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Drop-Shot Tactics for Bluegills, Crappies

The darling of finesse bass anglers, the drop-shot rig is also a proven performer on spring and summer panfish.

Drop-Shot Tactics for Bluegills, Crappies
This bluegill munched a micro drop-shot-rigged Z-Man LarvaZ. Invertebrate imitations like this are great for ’gills and crappies. (Courtesy of Z-Man Fishing)

Finding panfish in spring and summer involves more searching than fishing on some days, as crappies and sunfish move shallower or deeper based on spawning timing, water temperatures and broader schooling behavior and forage availability. Modern electronics remove some guesswork out of finding panfish, but even with these tools, sometimes it’s hard to beat a technique that lets you seek out fish. While casting with a bobber is often highly productive, if you really need to work a stretch of water thoroughly, drop-shotting can sometimes yield even better results. The tactic’s versatility can help you cover more water and ultimately find and catch more panfish.

crappie caught on drop shot
When crappies feed on emerging insects, a drop-shot rig with a buoyant bait often outfishes a standard jig and plastic. (Photo courtesy of Z-Man Fishing)

FIND FISH

There are many electronic shortcuts to finding spring panfish. Side-scanning shorelines and weed edges, running 360-degree live sonar through basins and flats or directing forward-facing sonar over the sides and top of a hump can quickly pinpoint pods of spring panfish. If you know how to use these electronics, you can drastically reduce time spent searching and devote it instead to fishing. If you lack electronics know-how (or electronics themselves), some educated guesses and search-fishing can help. In either case, a drop-shot presentation works phenomenally on panfish.

If you’ve found fish, you can start drop-shotting immediately without reservation. If you’re still looking, put your drop-shot rig to work, beginning in the shallows. Check all shallow water, especially areas with undeveloped shorelines and overhead cover; lines of intact submerged or emergent vegetation like reeds, cane, cattails or bulrush; and locations that have historically held fish. Crappies and sunfish will return to previously used spawning locations.

drop-shot lure for panfish
Buoyant soft plastics like Z-Man’s StingerZ hover on a drop-shot rig, staying in the strike zone indefinitely. (Photo courtesy of Z-Man Fishing)

If your shallow-water search doesn’t produce, head to the first break line where the depth switches from 5 to 10 feet, or even steeper drops, and work that transitional depth area. Fish could be hanging on that deep break or suspending in the deep water nearby. Check adjacent to humps, reefs, islands and saddles. These mid-lake structures are great pivot points that schools of fish can hang near until it is finally time to move up and onto these structures in order to spawn.

If you still can’t find fish, or a bizarre weather pattern has pushed fish out and away, check deep-water areas. Look for fish suspended over deep holes, at the deep edges of old stream channels or hanging just beyond the edges of where plant growth stops and sunlight penetration ends. The shock of a big barometric pressure change or a cold front can send fish deeper just as easily as warmer and more favorable conditions can propel them shallower.

RIG UP

Setting up and fishing a drop-shot is very simple. Start with a medium-power rod with a fast action. Spool your reel with 4- or 6-pound monofilament. Tie a size 6 or 8 wide-gapped hook to your line. Many manufacturers are making specialized drop-shot hooks that include built-in swivels to let the hook turn freely on the line. Attach your line to the top swivel above the hook and then tie a length of line to the second swivel below the hook which will run down to your weight.

You can use a bell-, teardrop- or pencil-style sinker. Some folks will attach split-shot sinkers to a 1- or 2-foot-long tag end left purposefully long off the hook’s connecting knot. As with hooks, many manufacturers are making their own specialty drop-shot weights with line ties to make rigging simple and easy. Choose a size and style of weight that best fits your situation and preference.

The shallower the water, the smaller the weight required, and you can swap to larger weights as you work deeper water. Fish as light a weight as you can handle. Start with a 1/4-ounce weight for less than 10 feet of water, and if you fish into 25 or 30 feet, go as large as 3/8 ounce.

Tungsten has become popular as a drop-shot weight because its high density helps transmit vibration and feeling to the angler. When fishing drop-shot rigs, you feel the bait moving along bottom by way of the sinker. If you detect any additional resistance during pauses in your retrieve, that’s likely a fish that’s picked up the suspended bait.

Also, consider tying in a fluorocarbon leader from the hook to the sinker in situations where fish are highly pressured or otherwise line shy. Drop-shot anglers need not implement violent hooksets, as they run the risk of ripping out the hook. Instead, reel in steadily to bring the fish to hand. Beware the dangling weight, which can easily become wrapped on other objects, too. When bringing in your fish, try to keep the weight from wrapping around vegetation, dock ends and other obstructions.

Bait options for drop-shot rigs are wide open. Waxworms, meal worms, grubs and crickets are great choices for sunfish. Crappie anglers do well with small shiners or fathead minnows hooked through the lips for lifelike swimming action while being pulled along. Leeches, when available, are dynamite, particularly small panfish leeches.

Because the hook is suspended above the weight, anglers have two ways to impart action on the bait. They can tempt fish while moving the entire rig, including the weight, or by slightly lifting and dropping the bait with the rod tip while leaving the sinker parked on bottom. Fish must chase the bait down in the first scenario, whereas the bait wiggles tantalizingly in mostly the same area in the latter. Given the ability to dance and shake baits for extra movement, plastics work exceptionally well on drop-shots. Plastics also stay on the hook better than live bait does when in the raspy mouths of big, aggressive crappies and sunfish, allowing for more casts between re-baiting.

Recommended


You can match the hatch with insects by carefully looking around the shoreline. You might opt for a mayfly or dragonfly pattern, a hellgrammite or a minnow imitation. The micro-plastics market has exploded recently, with hand-poured options in a wide array of colors now available. Special plastic mixes with different additives have similarly expanded the choices available to panfish anglers.

P3 Plastics Copees and ScuttleBugs, for example, are excellent zooplankton imitations, scaled up to a couple inches. Panfish Plastics Skimmers and Chigger Fry have segmented bodies and serve as awesome insect facsimiles. Berkley’s Gulp! Alive! Pinched Crawler, Leech, Fish Fry and 1-inch Minnow also have an amazing look and a smell that beg fish to bite. Whatever plastic profile you ultimately prefer—grub, minnow, leech, waxworm—all should perform reasonably well as dancing baits above drop-shot weights.

closeup of crappie fish
Side imaging and live sonar make finding spring panfish easier, and a drop-shot lets you work the entire area thoroughly. (Photo by Scott Mackenthun)

FEEL IT OUT

Fishing drop-shot rigs is very easy. If you’ve pinpointed fish, simply drop your rig down, hold your line taut, wait for a bite, then start reeling. If concerned about spooking fish, set up at a distance and cast toward them. Keep the line taut and wait for a bite. If nothing is biting, try moving the bait. If that doesn’t work, move the bait forward by starting your retrieve. Work very slowly and incorporate many stops. Keep the line taut to detect bites.

If you haven’t found fish but are searching with your rig, cast from deep water into shallow water and work your way back out again. The drop-shot excels in most situations, as it takes the guesswork out of putting baits in the strike zone. When casting or jigging, you must touch bottom and then raise up, but you’re always dropping to find bottom and then guessing how far up to come. With floats and bobbers, you constantly adjust your rig based on depth changes. With a drop-shot, simply let it hit bottom and work its magic as the depth contours change. Or you can retrieve it slowly through variable depths to find fish.

You can fish quickly with a drop-shot, but the rig is very much a finesse tactic rather than a speedy, aggressive coverage presentation. Work structure carefully and deliberately. Work up, down and around rock piles and humps, adjacent to weed lines and across flats at a slow and steady pace. Sometimes, it’s the presentation itself that will ultimately catch the fish’s attention; other times, the sinker disturbing the substrate or clacking off gravel and rocks is the trigger. Either way, a drop-shot rig offers an incredibly versatile way to ring the dinner bell and convince spring and summer panfish to bite.

GOLDILOCKS GOODY

  • A just-right bait that tempts both crappies and bluegills.
drop shot lure
Berkley Gulp! Alive! Minnow

Panfish addicts understand that sunfish have small mouths that make them well suited for inhaling aquatic insects, whereas crappies have larger mouths capable of devouring minnows. As such, discerning drop-shot anglers often face a decision when they bait up: Target sunfish or focus on crappies? Thankfully, there’s an equal-opportunity bait that can catch both.

When drop-shotting through spring and summer patterns, throw on a Berkley Gulp! Alive! 1-inch Minnow ($5.99; berkley-fishing.com) to tempt both species. Crappies love hunting down the minnow imitation when it’s dancing on a string. Bluegills are similarly drawn to the action and profile, and the bait’s scent and taste are too much for them to resist. Larger plastic minnows might be too intimidating to a sunfish, but the 1-inch version’s slight profile is perfectly inviting to a bull bluegill.

If you’re simply looking for a mess of panfish, regardless of species, the Gulp! Alive! 1-inch minnow will stay on the hook longer than live bait and elicit ample strikes. Just pick a pattern that works for your waters. Berkley offers numerous color options ranging from glow-in-the-dark to natural colors like black shad and smelt and even vibrant colors like chartreuse shad or sparkle-flaked green shiner.


  • This article was featured in the May 2024 issue of Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe.



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