Sunfish just might the perfect gateway fish to enter the wonderful world of fly fishing.
One of the best aspects of the fishing pastime is that it can be whatever you want it to be: relaxing, exciting, intense, social, etc. There are as many ways to fish as there are fish to catch. However, there are also a lot of expectations and perceived rules and standards that go along with virtually all types of fishing. Fly fishing in particular carries a lot of stigma. Even to the non-angler, there are a lot of perceived stereotypes that go along with fly fishing mostly due to popular media portrayals like the movie A River Runs Through It. To most people, anglers or otherwise, fly fishing conjures the image of a trout angler casting a miniscule dry fly to rising browns as mist swirls over a free-stone river. Yet, this is an intensely technical fly fishing scenario that requires a specific water type, species type, and level of angling skill. As a result, anglers can be turned off to fly fishing before they even begin, or get frustrated and quit due to the difficulty of breaking into this form of fishing.
This is unfortunate. If you’ve ever wanted to try fly fishing, but have thought it too technical, didn’t know where to start, or thought the gear was too confusing, I urge you to reconsider. Every form of fishing has its challenges, and to be fully transparent trout fishing with dry flies is something that takes time and practice to master. I, for absolute certain, am still on my journey despite many years of practice. However, there are a lot of reasons to love fly fishing that transcend trout and dries. The practice of casting, for example, is a fun and rewarding element of fly fishing totally on its own merit. Also, setting the hook and fighting fish on a fly rod can be very intense when compared to spinning tackle. These are things that go beyond any specific parameter attributable to trout.
Therefore, if you’ve ever wanted to try fly fishing, you should just start with whatever species you already enjoy fishing for, or one that is easily accessible. Don’t over think it too much, and don’t get caught up in the details at first. For many, panfish, bass, and pickerel are readily available quarry that all take very well to the fly rod. Sunfish (e.g. pumpkinseeds, bluegills, etc.) in particular make excellent fly fishing quarry for the “newbie” fly fisherman because they are willing to eat a huge variety of flies, are found in shallow water so you can sight cast to them, and are found virtually everywhere. Using sunnies to practice your technique is an excellent way to break down barriers and hone skills that you will need to catch other more challenging species once you feel prepared to take that step.
If you want to learn to fly fish for other species, or just want to see if you enjoy the elements of choosing flies, casting them, and fighting the fish on a fly rod then I urge you to give sunnies a try. There is no need for expensive gear, and any fly rod around or under a 4-weight will work. I particularly enjoy using a cheap, 6-foot 2-weight. Choose a quality floating line and buy a few spools of 3-, 4-, and 5-x tippet and a few 7- to 9-foot leaders and you’re all set to go. Since you’re trying to learn, I would buy some flies that mimic the other species you intend to eventually target. Sure, you can catch them on virtually every form of fly imaginable, but that isn’t teaching you anything. For example, if trout and dry flies are your desired end game, try getting some moderate to small sized dries and practice presenting them. Simply learning to cast them—whether with a traditional overhead cast, a roll cast, slack line, etc.—with the reward of putting a tug at the end of the line can teach a new angler a lot. Or, if you want to try catching a striped bass on the fly, perhaps pick up some small streamers and little Clouser minnows; they will clobber these as well, yet they take a different kind of presentation and retrieve. I also suggest fishing in wind, rain, and clear blue skies so you get used to facing as many different kinds of water and weather conditions as possible; this will pay off in the long run.
I will warn you though, you might be surprised. Sunnies can also be more than just fodder for practice; more than just a stop along the glorious path of trout, tuna, or tarpon. Catching sunnies on the fly rod can also be really rewarding, and even challenging at times. Use the right gear, choose challenging conditions and flies, and you might just find yourself looking forward to catching a fish you’ve been ignoring since you were a kid.
Catching sunnies on the fly rod can be quite rewarding, and even challenging at times.