Although my friends in the southern states enjoy fly fishing for panfish year round, here in the northeast we have this thing called ice that tends to interfere with our fishing. Fly fishing that is. Even though we are often plagued with “hard water” during the winter, things will eventually thaw out, and our lakes and ponds will become soft again. Is it possible to catch bluegill and other panfish on the fly during the winter? Absolutely!
Deeper water, small flies, and slow retrieves.
During the winter months, bluegills and other panfish tend to gather in dense schools and seek the refuge that deeper water provides. To increase your chances of catching cold weather panfish focus on smaller bodies of water. In addition to warming quicker than larger bodies of water, small lakes and pond offer you the ability reach the deeper areas of the pond from shore. In many cases, the deepest part of the pond may be reachable with a long cast from shore. In small watersheds, the deepest portion of the lake may be right next to a dam. If there is suitable structure present, these areas may be locations were panfish are gathering during the colder months. My favorite way to fish these locations is using a small nymph or soft hackle on a sinking or intermediate line. After casting allow the fly to sink, retrieve it painstaking slow with a steady hand twist retrieve. Hits may be very light this time of year so you should set the hook on anything that looks or feels different. Sometimes a take is indicated by nothing more than a slight heaviness on the line.
Here comes the sun
Even though the daytime temperatures may hover around freezing, bright sunny days will begin warming the water. An increase in temperature of just a few degrees may get fish moving towards the shallows at least temporarily. After a few bright sunny days in a row focus your efforts on shallows with dark colored bottoms. Fishing later in the day, once the sun has had a chance to work its magic, you may find fish beginning to edge their way into shallow water. Early in the season fish will move back and forth between deep water and the warming shallows until things warm up enough for them to occupy their traditional haunts. Look for them on drop-offs near these dark bottomed flats and on the flats themselves. Be aware that a change in the weather or a cloudy day will send them scurrying back to relative comfort of deeper water. Use the same subsurface techniques utilizing small flies and slow retrieves. In addition to soft hackles and wet flies, midge pupae and small nymphs can be very effective fished with a slow retrieve or suspended under a small strike indicator. Use the smallest indicator possible that will suspend the flies. This will the rig make it easier to cast and will it telegraph the light takes of these sluggish fish. Move the indicator slightly to give the flies some movement than allow things to settle down. Repeat this process over and over watching that indicator like a hawk, hits will be subtle don’t expect the indicator to disappear under the surface. A hit may only be indicated by a slight twitch, or the indicator may dip a little under the surface but not submerge completely.
Smaller patterns seem to be more effective when the water is below 50 degrees. When the water cools a fish’s metabolism slows down, they don’t eat as often though bluegills will continue to feed despite low water temperatures. This is why panfish are a favorite target of ice fisherman. The fish are also less likely to chase their food down, so a small morsel placed right on their nose will often elicit a positive response. For cold water panfish, I like wet flies and soft hackles in a size 12 or smaller. Small nymphs can be deadly as well nymphs, and midge larva patterns in size 14-18 are very effective. They can be actively retrieved or suspended under an indicator. In warmer months you would be better served to drop the nymph under a dry fly such as a popper or topwater bug and increase your chances of catching fish. In cold water conditions, the fish will not be apt to rise for a fly on the surface, and strike detection will be easier with an indicator. Small streamers can also be effective as long as they are fished slowly. Certain species like crappie seem to relish the colder water and actively feed on small fish throughout the year. If your local water contains chain pickerel, you can enjoy some pretty good fishing in the weeks following ice out. They will move into the shallows (1-3 feet of water) in preparation to spawn as early as February. During this pre-spawn period, they will take flies quite readily. Fish larger streamers if you want to pursue these fish, but don’t be surprised if one grabs that soft hackle your chucking for panfish!
Don’t Ignore the Shallows
Even though I have stressed seeking fish out in deeper water, there are conditions when fish will move into shallow water for brief periods. On bright, calm days the sun will quickly begin to warm the water in shallow areas with dark bottoms. Fish will move into these warmer waters, at least for a short while, on these bright sunny days. After a few sunny days in a row, I often enjoy excellent fishing on dark bottomed, shallow flats adjacent to deeper water.
Just Get Out There
Although winter fishing will not be productive as it will be in a few months from now, it beats sitting home on the couch. For me, cabin fever begins to set in by mid-February. In my area ice out usually occurs in early March and recent years as early as mid to late February. Just getting out on a bright sunny day, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin and getting some casting practice is as good as an excuse as any to get outside for a few hours. Who knows, you just may catch a few fish in the process!