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What's It In Your Fly Box?

Updated on December 25, 2015

Forget the Hatch, Find The Fish

Mention selecting the right fly for fly fishing and most fly fishers envision the fly fisher in trout waters turning over rocks and studying flying insects. The fly fisher is aspiring to successfully mimic with artificial flies what the trout are eating. Do bluegills become active during insect activity? Sure, I have experienced a flurry of fish activity at dusk when mayfly adults are lying eggs, afternoon termite swarms hit the water, and a myriad of white woolly caterpillars dropping out of oak tress onto the water. True to form, the bluegills become very active. However, the fish tended to be pretty small. For the larger bluegills in lakes, the real effort is trying to find them and getting the fly near enough to them that they can see it. To accomplish this, you need to consider the color and clarity of water and a fly that has the best visibility for the particular water.

Some Caveats If You Please

Most of my fly fishing experience with bluegills has been in central Florida. While there are numerous lakes, the natural ones have the same physiography of classic Karst topography. The limestone bedrock goes into solution with acidic water aquifers that results in sinkhole lakes. As a fly fishing friend of mine accurately commented, "They have all the structure of a dinner plate". Indeed, they are shaped like dinner plates with most lakes being 12-15 feet at their deepest in the center. Most of the time I fish these lakes with a floating line and leader that is about nine feet long. It is within this context that my article is written, so please, if your lakes/reservoirs have a different physiography, please try to make some correlations as best you can.

A clear, productive lake with much vegetation.
A clear, productive lake with much vegetation.
A small, largemouth bass caught from tannic water.
A small, largemouth bass caught from tannic water.

The Color Of The Water

The color and clarity of the lake's water dictates the color of flies I will pack in my fly box for the day. It also tells me the productivity (nutrient load of phosphorus and nitrogen) of the lake and some idea of the productivity of the fishery.

  • Clear Water High Nutrients: These lakes offer the highest aquatic vegetation structure and fish productivity. Water clarity is five feet deep or more resulting in direct sunlight reaching much of the floor of the lake. With high nutrients and direct sunlight, vegetation fills the lake bottom creating structure, cover, and abundant food sources for bluegills. The lake shoreline also has abundant wetland vegetation that assists many aquatic insects during their adult life stage and encourages terrestrial insects. Light colored, flashy flies are the most productive. The direct sunlight reflects off these flies making them visible from fairly far distances.
  • Clear Water Low Nutrients: While these lakes have direct sunlight reaching the floor of the lake, low nutrients limit the amount of aquatic vegetation. The vegetation is sparse with much of the lake floor being bare. Wetland vegetation is present, but generally lacks the algae growth on the submerged plant parts as is found on vegetation under higher nutrient loads - algae that clings to structures is a food source for several creatures that bluegills eat. The same type of flies are used as with high nutrient lakes, but don't expect as many fish.
  • Tannic Water: The water is tea color due to high organic decomposition in the water. Water clarity is typically two feet, but can be as much as five feet during the dry season. The shoreline typically has much wetland vegetation with algae growing on the submerged portions of plants. The lake floor has vegetation growing fairly well on the bottom where direct sunlight can reach it. It is common to have bare patches of sand mixed in with the vegetation. Once the water gets deeper and no sunlight, the vegetation gives way to decomposing organics and muck. Chartreuse is the typical color of choice for wet flies in tannic water. If it is a bright sunny day, I will lean more towards flashier flies. If overcast, I will use darker flies, albeit with still some flash.
  • Green Water: Plankton makes the water green and is indicative of a high nutrient load. Water clarity is usually less than two feet. The plankton blocks direct sunlight and really limits aquatic plant growth. Rather than plants on the lake floor taking up nutrients, plankton is taking in the nutrients. These lakes risk low oxygen levels when water temperature gets high with prolonged overcast days. I generally avoid green water lakes and reclaimed phosphate pits (common man-made lakes in central Florida). What few bluegills I have caught in them were all on dark flies and fished fairly deep.

Know The Fish

There is a lot of information about bluegills, so I will not belabor much repeated information. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Smaller bluegills are at risk of predation, so they will always be close to shore where there is more wetland and aquatic cover to escape. Larger bluegills will be there during the spawning season.
  • Larger bluegills aren't eaten by larger fish, so they tend to school up and head for deeper water. If you can find a fairly quick drop in elevation on the lake floor next to emergent vegetation or submerged, aquatic vegetation coming near the surface of the water, chances are good that the drop-off will hold larger bluegills.
  • I cannot find much literature, but I don't believe bluegills are nocturnal. If you are fishing at first daylight, you are more likely to catch bass. Bluegills don't seem to be active until about 45 minutes to an hour after sunrise. They increase their activity at sundown, but it comes to a halt once it is dark. I have never heard of anyone fishing for them at night, at least without lights.
  • Larger bluegills tend to school in deeper water. If you catch one, keep fishing the same location.
  • Bluegills fear predators above the surface water. The clearer the water and brighter the day, the more likely they are to be deep.

The Flies You Should Have In Your Fly Box

The flies pictured in the fly box below are organized by water color and depth. By no means am I endorsing each of these flies exactly, rather they are there to give you an idea by their function.

  • Popping Bugs: I like to begin fly fishing just before first daylight. No matter the water color, I use a dark popper (upper left corner) fished fairly close to shore. The visibility is poor so I am working with vibrations to attract the fish. If the fish are hitting the surface, it usually is a bass. By about an hour after sunrise, if I have not caught anything in tannic water I switch to slow sinking wetflies. In clear water I might switch to a lighter popper for about 30 minutes to an hour. If no success, I switch to slow sinking wet flies.
  • Slow Sinking Flies: All the slow sinking flies are in the second column. They are unweighted except for glass beads, which have nominal weight. Note that top to bottom goes from flashy flies to light colored flies to dark flies. It is a progression as the water clarity decreases. The clear water starts with flashy flies and transitions to lighter, yet dull flies. Chartreuse is the most versatile color. It can be used in clear water and tannic water with great effect. Darker flies work well in tannic water as well, but need to have some flash attached to them.
  • Sinking Flies: The third column of flies follows the same pattern as the third row, but are more weighted with bead chain eyes or small brass beadheads.
  • Heavy Flies: The fourth column of flies are the most weighted with wire ribbed bodies and/or larger metal beadheads. Empies golden shiner (last column, third fly down) is a versatile fly in deep water for both clear and tannic water.

One literally starts from the top and goes deeper over time while traversing the lake. When you find a fly and depth that works, stick with it. It is a good idea to have at least two of each type of fly before you start your fishing trip.


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