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Choosing the best panfish flies will require a little bit of knowledge on where and what these species of fish feed on. Not all flies will be productive panfish flies, so choosing the right patterns will definitely help improve your chances of catching these fish.
I have been a fly fisherman since the early 1970s and back in those days in the UK if you went fly fishing for anything other than salmon trout or grayling people would have thought you mad. This class of ‘coarse fishing’ was for a rod with a float and bait, or a spinner!
In North America, the panfish tradition has been long established, but fly fishing for species which are not ‘game fish’ has developed a following in the UK and the rest of Europe as an accessible form of sport.
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It is not governed by the strict rules of the traditional fly fishing clubs, and available where there are no game fish to be caught. So although this article is primarily about North American sport I thought it worth touching on fly fishing for coarse fish generally.
Whilst fly fishing for panfish will follow some well established general fly fishing principles, it is important to tune your selection to suit the quarry in hand. Let’s have a closer look at what flies for this branch of the sport involves.
What Makes A Great Panfish Fly?
At this point, we should probably decide what we mean by ‘panfish‘ – which as the term implies are fish small enough to fit a frying pan. In North America, the prime target species are probably Bluegill.
But the category is really quite broad and might include crappie, perch, and some other species, possibly even saltwater fish.
And despite the name, do check local fishing codes because some traditional panfish might be protected (and not available to cook and eat) or have strict catch sizes or limits for conservation reasons depending on the whereabouts in the world you intend to fish.
So; given the breadth of species, what makes a great panfish fly?
The panfish in the trio above are likely to be relatively small carnivorous aggressive fish. So something with a bit of action and wiggle and looking alive and perhaps trying to escape is likely to be a hit and be a productive panfish pattern.
Definitely a key component for any of the best and most effective panfish flies. If you have read my other blogs in this series you will know I believe in the ‘GISS’ principles – to achieve General Impression Shape and Size.
Imitation does not need to be a precise copy. Anything that at a quick (panfishy) glance looks like something a panfish would eat will be in with a chance. These are smaller fish so hook sizes will tend to be smaller too.
This is one branch of the fly fishing sport where attractor elements will be an effective component of many, perhaps most, of the most effective panfish flies. Flash, sparkle, bright colors or sound effects (ripples and plops from poppers for example) all have a place.
We have already seen that panfish are not a single species but a branch of fishing for small edible fish critters.
One thing panfish are not is gamefish – so exclude trout, salmon, grayling, and some other species such as pike. Here are the most common target panfish species:
Which is a species of sunfish, but represents the archetypal panfish.
Includes six subspecies such as Green, Redear, Redbreast, and other members of the sunfish family.
Including black, and white, crappie, the crappie, despite its name, is regarded as the best-tasting panfish (if you’re not catch-and-release fly fishing this may matter to you).
In America and Canada represented by white or yellow perch – but I have caught plenty of European perch on the fly too (not always on purpose it has to be said). Some people might include carp on the list, in Europe fly fishing for Chubb is increasingly popular though for sport, not for the pot.
Understanding The Hatch
This is an area as broad as the range of species. Panfish will certainly take many of the traditional fly fishing flies and the usual life cycle of aquatic food will form part of their diet though this branch of the sport also sees a high proportion of stylized attractor patterns too.
Flies laying eggs as mature spinners, as caddis or larvae, as nymphs and emergers hatching out at the water surface and Dunns – immature adults – will all form part of the food chain.
These are the immature young of the egg-laying flies and insects. If it isn’t a caddis the fly egg will hatch as a nymph.
In this case, the immature insect is waterborne, feeding in the water column and vulnerable as fish food.
As the nymph matures it swims to the surface and begins to hatch out as a winged fly. The classic panfish surface flies tend to ignore the trout fishing style of emerger for more generalized surface patterns but these will work all the same.
Adult Fly – Duns and Spinners
As the emerger transforms into a proper ‘flying fly’ it becomes first a Dunn then a fully matured fertile Spinner.
What Do Panfish Flies Imitate?
If you have read this far you will of course be saying ‘Well, flies obviously’ and quite right too. But there is a whole world of riverside food out there for the fish to feed upon and which can be imitated – either as a copy of a real fly at some point in its life cycle or as one of the other edibles which find their way into the river:
Fly life in its various stages represents a major component of the fish’s food so naturally, the immature sub-aquatic insect will be on the menu.
Spinners and Dunns
The adult stages of the fly will also be represented. Usually as topwater or dry flies.
This category might include ‘other’ flies such as dead wasps, spiders, caterpillars which have lost their footing from trees above the river and the like.
These fish are cannibalistic so fish fry patterns will be on your list of best panfish flies – though ‘fly’ is an honorary title here for a lure which can be cast as a fly, and maybe tied with the same materials.
Key Types Panfish Flies
Some of these categories will overlap a bit as the classic definitions of panfish flies seem to be less rigid than with old school game fly fishing.
Dry Flies & Top Water Flies
This category might include the classic dry fly as used for trout but could also include floating terrestrials and foam flies – often in lurid colors.
Here we might again be looking at some of the classic trout wet fly patterns, but also at streamers and other more modern lure patterns, often with highly mobile materials to provide life and movement in the water.
There is no reason why you should not punt a trout style emerger at a panfish – they are on the fringes of the ‘topwater’ fly category though these seem to be less popular with panfish fly fishers than some of the more extravagant and colorful foam offerings.
Any of the standard trout nymph patterns should do service here and will still catch you panfish. We are looking at different fish species, but broadly in the same food environment after all.
Provided these are correctly sized then streamers should be a good panfish offering. Remember panfish are generally going to be a bit smaller than some other target fish for the fly fisher so need to represent something they would wish to eat, can get their mouth around (and let you put a hook in).
This is not a style of fly fishing calling for large patterns and an all-in wrestling approach.
The Best Panfish Flies For Fly Fishing
So; the weather forecast is good, the car is packed, and everything is ready. What are you going to fish with? Here are some of the best panfish flies for you to consider.
Best Top Water and Dry Flies for Panfish
We are looking here at a mix of terrestrials and dry fly patterns:
A green or brown foam grasshopper with rubber or plastic legs should do the business. There are hundreds of patterns out there but remember the GISS principles and something appropriately sized will work. I reckon the simpler patterns are probably more robust and will withstand being chewed up by a few fish.
Whilst on the foam theme these are successful for panfish, trout, all sorts. You need a few of these productive panfish fly pattern in your fly box for times when terrestrials are found on the water.
More foam? Yes; the right popper correctly retrieved will cause a bit of disturbance in the water as the air bubble formed in the head cavity ‘pops’ and should arouse some interest if nothing else will.
Best Wet Flies For Panfish
Again any of the classic wet fly patterns will do in a pinch but some have a ‘ best panfish fly’ reputation and the McGinty is possibly top of the list.
McGinty Wet Fly
With a black and yellow chenille barred striped body this is waspish or ‘bumblebee’ in its looks, has a red game cock tag, and soft brown hackle for some movement. This pattern is nearly 150 years old (1883 – by Mr. McGinty of Chicago).
The Black Spider
A superb and simple ‘best panfish fly’ pattern – another one which will catch trout too. A black wool or seal’s fur body, soft long black hackle for movement. I have a theory (without any proof, but this fly has caught fish for probably well over a hundred years) that the dense black profile performs as well as some of the more brightly colored tyings when fished in rather colored water.
You could fish a ‘black gnat’ if you prefer a winged wet fly but frankly, the spider has everything you need.
Red Tag Wet Fly
I’m not sure how many of these I have in my fly box; some are maybe twenty years old because I tied a huge number one winter. All in sizes 14-16. Peacock herl and a red wool tag end and soft long brown hackle for some movement.
Why? They will catch you fish anywhere – trout, grayling, panfish, coarse fish, all sorts. I have tied some Diawl Bach too (Welsh for the ‘little devil’).
They are all pretty much similar. If you tie your own you can vary the weight to fish at different depths. But if you need to get down to deeper water in a hurry try some of the weighted nymph patterns.
Best Nymphs for Panfish
Any of the classic trout patterns should do service, and nymphs are so prolific they are a major source of food for many fish. Try these:
The Prince Nymph
With its copper wire body on the hook shank, copper, or brass bead head this is one of the most effective panfish fly patterns and is suitably heavy to get down to the level of deeper feeding fish.
Damsel Fly Nymph
A larger pattern as nymphs go, on a size 8 or 10 hook to approximate the natural. Usually tied with chenille or ostrich herl or seals fur body to provide some movement and replicate gill action.
Bead Head Prince Nymph
Peacock herl again but heavily wire ribbed and bead weighted. If you think the fish have become bored with brass beads try a black tungsten or silver bead for a change.
Best Streamers For Panfish
Again you need to remember to keep these on the smaller side as streamers can sometimes be sizable concoctions. No pike fly sizes here then.
Provided you have a nice soft fly body in the tying for some movement you should find these are some of the most productive panfish fly patterns:
This has many of the ‘GISS’ qualities – large buggy eyes and a flexible hair wing body to trigger a take and is a tried and trusted pattern for many species of fish. So even if you fish this in the smaller sizes, don’t blame me if you also catch something bigger than a panfish on your next day out on the water.
This fly has a bit more weight. It will give you the option of depth charging deeper and faster flower waters before the fly is swept away from the fish.
I have thrown this pattern into the mix as it offers a super-mobile action in the water. The zonker is a proven ‘best panfish fly.’ It will catch most fish.
If you have been having no luck with the more conventional patterns this is a good variation to offer something very different, and try again. The strip of rabbit skin and fur will tick the boxes for a small minnow or fish fry trying to escape from a predator.
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Pre-Tied Panfish Flies
Sometimes the best way to pick up a bunch of flies is to purchase a box filled with pre-tied flies. There are some great panfish flies available on Amazon which are typically a lot cheaper than those found in your local fly shop, but not always better quality. Here are a few highly-rated flies available.
Flyafish Popper Dry Fly Panfish Flies
- Pieces: 10
The Flyafish Poppers for Panfish is a highly-rated set of poppers that will work as good bass flies or panfish flies. They have a solid and durable body with a variety of colors to choose from. If you’re looking to panfish poppers on Amazon this is probably your best bet.
Thor Outdoor Topwater Fly Fishing Kit
- Pieces: 18
The Thor Outdoor Topwater set of flies has 18 flies including frantic ants, purple-x stone fly attractors, foam spiders (black & white), black ants, & mosquitos. The hooks are size 12 to 14 and there’s a good variety of flies in the box for panfish, bass and trout.
Goture Fly Fishing Flies
- Pieces: 24
The Goture Fly Fishing Set is another great box of pre-tied flies for panfish with a variety of white hair, bees, bird flies, elk hair caddis, streamers, and nymphs. There are 24 pieces in the set and they all have barbs on them, so if you want barbless you’ll have to press them down.
The bees, white hairs, and birds are size 10, the elk hairs and nymphs are size 12 and the streamers are size 6 giving you a good range of hook sizes.
So there you have it; a selection of flies which will catch panfish, and most other species.
Remember when stocking up that the fly and hook sizes need to be appropriate for your target fish. Consider size 10 as a maximum and 12s or 14s as a good average for smaller fish in this category.
You can hook both large and small fish on a small hook size – but may lose some small fish on larger tyings if they cannot get the fly in their mouth.
A selection of colorful topwater ‘foam’ patterns and a few poppers as ‘attention seekers’, and some traditional fly patterns should keep you in business. A selection such as this will allow you to ring the changes if the fishing should prove flat for one pattern or style of fly.
Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.
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