Care & Feeding Of Panfish

Here's the scoop on the baits and lures that can have you catching Southern panfish on nearly every cast!

Panfish come into their own all across the South this month, and there are lots of ways to catch them early and often on every outing. That's what this story is all about.

For the purposes of this piece we're going to limit our discussion to three kinds of panfish: small catfish, crappie and sunfish. All are fun to catch; all are active in May; all are found virtually anywhere that you'd care to fish for them.

Together, these panfish give you more angling options than just about any combination you might think of. If you decide to make a trip solely in search of panfish, you're going to open up a world of options.

You'll find lots of areas to fish, lots of ways to fish, lots of tackle to choose from and just as many baits to consider. For those who enjoy a challenge, a panfish outing presents one: the concept of picking just the right stuff for success that day.

The good news is that it's difficult to make a bad decision when it comes to panfish this month. Cats, crappie and sunfish all will respond well to a variety of baits and fishing methods. You just have to decide which you'll want to try next.

TACKLE

It's hard to go wrong with a fairly long rod -- say, at least 6 feet -- with a light action. Personal preference is for a rod with a really fast action; that is, with most of the flex within the first quarter to third of the rod.

Such rods tend to be extremely sensitive, and they offer power (even in light-action models) that can come in handy, because the places you'll be fishing and the baits you'll be using there also can attract other species of fish like bass -- and very large catfish (those weighing 10 pounds or more).

If you were to ask 100 anglers to describe their favorite panfish reel, the answer most likely would be an open-faced spinning model that will accommodate light line -- say, 4- or 6-pound test. There's no question that this is a decent choice, but it's probably not the best, as anglers out after panfish always have a chance of catching something really large and/or heavy. It's happened to me, as I'm sure it has to you.

Once, when fly-fishing for panfish, I had a flathead catfish in the 20-pound range come up and make three swipes at my lure. Fortunately for me, he missed. I don't know what I would have done if a fish of that size had managed to actually get hooked. I was using a 4-pound tippet, and the rod was only a 5-weight, which some would consider light.

The point is that just because you're after panfish, you should never rule out the possibility of an encounter with a real trophy of some other fish. For that reason, the choice in a reel is either an open-faced spinning reel or a spin-cast (closed-face) reel that will accommodate 8- or 10-pound line.

Generally, 8-pound line is the best to use; it's light enough to fool skittish panfish, and it has enough strength to give you a fighting chance to land something a lot bigger.

If the suggestion of a closed-face reel surprises you, it shouldn't, as today's market offers anglers more choices in high-quality spincasting reels than ever before. Though the easiest of all for youngsters or novices of any age to use, these reels are valid tools for even the most serious of angler.

Today's fishing lines also are stronger than ever before. An 8-pound line is going to give you all of the fighting power you need to handle the majority of fishing situations you'll encounter when after panfish -- but with a line diameter small enough to be really effective on even the wariest of fish.

LURES

If you look through your favorite mail-order fishing tackle catalog, you're going to find more choices in artificial baits for panfish than ever before. If something has worked well for you over the years, by all means stick with it.

But if you're an angler who has relied mostly on natural/live bait for your panfishing, and you want to give some artificials a try, here are a couple that you can't go wrong with, based on personal experience.

For all-around fish-catching potential, it's really tough to beat a 3-inch soft-plastic curlytail grub on a jighead. The bait is large enough to attract attention from channel catfish that will go 5 pounds or more -- and it has done just that for me -- but it's also small enough not to intimidate crappie and sunfish.

Depending on prevailing conditions, you'll likely be rigging this on a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce jighead. In some extreme cases, however, you may have to go up to 1/4 ounce. From here, the 1/8-ounce head seems the best all-around choice.

Another panfish lure you should carry, believe it or not, is a small crawdad-imitation crankbait. You can find them from various manufacturers, and the ultralight sizes are best for panfish. It's best to have a few in a natural color combination and a few in a bright color. Use the former in clear water and the latter in stained or murky water.

The little plug I use is made by Rebel and has produced keeper-sized crappie, catfish and sunfish of all varieties. Colors No. 60 (a natural green with an orange belly) and No. 34 (chartreuse over orange) are the ones I rely on.

One other artificial bait that deserves a mention is the tiny safety-pin-style spinners with soft-plastic grub bodies that most of us grew up with. They can be particularly effective this month, because panfish become quite active and aggressive as water warms.

NATURAL/LIVE BAIT

Wow: This is a tough one -- not because so few live baits will work well, but because so many will catch panfish of all varieties. Remember that we're talking about offerings that will be attractive to the three varieties of panfish this story intends to cover.

For me, there's a bit of a quandary when it comes to the absolute best choice. It's either worms or minnows, depending on what you most want to catch. Personal experience suggests that eating-sized catfish respond well to worms and minnows. The sunfishes generally respond better to worms, while crappie absolutely prefer minnows.

So what are you most interested in catching? The answer will help you determine whether worms or minnows should be your first choice.

My own preference is for small minnows, those 2 inches or so, because they'll do the best job of taking all three panfish. And the sunfish that hit them, regardless of species, are going to be the largest specimens arou

nd, my own experience suggests.

If minnows that small are not readily available to you -- or if it would be easier for you to keep worms in better shape because of hot temperatures or other considerations -- don't be overly concerned about opting for the latter.

You can fish them on the bottom for cats or under a bobber for sunfish and crappie. For the latter, one of the most effective tactics is one I learned as "perch-jerkin'." That is, you fish a worm under a bobber using quick, short snaps of your rod tip to jerk the bait along under water and give it a little extra action.

Sunfish generally don't need the extra movement, but it can make a big difference when you're fishing worms like this for crappie. You also can use the technique with minnows, but usually they're lively enough that crappie, sunfish and catfish will respond to their natural struggling/swimming action.

PANFISHING HOTSPOTS

From here, nothing beats woody structure for panfish. On one outing I remember, for example, a live worm fished into a shallow-water brushpile -- pretty much like a bass angler would fish a Texas-rigged plastic worm around the same spot -- produced a huge green sunfish, a 1-pound crappie and a 2-pound channel cat on successive casts!

Wood works for panfish: There's nothing else you can say about it. No matter where you prefer to fish, your best bet for catching panfish this month is going to lie in locating and fishing woody structure.

Another hotspot is at the back end of points, in the "elbow" created by the point joining the shoreline. This is an especially good spot if that elbow features some weeds or a brushpile.

Any kind of artificial fish attractor will hold all three of the panfish covered in this story. And if the water you fish boasts a number of boat docks, focus your efforts there.

All of these places will attract and hold cats, crappie and sunfish; often, they'll even be together -- or in close proximity to one another.

That makes for a kind of panfishing action that's tough to top!

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