Panfish are one of the most plentiful gamefish in North America, excellent fare on a fly rod, and especially aggressive in the spring – perfect for new anglers.
[by Robert W. Streeter]
YOU’VE WAITED ALL WEEK, eagerly checking your gear, dreaming about that moment when you can make a run to your favorite river. Then Friday comes, and with it, a storm that dumps a couple inches of rain. The coffin fly hatch you hoped would bring huge trout to the surface isn’t going to happen, and you’re faced with the reality that your favorite trout stream is now a blown-out mess. I know the feeling; sitting on the banks of the river, all dressed up with no place to go. But there is an alternative—the lowly panfish.
Some anglers look down on panfish, likely because it doesn’t offer up the same challenges as say, catching big brown trout on the surface during a coffin fly hatch.
Yes, catching small or average-sized panfish on fly tackle is easy, but you can increase the challenge by trying to increase the size of your catch. In fact, catching slab-sized panfish really is difficult through much of the spring. Crappies in particular can be as finicky as trout at times.
Spring is the prime time to fly fish for panfish because they move to shallow water to spawn and become increasingly aggressive. Once you figure out their habits, you’ll have a much easier time stalking the largest fish. Panfish reside in hundreds of lakes throughout the country, including public waters (which are easy to find on state fisheries agency websites) and private lakes and ponds where access may be available, like town parks and golf course ponds (just the ticket for anglers without a boat). You can catch them from shore, but panfishing is easier if you can do it from a boat or similar vessel. I’ve fished from belly boats, kick boats, canoes and kayaks, and have progressed to a small bass boat.
If you need one last reason to try panfishing, listen to your appetite—panfish are delicious. While most anglers feel sheepish about keeping a couple trout, consuming a few panfish actually helps the fish’s populations. Panfish that lack predation quickly overpopulate and become stunted in size. Thankfully, the management of panfish has evolved from a “take as many as you want” mentality, but there is still a place for keeping a few for the fryer. Just one more reason to remember there’s plenty of fly-fishing fun to be had when the local trout streams are a high and muddy mess!
Panfish become active in early spring. Schools of fish from the deep section of a lake are drawn to the shallow bays that warm earlier than the rest of the water. Look for bays isolated from the main lake with dark bottom structure or vegetation that locks in the sun’s heat. Panfish move in and out of these areas during the pre-spawn period seeking food like aquatic insects or tiny baitfish.
Water temperature triggers spawning behavior. Once the average water temperature hovers around the 60-degree F. range (low 60s for crappies, high 60s or low 70s for bluegills and sunfish) the party starts.
Male panfish stake out spawning territory, clearing bowl-shaped nests on the bottom. In the lakes I fish, panfish prefer nesting in sandy areas or fine gravel if they can find it. Generally, you can find them at uniform depths. Crappies typically spawn deeper than bluegills, as deep as five to six feet or more, while bluegills generally nest in one to five feet of water.
Male panfish herd one female at a time into their nest to spawn but often mate with more than one by the end of the spawning cycle. Females abandon the nest shortly afterward and move to deeper water to rest for about a week before they resume feeding, leaving the males to guard the eggs and hatchlings. Panfish males vigorously guard the nest until the offspring are big enough to be left on their own, then the males join the females in deeper water.
The bluegill spawn can last a month or so, but the crappie spawn may finish in only a week or two. After spawning, panfish are much tougher to locate. You may find a few around the shallow shoreline of a pond, but during the summer months, the bigger fish typically suspend in deeper water. An insect hatch or some other feeding event may draw them into the shallows, and you can sometimes find dense schools feeding near the surface, but generally you have to fish deep and cover a lot of water to catch them through the rest of the season.
Stick To Structure
Fly-fishing for spring panfish starts as soon as the fishing season opens and you can get on the water, generally right after the ice on the water melts, depending on where you live. In my area, panfish schools are not always easy to find before spawning begins. They migrate near the shallow bays that warm up the quickest. Once you find these areas, remember them—you can return to them year after year because generally, the same bays turn on in the same order each season.
Panfish follow creek channels, depressions, and other bottom structure to enter and leave the bays. Maps showing the structure of the lake bottom make finding these spots easier.
During the pre-spawn, panfish schools spook easy. I like to anchor up on a channel or travel route and always make sure to turn off the fish finder or any other electronics (fish finders and aeration pumps spook crappies in particular) and avoid making noises that echo underwater, like a hatch cover slamming shut on a boat.
After the males begin building nests, the fishing gets a lot easier. Panfish stick to the area immediately around their nests. Find the nests, and you can selectively sight fish to the biggest panfish. It’s exciting fishing, though polarized glasses are a must. In some respects, panfish are like trout in that the big fish occupy the best habitat—shallow water along undeveloped shorelines near woods, reeds, or cattails. Generally, areas near homes or camps have spawning panfish, but not the biggest fish.