Bugging panfish on Lake James

Anglers can catch a variety of panfish on Lake James with a handful of flies. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Don’t miss the full moon in June for hot panfish action

One of the best kept secrets in western North Carolina for panfish is Lake James. Not including black crappies, Lake James is home to four different species of panfish.  

Bluegills, shellcrackers, redbreast sunfish and a booming population of green sunfish round out the species. Local angler Wayne Epley waits all season for this time of year. These fish will spawn during the full moons of June, July and August.  

The full moon of June is by far the best time to pursue them.  Epley targets the week of the full moon, focusing on several days leading up to the day of the actual event. This is when the largest fish will be out and the best chance for catching them with a fly rod.  

According to Epley, a fly rod is the most fun way to catch them. It also offers a lighter presentation than other methods, while allowing a bug to sit in one place for an extended period of time.     

Check the beds

Bluegills are the most popular panfish species, and they’ll readily eat flies and other lures. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Wayne doesn’t use the new electronics. Instead, he relies on close to 60 years of fishing experience. He said panfish will generally make beds in the same areas year after year. 

When chasing bluegills and shellcrackers, he starts by fishing down a cove and looking for an irregularity such as a nook in the shoreline with the bottom consisting of mud. Bluegills and shellcrackers will make clusters of beds ranging from a couple to 20 or so. These beds will be found in water ranging from 3 to 8 feet.  

With the clear water that Lake James offers, an angler can see beds deeper than they can in other lakes. Bluegill and shellcracker beds will look like dark or black circles on the bottom, each about the size of a basketball. Wayne instructs anglers to cast a popping bug in the direction of any dark-looking place on the bottom, because it can easily be a bed. Other places he finds beds are in the back of coves and on secondary points. 

Wayne has a system for fishing a set of beds. He starts by casting his popper to the outer beds first. If he hooks a fish, he attempts to bring it out quickly, trying not to disturb the other fish on the beds.  

Bluegills are hard fighters, and tend to dig and use their deep bodies, making it a challenge to get them out and away from the beds. If Wayne doesn’t get a strike immediately, he’ll let the popper sit and let the quivering legs do their job. After several seconds, he may move the fly a couple of inches, but still lets it sit. If no strike, then he’ll cast a foot or so further back and repeat the process until the entire set of beds have been thoroughly fished. The idea is to work a set of beds from outer to inner.  He believes he has a better chance of catching a few more fish this way instead of casting the fly in the middle of the beds to begin with. 

Depending on how many fish he catches or sees on the beds, he may come back later that day and try them again.  But usually, Wayne already has mapped out in his mind a series of beds in a particular cove or part of the lake he wants to cover.  This way, he leaves some fish to guard the beds so they’ll finish spawning for future populations to grow.  

More redbreast sunfish seem to be on the Linville side of Lake James. These colorful, hard fighters tend to make single beds on points, secondary points and the main channel of the lake. Their beds tend to be a couple of feet deep at most, and seem to be “cleaned out,” appearing somewhat lighter in color. These fish can be spooky if a fly lands directly on top of a bed. So Wayne likes to take advantage of the redbreast’s aggressive nature by casting a popping bug within several feet of the bed.  The redbreast sunfish will usually come and eat it.  

Submerged trees and fallen timber are great places to target panfish with a fly. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Find the rocks

A booming population of green sunfish thrives in Lake James. They have beautiful green backs flecked with aqua, yellow pectoral and flank fins. They almost look tropical, and have the largest mouth of all these panfish. Green sunfish are aggressive feeders. The larger ones are known to hit topwater lures designed for bass. This alone makes them a great choice for any angler using about any method to pursue them.  

The key to finding green sunfish starts with rocks of any kind. They love rip-rap, and with more homes being built on the lake, more places like this are created to prevent banks eroding, therefore making great spots for green sunfish. Unfortunately, they’re not the best fighters, but they’re definitely fun to catch, and they eat just as well.

Green sunfish beds also appear “cleaned out,” yet a little deeper than redbreast beds. So when an angler lands a popping bug directly on top of a bed, it won’t stay there long. 

Fly rods ranging from 6 to 81/2 feet long are great for catching panfish on Lake James. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Wayne’s hands-down favorite popping bug is a No. 10, white with black skirt and black tail. He’s also experimented with yellow, chartreuse, black, brown, and green, and has had success with all of them.  

He clearly prefers popping bugs with legs. Wayne feels the quivering legs give the bugs tantalizing life, which panfish can’t ignore. About any fly rod will do, ranging from a 3-weight to 5-weight that’s 6 to 81/2 feet long.

Wayne ties his own leaders with monofilament starting with 25-pound test, tapering down to 10-pound test. 

If you’re after a fun day of flyfishing and catching multiple species of panfish on top, then a box of popping bugs and your fly rod may be just the ticket. Combine that with the week of the full moon in June, and you’re well on your way to catching your limit. 

A handful of bugs is all it takes to catch your share of Lake James panfish. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

The black ant dropper

Lake James is an impoundment. Understanding this means that Duke Power may need to raise or lower the lake’s level. So an angler may have to deal with fluctuating water.  

The panfish beds will most likely be in the same places, just with an extra (or lesser) foot or two of water. Fish may not come all the way to the surface.   

Wayne prefers to fish popping bugs only when the lake is around 96 feet or less. This information can be found on Duke Power’s website. If the lake is higher than 96 feet, he gets creative, and will fish a black ant dropper in tandem with a popping bug. He’ll tie a piece of 10-pound monofilament to the eye of the popping bug about 20 inches long. Next, he’ll tie on a number 10 black ant at the end of the monofilament. Wayne likes a hard body black ant, so that it sinks slowly. Betts makes a good one. They’re also easy to make, so if you know a fly tyer, getting them to tie some shouldn’t be too difficult.  

This particular style of ant is very durable, which should last through 100 or more fish. Bedding panfish can’t stand any fly hovering over their bed. When the fish takes the ant, the popping bug essentially acts like an indicator. This is a good system to use while covering water in search of panfish beds. You’re offering flies on the surface and subsurface. 

In addition to surface insects, panfish eat aquatic nymphs, crustaceans and fry minnows.  

Catching two fish at one time is actually very common, especially on a fly rod, which just adds to the fun. 

About Jeremy Grady 3 Articles
Jeremy Grady lives in Morganton, N.C. and is an avid hunter and angler. He’s been writing about his outdoor adventures for years.

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