Panfish are a fly-angling opportunity not to be missed, especially if clear, cold streams are in short supply where you live.
Species like crappie or bluegill are more aggressive than your typical trout - and decidedly less wary. As any experienced angler can attest, trout can be particular about which fly pattern they’ll take, turning downright finicky at times.
By contrast, crappie are voracious predators, and bluegill are nothing short of fresh-water sharks when it comes to their choice of fly, devouring anything and everything they run across.
As a die-hard panfish angler myself, I love throwing flies on quiet ponds and still lakes, and over the years, I’ve developed a sure-fire arsenal of flies that deliver every time.
If you’re looking for the best panfish flies, keep reading!
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Get to Know Your Quarry
Bluegill and crappie may not be the darlings of the fly-angling world, but they’re every bit as exciting to catch as brown trout.
We’ve written a lot about both species in the context of conventional angling, and a few tips about bluegill and crappie behavior will go a long way toward refining your fly choice.
A quick look at some of our more popular bluegill articles will reveal that these opportunistic predators attack anything and everything in the water. From leeches to insects like dragonflies and freshwater shrimp to minnows, these blue-eared gluttons are anything but particular.
Overall, I’ve had the most success choosing insect imitators and fishing dry flies for bluegill, but I have had them hit nymphs and other wet flies, too.
Crappie are among America’s most popular panfish, and these aggressive predators will hit nearly any fly you throw.
As we’ve discussed before, papermouths aren’t choosy, though mature adults tend to be dominantly piscivorous. For that reason, I tend to choose streamers when I know crappie are my target.
I’m as addicted to poppers as teenagers are to social media.
Because they mimic the wings, legs, and general shape of flying insects, poppers draw panfish into explosive strikes, and small poppers like a #8 or #10 Bett’s are my favorite panfish fly, hands down.
And Solitude Fly Company has an extensive collection of poppers on hand, offering colors and patterns that will please even the most discerning fly fisherman.
Tiny poppers catch big fish.
Anything larger than a #8 can cause problems for the relatively small mouths of many bluegill, though crappie can hit big flies, expanding their mandibles to engulf even #2 hooks.
Typically when I’m lofting poppers to panfish, I’ll be targeting them in shallow water. For crappie, I like to hit the pilings under piers, tossing a popper as far under the planks as I can. I’ll let it sit while the ripples subside, then start popping it forward with short strips of line.
I also work stumps and other vertical cover for crappie, working anything standing more or less straight in the water.
For bluegill, I’ll work a popper up under overhanging vegetation. Long casts aren’t necessary, just a measure of stealth. I allow my kayak or canoe to glide up close, and drop a fly in a likely spot. Especially when bluegill are holding close to their spawning beds, they’ll simply destroy poppers in just two or three feet of water.
I like chartreuse, black, mustard yellow, and white the best, but as long as your popper has “wings” and “legs,” crappie and bluegill are going to be interested!
Dry flies: gnats, midges, and other small insects
Any number of small flying insect imitators will deliver the goods when panfish are the target, and dry flies are irresistible to hungry fish in shallow water.
And while some specific patterns have proven deadly, panfish just aren’t gifted with the discernment and keen eyesight of trout. They’ll hit pretty much any dry fly that lands on the water, just as they’ll swallow pretty much any bug that’s unfortunate enough to touch the surface and get stranded.
I like my dry flies to sport lots of hair, making Umpqua’s Griffith's Gnat a deadly choice. Offered in #18, #20, and #22 in two packs, it’s a bluegill killer.
You just know that a fly that looks like this is going to be attractive to panfish.
I target water near the bank where bluegill have made a spawning bed. In amongst cover like stumps or branches, a well-positioned gnat pattern is amazing, and it won’t take long for a hungry fish to rocket to the surface to take your fly.
Feeder Creek’s Black Gnat is a great choice no matter what’s actually hatching. My experience with bluegill is that anything small with wings and a tail will ring the dinner bell, even if it’s not a perfect ringer for the real thing.
This gnat pattern is available in sizes ranging from #10 down to a tiny #18, making it ideal for bluegill.
And assortments like The Fly Fishing Place’s Basics Collection are a fantastic way to stock up on effective panfish patterns. Well-proportioned, these flies are tied on #10, #12, and #14 hooks.
I haven't found that color matters as much as plenty of hair, feathers, and fluff, though a spot or two of translucent green or blue matches the iridescence of insects really well.
Nymphs on a Dropper
Attaching a dropper line suspending a nymph below a dry fly offers the best of both worlds. Not only do you offer a bug imitation rippling on the surface, but you add a dancing nymph below as well.
If you’ve never tied a dropper line, rest assured that it’s child’s play:
A pattern like the Bead Head Flash-Back Pheasant Tail from Region Fishing is just about perfect, and you want to keep that nymph light enough so that it doesn’t drown your dry fly as it dangles below.
I like to loft dropper nymphs like this around cover like aquatic grasses, tempting bluegill to hit one or the other of my flies.
Wet Flies: Dragonfly and Damselfly Patterns
A long, juicy dragonfly is a treat no bluegill or crappie will ignore. Wet flies with weighted eyes can be perfect for targeting panfish near lily pads, live weed beds, and other cover, and by casting a sinking fly next to one of these areas, you can almost guarantee a strike.
The same goes for crappie holding close to vertical cover like pilings. A slowly descending fly is the perfect weapon in your arsenal, as a quick descent isn’t the best presentation.
The idea is to allow the fly to sink, shimmying and spiraling its way down. Nine times out of ten, a hungry bluegill or crappie is simply going to hammer your fly on the descent.
Outdoor Planet’s Dragonfly and Damselfly Assortment gives you plenty of options, and the color choices and realistic patterns are exceptionally effective on bluegill in mid-summer. Offered with hooks ranging from #10 to #14, once summer sends legions of these insects out over the water, these patterns are almost a sure thing.
Streamer patterns are easily the most effective fly for catching crappie, as their diet tends toward minnows of all kinds once they reach maturity.
As you may have noticed above, I recommend larger hook sizes for crappie than bluegill, as the former sport enormous, fragile mouths for their size. Not only does this allow them to take large flies without any trouble, but you’ll also find that small hooks are far more likely to tear free of the delicate mandibles of these fish.
In short, size up.
One streamer that I can’t get enough of is The Fly Fishing Place’s Slumpbuster Bouface Bunny Streamer. Tied around a selection of #4 and #6 hooks, allowing them to flutter to the bottom, or striping line to get them swimming near pilings, stumps, or trees is nothing short of miraculous.
The long body and fluttering “legs” are to crappie what the smell of fresh baked bread is to us, and they just can’t resist the temptation to strike all that wriggling goodness.
Check out our guide for the Best Streamer Boxes!
Never underestimate the excitement of catching panfish on fly tackle.
Bluegill and crappie fight like heavyweight contenders, savaging flies that trout might ignore. And while it’s certainly true that your fly selection doesn’t need to be as refined as it is for brownies, there are better and worse options to consider.
We hope that this article has helped you make better fly choices for panfish, and we’d love to hear from you if it has.
Please leave a comment below!