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You find these fish in canals, ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, and in fact anywhere there is water enough for them to swim. They bear some of the most euphonious names in fishdom-stumpknocker, shellcracker, pumpkinseed, longear sunfish, as well as the more commonly called black crappie, silver crappie, yellowbreast, yellow perch or ring perch, sunnies, rock bass, warmouth and green sunfish, and bluegills-all classed together most places as bream, and in other places these pan fish are called flyers.
One or more of the group will be found in every state of the Union but they reach their peak in the Southern states where living conditions are right up their alley. And standing right on the edge of the alley are thousands of eager fishermen throwing everything in the book at them.
Fly casting for pan fish does not usually call for any particularly careful presentation, but because the fly must be dropped in holes in the grass beds, pockets along banks, and under tree limbs, it does call for accuracy, and a good handling of the retrieve. In open water a light 7 1/2-foot or 8-foot fly rod would be ideal, with an HEH or HDH fly line, and a six-foot leader tapered down to a 4-pound test tippet. But in the majority of situations where pan fish are found, there are so many obstructions that a longer stick does a better job. The 8I- or even 9-footer gives the added length needed to drop the fly just right among the grasses and helps lift it from holes and over stumps and outjutting limbs and such hazards where a shorter rod might very well hang the caster up. With the 8 1/2-foot rod, a GBG or GBF line is in order, while the 9-footer needs a GAF. The 4-pound test tippet is strong enough to take the shock of the strike with this type of outfit.
Pan fish feed on everything from night crawlers to crawfish to grubs to corn kernels, and the fly fisherman can be pretty safe in offering them almost anything in his box. But the country-wide favorite with angler and bream alike is the small popping bug, preferably with rubber legs. That's the one that stings them. That's the one that really takes pan fish.
The fishermen probably like it because it rides the surface and doesn't hang up; and for whatever reason the fish likes it, he socks it hard.
Besides the small poppers, pan fish will also hit the little fly rod lures, the small spoons and wobblers that can be purchased in any tackle store. A small fly such as the size 12 white miller or a black gnat or yellow Sally, with a very small bladed spinner (size 1 or size 0) is a good combination. And the very small fly rod spoons, about half an inch in length with hook size 8 or 10, and in gold, silver, black or green, are good bream takers.
Bigger members of the pan fish family, such as the ring perch or crappies, will hit relatively large drone type spoons, those designated as o and 00. But any of the heavier or underwater lures are only satisfactory when fished in open, unobstructed waters. And most ponds and places in lakes where bream "use" are full of grass and logs and tree branches, so that underwater lures are fouled up most of the time.
In colder water, however, when the bream are not hitting well, a fly and spinner or spoon type lure, retrieved in slow, even strips-the slower the better-will often bring them out after it.
And even though bream are happy-go-lucky hitters, a knowledge of fish lies will help fill the creel with them, just as with other fish. For instance, the crappie is usually a deep-lying fish. So the fly should be allowed to sink anywhere from two to four feet, before starting the retrieve. Otherwise, unless he is rising to feed on something on the surface, he will not see it.
Virginia is one of the best states for bream fishermen. Besides the many old mill ponds which are found throughout the state, there is an ever-increasing number of man-made ponds being developed, and these are crawling with sporty little pan fish as well as some of the biggest largemouth black bass to be found anywhere.
According to G. W. Buller, Chief of the Fish Division for the Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries, the state now owns eight ponds, and by agreement between state and owner an additional 83 privately owned ponds and lakes that are open to the public are stocked and managed by the same authority.
As an example of the popularity of pan fish, when a new lake was opened in 1954, I520 anglers turned out for the first day of fishing.
"We have ponds in almost every section of the state," Mr. Buller says. "And our public pond program is expanding. Right now the commission has before it bids for the construction of two public fishing ponds in the Piedmont area and they are considering a third project in southwest Virginia."
The program provides more than 6000 acres of fishable water, offering plenty of good sport as well as an excellent supply of pan fish. The smallest lake or pond constructed by the state is 55 acres in size-Lake Conner-while the largest is Gordon Lake, covering 157 acres.
While there is no closed season on bass and pan fish in impounded water, newly built lakes and ponds are stocked with adult fish in the autumn and the water is not opened for fishing until the following June. This gives the fish a chance to spawn before being exposed to fishing. Largemouth black bass and bluegills are stocked first, then in the second year silver and black crappies are added.
Florida is also fortunate in the number of pan fish available to fly fishermen. In some of the canals in the southern part of the state, it seems as if there must be millions of bream, all working, all striking on top as they feed. A popper dropped along the reeds near the shore-as near as it is possible to drop it-is almost sure to disappear with a "sput" as a bream, usually a bluegill, has it.
In Florida the silver crappie are called "specs" and when the run of specs is on, everyone for miles around turns out and the fishing is something hard to believe. Such a run occurs in the Kissimmee River near Lake Okeechobee and here the fly rod man usually mops up as he can place a fly into holes in the reeds and grass where other lures soon get fouled up.
Years ago, in Minnesota, I used to take yellow perch on flies, in Big Deer Lake in Itasca County. They were nice, firm fish, delicious eating, and good scrappers. And later I took the same little fish in the East, this time in brackish and even salty water, along with their cousins the white perch.
In the spring great runs of white perch enter Eastern coastal rivers and so vicious are these small fish, sometimes only 6 to 12 inches long, that they will hit a plug as long as they are. They are a set-up for a small bucktail or a fly and spinner combination. In fact when they are in the rivers they will hit just about anything. And many times in the bays or sounds they will even hit a popping bug.
The same goes for the yellow perch. They, too, will hit flies or poppers. Of the two, you will find more yellow perch in sweet water, while in the salt or brackish water there seem to be about even numbers of these fine little fish.
In fact, with fish being transported and stocked all over the world, you never know where you might encounter pan fish next. Once on the Isle of Pines I asked my Cuban guide if there were any bass on the island.
"Not bass, senor," he said. "But trout." "With spots?" I asked doubtfully.
We drove out from town for about Io miles and stopped by a small stream that hardly seemed to move, it was so slow.
"Trout in this?" I asked.
Si, senor. I brought a man from Texas here," the Cuban said, "and he caught some and he called them trout."
I put a size 12 royal coachman wet fly on my leader and threw it in a small pool. I had a strike on that first cast. And what came struggling out had spots, all right, but it was a black crappie. I took six more in no time at all.
Later I learned that the Cuban government had stocked black crappie in several streams on the island as far back as 1941. One by one I fished them, and in each I had very good sport with those so-called "trout."
Yes, they're a far cry from the great gamefish, but it is good to go for those little pan fish sometimes, in a contemplative mood. And before long you begin to have a different view of the small gamesters. Because they are game, they fight hard for their size, and none of them give up easily. They fight to the finish. Let yourself go-for pan fish. You'll like it lots.