Panfish on the fly

In the clear-water cove, dark, saucer-shaped redears and blue-gills stood out boldly over a pale-gray gravel bottom. The water was barely a foot deep where the redears, hung, slightly deeper where the bluegills lurked, all diligently guarding their nests. Dropping the orange sponge-rubber spider over the nearest fish, I watched as its pectorals began rotating faster. Easing slowly up, the panfish eyed the bug’s quivering rubber legs, then sucked it in.

The pound-sized shell-cracker fought hard against the 4-weight outfit before slipped a hand under it, twisted the barbless hook free and watched it swim back to its spawning bed. Next came a flurry of 12-ounce bluegills, then several more large redears before the panfish grew wary.

Rich Tradition: Catching spawning bluegills and shellcrackers is a rich tradition for springtime anglers. They are abundant fish, readily available in waters close to home. They fight stubbornly on light tackle, and are tasty and prolific.

While bluegills take flies from now through fall, I’ve enjoyed my best luck with shellcrackers when they’re on their beds. That means May, June and early July for most of the country. Spawning activity is often heaviest around the new and full moon phases.

When bluegills and redears are amassed for the mating ritual you can usually see dozens of them hovering over shallow-water beds. (At other, times you might even smell them–something like cantaloupe). Look for the fish over gravel, sand or mud bottoms. Also be on the lookout, for the oval beds they fan out to deposit their eggs in, Search in coves and sidearms of lakes, the shallow ends of I ponds and eddies or slow sections of rivers.

Top Choices: A, sponge-rubber spider (Sizes 8 to 12) in green, white, orange, black, yellow or brown with short white legs is the first, choice for these fish. If the legs are long, trim them back so the fish doesn’t miss the hook.

Tiny cork or soft foam poppers, trout patterns like, the Humpy or Irresistible, plus a few terrestrials such as ants, crickets or beetles are other good dries to stock. Drop all of these over fish on, their beds or near shallow cover if the fish aren’t spawning Let the fly sit as long as you can stand it, so it looks like a stunned insect, then I twitch it once, gently. If a, strike doesn’t come, try nudging the fly once or twice more, but the best bet is usually, to recast and try a new spot.

If bluegills and redears aren’t taking on top, work your offering two to four feet down. Try the same type of sponge spider used on top, but add a bit of weight on the shank or a split-shot crimped 12 inches up the tippet. Also stock a few nymphs and wet flies like the Hare’s Ear, Bead Head Pheasant Tail, Black Gnat or Woolly Worm in Sizes 6 to 10. Work these with a slow, hand-twist retrieve, pausing occasionally to entice reluctant followers.

Bonus Catches: Found mostly in larger lakes and impoundments, white, bass surge up feeder rivers I and creeks to spawn. They can be caught readily on flies at this time. Go with a streamer such as the Clouser Minnow or Lefty’s Deceiver in Sizes 1 to 6. Work them on a sinking-tip line with a short leader using a sharp strip-pause-strip retrieve.

Crappies are another species that can be taken on flies. At dawn or dusk on a day with no wind, they will sometimes smash a Size 6 or 8 yellow, white or chartreuse popper. For the rest of the day, a better bet is a small streamer such as a Zonker, Simsnake or Tunghead Woolly Bugger in white or chartreuse. A slow hand-twist retrieving motion is often best.


A lightweight rod of eight to nine feet taking a 4- to 6-weight forward floating line is perfect for most panfishing. Add a leader of six to nine feet and carry spools of 2- to 6-pound-test tippet material. For added sport, scale down to a 1- to 3-weight rod.

A second reel spool with a fast-sinking-tip line can be handy for deep-water streamer fishing for white bass and crappies. If you want to keep things simple, though, you can usually get by with just a weighted fly or couple of split-shot on a floating line.

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