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If it seems as if summer is rolling right by, join the club. One minute we’re waiting for spring to arrive and suddenly it’s July. These hot, muggy days might not appear to be good for doing anything outdoors, but if you are an avid fisherman you know there’s plenty to do “out there.”
One of my favorite mid-summer pastimes is fishing small ponds and lakes for the abundant panfish they offer. If catching fish is high on your menu, “warmwater species” are the way to go. A good hand with a fly rod or bait-caster can catch 100 pickerel, perch, bluegills and calico bass to every trout that’s hauled in this month – more, if you include horned pout and chubs!
I like to arrive on the water just as the sun is coming up in the morning. It’s a pleasure to stand there nursing the last of a big cup of coffee and listen to the pop and snap of fish taking bugs off the surface. Small, weedy ponds and coves are bustling with life on these hot summer days, with everything from fish to frogs getting making an appearance. It’s not difficult to become side tracked with an impromptu session of nature study when surrounded by snakes, ducks, turtles, muskrats and assorted other wild critters, but the focus of the day is fishing, so I finish my coffee and shove the canoe off the gravel shore to see what trouble I can get into today.
Paddling at dawn is as good for the soul as it is for the muscles. Skimming along without a sound, I laugh as frogs squeak and jump out of the way, dragon flies light on the bow and enjoy the free ride while swallows dip and swirl overhead. Hot or cold, it’s always great to be outdoors, and knowing I’ll soon be into some fast fishing just makes it all the better.
There is nothing difficult or technical about fishing for panfish. Throw just about anything bite-sized anywhere on the water and something will come over to investigate. Using small poppers or deer-hair flies, I’ve caught frogs, bluegills and hammer-handle pickerel in water that’s no more than a foot deep. I get a real kick out of the ominous swirls that occur as my lure hops and jumps among the weeds. To make things more interesting, I’ll let my popper rest for a few minutes knowing that a hungry bass or pickerel is just below it, daring it to move one more time. On the next twitch of the rod tip the water will explode as if someone had dropped a brick in the pond.
Most folks don’t know it, but a predatory fish in pursuit of top water prey is as quick and high-strung as a house cat stalking a mouse. You can see the fish suspended below the bait, fins twitching, slowly moving upward in the water column, positioning himself for a mighty strike. If he missed the bait once, you can be sure he won’t miss it again. That’s when I tease them the most, letting the fly sit there, unmoving, letting the fish work itself into a frenzy. A second strike is usually on target and more determined than the last – small pond fishing at its best!
I can spend the whole morning cruising the shoreline and getting hits, if not fish, on every cast. Pickerel and bass are the most dependable and aggressive, but bluegills among the lily pads offer some great action till the sun comes up over the tree line. They’ll pick and poke at things on the surface all day, but it’s the early morning hours that provide the most action with these palm-sized eating machines. Not many folks can say so, but I’ve fished for 5-pound bluegills and, without a doubt, rank them at the top for fighting quality. Such fish are big as a dinner plate and thick as a man’s wrist. They’ll hit a bait with authority and fight like pit bulls – very tough to master with a fly rod or on spinning gear.
No matter what size they are, I like to let bluegills fight as long as they want to, then bring them in for a decision: keep them or let them go? Most of these fish are small, less than 6 inches long, so I let them go and grow, but when I get into a pod of lunkers, fish in the 8- or 9-inch range, they go into the cooler for a future fish fry.
The best way to enjoy this kind of hot weather, shallow water fishing is with a fly rod using small surface flies, deer-hair bugs, woolly buggers or nymphs. Small lures are also good for these little fish, but be sure your selection includes plenty of weedless models. Or, crimp down the barbs on your hooks so you can minimize snags and release fish quickly and easily.
If you prefer bait fishing, head for open water and use a bobber with a cricket, grasshopper or garden worm set to float naturally in areas with open water. Bait fishing in weedy cover is more trouble than it’s worth because algae, weeds and other obstacles will have you spending more time cleaning your hook than fishing with it. Stick to fly-fishing gear or weedless lures to make the most of your panfishing expeditions.
If you can’t make it to the pond in the morning, don’t be afraid to get out there near sunset. Fish of all kinds will begin feeding heavily as the evening shadows grow longer. In fact, some truly big fish (bass, pickerel and perch) will sneak into the shoreline shallows from the cooler depths where they hid out from the sun all day.
Fish the shoreline carefully and slowly as you drift along, and cover every inch of water you can reach. The “night crew” will be setting up as the sun goes down, and you can often catch some very big fish as the last beams of sunshine disappear over the western hills. If you want lots of fishing action, this is the way to spend another July day in Maine.
Once the sun goes down, it’s time to rig up for nighttime bass fishing, but that’s grist for another column!
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