We have been a champion of 8 weight rods for both freshwater and saltwater fly fishing, but lightweight rods used for trout in mountain streams can be a ton of fun with bluegill, stumpknockers and warmouth (to keep is simple, we just call them bream). A little 3 or 5 weight rod is perfect for targeting panfish. Because most of our freshwater is bordered by bulrush or cattails, a kayak or canoe makes a lot more shoreline available.
This is where the “magic” happens. A light flyrod can turn the pull of a small panfish into a real battle. Panfish use their shape and fins to generate substantial power for their size that will amaze most fly anglers. We think an 8-inch bluegill pulls as hard as a 16-inch brown trout. Sure, neither will take you into your backing — but these little fish can spin a kayak. A small fly presented on a 6-foot, 4-pound leader and a foot of light fluorocarbon can turn these little fish into some serious late afternoon of fun.
In Colorado, fly selection is dictated by temperature, which causes hatches of various insects on the trout menu. Temperatures vary with elevation, so a hatch at 8,000 feet of elevation will occur at 11,000 feet later in the summer as the snow melts. By contrast, in Southwest Florida hatches are mostly seasonal, but some bugs are around all year. A popping bug is a good example because it can actually call bream to create a reaction strike.
When fishing trout streams, a dead drift is often the preferred presentation. That is, the fly should just drift along with the current; not dragging behind the leader. It’s the same deal here. Fish these little poppers tight to the shoreline vegetation and just let them sit when they hit the water. After the ripples have totally settled, give a little tug to make it pop then let it sit motionless for at least a minute. The concave face of the popper sounds like a bream striking, and others in the area will come to see what’s for dinner. It’s the same concept as working a popping cork on the flats.
Bluegill and other bream will study a fly for quite a while without striking. Often, just a weensy wiggle of the rubber legs on the popper will trigger a strike. If nothing happens, try popping it again — but most of the strikes will happen as the bug is sitting motionless. We like poppers because they are a topwater presentation that can call fish in from a considerable distance. Frankly, we just like to see them come up to get the fly, and we enjoy the strike as much as the fight.
But poppers are by no means the only fly that bream will attack. Another local favorite is a sponge spider. This fly has no concave front for “popping,” but it sure draws strikes when lying motionless or with tiny tugs to wiggle the legs. Any freshwater kayaker knows about the long-legged spiders that board the boat as you paddle through grassy spots; bream eat lots of them. Just squeeze the water out of the fly every now and then to make it float higher.
Flies that are used for trout fishing work too. We recommend various nymphs and patterns that mimic crickets and grasshoppers for best results. Bream will eat most any bug in your fly box.
Stealth counts here, so avoid making pressure waves from the kayak as you cast. The smallest waves are created straight off the bow. Cast that direction towards fish that have no idea you are around. By far the best time for fly fishing is early or late in the day, when the low light helps these fish feel safer leaving heavy cover. If you must fish in the middle of the day, target shady areas and cast side-arm under the overhanging branches.
So, if you have a trout rod along, take it to most any freshwater kayak destination and enjoy the magic of catching small fish on light fly tackle from a kayak. Of course, the way things work for us, we hook and land (or lose) some really big bass while targeting bream. Big fish eat small bugs too. Don’t be too surprised if you catch lots bass as you target bream from a kayak in the fresh waters of Southwest Florida.
Kimball and Les Beery, authors of the waterproof “Angler’s Guide to Shore Fishing Southwest Florida” and “Angler’s Guide to Kayak Fishing Southwest Florida,” contribute these columns to promote the excellent fishing available in Southwest Florida. Their books are available at most tackle shops in the area, AnglerPocketGuides.com, or Amazon as a download or hard copy.