Fly Fishing Panfish in the South

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A thin ribbon of water cuts through a forest. A shadowy figure rests in a hole among the branches of a fallen tree just out of the current. A roll cast, necessary because of the limited space for a back cast, places a #10 woolly bugger gently near the fish. Slowly pulling in line, the fly moves within striking distance. The fish pounces. Grabbing its prey, it turns back to the safety of the submerged log. You set the hook and a short but ferocious fight ensues. He is very small. Too small to keep but the bright greens flowing seamlessly to red are captivating. You let the little bream go, gather up your line, and continue your trek along the clear, tannin-stained creek somewhere in the southern United States.

Until the last sentence, the preceding paragraph could have described chasing trout in a high mountain stream somewhere in the West. I, however, have not had that opportunity. Truth be told, I am not a great fisherman even by a long shot and would rather be hunting under the surface with a pointed object than trying to outsmart fish from another plane of existence. I like catching fish a lot more than looking for them. Therefore, I like simplicity and high rates of return. Most often one can find a piece of cut bait, hot dog, or live worm on my hook. Go ahead and make fun of me. I do not care because it works. However, I have come to enjoy lightweight fly fishing for panfish.

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Bream, sunfish, specks, warmouth, shellcrackers, and whatever else of the class known as panfish are one of the most plentiful and accessible fish out there. They are often one of the first fish we catch as children. Pound for pound, they are one of the hardest fighting fish you will run across. Their willingness to attack a wide variety of baits and lures coupled with their tenacity makes them perfect for lightweight fly fishing. For someone looking for a new adventure without going too deep into the weeds, it just makes sense. My one and only fly rod cost right around 100 bucks with line, reel, leader, tippet, and a few basic flies. A 3wt seems like a good rod for little panfish. It bends A LOT for these little guys and you feel every pull. I pair it with 5x leader and tippet just in case a larger bass decides to go for my presentation.

I have a basic assortment of flies mostly around #10 but between #8 and #12. Woolly buggers are a classic pattern that works really for a wide variety of fish. Poppers and hoppers can be extremely exciting dry flies. Bream are not as picky on colors as other fish. But black, green, white, and maybe even red if you are feeling froggy will cover most conditions. I usually do fairly well with white early in the morning. Black is a good all-around color.

Fly fishing for panfish is an enjoyable way to pass the time. At least it provides a good hike and you can see some pretty country. Doing so in the South introduces some interesting obstacles. I have regularly run into snakes and alligators while hiking and wading swamps and shallow streams. Therefore, I do not cross some streams unless I can see the bottom or at least have a probing stick out in front of me and have more than once turned around when I found myself standing among a bevy of baby gators.

Bigger fish can be filleted but more often, I gut them, cut off the head, and fry whole. Wash them off and dry them well. Rub them down with a basic fish fry or corn meal and spice mixture and fry to golden brown. The meat is light and delicious and the fins crisp up very nicely and should not be overlooked.

Chase Waller

Chase Waller is a Mississippi-born outdoorsman with a passion for hunting, culture, and food. After joining the Air Force in 2011, he has hunted, fished, hiked, and camped across the globe. Currently residing in Riverview, FL with his wife and son, Chase spends his time exploring public lands, looking for new adventures, and tinkering with recipes. He is also an active member of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

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