Most anglers started their fishing life with sunfish. The ubiquitous sunfish is the classic 'worm and bobber' gamefish, but that doesn't mean they can't be taken on a fly. In fact, their willingness to take a fly is what makes them both a great fly fishing beginner fish as well as a nice diversion for the advanced angler. The sunfish family includes the following NY state species:
But most anglers don't refer to bass and crappie as sunfish. And the scale of tackle and methods of fly fishing differ, although it is very possible to catch bass when fishing for sunfish.
Sunfish have small mouths but big hearts. Their appetite is voracious and they are generally not at all picky. Find a few near a shoreline and throw even clumps of grass seed their way and invariably, you'll see them angle up and at least check out what just splatted the surface. Most sunfish in NY state will run anywhere from 4" to 8" in length, with bluegills potentially running a bit larger. Their broad sides make them an excellent fighting fish, particularly on light tackle.
A terrific time to catch sunfish is just prior to and during the spawn. Sunfish will build nests in colonies close to shoreline and once established, the males will aggressively defend the nest. If one sunfish is caught, chances are there will be more in that location. While some anglers will avoid fishing for spawning fish, sunfish are so plentiful that this type of fishing rarely harms the quality and quantity of fish in any pond. Sunfish can rapidly overpopulate a pond if not controlled and when this happens, the quality of the fish is significantly reduced.
Sunfish are always game. Unlike bass, bluegills and pumpkinseeds can be caught any time of day. These fish will take nymphs, small streamers like a wooly bugger, dry flies, terrestrials, and poppers. Tackle does not need to be fancy, but scaling down is always a good idea in order to maximize the sporting experience with these smaller fish. A 7 to 9 foot 4 or 5 weight fly rod with a simple fly reel is all that is needed. Double taper or weight forward floating line and a 7 - 9 foot 2X to 5X leader (depending on what is being fished) will handle the flies these fish take. If fishing a popper, a 2 or 3X leader works well. For dry fly and nymph fishing, one can go with a 4 or 5X leader. Remember that these fish are not line-shy.
Strike fast! When fishing for sunfish it's important to set the hook fast. Sunfish will take smaller profile nymphs and dry flies deeply and in combination with their small mouths, this can make hook removal a difficult task. Also be careful in handling them when removing the hook. Sunfish are spiny-rayed and the spines on the dorsal fin in particular can prick a finger or hand deeply.
Catch a painting palette. Sunfish will take a fly readily, fight hard as a bulldog on the line, and taste just fine from the frying pan (for those who keep some of their catch). Adding to these great attributes is the variety of colors they display. Sunfish wear brilliant hues of blue, gold, copper, and green. So take time to soak in their beauty. And the next time you need a break or just want to truly relax while fishing, pay the sunfish a visit at a pond near you.