Welcome to Panfish!

Observations in Pan-Fishing, Part 1

Fritz Fratz
By Randy Fratzke, Iowa

Over the 20 plus years I've been flyfishing, most of which has been for the local "pan-fish," I've written several articles about colors and shapes of flies used for catching various species of fish. While "matching the hatch" works well for trout, many pan fish prefer live or natural food sources such as minnows, crayfish (or crawfish, depending on your locale), and, of course, bugs - hoppers, crickets, ants, moths, mosquitoes, dragon flies, etc. and their aquatic larvae.

What I've tried to do with all of this information is boil it down to some basic colors, sizes, shapes of flies that I use for specific pan fish. Please keep in mind, I live in the upper Midwest and what works here might not work entirely in your area, but, for the most part, it should. I've broken the list down by species of fish and then listed what colors, shapes and sizes of flies work for me. I really hope that the information will be of some assistance to both beginners and veteran pan fish anglers. The first rule of thumb is to keep in mind that the weather, specifically cloud cover, seems to play the most critical part in selecting what flies to use: Bright days, light colored flies. Darker, overcast, days, darker colored flies. Even this has a few exceptions, like you're not going to use a bright, yellow ant on a bright day (unless they naturally occur in your area of the country!)

Blue Gills and Sunfish (Bream)

Generally, "gillies" are not very fussy when it comes to eating. These fish are my favorites for teaching beginning and novice fly rodders because they're easy to catch, fun to play, and don't usually scare easily if a line gets dropped in the middle of a cast, not to mention, easy to clean and great eating. I've seen them eat (or try to eat) everything from 3" minnows to cottonwood seed fluffs that hit the water. One rule of thumb is if you haven't caught a gillie in the first 5 minutes in one location, move to a different spot or try a different fly or approach. They also live in a wide variety of water conditions, from mud bottom lakes to slow moving streams. They do, however, seem attracted to structure of some sort: docks, boat hoists, fallen trees, underwater vegetation, but usually can be found in water 4 feet deep or shallower.

Crappies (Black or White)

Crappies are a little fussier when it comes to food. They seem to prefer submersibles and it needs to be presented as if it were alive, especially streamers or minnow variations. They will hit top water flies at different times of the year, especially during spring spawning season but, again, the fly or popper needs to look and act as if it were alive or "fresh." Also, because of the difference in the mouth structure and the way they take food, more patience is needed with crappies than sunfish species. Usually a sunfish will grab the fly, swallow it and run. A crappie, on the other hand, will usually "taste" it first. Then, if it likes it, will close its mouth on it. So I usually leave the fly or popper go until the crappie is swimming away before I set the hook otherwise it will just spit it out. Crappies definitely relate to structure of some sort and prefer shady areas, like under docks or overhangs, during bright, sunny days. They seem to stay closer to deeper water near downed trees along shorelines or in the eddy's of rocks or trees in the middle of streams. Once you find a school of crappies and find a fly that works well you'll have yourself a great time pulling in these little scrappers. One other tip I'll mention is to take plenty of flies and tippet material because once you have a crappie on the line the first thing it does is head for the cover of the thickest bunch of branches or timber, meaning your going to lose a lot of flies if your not quick enough to react.

Here are some of my favorite flies, sizes and color variations I use for catching gillies and crappies:

    Top Water and Dry Flies
    1. Poppers are one of my favorite "flies" for pan fish. For gillies and crappies they need to be small though, usually in the inch to inch range. They can be in almost any color but white, yellow and green seem to work the best for me. Some have "whiskers" or legs, some have feather or marabou attached to the back ends, some have both and some have neither. Some also have flat fronts, some have slant fronts, while still others have cupped fronts. They all seem to work at times. So what's the best? I prefer a cupped front so that it actually traps air when it's jerked and makes a "popping" sound. I also like legs and a marabou tail for more water movement. Others anglers will agree or disagree with this but my argument is that these are attractor type flies and the more attraction you can make the more fish your going to catch.

    2. If you make or tie your own poppers make sure you buy some "popper" hooks. These have a couple of bends in the shank, like a "W" to keep them from turning inside the popper. You can also make this style of hook if you're careful, using a 4x long shank hook and a small pliers, as long as the hooks aren't made of tempered metal which will break instead of bend.

    Dry Flies
    1. Royal Coachman and Variations - Royal Coachman flies seem to work very well on both gillies and crappies. I also tie several variations of them, substituting white, yellow, green and blue silk or rayon thread or floss for the red body of the normal coachman. The white seems to be especially good for crappies.

    2. Humpy Style Dries - Humpy style flies naturally trap air inside the body of the fly which keep them floating longer. They also seem to make a lot of "noise" on the top water which attracts the fish. I use a wide variety of humpy style flies, including the Royal, Yellow, and Grey Humpy, Horner's Deer Hair, and Irresistables.

    3. Other Light Colored Dry Flies - Almost any good, light colored trout fly seems to work well on crappies and gillies. Cahills, Hendricksons, Quills, etc. all seem to do the job, as long as they are hatching at the time. If it's in the air or on the water it'll work.

    C. Terrestrials - There are as numerous terrestrial patterns out there as there are fly tyers, with as many variations as you can tie. Grasshoppers, crickets, ants, spiders, caterpillars, "water-walkers" and the like all fall into this category. I'm not going to give you specific patterns because there are so many and so many variations to choose from. Try several different patterns out and find one you're comfortable with and use it. What I will do is give you a few tips on when and where to use them.

    1. Hoppers and Crickets - Use them when they start emerging and you start finding them all over your yard and flower beds. Crickets are usually first, in late May or early June, then hoppers, in mid July until frost. Use them along shorelines, especially a shoreline with a lawn or grass. Usually you'll have better luck on the upward wind side of the water since they are usually blown into the water by the wind and the fish will lay there waiting for lunch.

    2. Ants and Spiders - Ants and spiders usually wind up in the water because they fall from something like an overhanging tree or rock ledge, tall grass or cattails and docks. So look for those types of areas and either cast or drift a fly into it. Just be prepared for a quick sucking sound and your fly to disappear!

    3. Water-Walkers - Again, there are so many kinds and so many variations that it would be hard to list them all. Sow bugs, long legs, creepers, stink bugs all fall into this category. Amazingly, I've seldom seen many fish eat these insects. I know the water around my dock is full of the little black-shelled insects but none of them ever seem to disappear into the mouths of the crappies and gillies that live there. So, my advice is, don't bother with them, unless you happen to see fish around you eating them.

    Wet Flies and Submersibles (Divers)

    A. Wet Flies such as the wet versions of the Royal Coachman and variations I mentioned above work very well on both types of fish, especially during the spring spawning. Work them through the areas very slow but deliberately. In other words, don't drift them but, rather, mend the line slowly to show movement.

    B. Streamers such as Clouser Minnows, Muddlers, Spruce, Silver Darter, and Shiner Patterns, and the perennial favorite, Mickey Finn, all work well. If the water your fishing in has a good population of bass then the Clouser is a must. Gillies and Crappies feast on little bass. Most of these patterns should be tied on #8, #10 or #12 size hooks, with either 3x or 4x long shanks. This translates into minnow patterns between 1 inch to 2 inch streamers. Yes, you can make larger ones if you want, but remember what kind of fish your trying to attract.

    3. Nymphs and Deep or Bottom-Running Flies such as Weighted Ants, Nymphs, and Stoneflies and, one of my favorites, crayfish. Remember the old adage about 90% of a fish's intake is from underwater aquatic insects and larvae? Well it's true with these species of fish also. They bump their noses and heads on dock legs, underwater tree branches and grass stems to knock meals lose. Cast near a shoreline and let the fly slowly sink of its own weight. Maybe mend the line a little, but you want a natural presentation, like something that just fell into the water off the side of a cattail stem or that the current just swept off a rock. Crayfish patterns, on the other hand, need to be mended in short, quick little darts, allowing time to settle on or near the bottom between mends. Usually the fish will hit while the fly is floating to the bottom so be prepared.

Give some of these suggestions a try. Hopefully, you'll wind up with a big batch of tasty sunfish, blue gills, and crappies for supper! In the next section I'll write about bass. Feel free to email me about the article at fritzfratz@earthlink.net. ~ Fritz Fratz

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