The spawning season is one of the most productive fishing times for panfish, but they also can provide exciting action in the cold months if anglers are willing to change their strategies.
Unfortunately, many cold-weather outings end in failure because winter anglers use the same tactics they use during the spawn, and these tactics rarely entice coldwater panfish. Success comes only to those who know specific methods for catching these often-scattered, sometimes finicky sportfish.
Toward that end, here are 14 tried-and-true tips to help you zero in on panfish this season. Employ them and enjoy the winter bounty.
White Bass Hotspots
In big deep reservoirs, winter white bass they may be down 40 feet or more, usually holding near open-water humps, points and other structures near tributary mouths. The same behavior is observed on big rivers; look for white bass near deep river-channel edges and plummeting holes at the mouths of tributaries. Sand bars and flats are especially attractive, hence the common white bass nickname “sandies.” Rarely will whites be found where brush and big rocks cover the bottom. Look instead for smooth-bottomed, open-water areas where whites usually school.
Small jigging spoons work great on deep-water winter white bass. Fish the spoon vertically. Jerk it hard, raising it 4 to 5 feet, and let it flutter back down on slack line. Most strikes come while the spoon is falling, but you probably won’t feel the strike. That’s OK. When you jerk the spoon again, you’ll set the hook. That’s the reason for jerking it hard.
Rocks for Rock Bass
Fishing for rock bass in a cool mountain stream is a great way to spend a winter day. Rock bass inhabit lakes, too, but can be difficult to find in these waters during prespawn. In streams, however, you can quickly find winter fish by bottom-bouncing a 1/8-ounce jig around big rocks in deep pools. Rock bass like rocks, just as their name suggests.
Rock bass also are suckers for crayfish. Catch live bait by turning rocks in shallow water. Store in a container with a little wet moss. Tail-hook the crayfish, cast upstream and crawl the bait past boulders and ledges. Or try working a small crayfish-imitation crankbait such as Rebel’s Wee Crawfish.
Troll a Dropper Rig
If it’s crappie you’re after, try trolling a dropper rig along bottom channels. Make the rig by tying a barrel swivel to the main line. To this attach a 5-foot mono leader with a 1-ounce bell sinker on the end. Make two 12-inch-long dropper lines spaced a foot apart between the sinker and swivel. Add a No. 1 Aberdeen hook to each. Impale a minnow on each hook and fish the rig vertically beneath the boat as you troll slowly along the channel.
Winter yellow perch usually are targeted using small baits and lures, but if you want to zero in on the biggest fish, try fishing a 4- to 6-inch, Carolina-rigged plastic worm. Work the lure slowly across the bottom at the deep edge of flats and coves.
A yellow perch struggling on a hook stimulates other fish in the school to start feeding. When using minnows for bait, you can take advantage of this fact by dropping some dead minnows now and them. Squeeze the minnows to empty their air bladders, then release them by the handful into the feeding zone. As the perch dart around gobbling the minnows, a feeding frenzy begins, and a hooked minnow lowered to the school will be taken quickly.
Fish Deep for Bigger Bluegills
If you're after cold-weather bluegills, and all you’re catching is little bait-stealers, move to deeper water nearby. Small bluegills aren’t particularly angler shy, but heavyweight fish prefer deep sanctuaries where they feel secure from surface disturbances.
Fish on Bottom
Big winter bluegills also tend to stay on or very near the bottom, even in shallow water. A tightline bait setup is the best choice for taking these bottom dwellers. Thread a small egg sinker on your line, and, below it, tie on a barrel swivel. To the swivel’s lower eye, tie a 2-foot leader of light line tipped with a small, light-wire hook. Add your favorite live bait, then cast the rig and allow it to settle to the bottom. When a bluegill takes the bait, the line moves freely through the sinker with no resistance to alert fish to a possible threat.
Flies for Deep Gills
Fly fishermen also can score heavily on deep winter bream. Wet flies resembling insect larvae and nymphs are especially effective. A sinking fly line can carry these patterns down where big bream are feeding. Work the flies in short hops. The sight of such a fidgety tidbit tempts even the most jaded piscatorial taste buds.
The strikes of winter crappie and bream usually are “soft”; they feel like the bait has picked up a leaf. Be prepared to set the hook the instant your line goes slack or your bait doesn’t feel right. Don’t wait for anything else. Set the hook and make a mental note of the depth at which the fish struck. There may be a dozen more fish still down there.
If a slower retrieve is needed to entice finicky panfish in cold water, try using a sonic-type in-line spinner such as Worden’s Rooster Tail or a Panther Martin. These have a blade that is concave on one end and convex on the other, so the blade turns very easily and will spin at a very slow retrieve speed.
A tiny piece of minnow added to a jig hook maintains the jig’s action while adding scent. Use a sharp knife to cut a fillet from the baitfish’s side, then divide it lengthwise into two or more pieces. The added smell/taste increases your catch when finicky panfish avoid larger offerings.
Troll a Crankbait
To catch crappie, yellow perch and white bass suspended in open water near tributary mouths, watch for boomerangs on your sonar, then try trolling a crankbait through the area. Use a 1/4- to 1/8-ounce diver. Silver works great on sunny days and in clear water. If the sky is overcast, or the water is murky, switch to hot colors such as chartreuse.