Mid to late summer fly fishing for big sunfish can be frustrating for many anglers. Most of the familiar shallow water haunts that held fish all spring now seem devoid of fish. Fish that fed with abandon all day long during the spring and early summer only seem to reveal their presence at sunrise or sunset. In many parts of the country, mid-summer heat can drive fish deep during the warmest parts of the day. Only on overcast days or early or late in the day do large panfish slide back into the shallows to feed. Unfortunately, they never return to the shallows in some locations, preferring to stage around deepwater structures all summer long.
Early in the season, to reach fish holding deep, weighted nymphs and streamers usually get the job done. However, as the season progresses, many of the watersheds I fish become choked with aquatic vegetation. As a result, fishing standard subsurface patterns are an exercise in futility as these flies become hopelessly mired in weeds and muck on every cast. What’s needed in this situation is a fly that gets below the surface but stays above the weeds.
To catch these fish, you need to use subsurface flies and fish them deep enough to reach the fish. Effective fly patterns would include streamers, wet flies, and nymph patterns. In some cases, floating lines will not get the job done because they limit the depth your flies can reach.
When fish are holding deeper than four to six feet deep, it is time to switch to a sinking line or use another method such as slip indicators to get your flies deep. This is one of two times of the year (the other being winter) when I break out the sinking fly lines. Using sinking lines will require you to use heavier tackle as well. Generally speaking, sinking lines of any type are hard to find in lines lighter than a five weight. However, recently I have seen some 4wt sinking/intermediate lines..
I often see eyebrows raise when I discuss using five and six weights for panfish, but these heavier rods are needed to effectively fish sinking lines. Casting sinking lines has become a lot easier with some of the new line designs out there. If you struggled casting sinking lines in the past it may be work checking out a new line or two.
You have two options to present your flies to fish in deep water and still keep them out of the weeds. One option is to suspend your fly under an indicator. Flies like balanced leeches work particularly well with this method. However, indicator rigs can be cumbersome to cast if you are fishing a few feet below the surface unless you utilize a slip-style float. The second method is to fish floating flies on a sinking line. The line sinks to the bottom, and the fly floats above it and hopefully any weeds and debris as well.
I utilize three types of sinking lines for panfish. First is a sink tip floating line. The sink tip section is usually around ten feet in length though I have one line with a short five-foot sink tip and several with longer ones. Sink tips are helpful when fish are holding in 4 – 6 foot depths.
Intermediate lines are another option when fish are holding in this range as well. I prefer intermediate lines to sink tips as I feel I have better contact with the flies. In addition, many intermediate lines a clear which gives you an added stealth bonus.
Full sinking lines of various densities are used when fishing deeper than six feet as they get the flies down to depth quicker. Modern sinking lines sink at a uniform rate allowing you to stay in contact with your flies.
Since I prefer casting to watching an indicator, I use the sinking line/floating fly method more often. While there are several different floating fly styles to choose from, my favorite is dragonfly nymphs. Dragonfly nymphs make up a large part of the diets of many freshwater fishes, including all species of panfish.
Dragonfly nymphs can be pretty large insects. Their chunky forms allow for imitations that contain a lot of high floating foam. A very buoyant fly will stay above weeds, and bottom detritus. Leader length will determine how high your fly will suspend above the bottom. I always try and use a knotless leader (tapered or straight) as knots collect debris as the line is retrieved along the bottom. I try and cast to areas I am confident do not have any obstructions that may snag my fly line. Losing a fly to a snag sucks; losing an entire fly line is costly.
I like to fish these patterns over submerged weed beds. I use a slow hand twist retrieve and keep the rod tip low on the water’s surface to maintain good contact with the flies. Strikes run the gamut from hard to detect (often the case) to solid takes. Often an eat feels like heaviness on the line. My advice is to strip set on anything that feels or looks out of the ordinary. Strip setting the hook is important as it allows your fly to stay in “the zone” if it is a swing and a miss. Lifting the rod tip will often pull the line off the bottom and your fly down into the weeds.
My floating dragonfly uses thick foam (up to 4.5 mm) for the body to create a buoyant fly. To further increase floatation, you can replace the large mono eyes with foam tubing. I feel legs are important on these type of flies. I love the look that knotted pheasant tail fibers provide (the fish do, too), but fine round rubber will work if you don’t want to be bothered with knotting up your own. Fortunately, knotted legs are available commercially and will save you the hassle knotting them yourself.
The body of the nymph is made by using a tapered strip of foam or a shape cut with a foam cutter. I will sometimes use a beavertail shaped foam cutter to create this style of fly, that is a fly with a narrow abdomen and a wide thorax/head. Precut bodies speed up the tying process, take all the guess work out of sizing the foam correctly, and produce consistent results.
I prefer an underbody to plain foam and often use Semperfli Straggle String or Straggle Legs to create as buggy looking underside to the fly. Semperfli Floating Poly Yarn or even dubbing will work as well.
My floating dragonfly nymph is occasionally taken off the surface before the sinking line drags it under. These surface eats happened frequently enough for me to adopt the fly as a topwater bug as well. The fly pictured above is a top water foam bug created from the basic design of the floating dragonfly nymph. I’ll share the details of this pattern in a future blog post.
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