SUNFISH STRATEGIES – SPOOKING FISH
Sunfish are true Native Americans. They are exotics in any other nation. Curiously, of the thirty species of sunfish within the taxonomic group of spiny rayed fishes, the distribution of these species across our nation is non-uniform. Maybe this is why we interchangeably call them sunfish, panfish or bream, and usually forget that the group includes crappie and bass. If you’re curious where your favorite species might be found, put the works “department” and “fisheries” and the name of any state in a search engine and you will find links to sunfish there.
Everyone has their own opinion of why and how sunfish are best caught on a fly. Not all of the answers are easy to figure out. Are big bream easily spooked or are they aggressive? Do loud flies send them for cover or raise their curiosity? Do they like exact replica flies or just an attractor fly? Does size or color matter? Do eyes or the shape of the body really make a difference? How slowly should the fly be worked? Hackle, rubber or silicone legs? Weed guard or not? Single dry fly or droppers? Put ten bream fishermen in a room and you will get that many different opinions about bream behavior.
Boudreaux and Clotile argue a lot, especially when Clotile’s mother and sister come to visit. Mom and Sis think Boudreaux is an idiot and don’t mind saying so. As usual, their Sunday visit ended up in an argument with Boudreaux outnumbered three to one. After an hour of frustration, Boudreaux looked out the window and said: “God, you know I’m right. Give us a sign to show you agree with me.”
At that moment a cloud suddenly appeared and covered the sun. Boudreaux smiled but the women said it was just a quirk of the weather.
“God,” Boudreaux asked again, “that wasn’t enough. Please give us a bigger sign.”
At that instant a huge bolt of lightning shot from the cloud.
The women insisted it was just a coincidence of heat lightning.
“God,” Boudreaux asked yet again, “they refuse to see your signs. Talk to them.”
The cloud suddenly turned golden and a voice from on high said: “Boudreaux is right!”
“There,” Boudreaux exclaimed. “You see.”
“So what,” Clotile said. “Now it’s three to two.”
After fifty years of fishing experience, after reading the preeminent books on bream fishing, and after scouring the Internet and 20+ years of fly fishing magazines for anything on the subject, it is safe to say that opinions and facts on sunfish catching techniques are intermingled like strands of a huge backlash. We’ll focus in this article on only one aspect: spooking bream. Of all controversies regarding bream fishing, this is the preeminent conundrum. Opinions run the full gamut here. Some “experts” swear you need for a virtual camo-stealth approach, the fly alighting on the water with very little disturbance using microscopic tippet. Others say you can just take a lackadaisical walk up to the shore with the fly on eight pound test tippet splashing on the water. Because it is an enigma, there is actually good reasoning behind both schools of thought.
Consider that bream are both predators and prey. Once they have graduated from fry size, and unless they are actively hunting, young sunfish prefer vegetated water until they reach a couple of inches, then somewhat deeper water or areas with immediate access to deeper water. If the fisherman, or his line, or his fly seems to be interfering with the sunfish’s straight line from shallow to deeper water, it will get anxious and skittish. For self-preservation sunfish must hide, but they must also leave their protective cover to attack food that usually won’t hang around to get eaten. However, if a food source is in shallows, a spooked sunfish will eventually return to eat, even if a fisherman had intruded nearby. Which brings us to confusion in the argument, bream will eat many different things and not every fisherman uses the same fly.
Airborne insects which have the misfortune to fall on the water are not pleased about that happenstance. Many, such as bumblebees and grasshoppers, will noisily attempt to extricate themselves from the surface film, then tire and rest, then make another racket in the next attempt. Imagine you are a bumble bee who hits the water. Why you took a header into the lake may be a mystery, but you are now frantic and buzz in circles for about a minute. Finally, exhaustion takes over and you rest. Then it you buzz loudly for a while, then rest. And yet again. A few seconds into the last rest you are engulfed by a huge dark purple bream. Big splash, dramatic take. In the same way, a minnow will dart and move erratically in an effort to avoid being lunch, then pause to eat midges or do whatever minnows do. Some nymphs (like the dragonfly) will have short quick bursts through the water, and then ride the currents. A small frog, finding itself out from cover, will usually make some commotion trying to regain a safe haven. All of which tells us that...? These patterns do not require a delicate presentation, or an identical one.
On the other hand, most insects (the bulk of a bream’s diet) are not noise makers. Gnats, midges, mosquitoes, and various nymphs and larva have few violent movements in their escape arsenal. Actually, most make little effort to escape. Their movements in the water are slow and seemingly random as if they accidently got where they are and are unconcerned as to their destination. Many simply tumble through the water column pushed by whatever motion exists in the pond. A natural insect fly presentation requires more finesse and delicate line.
In general, the larger the fly, the more dramatic the struggle, probably due to instinctive belief that it’s big enough to break free. This is where bream fishing gets interesting. Can a bream distinguish a tired dragonfly laying on the surface from a piece of grass or stick? The dragonfly might not think so, but bream have good vision – 180 degrees for each eye. This allows them binocular vision in front and up where the 180 degrees of the eyes overlap. Bream generally strike prey in their binocular zone. There is a small blind spot directly between the eyes and a large one from the side fins back and under the belly. Bream can’t tell us, but it is calculated that a trout’s best vision, with the clearest focus, is around six inches or less away. If that is true for fish optics across the board, that means that the bream approaching a fly sees shapes and contours and contrasting colors, more than precise images. I’m not convinced this is so, but it might explain why bream attack an eraser shaped piece of balsa with some marabou (yes that is how it is spelled) on its butt. It would also explain why they prowl around a fly inspecting it or why they might leave a helpless but quiet dragonfly caught in the surface film alone. Consequently, a loud bait, while not necessarily a bream attractor, will not usually scare them away.
While we are on bream vision, do the fish see you? Yes, usually. The bluegill’s vision extends beyond the water’s surface (how well focused we can only guess) at an angle relative to the depth of the fish. The shallower the bluegill, the less steep the angle of vision out of the water and the more it can see of the shore. The bluegill’s eye has enough cones (for color vision) and rods (for black, white and shades of gray vision) to distinguish what you wear from the background. The important question is, does it think you are a kingfisher, stork or heron? Sunfish cannot blink or close their eyes. Instead they have pigment that protects photosensitive cells of the retina, so they see well in bright clear water conditions. Because water is rarely bright and clear, the lens of the fish’s eye moves back and forth to change the roundness of the eyeball and controls the amount of light entering the eye. In this way they see through the murk and see well into nearby brighter areas. Bream don’t know about fishing rods. What they know about the above water universe is that some edible things blunder into the watery world, and some things that will eat it stand or crouch next to or fly over the water. The younger it is, the more a sunfish is prone to swim around stork feet and die. The older a bream gets, the more it knows how far a stork can reach to feed. If the fisherman is outside of what the fish perceives as a bird’s striking distance, chances are it doesn’t care. However, when you first walk up to the water it hasn’t had time to decide if you are safe to be around. More importantly, in the fish’s mind, a flailing rod (or the arm holding the rod) may be seen as a stork neck or just something new and different and possibly dangerous. A fisherman should also not ignore the importance of his shadow. Sunfish are known to swim around a shadow, even though you would not expect them to see it.
What about the “splat” of the fly landing? Bream know what their environment is supposed to sound like. They hear excellently using both their inner ear and lateral lines. They have inner ears located behind each eye. Sound travels through water approximately five times faster than area and some sounds are picked up by the head bones and transmitted to the inner ear. The lateral line runs from the head to the base of the tail on each side and consists of a series of sensitive nerve endings open to the environment through lateral line pores. The lateral line receives signals of pressure difference in the water and can detect both intensity and direction. Believe it or not, heavy steps on the shore transmit vibrations to the water and announce your approach. This may sound preposterous, but underwater investigations confirm that footfalls are transmitted to adjacent waters. Very loud pops, gurgles and splats from a fly are not part of the normal environment and will be noted by the bream. This new sound will make them both curious (as predators) and cautious (as prey). While bass will attack something noisy simply because it irritates the bass, bream need more personal assurance the sound maker is edible. Sunfish hit a popping bug most often when it is at rest. When it moves they frequently shy away, then attack at the next pause.
On the other hand, when they are protecting the bed or when they are hungry, sunfish are as quick to attack something small and fast-moving as something larger and slow moving. They react out of instinct and have been known to take a fly before it hits the water. Presentation and appearance are almost irrelevant during the spawn. Aggressive sunfish, particularly bedding bluegill, will strike at practically anything vaguely resembling prey, from a mature frog to a dandelion puff. During these times, a loud presentation may simply serve to announce the presence of the fly to fish, frequently yielding positive results.
If any conclusions can be drawn from this article, they may be:
- A quiet approach with a long cast is preferable when investigating new waters. Work your casting pattern from the shore side outward to avoid cutting off the fish’s path to deeper water.
- Be quiet in your approach. You don’t have to crawl, but soft steps are advisable.
- Fish will see you long before you get to the edge of the water. It may take a while for them to return from deeper waters to shallows. Fishing from a squat presents a lower profile and a less predator like appearance.
- A slight disturbance on the water from a popper will not necessarily discourage bream but may make them move temporarily. An attention getting subtle pop with pauses between pops is preferable to dramatic water spraying noisy presentation.
- Using a dropper, or using only a wet fly, is always a good idea for bream too cautious to attack a popper.
- Caution is almost unnecessary during the spawn.