July 14, 2021
Fishing often slows as we head into the middle of summer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t spend the better part of an outing with your rod bent. Panfish are often more immune to rising temperatures than other gamefish, making them favored summertime targets. The scrappy fighters are a blast on light tackle, and, of course, they’re downright delicious. But sometimes these willing biters get a bit finicky, causing even seasoned anglers to rethink their approach. Here are some tips to ensure you’ll have plenty of tasty fillets all summer long.
As the mercury climbs, activity falls off. Just as you don’t see many people out for a leisurely jog when the temperature approaches triple digits, our finned friends below the surface curtail their movement during the hottest parts of the day, too. But as the sun descends over the western horizon, temps dip and the underwater world starts to come to life. Hitting the dock after the sun goes down is a surefire way to increase your catch, and you can supercharge your results with the addition of an underwater light.
Dropping a light into the water creates a food chain reaction by enticing plankton, insects, bait and, ultimately, gamefish from anywhere that can see the glow. You can spend a mint on hardwired underwater lighting systems, but for panfishing, a simple battery-powered LED model is sufficient.
Summer is a period of abundance when it comes to aquatic insects. In many parts of the region, mayflies are coming off the water in droves from May to August. This activity sends panfish into a feeding frenzy, chasing the insects as they emerge.
You can cash in on this intense action by picking up a fly rod. Though fly fishing can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, the premise is very simple: Instead of the lure carrying the line during a cast, the line propels the fly. This allows the angler to use imitations that are much smaller than a spinning or casting rod is capable of.
Fly tackle for panfish need not be fancy, with suitable outfits going for as little as $80. A 3- or 4-weight rod will make the most out of these scrappy fighters and pull double-duty on the trout stream if you wish. Pair it with a weight-forward line and a simple click-and-pawl reel and you’ll be ready to take on these bantam bruisers. Simple leaders with 3x tippets are stout enough to pull any panfish out of the weeds, but thin enough to not spook them.
The various subspecies of the aforementioned mayfly are readily imitated by a wide range of fly patterns. But for panfish, close enough is close enough. General patterns, called attractors, are sufficiently realistic to fool bluegills and crappies. Look for patterns such as the Royal Wulff, Stimulator and Adams, though others will work.
As the summer drags on and insects like grasshoppers and katydids become more prevalent, use flies that imitate them. Foam ants and spiders are other panfish favorites that score well throughout the summer.
LIVE BAIT RULES
There’s been an emphasis placed on artificial lures for panfish in recent years, but there ain’t nothing like the real thing.
The common earthworm, or "garden hackle" if you’re feeling fancy, catches plenty of fish. Pick some up at the tackle shop or dig your own in your backyard. You can also attract them using a wet piece of cardboard placed on the ground. Set it down, wet it and flip it over the next morning to find a cache of worms.
To get the most out of fishing a worm, ditch the red-and-white plastic bobber in favor of a slip float rig. The narrower cross section of the balsa float offers less resistance, so you’ll be able to pick up on the subtlest of bites. For the lightest biters, use a float with a pencil profile. Use a light wire hook in size 6 or 8 snelled directly to your line if you’re using light-test monofilament, or a short trace of light-test fluorocarbon if your reel is spooled with braid.
Crickets and grasshoppers are irresistible to bluegills and crappies, with their kicking action ringing a dinner bell that can be heard from a distance. If tackle shops in your area don’t stock them, try the local pet store or catch your own. Make a trap out of a 2-liter soda bottle by cutting the top off and inverting it so it forms a funnel that will allow crickets to find their way in easily but have difficulty leaving through the small opening.
Fill the trap with some sugar or a hunk of apple to lure them in, secure the top with duct tape, and place it in a likely location. Once you have a good store of bait, hit the pond and rig them up with a size-4 or -6 hook stuck in the collar. If dapping them on the surface fails, add some split shot to send them subsurface.
Ice anglers know minnows are a top producer for yellow perch, but this info somehow gets lost in the warmer months. You can score plenty of tasty filets fishing minnows on the open water, and you can usually catch your own bait pretty readily. Grab one of the commercially available torpedo-shaped minnow traps and place it near a dock or other structure that baitfish tend to frequent.
A can of cat food with a few holes punched in the lid makes a pretty good minnow bait, as the scent drifts through the water without letting the contents float away too quickly. Rig your minnows on a drop-shot rig to probe the depths without hanging up too frequently, or use a jig head for a more vigorous presentation. Both of these setups will also score plenty of crappies.
TROLL THE DEPTHS
As water temperatures climb, crappies—and sometimes even sunfish—head for the depths. In larger bodies of water, it’s not uncommon to find schools of crappies suspended in 20 feet of water or more. To quickly cover water, borrow a technique from the walleye playbook and troll with crankbaits. You’ll need to downsize your offering, though, using baits no larger than 3 inches. Most crappie-sized baits are designed to run shallow, but you can get them deeper by using a three-way swivel, with a short length of mono going to a bass casting sinker weighing anywhere from 1/8 to 1/2 ounce depending on water depth, and a two- or three-foot leader going to the crankbait.
If the bottom is snaggy, use a lighter test line to attach the sinker so only it will break off if you get hung. Long, limber rods such as those designed for trout in the Eagle Claw Featherlight series work best with this technique. Slowly cover the water using your trolling motor or by oar power, and concentrate your efforts on deeper water adjacent to shallow flats where crappies might feed in cooler weather. Once you’ve hooked up in the same spot a few times, mark it by hitting the man overboard button on your GPS unit or with a marker buoy. If you catch more than a few in that spot, consider anchoring up and using jigging techniques to maximize your catch.
Mention chumming and most people will think of shark fishing, but it has its place in panfishing as well (check the regs to make sure it’s permissible where you fish). Instead of ground menhaden, you can chum your favorite panfish hole with high-fat dog foods like Ol’ Roy. You can also purchase commercially available chum, such as the cottonseed cakes favored by catfish anglers, or use canned corn.
The dry dog food pellets will slowly disintegrate, and the scent will drift off in the current, luring minnows and aquatic insects. This cluster of activity draws predators, too, so you should find bluegill, crappies, perch and even bass holed up right at your feet. Scatter a few handfuls of dry dog food around your favorite dock over the course of several days, letting the fat leach off and create an inviting slick. Head down to the dock with jigs, spinners or dough baits and cash in on the frenzy you’ve created. Just make sure you bring a cooler and plenty of ice.
A convenient way to transport lures, tools and terminal tackle.
One of the nice things about panfishing is that a minimalist approach is typically sufficient. The new Lure Lock Roll-Up tackle management system perfectly captures that spirit. Toss it under your arm like a newspaper and your hands are free to carry rods, a cooler and a comfy seat.
Lure Lock’s proprietary, mess-free Tak Logic gel is the linchpin here. Simply place your favorite lures, a set of pliers and any other small items you might need for a day of panfishing on the gel pad, roll it all up and you’re ready to go. Overall dimensions are 28 inches by 10 inches unfurled, while the gel pad is 22 inches by 10 inches. — John Taranto