Fly Fishing for Panfish: An Angler’s Guide

A panfish fly fishing guide shares everything you need to know about fly fishing for panfish including the best flies, techniques, and seasons.

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As soon as people purchase their first set fly fishing gear, they often head to a river or stream that is well above their ability level. As a result, they find themselves discouraged and less enthusiastic about learning.

While this mistake is tempting to make, it’s best to let your ability level dictate where you fish. If you’re a beginner, fly fishing for panfish is perhaps your best bet.

It’s no secret that panfish are generally least picky fish in the water. They’re willing to strike almost anything and don’t need a perfect presentation. Pack your gear, drive to your nearest public water and you’ll likely find all the panfish you could desire.

What is Panfish Fishing?

Species of panfish include Bluegill, Green Sunfish, Redear Sunfish, Pumpkinseed, Crappie and perch. They earned their name since they rarely outgrow the size of a frying pan and are some of the best eating freshwater fish.

using a panfish fly to catch fish

These fish live in the shallower water near structure. They are a common source of prey for the predatory fish. Their numbers multiply quickly and are a great target fish for beginners to the sport.

Best Panfish Flies

Panfish flies are generally from the size 8-12 range. They’re not as small as trout flies and are fairly easy to handle. It’s another reason that panfish are great to target as a beginner. There’s no worries about mishandling the flies or struggling to tie them.


Popper flies are extremely popular flies for freshwater fish. This is a topwater fly that is going to produce plenty of fish. They’re bright and boisterous and attract the attention from almost every type of fish in the water.

Fly Fishing for Panfish with a Popper

When you’re using a popper, you want to be sure that the fish are surface feeding. If the fish aren’t looking towards the surface, there is no need to tie on the popper.

The popper works in lily pads, weeds, and other areas with structure and cover. Strip in short 10-12 inch segments. Panfish are always willing to hit a fly that is sitting still. Remember, a size 10-12 popper is going to work best for panfish.

Dont ‘get too eager when you’re using a popper for panfish. They’re an aggressive fish that will hit no matter what. Experiment with retrieval speed and see what works.

Foam Spider

The Foam Spider is perhaps the most lethal fly you can use when targeting panfish. It almost has the appearance of a hopper, but the spider is a wonderful fly that is going to always catch fish.

If the bite is especially slow, use the foam spider. Also, if you’re looking to learn how to fish topwater flies, the foam spider will give you a nice idea.

How To Fish for Panfish with a Foam Spider?

Foam Spiders are best fished with a twitch and drag retrieve. If you watch water spiders on the water, you’ll notice that they do not have smooth movements. By twitching the spider slowly, you’ll have more success.

These aren’t as heavy or intrusive as poppers. If you know bluegill are in the area, the foam spider is going to work. They cannot resist! If the weather is causing a slow bite, the foam spider can break the streak and create some action!

how to tie a prince nymph

Beadhead Prince Nymph

The Beadhead Prince Nymph is the perfect option for panfish if the topwater bite is nonexistent. It’s not often that you’ll have to go deep, but if you do, the Prince Nymph is a wonderful option.

The beadhead allows you to move lower in the water column and land some of those larger panfish who are less eager to take a risk.

How To Fish for Panfish with a Beadhead Prince Nymph?

When using this fly, it’s important that you have a strike indicator attached to your leader. You don’t need to give this fly much action. If you know where the fish are located, cast towards them and use slow strips.

Panfish strikes aren’t always too aggressive so the indicator will make your life a bit easier when trying to detect whether or not a fish is attacking the fly.

Fishing with nymphs isn’t easy so try targeting panfish in the creeks flowing in or out of the lake or pond. This will help you learn the drifts and still give you ample opportunities to catch these fish.

Wooly Worm

The Wooly Worm is one of the oldest flies in the world of fly fishing. The Wooly Bugger was inspired by the the Wooly Worm. Worms and panfish are the best of friends. It has a small colorful tail off the back of it that attracts fish.

How To Fish for Panfish with a Wooly Worm?

The Wooly Worm in a size 10 is great to fish on it’s own. It will sit just below the surface and you’ll see many fish checking it out. If anything, panfish are curious. If you dangle something in front of them for long enough, they’ll eat it.

Cast this fly near docks and structure in shallow areas. Short, six inch strips are going to help you land all of the Panfish you could ever want!

Mop Dragon

The Mop Dragon is a wonderful fly for any panfish angler to use. Dragonflies hang out on shallower water near shore and this is exactly where panfish like to feed. This fly acts as an emerges so it works for fish feeding just below the surface.

How To Fish for Panfish with a Mop Dragon?

If you see the Panfish looking near the surface and you hear Dragonflies buzzing around, the Mop Dragon is the fly you should use. Fish these up along the shore and wait for the fish to strike.

Mop Dragons do not have to be fished in an aggressive style. Small six inch or foot long strips are plenty with these flies. They’re a darker fly with more earth tones and work great in cloudy water.

Emerging flies are not always a common choice for anglers. They have a limited time during a day when they’re successful, but if you time it correctly, you’ll land quite a few fish. When you see a fish “tailing”, you know it’s time to use an emerger.

When fish tails or fins break the surface, the flies are just below the surface and the topwater bite is ready to begin.

Brim Killer

The Brim Killer is another one of those legendary flies you see in almost every fly shop you enter. It’s long, spindly legs make for a perfect imitation of a water bug. These flies are going to attract the attention of almost every fish in the water.

How To Fish for Panfish with the Brim Killer?

Find any weed filled area of the water that you’re fishing and tie on the Brim Killer. If you watch any of the bugs near the surface, take a look at how they move. More often than not, they operate with a twitch-like motion.

This is a wonderful fly to use when you’re looking to work on your finesse retrievals. These aren’t easy to make look natural so if you struggle with it on the larger streams and rivers, head to a local pond and practice your retrieve.

A crappie swimming underwater in a lake

Also, when you use this fly, don’t use too light of tippet. The spindly legs often get tangled in the light tippet. Tie it to 3 or 4x tippet and you’ll be in business. It’s a boisterous enough fly that the fish won’t notice the line.

The Panfish Wiggler

The Panfish Wiggler is a small wet fly that is always difficult for Panfish to ignore. These flies are a similar style to a Wooly Bugger, but they’re often tied on a size 10-12 hook.

The hackle that appears to be in disarray is a nice touch that attract the rock bass or crappies.

How To Fish for Panfish with the Panfish Wiggler?

The Panfish Wiggler is smart to use when the fish are hiding deep. Crappie and Rock Bass are the Panfish that spend most of their time lower in the water column so if you’re looking for these, the Wiggler is a perfect choice.

The dumbbell eyes get the fly low right away. Be sure that you aren’t fishing in areas with heavy tree cover or thick vegetation that you’ll find yourself snagged. Weeds or rocky bottoms are the perfect areas to use the Wiggler.

Since it’s a bit of a heavier fly, it’s important that you are paying close attention as you retrieve. Let it get to the bottom and use short jerks for your retrieve. You don’t have to strip like you would if you were trying to entice a trout out of a pool.

Short, simple strips are going to take the Panfish away from their cover and land you some nice fish.

Best Gear For Panfish Fly Fishing

Panfish don’t need much as far as power is concerned. You can easily land these fish on a one or two-weight rod. However, you can also use your 5 or 6-weight if you would like. Again, Panfish fly fishing is great for those learning.

Bring whatever rod size you have and you’ll be able to catch fish. Where you need to be more specific is with your line, leader and flies.


Again, your rod isn’t the most important piece of your arsenal when it comes to fly fishing for panfish. You can show up to the water with whatever size you would like. However, for the most finesse and feel, the one to three weight is best.


Fly line is important when it comes to targeting panfish. You will never need anything that is going to dive in the water column. Be sure that you have floating line tied on to ensure that you can have the best access to the fish.

A fly reel with a color green fly line on it

Sinking or weight forward line is going to pull your dry flies too low in the water column. Let your leader and tippet fall in the column if needed. The floating line is always going to be the right answer for Panfish.


For your leader, you’ll want 3 or 4x tapered leader. This is going to be the best option for landing these fish. You’ll rarely have to deal with panfish being too large that they snap your line.

However, you need to be fairly inconspicuous with your line. They aren’t too picky, but they can pick out leader that is too think.


When choosing your tippet, you can land fish with 4 or 5x tippet. This is plenty strong enough to land the fish and they will not be able to see anything wrong with the situation.

Be careful when you use the smaller tippet. It can easily tangle during your casts. It’s a great chance practice with lighter tippet because once you hit the river, life gets more difficult.

Panfish Fly Fishing Conditions

Almost every body of water across the world holds some sort of panfish. These fish don’t need much to survive and can reproduce at extremely fast levels. Here is a list of a few places that you can guarantee to catch Panfish.

Fly Fishing Panfish in Shallow Water

Panfish are most often going to be found in shallow water. They have more access to food, structure and can reproduce in the shallower portions of the body of water.

Search around docks, weeds, lily pads and fallen trees. If the water has a decent amount of clarity, you’ll easily be able to see if Panfish are in the area. Be careful when you target Panfish in shallow water.

A panfish caught by a fly angler

It’s a great time to practice your casts from longer distances. See how accurate you can be from 10 feet, 15 feet, 20 feet and so on. It’s a great time to practice.

Fly Fishing Panfish from Shore

If you don’t have access to a boat and have a decent amount of casting lanes, Panfishing from shore is a great time. You’ll land a nice amount of fish and learn all about the tendencies of your fly rod.

Since Panfish sit shallow, you’ll likely have to cast along the bank instead of out into the middle of the water. Wade into the water a few feet and work up and down the banks. You’ll have to try and not walk through areas that hold fish.

This is some great practice for when you try and tackle some of the more challenging rivers and streams. Panfish require technical casts and fishing from shore is a great place to experiment.

Best Time For Fly Fishing For Panfish

The beauty of fishing for Panfish is that they are willing to eat at almost any part of the day. However, similar to other fish, they’re going to be the most active in the mornings and the evenings.

Panfish Fly Fishing Tips & Tricks

If you choose to fly fish for Panfish it’s likely for three reasons. First, you’re looking to get out of the house and do some fishing without putting in much effort. Second, you’re looking to fill the freezer and want to have a fish fry. Third, you’re looking to learn more about fly fishing as a whole.

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment

Panfish aren’t picky. They’ll eat almost anything no matter how you present it. As a result, they’re a wonderful fish to practice on. If you’re looking to learn a new casting method, stripping speed or even try out a fly you tied, Panfish should be your target.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes when you’re fly fishing for Panfish. They’re forgiving and will likely eat no matter how bad of a cast it was or how ugly the fly may look.

Have fun with the Panfish and continue to practice! No one has ever perfected the art of fly fishing and it’s a stress free way to learn the ropes.

Sight Fish

Panfish are easy to sight fish. They live in schools and often hang out near structure or shallow water. Take a lap around the pond or lake and see what you can find. You’ll likely see the fish piled up on a log or swimming amongst the weeds.

Once you find this, go ahead and start casting. It likely won’t be long until you start landing fish.

Size Matters

Panfish aren’t often going to hit flies larger than a size 8 unless they’re extremely hungry or large. Choose flies that hover between 8-14. These are perfect sizes and they aren’t too overwhelming for the fish.

When switching flies, you likely don’t need to change the size, you just need to change the pattern.

Fish on Every Cast? Move Out.

If you’re landing fish on every cast, it’s likely because they’re all juvenile fish that are willing to eat anything that floats near their face. If you want some larger fish that will make for some wonderful meals, increase your cast distance.

The larger fish are going to be out further and often a bit deeper. This is often where the predator fish will be as well. If you land a Panfish outside of the school, you have a chance to land a bass or pike that is looking for a meal.

Fly fishing for panfish

This is an exhilarating experience on a smaller rod with lighter line. If this is the case, let the fish tire itself out. By horsing it to shore, you’ll likely snap the line or the fish will let the Panfish go.

I’ve caught some impressive pike by casting outside of the school and waiting for an ambush.

Cold Water Tips

If you’re looking to wet your fly early in the year when the water is cold, the same rules apply for all types of fish. Strip low and slow. The fish are still trying to conserve their energy, but this doesn’t mean they will not eat.

You can still sight fish, but be sure you aren’t too aggressive with your strips. Let your fly sit near the fish and give it a twitch to make sure the fish know it may be something living. This will lead to a nice amount of fish even on a cold day.

Warm Water Tips

When the water is warm, the bite is usually on fire! Be more aggressive with your fly choice and retrieval. You can keep your strips short and lengthen them as you move away from the school of fish.

Try Moving Water

If you want to learn more about fish tendencies in moving water, fish the streams that flow in or out of a pond. You can use your nymphs and dry flies and still land fish.

Perfecting drifts in fly fishing is the name of the game. You can learn to perfect these while targeting Panfish. If a Panfish doesn’t hit your fly on a drift, it’s likely not that high of quality. Keep switching your methods and you’ll eventually learn how to properly land these fish.

Teach Others

The best way to learn more about fly fishing is by teaching someone else. Panfish aren’t going to turn down much of anything. As you watch someone else, you can learn more about your abilities as a fly angler.

Fly Fishing in lakes

Bring your kids, partner or friend and teach them a thing or two about fly angling. You can watch and observe what things are and are not working as you teach. Become a visual learner and you’ll likely become more efficient as an angler.


Fly fishing for Panfish doesn’t have to be rocket science. Unlike most fish, if you target a Panfish for long enough, chances are they will eat whatever you’re using as bait.

Head to any local pond or lake and you’ll find Panfish. If you’re going through a fishing slump, Panfish will help you boost your confidence and remind you that you have the ability to land fish!

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My name is Danny Mooers and I’ve been fly fishing for five years. As soon as I went to college, I dove headfirst into my obsession for fly angling. Every spare weekend or long break was dedicated to finding fish. I’ve fished all over North America in search of trout, salmon, steelhead and everything in between. I currently write articles for Guide Recommended and Reel Adventure Fishing. Fly angling is one of the most challenging yet rewarding hobbies any person can have. Don’t be afraid to give it a try.  It’s an addicting activity that tests everything from your fine motor skills to your patience, but it’s well worth your time.

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