Cranking For Panfish

Here's a tip for any time the panfish on your favorite stream or lake shun your normal offerings: It's time to crank up some action!

Big panfish eat little crankbaits. Bluegills and crappie just love 'em -- and other fish species won't turn them down either.

Panfish that hit crankbaits tend to be the larger ones, making them worth catching! Photo courtesy of Tim Lilley.

The lures work on ponds and lakes of all sizes, and streams and rivers. In more than two decades of tying on an ultralight crankbait, I've never been skunked while fishing one.

From here, the second best reason to fish them is that there's nothing particularly specialized about fishing them. The best reason, of course, is that they consistently catch panfish. I can only think of one technique that requires some attention to a certain detail, and we'll talk about that later.

Nothing beats a light spinning outfit with a 6- to 7-foot rod. Longer rods enable you to make longer casts, and that can be especially important when you're fishing low, clear lakes and streams. Look for rods that are designed to handle baits from 1/8- to 1/4-ounce, and line weights from 4- to 10-pound test.

My little crankbait reels generally carry 4- or 6-pound line, and I re-tie my lures often to avoid losing fish and lures to line damaged by rocks and brush that breaks at the worst time -- when I'm trying to land a slab-sided crappie or bluegill.

Most often, I opt for 6-pound line because I can set my drag tight enough when using it to be able to quickly play and land big panfish. The outfits with 4-pound line come out in places with low, clear water.

Little crankbaits in my big-panfish tackle box all weigh 1/4-ounce or less. They include minnow imitations, crawdad imitations and topwater baits. The latter can work really well on farm ponds and other small lakes, especially those with weedy cover or cattails along the shoreline.

Many anglers consider poppers to be mostly bass baits, but that's not true in smaller sizes -- especially on those weed-lined lakes. When I get to a pond or small lake and spy a corner that's choked with weeds, I'm going to fish that spot with a popper.

If someone limited me to just one little crankbait for big panfish, however, it would be a crawdad imitation. Over the years, these tiny plugs have racked up impressive numbers of big panfish for me, with some nice bass and catfish thrown in.

Yes, catfish will hit little crankbaits, and they seem to always do so ferociously. Pan-sized channel cats are the most frequent takers, but I've had some big ones smack my little lures on occasion. One catfish in particular stands out -- even though I never set the hook on it.

That fish came out of nowhere and followed a little crawdad crankbait for 10 to 15 yards as I reeled it back to the boat. It was a scene out of a shark-attack documentary; all I saw was a large dorsal fin slicing through the surface just behind my bait. That was both exciting and frustrating because the fish never hit the plug. Maybe the boat spooked it; something did. It was almost dark so, even though the water was clear, I never got a good look at the fish. The dorsal fin was unmistakably one of a catfish.

I mention this because big panfish aren't the only big fish on your favorite waters that will show interest in ultralight crankbaits. These baits are so much fun because, even though panfish will be your primary catches, you never know what else might decide to smack your lure.

As alluded to earlier, this is the easiest part. You just tie on a tiny crankbait, cast it, and start reeling it back. Today's rods and lines are so sensitive that you'll feel the action of the bait when it starts working. Don't crank faster than what you'll need to start feeling the lure's vibrations.

If you've fished certain waters long enough to have a good feel for their honeyholes, these little baits will work in them. From a boat, take a few moments before you start fishing seriously to figure out how long of a cast you can make to just reach the edge of the bank. Then just position your boat at that range and parallel the shoreline.

Pay attention to little breaks in weedlines, little cuts in the shore and any brush or limbs that are partially submerged along the bank. All of those places provide the kind of structure big panfish use.

If your favorite lake has some coves with feeder creeks, fish toward the back and make a few casts up into the creek, just above its mouth in the cove. Those are great spots.

For me, big panfish in large lakes have responded very well to trolling. This approach involves the one detail mentioned at the start of this story, and that detail is speed.

Cast your little crankbaits off the back of the boat, and then begin trolling very slowly. Increase your speed until your rod tip starts twitching, which tells you that the bait is at its intended running depth and is working as designed. Stay at that speed, and you'll start picking up more fish.

Large lakes can get pretty windy. If you pick a breezy day to try trolling, you have two options. First, see if you can simply let the wind drift you along flats what hold panfish at a speed fast enough to get your bait to work. If it won't, simply troll into the wind and let your rod tip be your guide. As soon as it shows the kind of action that reflects your bait working properly, maintain that speed.

Many anglers fish small ponds from the bank. This information also can apply to large lakes and the shore-bound angler.

Those corners with weeds and other structure are great spots to start out. When fishing from the bank, I try to position myself to be able to fan-cast the corner from one side to the other. I start at the end closest to me, and then make longer casts until I'm casting to the far side of the corner.

When I've covered those spots thoroughly, I fish the rest of the pond by keying on any little break in the shoreline. I also fish the dam as thoroughly as possible.

Focus your efforts on cut banks along channel bends. Brush and debris pile up in those deeper holes, and big panfish love them. Also spend time fishing deeper runs with fairly slow current, and pay attention to the heads of deeper holes.

One of the most

consistent fish-catching casts I've ever made on streams is the one that drops my lure just a couple of feet into a riffle that dumps into a deeper hole. Panfish are predators, too -- and they'll position themselves to attack any "easy meals" that wash into those holes from the swifter water above.

Another approach I like is to stand parallel to the head of a deep hole and just flip my bait into it. I let line play out for several seconds as the lure washes downstream, and then I engage the reel and begin a very slow retrieve. The appearance of a stunned crawdad or baitfish suddenly coming back to life has enticed many nice panfish to go on attack.

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