Crankin'™ For Panfish

Who says crankbaits are just for big fish? This angler has been having great fun, and achieving great success, by ...

Want to crank up your panfishing success? You can; it's not tough, and it's a lot of fun. Just start crankin' your panfish -- literally.

Little crankbaits are amazingly effective at taking many different species of panfish. And you don't need any special technique: Just cast, crank, and set the hook!

When many anglers see or hear the term 'panfish,' they immediately think of bluegills, sunfish, perch, crappie and other smallish game species like rock bass. For the purposes of this story, however, let's expand our definition to include smallish black-bass subspecies and pan-sized catfish. White bass in streams and lakes are good targets as well.

Over the years, I've caught close to 20 different species of fish by using crankbaits that weigh a quarter-ounce or less. That's what this story is all about: Using tiny ultralight plugs to catch more fish than you ever thought possible with such baits and tackle.

Today, you'll find more little crankbaits on the market than ever. Many different shapes and styles are available, giving you plenty of options when faced with practically any kind of conditions.

Before getting into them, however, let's talk some about the rods and reels that will complement these little lures. Don't immediately think of super-short, super-light-action rods and reels that will barely hold 100 yards of 4-pound-test line. In certain situations, those are your best choices, but those cases are less common than you might imagine. Arguably, only one possibility calls for going short and tiny; we'll discuss that shortly.

Probably the best overall rig you can use includes a light-action spinning rod rated to handle 4- to 10- or 4- to 12-pound-test. It should be at least 6 feet long, but 6 1/2 or 7 feet might be even better. Longer rods help you make longer casts, thus covering more water with every presentation, and so are definitely the way to go. Your reel should be a small- to medium-capacity model that can hold 100 yards of 6-pound line.

At this point, some of you may be questioning this approach. This doesn't sound like ultralight to me, you might be thinking. And you'd be right: Only the baits are ultralight. The goal here is catching fish, not just hooking them. The rig described here will improve your odds of boating fish significantly, because these baits don't catch only small specimens.

I've personally taken 5-pound bass on an ultralight crankbait, and catfish just as large. And if you've ever hooked a big slab crappie or a 3-pound white bass, you know just how much they can test your gear. So put the odds in your favor by choosing gear a step or two above the traditional ultralight tackle.

As noted earlier, there's one exception to this personal rule of tackle, and you'll encounter it on small streams. You may be fishing a warm water lake for sunfish or crappie, or you may be knee-deep in a cold stream after wild or stocked fish. Either way, small streams present unique challenges in the form of overhanging branches and tight casting angles. In such places in these diminutive creeks, a 5-foot rod will help you get your tiny plug into the spots fish prefer.

Today's fishing lines are more advanced than ever. Their diameters are quite small, and for that reason, you can get away with making 6-pound line your everyday choice. It improves your odds of landing fish you hook on tiny crankbaits, and its diameter is small enough to let baits dive and work the way they're intended.

My bread-and-butter ultralight bait box includes four basic styles of lure: a crawdad imitation, a tight-wobbling minnow imitation, a wider-wobbling minnow imitation and a lipless crankbait. Once you start focusing on these types of lures that weigh a quarter-ounce or less, you'll probably be surprised at how many choices you have. Manufacturers know how effective small crankbaits can be, and they continue to refine and expand their offerings.

If I could choose only one bait for my ultralight crankin', it'd be the little crawdad. Over the years, I've caught more fish on that particular style of lure than on any other I've ever fished. I'm most familiar with Rebel's 7700 series, which weighs in at a tenth of an ounce, but other effective options are available these days -- no doubt the result of the Rebel crawdad's long-term effectiveness and popularity.

My 'secret' baits are the Rebel No. 7760 for clear to slightly off-colored water, and the No. 7734 for stained/dirty water. The former has a moss-green back with an orange belly; the latter is fluorescent chartreuse over orange. I'm sure that plenty of color combinations are effective, but those two have worked for me. Your own favorites will emerge as you spend time casting little crankbaits in your favorite fishing spots.

This general approach to lure color stays the same when I switch to the minnow imitations or the lipless lures. Natural, subtle combinations are the ticket in water that's clear or just a little off-color. Brighter colors are the ticket in water that's stained or dirty.

Just talking about all this cranks me up -- because I've seen first-hand the enormous effectiveness of ultralight crankbaits.

That said, you should also have a couple of blue-over-silver or black-over-silver minnow imitations and lipless baits in your arsenal. Particularly at reservoirs and larger lakes with healthy shad populations, these patterns work especially well on bass and crappie.

And believe it or not, you can also troll these little baits with great results. Slow-trolling is the key: Use rods with tips sensitive enough to reveal just when the baits start moving in the way that their designers intended. I'd like to report here some magical, mysterious key to trolling success, but it doesn't exist.

When I troll these little lures, I simply cast them off the side of the boat and then begin a very slow troll. I note when the rod tips start wiggling to suggest the baits have reached their optimum depth and are moving as they should, then I simply pay attention to maintaining the speed they need to work.

If you fish a lake that has some flats, shallow bays or coves, trolling those spots will produce fish -- especially from late afternoon through sunset. If shad are present, definitely opt for the blue/silver or black/silver color combos.

Whenever you're on a lake and you're just casting and cranking, focus on getting your bait into spots any predator would prefer. Anglers rarely thi

nk about this, but all game fish are predators, no matter their size. They are going to ambush easy meals whenever they can.

My experience has been that the best fish I take on tiny crankbaits are positioned perfectly to strike swiftly, hiding in little cuts and breaks in shoreline structure or amid weedbeds along the edges of trees that have fallen into the water from the bank. No matter what kind of fish you catch, fishing these ultralight lures is most effective when you imagine you're bass fishing.

Think about the kinds of place in which you'd fish a crankbait for bass; think about how you'd position the boat, the cast you'd make, the presentation; then do those same things when you're using these crankbaits. Just don't expect every bite to be a bass -- although, naturally, some will be. Others, however, will be crappie or big bluegills; still others could be catfish. Any species of game fish that lives in the lakes you fish, and that uses structure in 10 feet or less water will hit an ultralight crankbait.

The same is true for rivers and streams. On one particular outing that comes to mind, I was fishing a warmwater stream known mostly for its bass. I'd come to a dogleg in the creek in which a good-sized tangle of brush had been deposited by the strong currents of high water during spring.

I made three casts to that brushpile and caught three fish -- a 12-inch bass, a channel cat about the same size, and a crappie just short of 11 inches. All three of those game fish reacted like the predators they were, and none showed any hesitation in hitting my ultralight crankbait.

Another great place to fish these lures, particularly in small, warm-water streams, is along the head of a riffle or in pools where a waterfall dumps in. Drop your bait right into the spot where the fall hits and move it crossways from one side of the creek to the other. Good fish often hide out just under those falls, and they'll dart out to attack your lure.

Just talking about all this cranks me up -- because I've seen first-hand the enormous effectiveness of ultralight crankbaits.

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