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Panfish Flies

Updated on August 5, 2016

Trout Flies For Panfish?

"Those Western trout flies you have, they will work on bream (bluegills) as well". I heard this from more than one Florida fly fisher. However, after six months of using them, I was starting to have my doubts. What ensued was several years of reading about bluegills and their respective flies, watching videos, hours at the fly tying vise, and of course fishing with the flies.

Typical panfish top water flies with bright foam, rubber legs, and orange flag for visibility for the fly fisher.
Typical panfish top water flies with bright foam, rubber legs, and orange flag for visibility for the fly fisher.

Trout Dry Flies - Not Even Close

Trout dry flies float high on the water. They have to. Their aquatic environment is flowing, turbulent water. To stay dry and remain visible, they must ride high on the water. They have a full hackle feather that allows them to maximize water surface tension and thereby float. When the fly passes over a trout treading water, the trout has to make a snap decision, strike at the fly or let it pass. The fly fisher does not have to move the fly for the trout, the current does. A bluegill's environment in still water is nothing like this. The fly is not going anywhere and the bluegill has plenty of time to look over the fly - and they usually do. The bluegill wants a closer look and a partially submerged fly affords just that. Also, there is a predator's risk/reward scenario going through the bluegill's mind asking "Can I devour this prey without getting hurt?" A full-bodied fly that is struggling in the water is more attractive than a still one. The panfish fly needs to be partially submerged, allow the fly fisher to move it, and remain partially submerged. The fly needs to have appendages that are soft and accentuate movement. Panfish flies tied with foam or cork bodies and rubber legs often meet the requirements.

The traditional Zug bug is a favorite panfish nymph.
The traditional Zug bug is a favorite panfish nymph.

Trout Nymphs - Many Work For Panfish

Those Florida fly fishers were right about the western trout nymphs. Some of the traditional nymphs are very effective. The hare's ear nymph is in everyone's fly box. The Zug bug and pheasant tail nymphs work well also. Damsel fly, mayfly, and dragon fly nymphs work well, but they will need to have light and dark contrasting colors or at least some type of shiny material in them. A solid, dark, dull colored nymph will have limited success. Also, trout nymphs are often weighted to get to the bottom of a flowing river or creek. Bluegills like to strike a nymph in a slow, free-fall. So unweighted, or mildly weighted nymphs are a better bet with a slow retrieve.

A green woolly bugger with an orange glass bead for contrast and reflectivity.
A green woolly bugger with an orange glass bead for contrast and reflectivity.

Wet Flies and Streamers - The Right Stuff

There are a myriad of wet flies and streamers for trout. In general, stay away from the heavily weighted ones with earth tone colors. Focus on flies that have contrasting dark and light colors and preferably ones that have some flash. Flies that have eyes on them are an added bonus. Wet flies and streamers tied with colorful glass beads are commercially available. I have found the glass beaded flies ideal in that they have just enough weight to slowly sink the fly. They also add that color contrast and sparkle that attracts bluegills.

The Popper Dropper Combo - A Favorite Tactic

The "popper dropper" fly combination is a two fly tactic. One fly is dry and floats on the surface, while the other is wet and is below the dry fly. Fine tippet is tied above the barb of the dry fly while the other end is tied to a wet fly. You are effectively fishing the surface with the dry and the water column below with the wet. The "popper dropper" also allows you to really slow down your retrieve. This tactic is particularly effective in colder water when the bluegills are less active.

A bluegill caught on an unweighted, chartreuse woolly bugger
A bluegill caught on an unweighted, chartreuse woolly bugger

Fly Colors - Brown Is Out, Go Green

In the height of my frustration of fishing with trout flies, I remember looking at my fly box and noticing that when looking at my flies collectively, the fly box had a brown hue to it. This was ironic because the lake I was fishing at the time had that classic Florida tannic (brown) color to it with a visibility of about two feet. Fishing brown flies in brown water made no sense. Dave Whitlock in his book Fly Fishing for Bass Handbook notes that black, white, yellow, and chartreuse attract bass along with some type of reflective material. I've found bluegills to be attracted to the same colors and reflective properties. Today, my fly box has a light green hue to it.

A Shamless Plug

To show you visually what flies panfish are attracted to, I've linked my online store's website. Yes, it would be great if you made a purchase, but even if you do not, it may give you an idea of what to look for when shopping elsewhere, or if you tie flies, some ideas for patterns.

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