Pan-fish secrets

With plenty of places in Western North Carolina to catch various pan-fish and bass species, you don’t need to stealth cruise over highway fences to have a good time.

Jeff Curtis of Curtis Wright Outfitters pointed out that old farm ponds have long been considered the holy grail of pan-fish angling, because farmers have stocked such holes for generations for their own enjoyment. But people with such foresight are most likely not going to grant access to anyone other than close kin and good friends. (Note to self: Endeavor to become good friends with a farmer who has an old pond on his property.)

Fortunately, there are many somewhat obvious, but often overlooked, local bodies of water that hold pan fish, and sometimes largemouth and smallmouth bass (unless otherwise noted, these sites lie in Buncombe County):
• Swannanoa River: Holds hatchery-supported trout for opening day; requires a trout tag with the N.C. license to fish even for pan fish.
• Beaver Lake: Requires a reasonably priced private permit (attainable at the little building where canoes are kept on the east side of the lake) to fish there.
• Catawba River (Haywood County).
• French Broad River: Requires investigative work to figure out access, but worth the effort.
• Lake Louise in Weaverville and Lake Adger (Polk County): Both have lots of room to cast from shore.
• Lake Julian: Bass and brim, and tilapia too, which hang out in the year-round semitropical water-temperature conditions on the power-plant side of the lake and can be taken on some fly patterns.
• Azalea Road Pond:  A public pond a half mile past the Azalea Road soccer fields near the WNC Nature Center.
• Owens Manufacturing building in Swannanoa (along Highway 70):  A public access pond is behind this building. Like Azalea Road Pond, it’s generally treeless and cattail-free and great for those learning to fly-cast. Both ponds also border on fishable sections of the Swannanoa River.
• Artificial lakes and ponds in housing developments and on golf courses often harbor whopper warm-water fish species, but it’s sometimes a little more difficult to get access to those places.

Numerous pan-fish species get high culinary ratings, but if you intend to keep the fish for the frying pan, it’s worthwhile to consider where you caught them. Agricultural chemical run-off and general pollution is still a problem, despite increased enlightenment on the subject. I don’t know that I would want to eat fish from these waters. And besides, making clean releases of the fish you catch will leave them for others to catch another time.

If you fly-fish for trout, you probably already have fly patterns that cross over to pan fish. I’ve read that nymphs and streamers are readily taken by pan fish and smallmouth bass because these wild fish are accustomed to feeding on any number of different aquatic life forms. I’ve never tried such underwater patterns for these warm-water fish. My reason is because it is very exciting to see top-water strikes. Wooly buggers, grasshopper and ant patterns, and gaudy poppers are all good bets. The folks at your local fly shop can point you in the right direction.

That said, Josh from Curtis Wright told me that he fishes top-water patterns with droppers tailing behind the top fly that imitate the damselfly and dragonfly larva that warm-water fish are accustomed to seeing and feeding upon. I definitely use droppers when trout fishing, and it does make sense to set up dropper rigs with larval imitations, which are not a part of my cold-water nymph pattern collection.

Curtis also said that a trout fisherperson can use Pheasant Tail and olive-colored Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear nymphs in sizes 12 to 16, as well as larger top-water stimulator patterns—which should already be in their trout fly box, if he or she don’t want to invest in specialty patters at the get-go.

Locally successful patterns include Gaines poppers, which are hand-tied in the U.S. specifically for pan fish; sizes 6, 8, and 10 are the most popular. Colors that these fish respond well to are chartreuse, black and white, and chartreuse and white; but they also definitely respond to many color patterns tied with rubbery legs. Madam X is a stimulator with rubber legs and a parachute-style hackle that allows the fish to see the rubber legs clearly from below without the visual intrusion of a traditionally tied hackle. It’s a popular pattern because it rides high and can be twitched to produce good action. Curtis recommends size 12 and 14.

When I started fly-rodding for warm-water fish, I did a little research on proper presentations to get strikes. The philosopher king of modern fly-fishing, Dave Whitlock, recommends that you keep the tip of your rod low and pointed straight at the fly, maintaining a line with no slack. He further recommends short hard strips that produce lively action on top-water patterns. I’m sure there are numerous nuances for catching these sporty little fellows, but I have taken these two tips to heart and have done just fine. But short hard strips won’t work on a pattern that is less buoyant, because the technique will cause the fly to dip underwater, an uncharacteristic movement with the real insect. The next time I’m out there looking for warm-water fish, I’ll keep in mind my discussion with Curtis about the twitching action that keeps Madam X patterns on top, and I’ll definitely incorporate it into my bag of techniques.

Casting to areas that provide cover for these fish is a must as well. Though they often seem reckless when chasing a well-placed fly, these are wild fish that are in the habit of hanging out near protective structures where they have a place to escape when they see the shadows of herons, raccoons and clumsy fly-rodders. Stumps, fallen logs, deep holes, undercut banks, weedy shallows and big rocks all provide a safe refuge. These are the places to which you should cast.

There’s something very special about fishing for trout in the numerous fine mountain streams that we have been blessed with here in WNC. But quite honestly, folks with busy schedules can’t get away as often as they wish for the full day it takes to drive to and fish most of the streams in our region. But when you expand the fishing possibilities to include any number of water holes that typically hold fish folks aren’t normally interested in catching—and are located within minutes of Asheville—“going fishing” takes on a whole new meaning.

[Jeff Ashton lives in Weaverville.]

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