How to Fly Fish for Panfish

Want to get into fly fishing, but think it's just for trout? Think again. Panfish are widespread, abundant, and a blast on the long rod!

Four black crappies laying on a cooler next to a fishing rod.

These black crappies are destined for the frying pan. Photo by Steven Merchant

Blue Collar Fly Fishing

Let's be honest: fly fishing has a bit of a stuffy reputation. Some of that may be due to its history. Across the pond, English men in tweed suits and ties still follow that history— casting flies into salmon and sea-trout rivers where a week's worth of angling can set a fisherman back a fortune.

Here at home, we have public waters. But still, if you limit yourself to the tradition of trout fishing with a fly rod, you are also greatly limiting your possibilities. No one needs to drive hundreds, if not thousands of miles to experience great fly fishing. I'll bet there is some good panfishing within an easy bike ride or a short drive from where you live.

An acrylic painting of three fish on a cutting board.

“Cory Lake Memories,” an acrylic sketch by the author. Yellow perch on top, bluegill on bottom left, and a pumpkinseed lower right

If you are like me, the passion for fly fishing that begins with panfish may lead you to a lifetime of pursuing other, more glamorous fish on the fly. But even then, you might find you still often yearn for the simple fun of catching a bunch of scrappy panfish on a quiet summer night.

What Are Panfish?

Panfish are as American as apple pie. The term was first recorded in 1796 in American Cookery, which was the first known cookbook written by a yank, Amelia Simmons. In its broadest sense, panfish are edible game fish that, when fully grown, fit snugly into a frying pan.

While the actual species of fish that fit into this definition is quite broad, for the purposes of this article, I will be speaking about freshwater species mostly in the sunfish family— with one notable addition. Depending on where you live, this definition might include others. For example, if you live in south Florida, exotic introduced cichlids certainly meet the definition of panfish. But I’m leaving those stuffy trout out.

A nice “coppernose” bluegill from Florida’s Sante Fe River.

A nice “coppernose” bluegill from Florida’s Sante Fe River. Photo by Steven Merchant

For me, panfish and sunfish are basically synonymous terms. By sunfish, I'm referring to the sunfish family, Centrarchidae. This family not only includes sunfish like the bluegill, longear, pumpkinseed, redbreast, red-ear, green, and others, but also includes the black bass (largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, and redeye), rock bass, and crappie species groups. In total there are more than 30 species of "sunfish" ranging across nearly all of the continental United States.

As mentioned earlier, there is one notable panfish that is not in the sunfish family: the yellow perch. No frying pan would be complete without including this delectable species.

A Minnesota pumpkinseed fish being held by someones hand while there is a fly in it's mouth.

This nice Minnesota pumpkinseed really took the nymph. Remember the forceps. Photo by Steven Merchant

The Set Up

Fishing for panfish is all about having fun. There is no need to over-complicate things. You don't need 10 fly boxes full of exacting imitations of every life stage of caddis and mayflies. I fish often, and I fish for nearly everything that swims, so I have a lot of gear. But when I want to have some fun catching panfish, I like to remind myself to “keep it simple and keep it light.”

Rods

I recommend using 2, 3, or 4 weight rods for panfishing. The 4 weight will serve you better to handle the inevitable “bycatch” of bass or bowfin, but I’d say a six-inch stumpknocker is more fun when fished with a 2 weight.

Rod length is dependent on fishing conditions. If an angler fishes mostly small creeks, I’d recommend a shorter rod—say seven and a half feet. That way an angler won’t hang up on the back cast as often. If you’re fishing mostly in lakes or reservoirs, there I would go for an eight-and-a-half or maybe even a nine-footer. There is plenty of room to cast a longer rod on the boat, and easier to get some distance too.

Reels

Panfish are strong, and they can really pull for their size, but they are not going to tear your whole fly line off your reel. A simple, lightweight reel will do the trick. Check out the Orvis Clearwater LA or the Redington Crosswater. This is where budget-conscious anglers can save some money. I don’t necessarily recommend buying cheap—as in my mind quality always pays off—but a fully machined reel with a sealed disc drag and its cost is not needed. Panfish are just too small to really test your tackle.

The author with a large panfish.

The author with a panfish. Photo courtesy of Steven Merchant

Line and Leader

A basic, weight-forward, floating fly line in a weight that matches the rod is all that is needed for panfish. Backing on the reel is still important to ensure the fly line comes off the reel in larger coils and casts better. Around 100 yards of 20-pound dacron works just fine.

For simplicity and convenience, buy a few nine-foot knotless tapered leaders in 4x. One spool of 4x tippet or even plain old six-pound mono works for the connection to the fly.

Flies

As I mentioned earlier, keeping it simple is necessary for angling panfish, and that is certainly true when it comes to fly selection. For me, catching fish on the water’s surface is the ultimate, and for panfish, that means poppers. Cork, foam, or deer hair—it doesn’t really matter— but every panfisherman should have a good selection of small poppers. I like poppers with long, supple rubber legs.

It's also not a bad idea to have a dry fly pattern or two. Panfish will definitely respond to a good hatch. The elk hair caddis has caught me a ton of fish.

Next, have some simple nymphs in sizes 8–14. I like bead heads, and so do the panfish. Included in this category is the wooly bugger, which is perhaps the top panfish fly. The Umpqua Tungsten Bead Trout Guide Fly Selection is actually a good bunch of nymphs for panfish.

Lastly, terrestrials work very well. I like foam beetles, ants, spiders, and a worm pattern or two. The San Juan worm or squiggly worm comes to mind.

That’s about all an angler needs to get started. But with some experience panfishing, one learns that different fish prefer different prey—and that translates to more fly patterns.

For example, crappies are minnow eaters. Simple white or white and pink marabou flies about 1–1.5 inches really attract these fish. Warmouth and rock bass eat crayfish, so small crayfish patterns work especially well.

Of course, we are still fly anglers. Despite my best advice, somehow the fly box gets pretty stuffed. Oh well!

Tactics

When using poppers or floating terrestrials, cast to cover like downed trees or heavy aquatic weed growth. Move the fly with short strips of the line, and let the fly sit stationary frequently. Panfish will often take the popper on the pause.

When fishing sinking flies like beadhead nymphs, a small strike indicator (a bobber) can be helpful; so can a small split shot. Cast, let the fly sink, and retrieve in very short, subtle strips. A small bug doesn’t move great distances fast—nor should your fly.

Perhaps the ultimate tactic for panfish is a simple dropper rig. Use a small, brightly colored popper as the top fly, which also acts as the strike indicator. 12–18 inches below, tie on a dropper like a small, bead head woolly bugger in black or olive. Aggressive fish will smash the popper, while less aggressive fish will be attracted by the popper but will more readily take the dropper. It is an extremely effective tactic!

A big spawning male bluegill laying next to a fishing rod.

This big spawning male bluegill fell to a foam spider, a classic panfish fly. It was released. Photo by Steven Merchant

For me, nothing beats the thrill of sight fishing; and this holds true for panfishing. I love to see the fish, cast to it, and watch how it reacts. This of course requires clear or fairly clear water, be it a lake, river, or stream.

Clear, warm-water rivers and streams like those in the Ozarks, Texas Hill Country, parts of the Southeast, Midwestern limestone country, Florida’s spring-fed rivers, and the Northeast offer outstanding sight fishing for many panfish species.

The natural lakes of the North are often clear and offer great sport. Clearwater reservoirs across the entire country are typically filled with panfish eager to take a fly.

Seasons

While panfish can be caught any time of the year, no time is better to learn the sport than late spring and early summer. This is when members of the sunfish family spawn. For most species, the males build and defend a nest, also called a bed, and often in groups. These nests can be found in shallow water less than two feet deep, or in relatively deep water. I have heard them described as “elephant tracks”, as the beds are often about the size of an elephant’s foot.

A watercolor of a panfish.

“Bed Bug Bite,” an original watercolor by the author, shows a Missouri longear sunfish eating a bead head nymph

These nests are easy to see in clearer water. And because the males guard and defend the nest from just about anything, they are aggressive and take flies with abandon. It’s the perfect set-up for learning to fly fish and for getting positive reinforcement by catching lots of fish.

Some fish continue to spawn well into summer and sometimes early fall. But as the water warms, many fish move to further depths, making fly fishing a little more difficult. When first learning, hit the spawning beds!

While most bodies of water have plenty of panfish, and some harvest can actually be beneficial to prevent over-abundant, stunted populations, larger fish are a scarce resource. I recommend keeping plenty of “mid-sized” fish and releasing most sunfish when they approach the 10-inch mark.

A few species of fish that fall into the panfish category unfortunately are not so abundant. Some of the lesser known black-bass species such as the redeye bass group and the Guadalupe bass, the state fish of Texas, come to mind. Catch and release is encouraged for these species.

 A Hill Country Guadalupe bass laying next to a fishing rod.

This typical Hill Country Guadalupe bass took a wooly bugger while blind casting to cypress roots. I also caught “yellow bellies”—actually redbreast sunfish—and redear sunfish from this crystal-clear stream. Photo by Steven Merchant

In the Pan

For my taste, nothing in freshwater beats a batch of fried panfish! The question is always whether to scale or filet! My grandma fried panfish “whole”—heads removed and scaled—in bacon grease. Most were bluegill, pumpkinseeds, and yellow perch.

My family doesn’t really like to pick through the bones, so I typically filet my panfish, unless I’m only cooking for myself. I don’t use bacon grease, either—although it still sounds delicious. I typically use corn or other vegetable oil.

Don’t overdo it on the batter. A light dusting of flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper is all you need. Just like the fishing—keep it simple.

“Whole” fried sunfish in a pan.

“Whole” fried sunfish, just like Grandma’s, less the bacon grease. Photo by Steven Merchant

Final Thoughts

I learned to fly fish walking the banks of a small, northern Indiana lake. There I would cast to panfish—mostly bluegill and bluegill/green sunfish hybrids—as they broke the calm surface of the lake taking aquatic insects that were hatching in the evening. Often the neighbor’s cat would follow me, rubbing my legs with her body, hoping to get a small fish. She often did. No one taught me to cast or tie fancy knots; I just did it.

A stunning redbreast sunfish from a Georgia stream.

A stunning redbreast sunfish from a Georgia stream taken when I was fishing for redeye bass. Photo by Steven Merchant

That is the beauty of fly fishing for panfish. Just pick up a rod, tie on just about anything, find a nearby pond or stream, and you have begun your adventure. Maybe it will lead you to bigger and better things. Maybe not. But the fun of it will remain for a lifetime.

Further questions? Why not connect with a Curated Fly Fishing Expert? They really make it easy. Ask about an Orvis Encounter, TFO NXT, or Echo Lift fly-rod outfit to get started. I promise you’ll be hooked.

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Written By
I'm a retired wildlife biologist with a passion for catching and helping conserve wild fish in wild places. I've been fishing since I was six years old, and still get really excited about it. I like helping others get into the fish and their habitats. ​ I bought my first fly rod when I was 12, from...

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