Dogwood trees bloomed along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and wood ducks squawked as the johnboat drifted too close to be comfortable. A squirrel barked angrily from a white oak tree and the resounding call of a gobbler descended from a nearby ridge.
We were looking for smallmouth bass, but my fishing partner quickly saw another fish. A school of bluegills was gathered in a quiet cove.
“Drop the anchor! he said. Ditching his spinning gear, he picked up a fly rod he had ready to go for such a situation.
After dropping anchor, I looked up and saw why he was so excited. Pie-plate-sized bluegills were amassed by the dozens in a whirlwind of weeds preparing for their spawning ritual.
The water was transparent and sloping one to three feet deep where the fish hovered above the sandy bottom, gently twirling their pectoral fins.
It was a wonderful sight. For a moment, I just stared in awe. Soon, however, I swung into action and tied a squishy rubber spider to my leader. Miscast quickly, I dropped the little fly near the edge of the pack of swarming bluegills. Within seconds, I heard the soft sound of bluegill gently sucking up the surface bug. The rod arched well and I was hooked up to my first panfish of the day.
My boat partner was now busy battling his second bluegill. Small mouths should wait. Casting surface insects on a fly rod at a school of eager panfish was a thrill none of us wanted to give up.
Before the fish became suspicious and reluctant to strike, three dozen sunfish were fought back to the boat, most of which were carefully released unharmed. The top fish weighed a solid pound; the others were close to 12 ounces. We caught a lot of small mouths for the rest of the float, but the hour we spent casting towards those bluegills spawning in the eddy eddies was the highlight of the day.
This experience demonstrated many of the joys and attractions of crappie fishing, especially with a fly rod. The abundance and wide distribution of different sunfish species make them extremely attractive as a fishing career. You can find them in half-acre farm ponds, small natural lakes, large impoundments, and rivers.
Bluegills are not only widely available, they are also prolific. A female can lay up to 30,000 eggs. Because of this, you can save a few fish for the pan without feeling guilty.
Panfish also offers a great way to introduce a youngster to fly fishing. Bass can be tricky at times and trout are often temperamental, but bluegills are easy to catch on the fly.
You don’t need elaborate equipment. A $75-$125 outfit will get you started, and only a small selection of flies and ancillary gear is needed. In the spring, the fish are in shallow water, so you won’t need a sinking line.
You can often see them hovering above their beds or next to weeds and brush. This makes it a visually rich sport. Watch captivated as the fish swims, hovers beneath the fake bug, then gently sips it.
Look for good panfish action all summer long in local ponds, lakes and rivers. Often spawning is greatest around the new or full moon, but fish can be caught anytime in spring and summer, even if they are not mating.
Backwater bays and coves are particularly interesting, but if there are none, look for fish in the arms or shallow areas of the lake or main river.
Hard bottom is preferred for spawning, such as sand, clay, or small gravel. Muddy bottoms are used as a last resort.
Often, using polarized sunglasses, you can actually see the dark-colored fish soaring at depths of 1 to 4 feet. You can also smell panfish spawning. They give off a sweet, distinct smell like that of ripe melons.
If you can’t visually identify fish, try areas that fit the descriptions above and also probe weed beds, spots, blowdowns, brush piles, docks, and sloughs.
The tackle doesn’t need to be elaborate. I like an 8-9 foot rod balanced with a 4-6 forward weight float line or a bass bug. Add a 7-9 foot tapered leader with a tippet testing 3-4 pounds and you’re good to go.
There are many varieties of flies for spawning sunfish, but make sure that whatever types you choose have small hooks. Sizes 6 to 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 equipped to catch sunfish in all conditions.
Next week we’ll cover more tactics for catching panfish and also include lure and bait fishing tips for anglers who prefer these methods.