Fly fishing panfish


There are many days during the summer, in late July and August, when bass and the other chief game fish have gone to very deep water and are gorged and resting. During these warm summer days—and in the heavily fished resort areas, or close to our cities—only really expert anglers can get bass. Sometimes nobody can.

So, if you’re on your vacation and love to fish, what do you do? You go after panfish. And don’t let anybody tell you that skill and knowledge about their habits make no difference in the catch. They do. But the point is, you can almost always find some place in your vacation lake or stream where you can catch panfish.

By panfish I mean Bluegills, Sunfish, Rock bass, Crappies, Perch, Bullheads and Catfish.

The big majority of American fishermen started their angling careers when they were boys and girls by catching bluegills or sunfish with worms. No youngster’s fishing education is complete without this experience—and there isn’t any way of catching panfish that puts as many on a fish-stringer as the old, reliable, live bait method. I am going to tell you about that in a moment or two, just in case you may have forgotten. I will also suggest some delightful ways of taking panfish by fly fishing. But first you must know how to find the panfish.

How to locate panfish in lakes

Panfish are school fish. I mean that bluegills, sunfish and perch mostly live and travel in fairly large schools of fish of about the same size. This means that your first and most important job in catching panfish is to locate a school. Here your stream thermometer again becomes your first and most reliable helper.

Sunfish and bluegills in lakes follow fairly closely a composite of the general water temperature formula for largemouth and smallmouth bass. Most panfish roughly follow the smallmouth schedule in the colder temperature ranges and the large mouth in the warmer water brackets.

In water under 50° F., most panfish schools will be in deep water since it is wanner. At around 45°, this condition usually changes; the shallower parts of the lake gradually become the warmer water locations.

Under 45° water

in water under 45°, panfish will be in deep water from 10 ft. to 25 ft. deep. At this water temperature, pick out the side or end of the lake that is deepest. There is almost always such a location in any fresh water lake. If you don’t already know the depth, you can usually tell this section because the banks near it are higher than those on the other shores.

Select a point or prominent bank in this area, work out far enough from the shore to get the right depth, and begin to fish. As panfish schools move around, you may have to change locations often until you locate a tribe of them. If you don’t get strikes, move somewhere else until you find a school of fish. Stay there until the school moves.

In this water temperature you’ll have to fish close to the bottom—8 inches to 1 ft. from it. You’ll do better with live bait than with flies at this depth, although expert handling of nymphs will get you fish.

Live bait for panfish

Worms, medium sized ones of the light colored variety, are the traditional and most consistently successful live bait for panfish, although small minnows, crickets, small crawfish, hell-gramites, weed worms and many other live baits are also good. Use a 7 ft. to 9 ft. leader, tapered from .015 to 2 X (.008 inches diameter), with a light wire hook, No. 10 or No. 12.

A long, fine leader is very important in panfish angling. Hook the worm lightly through the skin. Do not let the ends of the worm dangle too much or the sunfish will take the worm ends without ever getting hooked. Again don’t make too big a bunch of the worm, and do not string the worm through the body up the shank of the hook, small boy fashion. This reduces your chances of hooking a fish and, besides that, kills the worm. You want the worm to wiggle in the water. No panfish can resist a wiggling worm dangled in front of him.

45°- 60° water

In water from 45° to 50°, panfish begin to roam into medium depth water—5 ft. to 15 ft. mostly. As the water warms, they go further into the shallows; between 55° and 60°, you will usually find them in water from 3 ft. to 10 ft. deep, near the shore lines, in weed beds and in brush pile cover around stumps or the tangled upper branches of underwater trees and logs. Rocky shores and gravel bars are also likely places for panfish.

In this water temperature bracket, live bait is still the most successful method of catching panfish, though nymphs, small streamer-flies and small bucktails begin to take more and more bluegills and sunfish. Perch and bullheads remain bait fish clear through—except that perch will take a spinner-and-fly or, still better, a spinner-and-worm at all medium depths.

60°- 80° water

In water from 60° clear up to 80°, you’ll find the sunfish and bluegill type of panfish in shallow water—6 inches to 3 ft. or 4 ft. They spawn in the spring, on sand bottom, in water around 62° F.

Fly fishing tactics for panfish

While in shallow water sunfish, bluegills, crappie and rock bass all take flies freely. When in the shallows you can either fish for panfish from the shore, by wading or from a boat. If you fish from the shore, pick out a good spot, then work the water by first casting along the shore line, parallel to the bank on either side with a fairly short line, then fish in a circle fanwise from the shore with the same length casts, each cast four to six feet from the last.

Fly fishing tactics for panfish

When you have completed the arc, lengthen your line; and repeat the process with the longer line, casting parallel to the shore both ways, and then covering the arc fanwise with your longer line. Don’t overlook the deeper water.

By the way, this organized method of covering water from a position on shore is applicable to bass or trout fishing in a similar location. If you are wading, you cover the water in the same way, except that you cast partly in towards the shore.

If you are fishing from a boat you just reverse the process, fishing two fanwise sweeps around the boat, first with a short line and then a long one. With the wet fly casts, keep the flies close to the bottom or the weed beds. If you are wading, do it quietly.

Wet flies and nymphs for panfish

Cast your wet fly out and then let it sink well down towards the bottom. If the bottom is sand or gravel, let it go clear to the bottom. If there are too many weeds, you’ll have to count until the wet fly is about a foot above the weeds or obstructions, then start your retrieve. The best method is to use the hand twist retrieve with the rod held close to the water. This is for nymphs, streamers, bucktails or spinner flies. The sizes for panfish run all the way from No. 8 to No. 18, depending on conditions.

Dry flies and bugs for panfish

The same organized method of casts should be used with dry flies or small bass bugs—bluegills or crappie bugs, we might call them. In this case, remember to use the technique we learned for bass. Take your time and fish the small bugs slowly. Let them lie still on the surface after casting, then twitch, like a live bug.

Do this several times, then retrieve with a rod-tip jerk or the hand twist method. In both dry fly and wet fly casting be careful of your pick-ups. It is true that panfish are not as scary as trout or bass, but the larger panfish will not take your flies when they can see you. It pays to be careful. You never lose anything by it—and in the long run, you’ll catch more fish.

Above 80° water

When the lake water gets too warm, above 80° usually, the panfish, like bass, go back to medium depths, 7 ft. to 15 ft., and then to deep water, 15 ft. to 25 ft. In these depths, you go back to the methods I suggested for medium depth and deep water fishing. This means either wet flies or live bait in the medium depth water; live bait in the deep water.


Perch range widely over a lake, but can be caught with live bait along with the other panfish. They take a spinner-fly or a spinner-and-worm particularly well. They are splendid eating and put up a good fight for their size.

Rock bass and crappies

Rock bass and crappies are larger panfish and very fine game fish. Tactics for them are the same as for blue gills and sunfish. Rock bars and rocky shore lines are particularly good for rock bass and crappies.

Bullheads and catfish

Bullheads and catfish are bottom fish. They practically never leave the bottom at any season and prefer mud or stumpy bottom. As table fish many think them among the finest of fresh water fish. For their size—and catfish often are big—they put up a good fight. Bullheads and catfish take almost any kind of bait, live or not. In addition to regular bait, they take almost any kind of meat or fish flesh. Don’t spurn these fish. They can give you some enjoyable fishing.

Stream panfish

Panfish in streams will respond to the same tactics as in lakes. They prefer the sides of streams out of the main current. They like the eddies, backwaters, rock pockets, holes between boulders, brush piles in the water and log jams. In fishing for panfish in streams, again the best policy is to stalk your fish. It always pays.

Of course, you should use light tackle in angling for panfish. I’ll tell you my suggestions for that in the next chapter; but before leaving the bluegills and sunfish and perch, let me again recommend them enthusiastically to all vacation anglers in mid-summer or near our large cities where trout and bass are out of the picture.