by Dan Anderson
Panfish — by dictionary-definition any fish that will fit in a frying pan without segmenting or dividing — come in many forms. “Up North,” yellow perch and walleyes fill many a frying pan, while “Down South,” channel catfish and bream are rarely extended the privilege of catch-and-release. In “the mountains,” fresh-caught trout frequently get invited to dinner.
But if two species ever epitomized all the things good about panfish and panfishing, they would be bluegills and crappie. Found in nearly any body of water in the United States that doesn’t freeze solid in winter or boil dry in summer, bluegills and crappie are easy to access, easy to catch and wonderful to eat. And since June is arguably the best time of year to catch them … here are a few tricks and techniques to put them in your frying pan.
Black crappie, quickly identified by dark, irregular spots over the top half of their bodies, spawn when water temperatures range from 60 to 68 degrees. White crappie have fainter spots, often arranged in vertical bars and spawn slightly later, when water temperatures range from 65 to 70 degrees. June finds crappie in various stages of reproduction, depending on where in the country the angler is fishing for them.
Spawning crappie are the easiest crappie to catch because they are aggressive and easy to find. They spawn in shallow water, from 1 to 6 feet deep, depending on water clarity and other variables. That means they often spawn close to shore, allowing both shore and boat anglers to target large concentrations of crappie in relatively small areas.
While crappie will spawn over hard clay bottoms, their preference is sand or gravel bottoms that allow them to easily scoop out pan-shaped nests. Crappie do not attach eggs or spawn “on” woody structure, but do prefer to spawn near or beneath submerged branches, sunken trees or other woody structure. If rains have elevated water levels, the perimeters of flooded clumps of dense-growing saplings are popular spawning areas. If wood isn’t available, floating mats of debris in the backs of coves on reservoirs often harbor crappie during the spawn.
Here’s a real “tip” for fishing that stuff. Tournament angler Cory Batterson sometimes uses the tip of a 10- to 14-foot long crappie rod to stir a hole in mats of floating twigs and weed stems.
“I’ll clear a couple of holes with the tip of the rod, let them ‘rest’ for a few minutes in case I spooked the fish under the mat, then come back and use that long rod to dip a minnow or jig into those holes I cleared,” he says. “There’s no advantage to sitting and soaking the minnow or jig; if they’re there, they’ll pound it as soon as I dip it into the hole. If you lift them (the fish you’ve caught) out without a lot of commotion, sometimes you can go back and pull a couple more out of the same little hole.
“Long poles are a great way to work crappie in places where it’s so tangled you can’t cast and retrieve,” says Batterson. “Just dip a minnow or jig right into a brushpile or at the base of a tree and lift them straight out.”
Batterson and other crappie-catching experts agree that jigs out-fish minnows, simply because jigs are more durable and allow more moving around without re-baiting. Motion of the bait is relatively unimportant to spawning crappie. Spawning crappie are aggressive and attack anything, wiggling or immobile, that enters their territory.
That’s especially true if the bait is kept above the crappie. Crappie are sight-feeders with their eyes mounted toward the tops of their heads. They tend to feed “up.” Anglers who keep baits suspended or retrieved slightly above where crappie lurk in associated woody cover will get more bites than anglers who work the bottom.
Serious crappie anglers are also fond of flavored baits or spray-on flavors to “seal the deal” for crappie that are initially attracted to visual aspects of baits.
I always put a Crappie Nibble on anything I use when I’m fishing for crappie,” said professional crappie guide Tom Hankins (317-557-7549, www.hoosiercrappieandcatfishguideservice.com). “I’ve proved to myself over and over that adding that little bit of flavor definitely catches more fish than if I don’t use it.”
Hankins considers June the best time of year to catch slab crappie, just after they leave the spawning beds.
“Post-spawn, those big slab crappie are off the beds, but not fully dispersed into the lakes, and so they’re still easy to find,” said Hankins. “And they are really hungry. During the spawn they’re aggressive, but a little distracted. Post-spawn, all they want to do is eat, eat, eat, and it makes them easier to catch.”
In June, Hankins targets flats associated with known spawning areas. “If there’s a spawning bed between two submerged creek channels, I’m going to work the flat that’s out from the bed and between those arms. If a spawning bed is between two points, I’ll stay between those points. Toughest spots are where the bed is along a long shoreline, without any submerged features to keep them restricted as they slowly migrate toward deeper water after the spawn.”
He starts in 5 feet of water, spider-rigging multiple rods off the front of his boat and slow-trolls jigs vertically under the boat at 0.5 to 1.0 mph. “During the spawn you can dangle a bait over them and that’s enough,” he said. “Post-spawn, it’s all about movement. The bait has to be moving, but not ripping through the water.
“Another thing during the post-spawn period,” said Hankins, “is that they’re focused on relatively large forage fish, so you have to use larger jig bodies. There aren’t many young-of-the-year forage fish available yet, so they’re feeding on leftover, full-sized forage fish from the year before. You’ll have better luck in June if you give them bigger baits.”
Hankins favors slow-trolling a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce Roadrunner loaded with a Lake Fork Trophy Lures “Live Baby Shad” body and tipped with a Berkley Crappie Nibble.
“I like the extra flash and vibration of the little blade on a Roadrunner, and right now there’s nothing hotter for crappie than that Live Baby Shad body,” he said. “Put that bit of flavor on there with the Crappie Nibble and it’s an absolutely killer rig.”
Hankins said slow-trolling jigs for post-spawn crappie is his most productive way to put slabs on his clients’ lines. “During June, crappie are still relatively concentrated so you can put good numbers in the boat, and they’re feeding aggressively to recover from the spawn. It’s one of my most productive times of year to fish for crappie.”
Bluegills spawn a little later than crappie, when water temperatures are in the 65- to 70-degree range, and so June often finds bluegills across the country concentrated and aggressive over spawning beds. “Pugnacious,” “aggressive” and “tasty” are apt descriptions of bluegills, one of the favorite species of fish for retired fisheries management biologist Marion Conover.
“Ounce for ounce, there aren’t many fish that will put up more fight than a bluegill,” chuckles Conover. “If you’re using light tackle and hook one of those 1-pound ‘humpbacks,’ you’ll have a ball getting it into the boat.”
Conover’s choice of the light tackle he uses to target bluegills has evolved over the years. At one time he followed the fad of using short, 5-foot-long ultralight fishing rods equipped with tiny ultralight open-face spinning reels to pull spawning bluegills off their beds. Experience led him to upgrade to a 6- or 7-foot-long rod with a medium-sized open-face spinning reel loaded with 2- to no more than 4-pound-test line, and he always wears polarized sunglasses.
“During the spawn I’m usually fishing from shore because that’s the best way to access them when they’re so shallow,” said Conover. “Those little ultralight rigs are nice, but I can cast farther with a longer rod and bigger reel, as long as the rod is medium-light action with a real active tip. I’m still using 4-pound-test line, maybe as light as 2-pound test, but the larger diameter spool on the reel helps cast farther, compared to the same line on a teeny, small-diameter ultralight spool.”
Conover’s polarized sunglasses aren’t for style. “Polarized lenses really help see the ‘elephant footprints,’ the nests bluegills scoop out of the bottom. If you see a shallow area with lots of light-colored depressions, you’ve found a spawning area and are going to have fun.”
After waters warm and bluegills move off their spawning beds, they migrate to deeper water. Conover follows in a boat, targeting suspended schools of bluegills far from apparent structure.
“Post-spawn, they roam the open areas, feeding on clouds of tiny invertebrates floating around out there,” he said. “They’re not really tied to any structure, but I’ve noticed that if there are humps or mounds that come up out of deeper water, the bluegills will often be on top of the humps or just off to the sides. The big thing to remember is that a lot of lakes and ponds develop a thermocline during the summer, so there’s no advantage to fishing much more than 15 feet deep. A lot of the time, bluegills are suspended at 5 or 10 feet over 30 feet of water during June.”
Conover slow-trolls or drifts with the wind to target post-spawn bluegills, suspending vertically beneath his boat 1/32- to 1/64-ounce jigs tipped with wax worms or pieces of nightcrawlers. He’ll use any color of tube jig or twistertail — as long as they’re black or dark purple.
“I don’t know why, but dark colors will outfish lighter colors every time when I’m fishing for suspended bluegills, post-spawn,” he said. “And I always have a piece of ‘meat’ on there. In fact, sometimes I do as well with just a dark jighead and a wax worm or piece of nightcrawler as I do using the meat and a rubber body.”
While summertime bluegills will make subtle moves toward shorelines, weedlines and visible structure toward evening, making them slightly more accessible to shore anglers as the sun sets, there is no advantage to pursuing them after dark.
“They’re sight-feeders,” said Conover. “As soon as the sun sets, bluegill fishing is done for the day.”
That’s why bright, sunny days are “bluegill” days for anglers who know when and where to fish for them. Post-spawn crappie happily feed on those bright sunny days of June when it’s a joy to stand and cast from a shoreline or fish from a gently rocking boat.
And that’s perhaps one of the biggest advantages of panfishing in June — the best fishing is on some of the nicest days of the year, for some of the best-tasting fish ever battered, rolled in carefully seasoned crumbs, and fried in a pan.