I tend to get very jealous this time of the year when I see picture after picture of bluegill and other panfish caught during the months of December, January and February. Anglers living in the southern portion of the United States enjoy good fishing year round. For us located in the northeast chasing panfish with a fly rod in the winter can be a hit or miss affair. First off you need to find "soft water," many of our lakes and ponds freeze solid in December and don't thaw until late March so fly fishing is out of the question. But, during some years, this year being one of them, we may see some open water periodically throughout the winter.
Cold weather fly fishing for bluegills and other sunfish is often a tough proposition. Fish leave their shallow water haunts and will typically move to deeper water, near structure, to find the most comfortable temperature. As many an ice fisherman will attest to, they do continue to feed throughout the winter months, but not with the same voracity that they do during warmer weather. Bluegills will move into shallow water with dark bottoms on bright, sunny days if the sun can warm the water temperature by a few degrees. Most of the time, however, it will be a deepwater game. The good news is if you find one fish you likely to catch others in the proximity. In cold water, bluegills will gather in dense schools, often with other fish species. Look for these fish in transition areas where shallow water drops off to deep water. If there is structure present like a fallen tree or deadfall adjacent to the deep water you are likely to find fish. Those fish may be suspended so be sure to retrieve your fly at different levels in the water column.
Presentations need to be slow and takes may be difficult to detect. I have the best success with small streamers, nymphs, soft hackles and wet flies. Soft hackles probably account for more fish due to the alluring movement of the feathers during the painfully slow retrieves.
Cover as much water as possible, searching for fish. Once you detect a strike or catch a fish, make repeated casts in that area. Once you locate a single fish, you are likely to connect with more. Experiment with the speed and depth of your retrieve until you dial in on an effective presentation.
The use of sinking or intermediate lines may become necessary to reach fish holding in deeper water. Presenting a fly to fish holding in deeper water can be challenging. Often sinking or intermediate line must come into play. Swapping out mono leaders and tippet for ones made of fluorocarbon will also help get your fly down into the depths. Detecting light takes on these lines can be difficult at times. Good line control is essential for proper presentation and strike detection. In many of the small ponds I fish, the deepest part of the lake may only be a few feet deep. Under these conditions, I often suspend a nymph under a small indicator or popper. Casting a rig like this is not the easiest thing to do, and landing a fish becomes problematic if there is a significant distance between the indicator and the fly. That being said, it can be a very effective way to fish. The small strike indicator will detect the lightest of strikes.
So swap out your bug spray for a thermos of coffee and give winter fly fishing for bluegills a try.