August 01, 2022
By Keith Sutton
Summer panfishing can be frustrating. Anglers must contend with finicky fish, stifling heat, crowds of recreational boaters and rapidly changing water levels. The fish are especially exasperating because many move to deeper water where they’re hard to find and catch.
Not all panfish move deep, though. Some remain shallow if they find locations that provide food, protection and shade. Such areas include boat docks, weed beds, bridges and brushy points. And if you know how to fish these sites, you can enjoy fast-paced action for crappies, bluegills and other panfish—even during the heat of summer.
1. BOAT DOCKS and PIERS
Boat docks and fishing piers are among the first places you should head when seeking summer panfish. The best ones are built on wood pilings in 5 to 15 feet of water near cover and/or structure, have been in the water for several seasons and are situated very close to the water’s surface.
These structures attract panfish with prolonged shade throughout the day. The wood pilings provide a comfortable sense of security, which structure-oriented panfish require, and they also harbor a smorgasbord of foods. Algae growing on the seasoned wood hide grass shrimp, newly hatched minnows, aquatic insects, insect larvae and other panfish favorites. Plenty of yummy stuff falls off the dock, too, including spiders, roaches, crickets, moths and other insects.
Size should be another consideration. Think of docks and piers as fish hotels. Big hotels have rooms for lots of guests. Occupancy is limited, though, at smaller establishments. If other traits are equal, try to concentrate on larger docks and piers.
Savvy anglers move in close and fish under each structure where big panfish are most likely hiding. A short, light spinning or spincasting outfit is handy for this kind of fishing because it allows anglers to skip, flip and ricochet baits or lures into even the tightest areas—a tactic called sling-shotting. Use slow-falling baits like twister-tail jigs or unweighted crickets to mimic falling insects. Flip or shoot these under the dock and prepare for a strike as the bait falls. If a hit is not forthcoming, a slow retrieve close to the bottom will frequently produce.
If you have a sonar unit on your boat, watch for brush piles placed around docks and piers by the owners or local anglers. It’s rare when there aren’t several brush piles in the vicinity of a dock, with several nice crappies or bluegills hiding within these shelters.
2. GREEN WEED BEDS
Beds of green aquatic vegetation attract summer panfish for several reasons. They provide shade and protection, as well as abundant oxygen produced through photosynthesis. Baitfish and invertebrate forage animals are attracted to this comfortable environment, and panfish follow.
Most anglers assume that since they can't see open water, the area can’t be fished, so they go about pecking along the edges. But panfish, especially the heavyweight elders, are deep within this seemingly impenetrable sea of greenery. The best way to catch them is to get right in there.
The trick is working methodically to cover every accessible nook and pocket. A cane pole or jigging pole is ideal for this because it allows you to reach likely honey holes from a distance with fewer hang-ups. Attach a bobber above your bait—jigs, crickets, grass shrimp, minnows and worms are good choices—and probe every opening you see, changing the position of the bobber occasionally until you determine the depth where fish are feeding.
Don't be shy about fishing tiny, impossible-looking openings. The best technique with these small holes is to leave off the bobber and pull your line so your bait comes up tight against the rod tip. Then, position your pole over the opening and slowly release the line to lower your bait into the hole. Using this method, your bait should get through even the thickest tangles. Panfish in such places are far more likely to strike than those found along an edge that every passing angler has already pounded.
When all vegetation seems to look alike, focus on structural features that don’t conform to the norm. Timber stick-ups often concentrate fish, as will open cuts through the vegetation and nearby points or underwater humps. On waters harboring several different types of water plants, try differing weed beds, as one type may hold more fish than the others.
Bridges are very attractive to panfish in hot weather. The shaded channel beneath provides a constant supply of cool, aerated water, and the pilings are covered with algae that attract aquatic invertebrates, small fish and other foods.
First, fish around those pilings in shallower water. Use a sonar unit to find fish concentrations or simply work various depths until fish are found. Throw a small jig, spinner or slightly weighted live bait past the piling, then let it drift down to feeding fish as you count. Once a fish is caught, count down to the same level on your next cast and catch another. Try not to bump the pilings with your bait, as this frightens fish away from the structure.
After fishing the pilings, work the rock riprap that usually lines the shore under bridges. Cast parallel to the shore, starting shallow and gradually working deeper as you move away from the bank. Deep-diving, ultralight, crayfish-imitating crankbaits are real bluegill killers in these waters, and they will often entice slab crappies, too. Small spoons—1/10- to 1/4-ounce—produce well when vertically jigged to resemble a dying baitfish fluttering to the bottom.
4. BRUSHY POINTS
Points are excellent panfish spots year-round because they serve as pathways for fish moving between shallow and deep water. By working a point methodically from shallow to deep, you can determine the day’s depth pattern and use it to help locate panfish on other points or structural features. Many of these fish will be in shallow water.
Work a jig or live bait around all visible cover and fish-concentrating structure: stumps, fallen and standing timber, rocks, man-made brush piles and the like. If you catch most fish around features near a point’s upper end, concentrate on shallow features when you move to other areas. If crappies and bluegills seem to favor deeper areas on the point, fish deeper water until you notice a shift in the pattern.
One good point-fishing tactic involves yo-yoing a small jig/spinner blade combo like a Beetle Spin, or buzzing it along the surface and allowing it to fall or "die" right beside cover. Position your boat in deep water and cast toward the shallow part of the point.
The hot summer months aren’t the best time for catching panfish, but neither are they the worst. If you approach it properly and try fishing around shallow-water docks, weed beds, bridge structures and brushy points, your hot-weather fishing can be very productive and provide an exciting alternative if bass, catfish and other species play hard to get.