Easily one of the most accessible fish to toss a fly to is a panfish. In my fly-fishing classes, I search for those lakes and ponds that panfish call home. What better way to finish a casting lesson than to catch a panfish on a fly you tied?
13 of My Favorite Panfish Flies
First on the list. Poppers are simply fun to fly fish with. Seeing a panfish slam a fly on the water surface is a visual thrill.
My absolute favorite popper is a size 10 with a white body and black hackle collar. I strip the popper back with 3 to 6-inch tugs. Just enough to make a splash in front of the fly.
Shopping for poppers? Amazon is a great bet with fast delivery and great reviews. Here’s a link to a selection – Popper Flies on Amazon
Beetles and Spiders
A smaller size 12 fly works best for me. I tie my own and you can see the video HERE. I like using fine rubber legs in a variety of colors. Years ago, I tied these with short stumpy legs, but I’ve settled on legs about ¾ of an inch long.
If you don’t tie your own, I recommend this fly selection from Wild Waters – Link Wild Waters Beetles (Amazon)
If trophy panfish are deep you need to get your fly down to them. The weighted eyes and bright colors of a Clouser are perfect for triggering “slab side pans”.
I like a mix of red, white, yellow and blue. A size 8 streamer hook is about right. Be ready, this is a great fly for smallmouth bass. Find a selection of Clouser minnows with this link to Amazon
As a durable high floating fly in a hopper dropper setup using a foam body Chernobyl can’t be beat. The foam rides high and signals anything happening on the dropper nymph. A great article about setting up a dropper can be found HERE.
If you enjoy tying, here’s a video I did on tying a Chernobyl. They’re fun and fast to tie. In a half hour I can spin out enough for a season. If you buy flies here’s a selection that I’d recommend – Outdoor Planet Chubby Chernobyl
Wooly Worms in size 10 work great as streamer when fished along weed lines. I like weighted and unweighted. Stick with the traditional colors like: black with a red tail and grizzly (black and gray) with red.
I prefer the hackle (winding around the body) to have a feathers that look like marabou by the head. The marabou flutters in the water and appears alive. Check out this selection of Woolly Worms on Amazon
Soft Hackle Flies
I think of tweed jackets and bamboo fly rods when soft hackle flies are mentioned. An old style of fly that is super effective. Cast it out and let it sink just beneath the surface and slowly strip it back.
Size 14 works best, yellow bodies and sparse wraps of grizzly hackle or black with rusty bodies have hooked panfish for me. Maybe they look like an emerging bug, but for some reason panfish love them.
I guess living in Michigan (Home of the Adams Fly) forced me to carry these at the beginning of my fly fishing life. But what has kept me filling my fly box with Parachute Adams is they work really well.
Get a variety of sizes ranging from 10 to 18 and you’ll be able to catch any fish that’s looking up. The parachute version is a favorite for me because of the high visibility and how it floats. Umpqua sells excellent Parachute Adams (link to Amazon for reviews and prices)
Elk Hair Caddis
A perfect dry fly for most situations, especially panfish and trout. The elk hair is durable and floats well. Light color wings and darker bodies imitate most caddis. I’ve even tied these with a yellow foam body to improve the floating quality and add a visual trigger.
Again, you can’t go wrong with a variety of sizes ranging from 12 to 18. Fast delivery and great prices from Umpqua on Amazon with this link – Elk Hair Caddis Flies
Gnats, Ants and Midges
Both as dry flies and nymphs. When chasing shy panfish a zebra midge or drowned ant can work extremely well. These bugs are small and I usually use black or dark brown.
Look for fly names like ant, Griffith’s gnat and sparrow. Size 16 to 20 works best. Use a light tippet like 6X or 7X. Many folks love tossing these tiny flies. For me, I usually get tired of the panfish swallowing the hook deep. I haven’t tried these flies but they look pretty good – Gnats – Midge – Caddis
Sneaky Pete’s are a floating popper or technically called a “Slider” you cast it out and give it short strips in. The bullet shaped head causes the fly to dart and move in erratically. These guys are deadly with bass, but panfish love them as well.
Look for size 10, or even smaller size 12 – hard to find. Stick with the white and yellow or yellow and black.
Rubber Leg Stimulator
Another foundational fly, stimulators are what I turn to when other flies aren’t doing it. Even when I’m not seeing panfish rise I’ve caught them on this deadly bug. The rubber legs add action and the deer hair helps them float.
My recommended colors are yellow and red bodies. I prefer lighter color deer hair wings and multi-color rubber legs. Size 12 is a great all-around size for panfish. Get ready to feel a tug when using stimulators.
Here’s a link to a recommended half dozen stimulators in size 12. Royal Red Stimulator with Rubber Legs
Bead Head Nymphs Like Pheasant Tail and Hare’s Ear
A fly box IS incomplete without Pheasant Tails (PT) and Hare’s Ear nymphs. When casting to panfish use them as a dropper behind a high floating dry.
I use size 10 to 14, and stick to the traditional colors. If you keep hooking little guys, I’ve even tied on a size 10 to stop the small panfish. The bigger size hook usually comes with a larger faster sinking bead, in turn use a bigger dry (I like foam) as the indicator.
Find a great selection of bead head nymphs with this link to Amazon – Bead Head Nymphs
San Juan Worm and Squirmy Worm
We all started fishing with worms. Admit it. Panfish love worms. So, can it be wrong to match what panfish love and call it a fly? My vote—No.
I’m not going to say much other than worm imitations work. Size 12 to 16 hooks are great. Colors red, orange and pink are my favorites. Recommended selection check out the reviews and prices on Amazon – Fly Fishing Worms
What Size Flies are Best for Panfish?
For their size panfish have small mouths. For me this gives me a chance to “weed-out” the little fish by using a size 12 hook – so my recommendation is 12. Smaller hooks will get swallowed and hooked deep and larger than 10 tends to become “bait” without catching anything.
How to Setup a Fly Rod for Panfish
I teach a fly fishing class and finish with on water casting (and hopefully catching). I stick to the basics, a 9 foot, 5 weight fly rod. Onto this I recommend a simple reel that has a drag. Get a float fly line, it can be cheap or expensive, but make sure it is the correct weight for the fly rod.
Guide Tip: If you start to get serious about casting flies, a good fly line should be one of the things to put on your shopping list. I recommend Scientific Anglers Frequency if you’re on a budget or if you want what I use Scientific Anglers Amplitude. (Links to Amazon)
A 7 ½ foot, 5X leader will cast all the flies listed above. I typically don’t use tippet until I’ve switched out flies and nibbled the leader down 16 inches or so.
Two Fly Setup for Panfish
A dry dropper setup is a must for panfish fishers. I’ve described the setup in the video below.
Where to Find Panfish
Lakes with structure, drop-offs and bays. The bays are perfect breeding grounds and structures with currents are the food source. Below is a sketch from my fly-fishing class. If you’re interested check out this link and sign up for a free dry fly fishing workshop. LINK to sign-up – https://www.how2flyfish.com/
Best Time to Fly Fish for Panfish
The best time to fly fish for panfish is just before sunset until after dark. I call it the magic hour, pack a beverage of choice and a snack. I like paddling to my spot an hour before and relaxing until the sun starts to fall behind the shoreline trees.
I’d love to say you can “feel” when to start casting. When the bite turns on, you’ll know. The fishing can be furiously fast.
Another time is in the morning. I love mornings, the smell of coffee and casting a fly is the best way to start a day. If you can get to your spot by sunrise works well. The panfish will stay active for the first hour, then will look for deeper darker waters.
A Simple Panfish Fly to Tie
Two flies are fast to tie and work great. I tied the Chernobyl Ant above, now I’ll show you an Elk Hair Caddis.
Last Cast to Panfish
The perfect summer evening for me is to get home from work and eat dinner, then run over to the local lake with my canoe. About 30 minutes before sundown something seems to change on the water. It almost seems like nature is taking a deep breath and relaxing for the evening. Around this time, I’ll start thinking I need to head back to the car, but usually the panfish will start cooperating which means, I’ll end up paddling back in the dark…. again
Are you looking for some great How To Fly Fish Articles? Checkout this list:
- How to Fly Fish for Bluegills – These amazing fish are all over the USA. I like to call them the “Gateway Drug to Fly Fishing”
- How to Fly Fish for Brook Trout – Find the cleanest, coldest, most beautiful streams and I’ll bet Brookes are present.
- How to Nymph Fish – Step by Step details for setting up, presenting and catching trout with nymphs.
- How to Fly Fish for Salmon – Image hooking into a +25 pound King Salmon in a river and your Fly Rod breaks! Seriously this happened to me on my first trip.