IF YOU CAN’T GO NYMPHING for trout as often as you would like, you can sharpen your nymph-fishing skills between trips by pursuing panfish and bass in your local streams, ponds, and reservoirs. These warmwater fish can be your best opportunity to hone your basic nymphing techniques, because they are often more willing than trout to take a fly.

Fly Fishing with Nymphs for Panfish
Fly Fishing with Nymphs for Panfish

Fly Fishing for Panfish in Streams

Panfish in streams often like to hold in the same feeding positions that trout love. Riffles, deep holes, midstream rocks, and current edges are favorite lies. In stillwaters, panfish hide along weedy shorelines, in weed beds, and around drop-offs. Ponds choked with lily pads are exceptional, too, if you can keep your fly from snagging weeds. Fishing in weedy ponds can be difficult, but it sharpens your casting and striking reflexes and helps you improve your casting accuracy.

The key to successful panfish nymphing is realism, just as in trout fishing. Your imitation must drift, swim, crawl, rise to the surface, or struggle in the surface film like a natural insect. While dead-drifts usually work best on streams, an active retrieve usually works best on stillwaters. In moving water, present your nymph either directly upstream or slightly across-stream. Upon completion of an upstream cast, lower the rod tip and hook the line loosely under your right index finger (for right-handed casters). By pulling the line in with your left hand, remove slack from the line at the same rate of speed that the current sends it toward you.

The retrieve is only to prevent a line belly from forming and dragging the fly. By lifting the rod tip slightly, you can achieve a natural float while keeping tight to the fly in preparation for a strike. A strike indicator can help you control the depth and drift of the fly when you use this upstream nymphing technique. To fish slightly across-stream cast your nymph at a 45-degree angle up-and-across stream. Cast so the fly hits the water first and the indicator lands upstream of the fly. Without disturbing the fly, use the rod tip to gently mend a few feet of line upstream.

Repeat the gently mending as often as is necessary to create long, natural floats. Panfish tend to follow and examine their food before eating it, so you need a long, natural drift. To make an effective presentation to rising fish directly across-stream from you, cast a short line slightly upstream of the fish and keep most of the line out of the water with the rod tip high as the fly drifts to the fish.

Check out this Video using Nymphs for Panfish

If the fish doesn’t take, let the fly drift out of its view, then gently pick up the line and present the fly again. Standard downstream nymph presentations are also effective, and they produce slashing strikes. After casting, keep the rod tip high (in the 11 o’clock position), then lower the tip to allow the nymph to drift downstream with the current. As the fly line tightens, the nymph will move toward the surface, like a natural emerger.

A few lifting twitches, made when the fly completes its downstream drift and line becomes taut, can excite panfish info striking. For another method that is especially effective when fishing caddis pupae, make your cast downstream and then feed out line to let the nymph sink. Start stripping in line with short pulls and add a few twitches. Feed out line, strip in line, twitch. This method imitates the emerging pupa’s struggling swim through swift currents toward the surface.

Stillwater Fly Fishing for Panfish

On stillwaters or very slow currents, midge pupa imitations in #16 to #20 are good producers. After hatching, midges rest on the surface and dry their wings, and they are easy prey for panfish. You can take advantage of such situations by presenting a floating nymph on a greased leader and gently imparting slow, enticing twitches. The imitation appears to struggle in the surface film, resembling, an easy prey.

Nymphing for Panfish in Stillwater

Dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are also important to the panfish’s diet. Damselfly nymphs are agile swimmers and can be recognized by their slender forms and wiggling movements. The nymphs inhabit slow currents or stillwaters, and imitations with marabou tails should be fished with a hand-twist-pause-hand-twist retrieve to imitate the swimming motion of the natural. A thorax-weighted or bead-head nymph will assume a head-down attitude while at rest.

When the fly is retrieved, the head will be forced upward, causing the fly’s tail to sway and appear alive. When nymphing for panfish, consider any push, pull, twitch, or abnormal line-tip movement to be a strike, and left the rod tip quickly. A floating line with 5X tippet works well, although in weedy or stumpy areas, 4X tippet may be necessary.

Setting Up a Fly Rod for Panfish

Most times panfish aren’t leader shy.  So if it’s windy (as it often is on a lake) and you want to toss bigger wind resistant flies shortening the leader.  I’ve clipped my leader down to 6 feet and still caught crappie and gills.  I use weight forward floating line balanced to the fly rod I’m fly fishing.  A great “weight” is either a 3 or 4 weight.

Setting Up a Fly Rod to Nymph for Panfish
Setting Up a Fly Rod to Nymph for Panfish

My Favorite Nymph Flies for Catching Panfish

I’ve already mentioned Zebra midge and Damsel fly nymphs, but to add a couple more: beadhead pheasant tails in size 16 are great.  If you tie flies they’re fast to make.  Scud have always proven to be affective as well.  A fast sinking beadhead is good.  Size 18 in grey and red should work well.  As usual squirmy worms are good.  Smaller size 14 and 16 in red, brown and even blue.

Favorite Nymph Flies for Panfish
Favorite Nymph Flies for Panfish

What Size Hook to Nymph for Panfish?

Most panfish have small mouths, this isn’t to say that a bigger bluegill or crappie won’t grab a size 10 hook.  Since the fish are usually schooled up in a bay or along a weed line in a river, I start small in the size 16 or 18 range.  If the fish are swallowing the hook deep, I’ll bump the size up to a size 12.

If you’re targeting bigger fish, by all means go with size 10 to 12 so the little guys aren’t getting hooked.

Fly Fishing Equipment When Nymphing for Panfish

I’ve fallen in love with longer 4 weight fly rods for nymphing.  My most recent favorite is a Scott FLEX FX 1004/4 link – https://www.scottflyrod.com/rod-series/view/flex  It’s a dream for high stick nymphing and does an incredible job of tossing dry flies as well.  I’ve written a lot about the “Drift” from TFO.  It’s a 3 weight with varying sections lengths to customize to the particular situation your in.  Here’s a link to the Drift on Amazon https://amzn.to/3nKyllm


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Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How 2 Fly Fish