Maybe you were lucky enough to grow up on a trout stream in Montana. Maybe you learned to fly fish for Stripers on the coast of New England. Or maybe you’re like the rest of us and honed your skills under Dad’s tutelage on a local pond where fish were easy to fool and novice fly anglers built confidence to last a lifetime. Targeting panfish on the fly encourages excitement and pure stress-free fun for novice and expert anglers alike.
The term ‘Panfish’ refers to fish from the Centrarchidae family including bluegill, crappie, and pumpkinseeds. These fish are often eager to take a streamer, popper, nymph, and sometimes even a dry fly. As one of the most popular families of fish in the US, it’s easy to see why targeting them on lightweight fly gear can be loads of fun, especially for beginners.
These fish also offer a seasoned pro a respite from technical trout or hard-fighting bass. Put down your 5wt fly rod and pick up a 3wt or 4wt to throw a popper in the backyard or a streamer on your local panfish pond. It’s relaxing, refreshing, and a great way to enjoy time outside.
Panfish are different than other species we’ve talked about in this ‘how to choose a fly rod’ blog series, so it makes sense that the right fly rod for the job differs a bit, too. Here are some helpful recommendations to get you headed in the right direction.
Panfish are smaller than most other species targeted on a fly rod. These fish don’t necessitate the use of fast action, heavy duty fly rods like pike or big trout. In fact, panfish are often fished for with old fashioned cane rods and light tippet. Popular flies for panfish include small poppers and small streamers, gear similar to small creek trout fishing. A shorter 3wt fly rod that’s caster-friendly has more than enough power to present a popper and wrangle bluegill.
These smaller fly rods and light tippets also allow the angler to enjoy the fight of an enthusiastic pumpkinseed or crappie. If you choose a rod that’s heavier or stiffer, playing panfish simply isn’t as sporty. That being said, there are instances where a 5wt rod makes sense on a panfish pond.
Because panfish often live side-by-side with larger predators like bass and pike, a 5wt rod may be a better option for anglers who want to target multiple species. It may be difficult to play a pike on a 3wt with light tippet. Consider upgrading to a 5wt if you’re purchasing a fly rod that you intend to use for panfish and larger warm water freshwater fish. A 5wt won’t show off that crappie as well as a 3wt, but you’ll be better equipped for a fight with a larger fish if a bass decides to eat your fly.
A 5wt may be worthwhile if you prefer fishing for panfish but take 1-2 trout trips per year, too. Many anglers don’t want to spend a lot of money on a trout setup that they’re going to fish one week out of the year and that’s understandable. While a 5wt isn’t optimal for panfish only, it’s a versatile rod weight and sometimes that’s important.
Finally, if you’re casting poppers 20 feet for hungry panfish and distance casting isn’t important, a 3wt works well. If you’re in a canoe or bass boat typically throwing casts beyond 20 feet, a 4wt adds some extra power to help poppers and other small flies cut through the wind. If you’d rather throw a 50-foot cast, upgrade to a 5wt.
Fast action rods are better at distance casting. That doesn’t mean they’re necessary for panfish, however. Because panfish are relatively unselective, it’s not often you have to present a fly delicately at longer distances. Medium-fast action rods are much more caster-friendly and cater to novice panfish anglers who don’t have a fast casting stroke and impeccable timing.
Great small water fly rods include the Douglas Upstream, Hardy Zephrus Ultralite, Orvis Penn's Creek Bamboo, Echo River Glass, Epic Packlight, Redington Butter Stick, Winston Pure, Sage Dart, TFO Finesse Trout, and a host of other fly rods.
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