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Panfish: Make Most Out of Live-Bait Alternatives

Live bait is off the menu in many parts of the West, but it doesn't mean anglers have to be at a disadvantage.

Panfish: Make Most Out of Live-Bait Alternatives

Photo by M.D. Johnson

Third-generation crappie fisherman: that’s me. Actually, that’s not entirely correct. I’m actually a third-generation minnow-dunking crappie fisherman. That’s more like it.It’s true. Where I grew up in Ohio, crappies and minnows were synonymous. So much so that no dedicated crappie fishermen I knew—and I knew plenty—would ever have thought about launching the boat without first stopping at Les’s Bait Shop and picking up five dozen lively minnows. No one.

So, in 1993, I leave the Midwest and move to Washington state. Guess what? Crappies, but no minnows allowed. Dead ones, but no live ones. No buck a dozen baitfish. No metal Old Pal minnow buckets with the separate strainer bucket inside. No little dip nets. No live minnows allowed. Who would have thought?

What, then, is an angler supposed to do out West on those crappie-rich waters, and there are many, where live minnows are, by regulation, a huge no-no? Fortunately, the fishing world today is full of live-bait alternatives specifically designed to help fill stringers and baskets with fine-eating panfish.

The lighter the line, the better soft plastic baits work. (Photo by M.D. Johnson)

"Does this no-minnows regulation put anglers at a disadvantage? Not really. There are so many products out there now that can actually out-fish live bait," said Anaheim, Calif.’s, Marlon Meade. One of 12 celebrated fishing ambassadors in The Golden State, a member of the prestigious “Top 30 Anglers on the West Coast,” and a long-time member of the Berkley/Pure Fishing pro team, Meade is matter-of-fact when it comes to the effectiveness of plastics for crappies, bluegills and other panfish.

"There are live-bait restrictions on a lot of lakes out here," Meade said, "but I’ve seen more people make the switch away from live bait than ever before. Everyone seems to be moving toward the scented [plastics]. There’s an entirely new level of plastic baits out there like the Berkley GULP! and Alive series. It’s just incredible. To be truthful, I hardly see anyone fishing with minnows anymore."

But, as most things in life do, there have to be both advantages as well as disadvantages to these new-age live-bait alternatives, yes?

"With these modern plastics," Meade said, "you not only have the enhanced movement of the bait itself, but there’s the scent factor as well. You can fish these artificials in a variety of ways, too. You can cast and retrieve. Vertical jig. Drop-shot. Bobber. No bobber. And cover a lot of water. Plus, and one of the biggest obvious advantages of plastics over live bait, is [hardiness].

Although white is a go-to soft plastic color for crappies, if the bite slows, change colors until the fish tell you what they want. (Photo by M.D. Johnson)

"I mean one minnow means typically one fish. With these plastics, it's 20, 30, 40 fish per bait. That's a huge advantage."

Still, is there a downside? A disadvantage?

"I really don't think so," Meade said, without hesitation. "They've come such a long way with these baits now. This is really the way to go."

It would appear these 21st century live-bait alternatives have no disadvantage; still, and that being said, is it possible for anyone, even new anglers, to use them incorrectly?

"Not so much with the plastics themselves," said Meade, "but with the line. It's essential that you use as light a line as possible with these plastic baits. To me, 2-pound line is the way to go for panfish. For crappies or bluegills or perch. You start using 6-pound or 8-pound line, and you start to lose the lure’s action and effectiveness, simply because the line’s too heavy. The rule’s easy. The lighter the line, the better [these plastics] work."


One-inch Berkley Pinched Crawlers are a great choice for members of the sunfish family that have small mouths. (Photo by M.D. Johnson)

Many advantages. Few disadvantages. But does Meade see a common mistake among those using these alternatives? Not a disadvantage, per se, but a universal wrong?

"We already discussed the No. 1 mistake," he said, "and that's using line that's too heavy. No. 2, then, would be working the bait too fast. You have to slow that presentation down. You can always increase the speed of your retrieve, but my advice is to start out slow."


Within a minute of our conversation beginning, it became clear Meade’s 57 years of fishing have endowed him with several lifetimes of panfishing knowledge, especially when it comes to the art of throwing plastics. Here’s a handful of snippets he was happy to pass along.

  • On using scents: "I believe in them 100 percent. My all-time favorite is the GULP spray in garlic. You can spray it on any bait you want to spray it on."
  • Crappies and jigs: "There’s all different kinds of [crappie] jigs out there. Traditional lead head jigs. Tube jigs. My favorite sizes would be 1/16-ounce and 1/32-ounce."
  • Go-to crappie jig: "The 2-inch GULP minnow in white,” he said, without hesitation. “It’s my all-time favorite. Out here, we prefer the 1-inch to 2.5-inch minnows. That’s the size we like."
  • Color: "Does color make a difference for crappies? Absolutely. Always change colors if the bite slows down. Always change. Clear water, and you go to your natural colors. Stained water, and you go to your brighter colors. Chartreuse and white have always been key."
  • Berkley’s Pinched Crawler: "For bluegills, use the 1-inch Pinched Crawler. The 2-inch size is a little big for a bluegill’s mouth [which is smaller than a crappie’s mouth]. But everything hits those Pinched Crawlers."

The secret to end all secrets: “We load our 1-inch bobbers with four BBs. We use a standard red-and-white bobber with the black top. We drill a hole in the [upper] white part and put four BBs in there. Not five, but four. Then we put a piece of cotton in the hole, put JB Weld over the hole, and let it dry for 24 hours. Now, I can cast this bobber farther because of the added weight. Twitch it, and you have the rattle and increased action to the jig below."

Match the size of the soft plastic bait with the available forage, and you are on the way to boating nice crappies. (Photo by M.D. Johnson)

The Ultimate Panfish Rig

Here's how I set this one up: I told Meade that a relatively inexperienced crappie angler was flying down to spend three days with him on his home waters in search of specks. Said angler would be bringing nothing but clothes, a camera and a laptop; no gear. Meade, then, would be tasked with putting together a fishing outfit—rod, reel, line and a single bait—that the angler would not only use, but use efficiently and effectively. The ultimate crappie rig.

Not surprisingly, there was no hesitation on his behalf.

"We'd start with a Fenwick 7 1/2-foot ultralight Eagle spinning rod," he began. "And match that up with an Abu Garcia Pro Max spinning reel spooled with 2-pound Berkley XL monofilament. One lure, you say? That would have to be Berkley’s (pre-rigged) Atomic Teaser in 1/32- or 1/16th-ounce."

An excellent combination, to be sure, but there are an almost endless number of great panfish rigs available today. Built not far from my home in southwest Washington, Lamiglas ( makes several options for the diehard panfish fanatic, including their popular X-11 Ultralight series rods. Same, too, in the reel category, with my locker holding examples like the Shimano Stradic FL, Pflueger President 20X and Abu Garcia’s Black Max SP5. Like Meade, I'm partial to thin monofilament, if not fluorocarbon, in the 2- to 4-pound category. But I will deviate from his Atomic Teaser selection, albeit a fine choice, with my 1/16- to 1/32-ounce chartreuse tube jig. Maybe fished under a bobber; maybe not. And maybe it’s red and white. Or orange and yellow. I'll let the fish decide.

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