Saturday, July 27, 2013


    The temperatures and the sky have confirmed that we are well into the “Dog Days” of summer.  

While smallmouth action will increase proportionally with the heat, rivers can be unpredictable in flow this time of year—the skies seeming to open every afternoon.  However, nothing reeks of the lazy, sticky sweat of summer in the Old Dominion more than panfishing and a small farm pond—and the opportunities are endless.

The Players

    Several species of sunfish inhabit Virginia waters, and are readily available to the angler.  Redear, redbreast, pumpkinseed, and bluegill all sport names equal in simple flare to their character and habits.

A hard-fighting, bottom-feeding redear on
the fly.  Photo by  Matthew Reilly
    Redear are the lone bottomfeeders of the scrappy bunch, and thus tend to age larger and meaner.  They prefer cleaner lakes and ponds with plenty of bottom cover, where they can be caught with bottom rigs as they feed on small shellfish, worms, and insects.

    The similarly-named redbreast sunfish are primarily stream dwellers, and are common catches on rivers such as the James, Rapidan, and Rivanna.  Skinny, shaded water along river banks and grass beds suit these characters best, and are usually smaller than their stillwater cousins.  Small spinners, grubs, and poppers fished in prime habitat are choice lures for these fish.

    The pumpkinseed and bluegill often inhabit the same waters, feeding on small crustaceans, insects, and worms.  Both too remain very active in the heat of the summer, though pumpkinseed have a higher tolerance for sunlight and will dwell in shallow, sun-lit coves throughout the day, while bluegill will migrate to escape the sun during the day before and return to the shallows in the evenings.

The Locations

A hefty bluegill taken from a mill
pond.  Photo by Matthew Reilly
     To view a patch of the Piedmont from the sky, what appears is an expanse mottled green and tawny—forest and farmland—marbled with the varied pockets of blue, black, and brown.  No farm pond is the same; and that uniqueness in water qualities is what is most striking about each appearance.  Rich, rocky, wooded ponds reflect black; pebbly, pure, spring-fed impoundments show blue; and meadow farm ponds are muddy brown—all hold panfish.

     Rivers broad and narrow slither across the state in their journey to salt, and they, in the slow stretches and the powerful runs, too hold panfish.  The creeks and streams that undermine your drive to work or school, with a depth measured in inches, also hold panfish.

     Almost any piece of water, from the mountainous highlands to the meandering cypress swamps of the Tidewater, all hold panfish, where they are easy to catch and, often, plentiful.

The Tackle

     If you can remember your first fish, chances are it was a species of sunfish.  If so, you’ll probably also remember the desperate fight that dunked and enlivened a red and white bobber placed within reach of the greedy sunnie.

     Greed in the case of the sunfish is probably the foremost cause for their reputation as easy targets.  

     Coupled with the natural association of a bobber and nightcrawler, the sunfish are often neglected by those fishermen who have come of age, but have moved on to “bigger and better” things.  That’s good for those of us who value our pride, but sacrifice nothing in indulging in some good old-fashioned “perch-jerking.”
An ultra-light spinning combo, 4-lb
mono, and a black Joe's Fly make up
the author's favorite sunnie rig.
Photo by Matthew Reilly
      The gear required is simple.  An ultra-light to medium rod spooled with two to four pound monofilament is enough to handle most fish. 

      In many cases, a simple clip-on red and white bobber or foam peg float is practical, but in the event that you find yourself fishing deeper water, I recommend investing in floats that utilize bobber stops to minimize casting issues.
      This, topped with a snelled baitholder hook, size four—or two, for smaller fish—loaded with red wigglers, crickets, mealworms, or small crayfish or minnows is deadly.

       For those “above”—eyes rolling—bobber fishing, or for those that just want an added challenge, sunfish will readily take artificial lures and flies.

From left to right:  Joe's Flies, Mepps Spinners, and
Panther Martins are all great panfish lures.
Photo by Matthew Reilly
       Beetle Spins, Panther Martins, Mepps spinners, Roadrunners, and my favorite, Joes Flies all have their place in the panfishing world.  Small grubs in white, yellow, and natural olive and brown colors; shad spoons; and the simple yet effective Trout Magnets also take their share of sunnies, both in still and moving waters.

        Fly anglers should fish small nymphs, wet flies, dry flies, and flashy streamers.  My favorite technique is casting a small, thinly-dressed popper to underwater grass beds in July and August.  On an average day, shooting fish in a barrel would be tougher, and much less fun!

        Availability, excitement, and a willingness to bite, even during the Dog Days of summer, all combine to make the sunfish quality fish worthy of your time and efforts.  So sit back, relax, and search for some sunnies this summer.  Heck, even keep a few.  They’re called panfish for a reason! 

First published in the Rural Virginian

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