Warmwater Tips

Dry Flies or Panfish Poppers

By Jack Ellis

Trout fishers have recognized the importance of entomology since the early nineteenth century, but warmwater fly fishers have been, until recently, utterly oblivious to the diet of their prey. Attractorist tall, we tied and fish outlandish, and garish flies that bore little resemblance to any living organism. And we caught fish - as did our Puritan fore bears with the gaudy attractors of colonial New England. But they moved forward with ever increasing sophistication, while warmwater anglers continued to languish in nescience.

Traditional panfish poppers, rubber-legged spiders and miniature bass bugs work fine for spawners and juveniles, but are often too crude and unrealistic to fool mature, non-spawning bluegill. We are dealing with a very crafty fellow who will test all of our trout stream skills and tax our patience beyond its limit. His stillwater home provides the luxury of close examination and finely-honed survival instincts preclude his taking anything unnatural in appearance or movement.

Several years ago, I began to question the conventional wisdom that mature bluegill will not rise to a dry fly except during the spawn, because I frequently saw big bream taking struggling terrestrials. I spent lazy August days hiding in the shade of pond-side hardwoods, tossing all sorts of creepy crawlers into the water. No living insect would survive. As long as it was alive and moving. it would always disappear in a swirl, although a matter minutes may first elapse.

Bluegill always subject floating food forms to a close examination, but the duration and intensity of that inspection depends upon four factors. In order of angling importance, they are: (1) the size of the natural, (2) the movement of the drowning insect, (3) the familiarity of the organism and (4) the amount of competition for available food. No artificial will pass a lengthy inspection, no matter how well-tied, and topwater success demands that we find ways to moderate it.

Size is certainly the most crucial of the four factors. Bluegill really check-out a red/black milkweed beetle, but pause for only an instant beneath a tiny marsh fly. Movement is no less important. Their inspection is longer and more intense if the insect is either completely dead or extremely active. Larger fish will mill around a moth, for example, that is beating its wings until it settles down, and motionless insects may also drift unmolested for several minutes. Subtle, accurate animation is the name of this game. Their suspicion is further aroused by the fact that the beetle is quite unusual, while marsh flies occur on the water daily. Obviously, a panfish popper fails on all counts - it is not only comparatively large and represents highly unusual foods, it's anything but subtle!

While the warmwater pond and the trout stream may be geographically distant, they are more alike than different as far as strategy is concerned. The bluegill eats the same foods and falls for the same tactics as stillwater trout. In fact I advise beginners to use Dave Hughes' Strategies For Stillwater as a basic textbook, substituting the word "bluegill" for "trout."

Most of the so-called "panfish" flies of the past were simply miniaturizations 0 bass bugs or very poor imitations of terrestrial insects, based more on fantasy than reality. Al though bluegill commonly take colorful beetles and other bulky organisms from the water's surface, such lures do not effectively represent what they actually eat from day to day and should be used only with discretion and specific purpose. The natural opportunism of the Centrarchids(sunfish family) is an evolutionary adaptation to a wider range of available food, and should not be misinterpreted to mean that a big bream is not discriminating about what it puts in it's mouth.

Casting a yellow popper to spawning bluegill is fun, in a childlike way, but it is an intellectually empty exercise. Standard dry flies and patterns specially-tied to represent locally-occurring terrestrials will not only take more and larger bluegill, but deeply enrich those intellectual and spiritual components that are such an important part of the flyfishing experience. Walton and Cotton, Halford and Skues, Gordon and Hewitt are part of our traditions too or, better stated, we aspire to be in their tradition.



The article first appeared in Jack Ellis's monthly newletter, Refections on the Pond. The newletter is not in publication any more. The reprint of this article was granted by the publisher.

Jack Ellis lives in East Texas on the shore of a secluded private lake. Jack has published two books: The Sunfishes A Fly Fishing Jouney of Discovery (A must for any warm water fly fisher) and Bassin' with a Fly Rod.