In the past few years, I have made a study out of fly fishing for panfish. Getting out there and catching big bluegills and crappies in the spring as they head towards shore to spawn is truly what the sport is all about.
These scrappy little fish don’t have the leaping ability of trout or salmon, but they make up for it in the aggressiveness they show towards a fly, as well as their sheer numbers.
It would seem that this is very easy fishing, and indeed it can be under the right conditions, but this is not always the case. As in all other forms of fly fishing, innovation and creativity are still a key part of the game.
The trouble with spring panfishing is that in the midst of all the action, continually having to tie on new flies as the crappies and bluegills chew them up is a waste of time. Even though the nearest ocean is hundreds of miles away, I had been given some saltwater patterns to photograph for a book I was working on, and came up with the answer — sheet foam.
The Panny Popper
My first foam creation I named the Panny Popper, because that is just what it is designed for. The Panny Popper is simple to tie, so much so that it is easy to make a dozen of them in an hour or so, but the really cool thing is that you never need that many. The fly is so durable, that one of them can usually catch 20 to 30 panfish on it before it finally comes apart to the point where the fish won’t take it any more.
The Panny Popper is reminiscent of a Gartside Gurgler, a fly designed for striped bass, but there are some very important differences. The Panny Popper is built to ride much lower in the water, and the balance of materials that will sink, with the thin strip of sheet foam, keeps the fly right in the surface film.
Even biggest bluegills have a relatively small mouth, and a regular popper that rides high often just gets knocked out of the way, or up in the air when they hit. With the Panny Popper this usually does not happen, and the hooking percentage is much higher.
The Panny Popper has a marabou tail so the back end sinks, with a couple of pieces of Krystal Flash thrown in. A chenille body, a couple turns of hackle, and an overbody of simple sheet foam completes the fly. The fly creates a profile in the water that minnow-chasing panfish can’t resist, and more importantly, it is durable.
The material that makes the fly work so well is the sheet foam. The closed cell foam is available from any fly shop or fly tying materials supplier. It is 1/16-inch thick and has a smooth surface, and comes in 3-inch x 8-inch sheets. The foam also is available in much larger sheets at some craft stores, and is usually less expensive there. The foam comes in different colors, but I usually tie flies with white, and if I want to add color, I use a permanent marker.
For the Panny Popper, a 1/4-inch-thick strip of foam is tied in at the tail, and then brought over the top of the fly and tied in at the head. The foam is clipped off a little long, and that is what makes the fly twitch and dart on the surface.
The most effective color for the Panny Popper is a chartreuse tail, a body of the same color, black saddle hackle, and white sheet foam for the back and head. Other effective colors are a white body and tail with a grizzly saddle, or a yellow body and tail with a grizzly saddle also works.
Larger versions of the Panny Popper tied with Estaz bodies work very well for smallmouths. In particular, a gold Estaz body is good. Other colors for smallmouths include chartreuse, yellow, and black, all of which are tied with white sheet foam overbodies.
The Smallmouth Minnow
Sheet foam also is the principal ingredient in one of my favorite bass flies, the Smallmouth Minnow. The fly features a foam popping head and sheet foam body. The great thing about it is that it is exceptional for fishing around docks. The Smallmouth Minnow is light, and you can bounce it off the edge of a dock, or pitch it underneath, often with exciting results.
The Smallmouth Minnow is pretty easy to make. The only actual fly tying involved is the construction of the tail and body. The tail is made from squirrel tail and Krystal Flash, or from saltwater hair. Then a body of Estaz is added. After that, the pre-cut piece of sheet foam used as an overbody is tied in at the tail. A popping head is added to the front of the fly, the foam overbody is brought forward, and the whole thing is glued together. Small paper clamps are very helpful holding the foam together until it dries. My favorite glue for this is called Fletch Tite, and it is sold by the Bohning Company. It is actually archery glue for fletching arrows.
To finish the fly, I use waterproof markers to color the foam, and then add some stick-on eyes. I also dip the finished fly in Soft Body, by holding the tail between my thumb and forefinger and dipping the whole fly in, all the way to the start of the tail. The Soft Body gives it a slick look, bouncing light off of the fly and makes it more durable.
The Smallmouth Minnow is pretty tough, and holds up very well. The fish usually end up ripping the eyes off of the fly at some point, but new ones always can be glued on afterwards. The only downside to this fly, is that since it is so light, the bass often knock it up into the air, and you can miss hooking them. You have to wait until the fish take the fly under before setting the hook.
Rob’s Jerk Fly
Sheet foam is the prime ingredient to one of my favorite sub-surface patterns as well. I call the pattern Rob’s Jerk Fly. It is modeled after the soft plastic baits my brother, the Bassmaster, always is using. The Jerk Fly is made to achieve neutral buoyancy, so that it will sink down about a foot or so under the surface, and stay there. The Jerk Fly darts and twitches easily, and is great for getting relatively inactive fish to strike.
The fly takes some experimentation to get it right. It is tied on a saltwater hook for the weight. Then a 1/4-inch wide strip of foam is tied in and wound on along the hook. The technique that I use is to tie on enough foam to have the fly sink very slowly in a big glass of water. Then I figure out how many inches of the 1/4-inch foam strip were needed to get the correct sink rate, and use that amount on my flies.
The formula obviously changes with the size of the hook.
The rest of the fly is made with saltwater hair, and Mylar body tubing, which is tied in at the head and tail in a different color thread. I also add two, tiny-sized eyes to complete the fly.
Sheet foam is a great material for fly tying. It is tough, and has a variety of applications. The foam can easily be colored, painted, or coated with epoxy. It is easy to attach things such as eyes, or rubber whiskers with sheet foam. The other wonderful aspect to it is that you can go into a craft store and get enough to tie dozens of flies for a $1 or $2.
Here’s how to tie the Panny Popper, Smallmouth Minnow and Rob’s Jerk Fly.
Hook: Mustad 37160 size 12
Tail: Marabou with six pieces of Krystal Flash
Body: Chenille with a palmered saddle hackle of contrasting color
Overbody/Popping Head: 1/4-inch wide strip of sheet foam
Step 1: Start thread at eye of hook and wrap down to hook bend.
Step 2: Tie in marabou tail.
Step 3: Add three strands of Krystal Flash to either side of tail.
Step 4: Tie in sheet foam strip.
Step 5: Tie in saddle hackle by the tip.
Step 6: Tie in chenille, advance thread to the hook eye.
Step 7: Wrap chenille body, tie off and trim.
Step 8: Palmer hackle forward, tie off.
Step 9: Pull foam strip over the back of the fly, tie off and trim so that about 3/8-inch is left to make the fly pop.
For smallmouth versions, use a slightly wider strip of sheet foam, an Estaz body, and a size 6 or 8 hook.
Hook: Mustad AC80300BR size 6
Tail: Squirrel tail or saltwater hair, with some Krystal Flash on top
Overbody/Popping Head: Triangular strip of sheet foam glued over a piece of foam cylinder
Step 1: Tie in squirrel tail.
Step 2: Tie in Krystal Flash over tail.
Step 3: Tie in sheet foam strip.
Step 4: Tie in Estaz body, and tie off thread.
Step 5: Add foam cylinder to the front of the hook.
Step 6: Using paper clamps, glue the foam strip over the foam cylinder.
Step 7: Color foam with waterproof markers, and coat with Soft Body.
Step 8: Add stick on eyes, and coat eyes with glue.
Rob’s Jerk Fly
Hook: Dai-Riki #930 saltwater hook, size 2
Tail: Saltwater hair
Body: Mylar tubing over 1/4-inch sheet foam strip wound around hook
Head: Add two tiny craft store eyes
Thread: Black for the rear end of the tubing, red for the front.
Step 1: Start thread at hook eye, and wrap towards hook shank.
Step 2: Tie in saltwater hair tail about 5 inches long.
Step 3: Tie in foam strip, and using enough, wrap just enough as an underbody to give the fly neutral buoyancy in the water.
Step 4: Cut a piece of body tubing about 1/2-inch longer than what is needed. Tie in tail portion, and unravel the extra 1/2-inch of the tubing.
Step 5: Tie in head portion of the tubing.
Step 6: Add two tiny craft store eyes at the head.