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Fly Fishing for Bream (Sunfish)

An introduction to the basics of fishing for panfish with a flyrod.
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As a teen in New Orleans my grandmother gave me my uncle's old bamboo fly rod. Now don't get excited about the bamboo rod because it was an el cheapo.  A wet spaghetti noodle would cast better.  I taught myself how to use it and went down to the local lagoon where I caught bream with it using poppers. Some years later I bought a new fly rod from Walmart for all of $25 including the reel and line, but remember that was the 60s. I used it for years, mostly bass fishing, but every now and then I went bream fishing with it using poppers.

A few years ago I bought my first quality fly rod, a 6/7-wt, 9 ft St. Croix Imperial from Jim Green at Backcountry USA in Tyler, Texas and used it for bass, sunfish, and trout.  I was just learning the wonderful world of wading for trout. I asked Jim about a better rod for bream and he suggested a 7 ft, 3-wt. St Croix Imperial, which I bought. Now I was armed for battle! While at the shop I looked over Jim's panfish flies and saw a number of them weren't poppers, imagine that! Purchasing several, I began fishing sinking flies (wets) for sunfish the first time in my life. My favorite was a Cypert-type minnow imitation which I caught a lot of fish on, including my first state fly fishing record - a .23 lb longear sunfish.


Twelve inch redear sunfish

Since then I began using some of my trout flies for bream, mostly prince nymphs and pheasant tails. I discovered that panfish absolutely love them! I learned that many sunfish don’t come up shallow, and started using flies like bead head prince nymphs, copper johns, bead head red squirrels, and similar fast sinking patterns. My catch rate and fish size went up dramatically. I also use bead head caddis pupa, zug bugs, scuds, and bead head wooly buggers for bream. Sunfish feed mainly underneath the surface, where they feed mostly on micro-organisms, insect pupae, and insect larvae, just like trout. Of course they feed on surface insects, but that is not a main part of their diet.

Typical trout nymphs for sunfish. Courtesy of David Coulson

I rarely use tapered leaders fly fishing for bass or bream, and I have no trouble getting the flies to cast correctly. My preference is to use five pound tippet for my leaders, because tippet material is usually thinner than most monofilament and thus sinks faster.  With sunfish you don't need the fly to alight on the water with very little disturbance. Bream are naturally curious and are drawn to a disturbance in the water. So, if a fly makes a nice splash when it hits the water it generally won’t scare away the fish.  To the contrary, it will often excite them and draw them in. Ask any scuba diver who has watched fish behavior and he will tell you the same thing, panfish are curious creatures and drawn to disturbances, much like people, ambulance chasers being a prime example (no, I'm not talking about attorneys, although the shoe may fit some). Recently at Lake Athens I lost several large fish because they broke my five pound tippet material. No, they weren't that big, but the leader was getting frayed because of the constant rubbing against vegetation and boat docks. I switched to ten pound mono and I didn't lose any more fish after that. Bream typically are not leader-shy, so you can increase the size of the leader and it will not bother them. I don't use long leaders either, most of the time my leaders are no longer than the rod, and often shorter.

Madam X, clousers & woolly buggers Courtesy of David Coulson

When I'm bream fishing I usually fish in coves, big and small, although that's not a hard and fast rule because I do fish out on the main lake as well. I try to fish the edges of vegetation in two to five feet of water most of the time. Sunfish use the vegetation to hide in, and they will come out of it to attack food. I look for vegetation that is not too heavy where I can cast into it without getting tangled on every cast and concentrate on those areas. Depending on the depth, I may let the fly sink for two to three seconds before I impart action to it or I may begin to give it action as soon as it hits the water. Rarely will I fast-strip the flies in, most of the time I strip one to two inches of line at a time, just enough to give the nymph a little movement.  After stripping the fly in two feet or so and without a hit, I recast to another spot. If the fish were interested in the pattern they would have hit it by then. Once I get a hit I will usually cast back to that spot at least once or twice more. If I catch a fish, I'll cast back there several times. When I come upon an area of shoreline that has no vegetation or structure, I don't waste my time with it.  Generally, if there is no place for the fish to hide they won't be there.

I never pass up holes in the vegetation where I can cast the fly and work it for a couple of seconds. The public waters state fly fishing record redear I caught at Lake Athens, 0.85 pounds, 10.5x10.2 inches (length by girth), was such an opportunity. I saw a two feet opening in the vegetation very near the shoreline.  Casting a Copper John got an immediate hit from the redear.  Now a #12 Copper John doesn't hit the water gently and sink slowly, rather it hits with force and is propelled downward very quickly.  Sunfish are quick to attack something small and fast-moving like that, typically reacting out of instinct.

Bluegill Courtesy of David Coulson



Later that year, I was fishing at a private lake with one of Gene Bethea's purple and gold LSU clousers he tied for me. I cast it into a four feet hole in the vegetation in the middle of the lake in water that was seven feet deep. I let it sink for four to five seconds, gave it a twitch, and the fish took it, a 1.3 lb redear, the new state record for private waters. Openings in the vegetation are great places to fish because the fish can hide in the vegetation and attack anything that comes within range. Sure, you’ll get tangled in the grass on occasion, but that's just part of fishing.


Crappie on a fly

Whenever I see a log lying down in the water, I'll work my fly alongside it for as far a distance as I can. Many times fish will be under the log, it’s a great hiding place. The state record longear sunfish (0.44 pounds) I caught on Lake Jacksonville was under a fallen tree in the back of a little cove. Big trees or brush piles are another feature I'll cast as close to it as possible. Let the fly sink as far as possible without tangling in the brush and then slowly twitch it away from the pile. Many times the fish will come out of their hiding place to attack the fly. If one comes out, then usually more will come out. On occasion I get tangled. In those cases I'll retrieve the fly if possible. Don't worry too much about messing up a particular spot because there are many more places to fish on the lake. Stumps are hiding places for fish also, be sure to cast to them.

Boat docks are another area I catch a lot of bream.  Try a side-arm cast to put the fly up under the docks and then let it sink for several seconds. Often when a fish hits it you will see a very slight twitch in the line as it's sinking (I try to watch the leader as opposed to the fly line) or you'll just see the leader moving in a direction it shouldn't be moving. Many times, you won't even know you‘ve had a strike until you begin to twitch the line to give the fly a little action and you notice a little tension on the line which shouldn't be there. I cast alongside boat docks also and let the fly sink for a few seconds. Then depending on the depth of the water I begin to twitch it towards me. I will cast into the boat stalls as far up into them as I can.


Green sunfish

When it comes to choosing fly size, most of the time I just have a feel for a certain size or pattern. Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong, fishing is a lot of trial and error. Once I find a fly that is working for me, I'll stick with it. If it's not catching fish, then I'll try something else. After several flies and nothing is working, I change my tactics from a slow retrieve to a fast one, from fishing shallow to fishing deep, from one color to another. There are times when they simply aren’t in a feeding mood and nothing you throw at them will work. That is when I go home. Hey, I'm not a glutton for punishment!

Bed fishing during the spawn is, without question, the most fun time of the year for bream fishing. Most of the beds are usually too deep for you to see, except in very clear water lakes. But when you do find them in shallow water the fishing is usually fantastic.  If the beds are very shallow I use a smaller and lighter flies, if they are three feet or deeper I'll use a larger, heavier patterns to get it down quicker. I find that in bed fishing, generally the fish like it on the bottom, worked slowly across their nests. That's not always the case, but I've had most of my success like that. When I bed fish I rarely watch the line.  I know the fish has taken the fly from the tension on the line that shouldn't be there. Often they will take the fly and run off with it, that's usually a pretty good indication you have a fish!

I use dry flies some of the time when fishing beds. It is fun and I do catch a lot of fish with dries, some very nice ones at times. But most of the time they just slap at the fly.  Be patient enough to wait until you feel the tug on the line to set the hook when fishing top water. I often set the hook when it slaps at the fly, or at least try to, thus I miss most of the top water strikes. With sinking nymphs I don't miss near that many, and I catch more, and typically larger, fish with wets than I do with dry flies.

Now when I do use dry flies, I don't let them sit motionless. I give them a fair amount of action on the surface. Many times when a dry fly hits the water it will immediately be hit by a bream, which throws out the notion that you have to let it sit motionless until you die of boredom. I don't let my top water bass bugs sit still for more than a second or two, and I don't let dry flies for sunfish sit motionless for long either.  I prefer aggressive fishing and I like to see action in the flies.

Many people like to use spider fly patterns when fishing for bream. I've had several given to me by my fly tying friends.  Tying is an addiction I’ve yet to engage in, and likely never will. I've used spiders, the sinking variety mostly, and have caught some very nice panfish on them. They are an excellent fly and do work well. Bream seem to love those things with plenty of legs dangling all over the place.

My third rod is an 8 ½', 4-wt. St. Croix Avid, which I bought for trout fishing.  When I fish for bream on windy days, I use this, because it handles better than my 3-wt rod in the wind. If I know that I am going to be fishing deep for bream all day and using larger and heavier flies, I also use the 4-wt. That way I won't come home with welts all over my back and head from the fly hitting me. That hurts you know!

One last thought. We have all heard of those "wily old bream" that have gotten large in their old age because they are so smart. Bull! Fish are stupid. They are neither wily, nor smart. They feed on instinct, reacting quickly to a disturbance in the water.  If they didn't, they would go hungry because the other sunfish would beat them to the punch. If they haven't been caught yet, it is simply because no one has ever thrown a hook their way with something that interested them. When was the last time you saw a big yellow spider with long white legs crawling across the top of the water? Yet, you fish with yellow poppers and spiders with white legs and some fish will hit them, others won't. Does that mean that some fish are smarter than others? No, it simply means that the fly didn't trigger the feeding instinct in some of fish at that time. Tomorrow it might. Why did that wily, wise and discriminating 9 lb bass at Fork this year hit my chartreuse popping bug after living all these years? Was it because she was so wily and smart? No, she hit it out of instinct, a reactionary strike. She was lucky, because I kissed her and then let her go back home, but she sure wasn't smart.

These are not hard and fast rules. Rather they are the tactics that I use and that work for me. If you do things differently and catch fish, then good for you, keep using what you're comfortable and successful with.


© 2024 Cliff Hilbert
Cliff has been fly fishing for 50 years now in Louisiana and Texas, all fresh and warm water. He currently has ten Texas state fly fishing records (six in public waters, four in private waters) and has held as many as fourteen, He also holds over 150 lake fly fishing records on lakes in East and North Central Texas. It is simply a hobby that he enjoys. He experiences allow him to others find enjoyment fly fishing and catching more fish.