About Bluegill
Wet Flies for Big 'Gills and Crappies

Article By Tom Keith


The habits and food preferences of bluegills and crappies can't be said to differ drastically from East to West, yet Tom Keith has for years panfished the Western waters with consistent success using just two wet-fly patterns more often-throughout the year and under varying conditions-than any other flies. Without question, the patterns are excellent (and not for panfish alone) but we suspect that a large measure of his success also stems from his methods of prospecting and presentation. Here's how Tom uses...

Fly fishermen have been discovering what the bait-and-bobber crowd has known all along-that despite their diminutive size, bluegills and crappies can always be counted on to provide king-sized fishing pleasure. These two species possess all the qualities of top notch game fish, they're available in good numbers in most areas of the country, they're energetic fighters, and because of their preference for relatively shallow water they're usually easily accessible to the fly fisherman.

They aren't among the most difficult species to catch, but don't let anyone tell you bluegills and crappies are pushovers. Although most anyone can catch a few small fish during an afternoon on the water, a good deal more skill and knowledge are required to catch large fish consistently at different times of the year, from diverse types of aquatic habitat, and under various weather conditions. Most fishermen know that a ½-pound bluegill is a good catch but don't realize that 'gills of more than a pound aren't uncommon-the record was closer to 5! Likewise, most crappies (both the white and black species) weigh less than a pound, but quite a few 2- to 3-pounders are waiting in some waters if only the angler can find them.

One of the keys to taking both species is to use fly patterns that have proven to be consistent producers. This eliminates time lost switching from pattern to pattern and allows you to spend that time fishing. A lot of bluegill fishermen seem to use poppers most of the time, but they seldom catch the most and largest fish. Versatility is of prime importance for consistent success, and wet flies are the most versatile of all fly types. Depending on how they're manipulated in the water, they can imitate nymphs moving along the bottom or nymphs hatching and rising on the water's surface. There's even a species of caddis fly that lands on the surface and swims to the bottom to lay her eggs, and a wet fly may adequately mimic this caddis fly's movements.

Bluegills and crappies are primarily sight-feeders, so fly size and color are important. The majority of bluegill and crappie fishing occurs in ponds, lakes, and reservoirs, waters that swiftly fluctuate in clarity due to wind, run-off, character of the impoundment, and other such factors. Keep in mind that lighter-colored flies are usually more visible in stained water, while darker patterns get the nod in clearer water.

I don't know of a "perfect" fly pattern for any type of fishing, but I do know there are two patterns that come darn close to being perfect for catching bluegills and crappies. Both are improved versions of traditional patterns.

The Improved McGinty is the best choice under most conditions. It reminds me of a bee, and though I've never seen a fish take a bee, they go after the Improved McGinty with a vengeance. It's tied in sizes 10 to 14, which are just about right for a bluegill to take in its small mouth, yet the fly's small size doesn't hinder its ability to attract and hook the bigger-mouthed crappie.

The Improved Black Gnat is an easier- to-tie rendition of the original Black Gnat, a pattern long renowned as a bluegill slayer. It still is a great producer of big 'gills, but is actually a more effective crappie pattern. The Improved Black Gnat is also tied in sizes 10 to 14.

I generally use a 5 weight graphite rod. I might go lighter if I didn't use the same rod for Western trout. On the other hand, 5 weight is a bare minimum if you might encounter bass in the same pond or lake. I like a weight-forward floating line and a 7½-foot tapered leader with 7X tippet for both bluegills and crappies in shallow water. You can cast accurately and comfortably with this combination all day, and it doesn't overpower the fish. When the fish move into deeper water and suspend along drop-offs or move into submergent weedbeds, it's important that the fly sinks rapidly and rides deeper, so I switch to a weight-forward fast-sinking line and a short leader.

Small bluegills can be found in shallows from a foot to a yard deep most of the time, but larger fish prefer deeper, darker water to feed, escape the sun, and hide from predators. The best spots have an abundance of cover such as a weedbed or stump field. Large bluegills favor the deep-water outside edge of a weedbed, and the portion of a stump field that's closest to deeper water.

The fly fisherman who's after large fish handicaps himself greatly if he casts only from the bank. To fish a weedbed effectively it's necessary to wade or use a float tube or a boat to position yourself on the deep-water side of the weeds and cast back to them. This puts you into position to cast parallel to the outside deep-water edge of the weedbed and allows you to keep your fly in potentially productive water for the longest period of time during each retrieve.

A deadly tactic for bluegills is to cast a size 12 Improved McGinty as close to the weedbed's outside edge as possible and retrieve it slowly along the weed edge. Retrieve the fly by stripping 6 to 12 inches of line at a time and pausing for a few seconds-not just momentarily-between pulls.

There won't be a savage strike when a bluegill inhales an Improved McGinty. You'll see the line straighten, and when you apply pressure the fish will turn his broad, flat side against the direction of the pull and dart back toward the weeds. Try to keep him away from the vegetation to avoid tangles. When he realizes he can't get into the weeds, he'll make a dash for deeper water. Play him slowly rather than just cranking him in, and remember he'll never surrender to you, even when you have him in your hand. A bluegill always saves enough strength for a final flop as you hold him to admire his bright colors. That strong flop has won the freedom of more bluegills than have ever been fried or released.

If the fish are holding among the weeds, concentrate your casts on small open pockets and indentations where you can place your fly. After the cast, resist the urge to take up the slack in your line immediately, because that will move the fly forward a few inches, may be out of the target area. Avoid touching the line for a few seconds while the Im proved McGinty slowly sinks, or let out a few inches of line to insure that the fly doesn't move forward until you start the retrieve.

There's no need to jerk the rod to set the hook when you feel a strike. The bluegill's mouth is so small that the fly has no place to go except into tissue as the line becomes tight and, in essence, the fish hooks itself. But once the fish is on, it's best to keep the line tight so the hook won't work free as the fish fights to escape. Remember to pinch down your barbs to ease hook removal and release of fish.
Look for crappies near rocks, timber, and shady shoreline areas where there's a sand, gravel, or hard clay bottom. Some of the best crappie fishing is dur ing the hottest parts of the day in mid summer when other still-water fish may provide little or no activity. Look for spots where heavily-leaved branches of trees growing along the bank bend out over the water. The closer the branches and leaves come to touching the water, the better. The ideal spot will also have grasses and aquatic weeds growing in the water, under or near the overhanging branches, and will be located a short distance from deeper water. Spots like this attract crappies because they pro vide shade from the heat and glare of the summer sun, and because insects that associate with the trees, weeds, and grasses are attractive forage for the fish.

This is another situation that requires the fisherman to get away from shore and cast back toward the bank. In this case the target is the shaded area beneath the free. If the branches hang very low, you can use a sidearm cast to place the Improved Black Gnat in under the leaves and make it land against the bank. The most consistently productive retrieve isn't at all the same as for bluegills. Retrieve the fly in short, darting motions by wiggling the rod tip from side to side and stripping line simultaneously. Also cast near the overhanging leaves so the fly lands as if it fell from the vegetation into the water.

Shallow, grassy areas along rocky shorelines are another spot where you'll find large crappies. Cast as close to the rocks as possible and let the fly sink as you slowly retrieve it by pulling in just 2 to 3 inches of line, then pause before pulling in more line. An alternative method that's often effective is to cast near the rocks and retrieve the Improved Black Gnat rapidly so it swims just beneath the surface.

You may, of course, encounter all sorts of other situations, but the flies and methods I've described will cover most of them. Add a bit of experimentation on your own and you're likely to be hooking feisty panfish even when bass and trout are least cooperative. .