The spawning season is one of the most productive fishingtimes for panfish, but they also can provide exciting action in the cold monthsif anglers are willing to change their strategies.
Unfortunately, many cold-weather outings end in failurebecause winter anglers use the same tactics they use during the spawn, andthese tactics rarely entice coldwater panfish. Success comes only to those whoknow specific methods for catching these often-scattered, sometimes finicky sportfish.
Toward that end, here are 14 tried-and-true tips to help youzero 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 40feet or more, usually holding near open-water humps, points and otherstructures near tributary mouths. The same behavior is observed on big rivers;look for white bass near deep river-channel edges and plummeting holes at themouths of tributaries. Sand bars and flats are especially attractive, hence thecommon white bass nickname “sandies.” Rarely will whites be found where brushand big rocks cover the bottom. Look instead for smooth-bottomed, open-waterareas where whites usually school.
Small jigging spoons work great on deep-water winter whitebass. Fish the spoon vertically. Jerk it hard, raising it 4 to 5 feet, and letit flutter back down on slack line. Most strikes come while the spoon isfalling, but you probably won’t feel the strike. That’s OK. When you jerk thespoon 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 greatway to spend a winter day. Rock bass inhabit lakes, too, but can be difficultto find in these waters during prespawn. In streams, however, you can quicklyfind winter fish by bottom-bouncing a 1/8-ounce jig around big rocks in deeppools. Rock bass like rocks, just as their name suggests.
Rock bass also are suckers for crayfish. Catch live bait byturning 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 andledges. Or try working a small crayfish-imitation crankbait such as Rebel’s WeeCrawfish.
Troll a Dropper Rig
If it’s crappie you’re after, try trolling a dropper rig alongbottom channels. Make the rig by tying a barrel swivel to the main line. Tothis attach a 5-foot mono leader with a 1-ounce bell sinker on the end. Maketwo 12-inch-long dropper lines spaced a foot apart between the sinker andswivel. Add a No. 1 Aberdeen hook to each. Impale a minnow on each hook andfish the rig vertically beneath the boat as you troll slowly along the channel.
Winter yellow perch usually are targeted using small baitsand lures, but if you want to zero in on the biggest fish, try fishing a 4- to6-inch, Carolina-rigged plastic worm. Work the lure slowly across the bottom atthe deep edge of flats and coves.
A yellow perch struggling on a hook stimulates other fish inthe school to start feeding. When using minnows for bait, you can takeadvantage of this fact by dropping some dead minnows now and them. Squeeze theminnows to empty their air bladders, then release them by the handful into thefeeding zone. As the perch dart around gobbling the minnows, a feeding frenzybegins, and a hooked minnow lowered to the school will be taken quickly.
Fish Deep for BiggerBluegills
If you're after cold-weather bluegills, and all you’re catchingis little bait-stealers, move to deeper water nearby. Small bluegills aren’tparticularly angler shy, but heavyweight fish prefer deep sanctuaries wherethey feel secure from surface disturbances.
Fish on Bottom
Big winter bluegills also tend to stay on or very near thebottom, even in shallow water. A tightline bait setup is the best choice fortaking 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-footleader of light line tipped with a small, light-wire hook. Add your favoritelive bait, then cast the rig and allow it to settle to the bottom. When abluegill takes the bait, the line moves freely through the sinker with noresistance to alert fish to a possible threat.
Flies for Deep Gills
Fly fishermen also can score heavily on deep winter bream. Wetflies resembling insect larvae and nymphs are especially effective. A sinkingfly line can carry these patterns down where big bream are feeding. Work theflies in short hops. The sight of such a fidgety tidbit tempts even the mostjaded 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 theinstant your line goes slack or your bait doesn’t feel right. Don’t wait foranything else. Set the hook and make a mental note of the depth at which thefish struck. There may be a dozen more fish still down there.
If a slower retrieve is needed to entice finicky panfish incold water, try using a sonic-type in-line spinner such as Worden’s RoosterTail or a Panther Martin. These have a blade that is concave on one end andconvex on the other, so the blade turns very easily and will spin at a veryslow retrieve speed.
A tiny piece of minnow added to a jig hook maintains the jig’saction while adding scent. Use a sharp knife to cut a fillet from the baitfish’sside, then divide it lengthwise into two or more pieces. The added smell/tasteincreases your catch when finicky panfish avoid larger offerings.
Troll a Crankbait
To catch crappie, yellow perch and white bass suspended inopen water near tributary mouths, watch for boomerangs on your sonar, then trytrolling a crankbait through the area. Use a 1/4- to 1/8-ounce diver. Silverworks great on sunny days and in clear water. If the sky is overcast, or thewater is murky, switch to hot colors such as chartreuse.