running as far or as fast. I think my heart was beating even faster as I lightly palmed my wildly spinning reel to apply a bit more drag and a new goal became clear: Just let me see this fish.
Silently Stalking The Shorelines
Over the past several years I’ve taken advantage of a truly killer approach to catching limits of lunker-sized panfish from even the most heavily fished lakes—especially those found in and around the greater Minneapolis suburban region. It all starts with a pair of chest waders and a fly rod. The good fishing in the chest-deep-and-under water I haunt, areas where many boat-equipped fishermen pass over, can run from late April to early July, with the peak months generally May and June.
Another key to the strategy, and maybe the most important, is my choice in flies. The smallish, 2.5- to 3.5-inch streamer flies I use to probe the edges of emergent weeds and shoreline structure accomplish two things: They regularly attract strikes from the largest local panfish, those wonderfully beefy larger-than-hand-sized bull bluegills measuring 9 and 10 inches, and even some bonus crappies, while at the same time discouraging strikes from the throngs of teeny-but-aggressive undersized panfish that can line the shallows and compete with the larger fish. But the sweet bonus, noted above, is that the tiny streamers also draw regular attention from both lunker largemouths and hard-fighting northern pike.
Because my primary goal is panfish I never use a wire leader when fishing my small streamers, preferring instead mono or the newer nearly invisible fluorocarbon leaders such as those available from Seaguar, and so I will regularly experience bite-offs from voracious pike. After my May 2017 experience, though, I might have to rethink a thin leader in areas where experience has shown pike strikes are prevalent. Thankfully, I tie my own flies which makes the losses easier to take, and restocking never takes very long. Still, my typical 5-pound-test tippets regularly hold 4- and 5-pound bass, and fighting fish that size on the 5- and 6-weight fly rods I prefer is typically the most angling fun I will experience all year. Landing those big-shouldered brutes is a matter of keeping your rod high and your wits about you, and carefully steering the fish away from cover into more open water.
Mighty Little Minnow Imitators
My favorite streamers are handmade Clouser-minnow-type creations, primarily hook sizes 10 and 8, with occasional use of slightly larger size 6 hooks. The distinguishing characteristic of these flies is a set of lead dumbbell eyes lashed to the top of the hook that allows the hook point to ride point up, with the lead delivering a nice “jigging” action that is so attractive to virtually every fish species. On the retrieve I work these flies back with very short strips, which activates their lifelike jerky motion.
I tie my custom Clousers in all sorts of color combinations, both bright and dark, to mimic all types of young baitfish as well as in bright attractor colors that mimic nothing found in nature, much the same as you’d find covering most artificial lures. I will say my most deadly flies seem to have a white deer hair belly and a darker deer hair back, primarily blue, black, green or gray. I tie most all of my streamers with at least a few strands of highly reflective “flash” material, either Flashabou, Krystal Flash or both, and this fish-attracting shine, placed either atop the fly or sandwiched between the contrasting wing colors, definitely seems to make a difference.
Besides Clousers some other “go-to” streamer flies include chartreuse, olive, and black woolly buggers, and Royal Coachman streamers tied with either a white deer hair or action-packed white marabou wing that really comes alive in the water. All of these flies have that desirable look of a young struggling minnow lunker panfish and other gamefish can’t seem to resist.
Speaking of other gamefish, it might be time to circle back on that pike I hooked the first week in May. The lunker’s scorching run went for a good 30 yards, during which my fly line flew out of my grasp so fast it managed to burn my stripping finger. Unbelievably, the light fluoro leader held, and I was in the process of slowly leading the heavy fish back toward me when I felt more head shakes, and rolling. Then, just like that, the line parted. My only regret is that I never did see how big that fish was.
If you’re looking for hot panfish action this spring and summer, and maybe treating the family to some fresh-caught fillets, it might be time to grab your waders and fly rod, and head out to the edges of a favorite hard-bottom lake. When you find one that offers safe and easy wading, and plenty stretches of shoreline cover, be sure to bring along some small streamers and you just might experience some of the best and most exciting angling of the entire season.
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