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Sunny Delight: Target the Biggest Panfish in Local Waters

Monster bluegills and other sunfish are eager to eat in ponds and reservoirs across the South.

Sunny Delight: Target the Biggest Panfish in Local Waters

When the bite slows, changing colors will often trigger strikes from fish that otherwise won't hit (Photo courtesy of Z-Man Fishing)

The term "sunfish" refers to the Lepomis genus, which includes the bluegill, green sunfish, longear sunfish, pumpkinseed, redbreast sunfish, redear sunfish (aka "shellcracker"), spotted sunfish (aka "stumpknocker") and warmouth. Most states allow a limit of total sunfish; that is, a daily limit can include any combination of the aforementioned. That's a good thing, because telling them apart can often be confusing.

No matter what type of sunfish you're chasing, spring is prime time to target quality-sized fish. Whether they're in pre-spawn, spawn or post-spawn, they're often easy to find with the naked eye or with technology like side imaging, which clearly reveals bed colonies.High-probability areas include creek mouths, coves, bays and muddy-bottom areas that absorb sunlight. Emergent vegetation and submerged willows are also great spots to begin a search. In clear waters, look for circle-shaped nests in sandy, muddy or gravel-laden bottoms amidst vegetation.

bluegill with soft-plastic bait
Soft plastics are considerably more resilient than live bait and require far less re-rigging. (Photo by Jim Edlund)

PANFISH BRO

Brian "Bro" Brosdahl has fished sunfish extensively across the region and is considered one of the best there is for finding and catching panfish. "In the South, springtime sunfish are fond of brush in coves and creek mouths," he says. "They also hang in the tops of tree trunks in deeper water. With today's electronics, you can find sunfish schools easily."

While locating target-worthy fish is often relatively easy, you still must exercise caution. "Sometimes they're spooky and boat-shy," says Brosdahl. "Trolling motors with the spot-lock feature help you hold tight. My goal is to try and determine at what depth they're at and pitch a cork and micro-plastic at them. If they aren't spooky, I'll spot-lock and sit over them, vertically jigging and just tickling the branch tops."

All sunfish have pressure pads in their throats that crush crustaceans and invertebrates for easy digestion. They also possess binocular vision for feeding on micro-organisms. "Sunfish live around cover and will eat whatever they can find. Bluegills generally grow quite large and are easy targets in the spring. Redear sunfish can be a bit fussier. Crickets, red worms, grass shrimp and even big nightcrawlers are great shellcracker baits," Brosdahl says.

When it comes to finding fish, Brosdahl says, "look for shellcrackers in vegetation, brush and along rocky outcroppings. Green sunfish are just a smaller version of the redear, and you'll catch them along with the others in the same general spots."

JIG RIGS

Live bait is a staple for many anglers, but artificial options work, too. Brosdahl pitches small soft plastics that mimic bloodworms and mayfly larvae. His favorites are from Northland Fishing Tackle and are pre-rigged on tungsten jig heads for easy casting and a quick fall rate. "In shallower waters, I'll suspend the bloodworm- or mayfly-and-tungsten-jig combo under a fixed float. If the fish are off their beds and have moved deeper, I'll fish them under a slip float," Brosdahl says.

If that doesn't raise a fish or draw a strike, Brosdahl gets busy and goes on the prowl. "If they're finicky and I need to find hungry fish, I'll fan-cast them without a cork on hi-vis, ultra-thin-diameter superline tied to a section of 2- to 4-pound fluorocarbon leader and cover water quickly," he says.

Brosdahl depends on his rod to help him feel those subtle bites. "I really like the 9-foot St. Croix Panfish Series rod for this, which also allows me to drop jigs into holes in lily pads and other vegetation," says Bro. "It's almost like using a cane pole, which Southern panfish anglers have been using for decades, but I can pitch a mile with it, too."

GO VERTICAL

If sunfish have moved off beds and into deeper water, chances are you can locate them among submerged trees, brush piles, log jams and manmade cribs.

With a modern fishfinder and trolling motor, it's not only much easier to locate these areas, it's also possible to electronically anchor into perfect position for pitching or fishing vertically. Depending on the depth and how spooky the fish are, vertical jigging often pays dividends when fish are tight to structure.

Often, the biggest panfish are buried deep in the structure and can be hard to catch. Electronics make it a lot easier, whether you're watching your jig and fish on 2D sonar set to a narrow cone or have adopted front-facing sonar set to the down-looking position. Maybe you fish without electronics and simply drop your bait until you feel the tickle of branches. It all can work.

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For years I fished snaggy areas with a micro tube or simple jig head and live bait, but the problem with horizontal-oriented lures is they get hung up a lot. Then, a couple years ago, Mike Everett, owner of Hank's Bait & Tackle in Waterloo, Iowa, introduced me to a vertical minnow-spoon hybrid with a dropper chain and a single gold hook. It's called the 1.5-inch Jigger Minnow, handmade by Shuck's Lures.

"If I'm fishing for big bluegills, I'm never without one on my rod," says Everett. "Vertically jigged, they slip right through the branches and get down to the biggest bluegills. I'll use a waxworm or a chunk of redworm on the hook. Sometimes it's a fish on every drop—and you don't get snagged."

After testing Everett's secret weapon on a couple farm ponds filled with submerged trees and brush, I became an instant convert. I soon discovered that micro-plastics, especially Liquid Willowcat's Beaver Tail, Rat Tail and Finesse Tail scented baits, often work as well as live bait on the single gold hook.

The benefit of going artificial? You don't have to re-bait your hook after each fish; it's possible to catch a dozen or more sunfish on one plastic bait. I'll also add a couple drops of Liquid Willowcat Larvae Scent to my soft plastics to increase their appeal. If fish are fussy, I'll dress my soft plastic with a waxworm or maggot.

DOWNSIZE

On clear waters with rock, sand, gravel and an abundance of crawfish, hellgrammites and other bottom-dwelling critters, I've discovered you can upsize the bait to catch big sunfish, particularly bluegills, redears and green sunfish.

I stumbled on this by accident. My father-in-law and I were fishing for bass on a rock quarry, and we got into some giant sunfish with my favorite football-head jig and soft-plastic trailer. The first big bluegill came between bass catches. Then we caught a big green sunfish. Then another 'gill. I suggested we downsize the Northland Finesse football head to a 3/16-ounce and switch to smaller-profile Willee Wanna Bes and Chillee Willees—baits with silicone hairs and an O-ring that resemble crawfish, hellgrammites, leeches and other bottom-dwelling critters. When we did, the big sunfish bite became even more furious. As for color, green pumpkin was king that day.

closeup of bluegill
While the Ned rig has long been a go-to finesse bait for bass, panfish anglers are discovering it catches big bluegills, too. (Photo by Jim Edlund)

NED TIME

Ever since notorious tackle tinkerer Ned Kehde came up with the Ned rig, the bass world hasn't been quite the same. But these baits catch much more than largemouths and smallmouths.Most of my 10-inch-plus sunfish have been caught on Ned rigs using the 
2 3/4-inch Z-Man Finesse TRD. And now Z-Man has an even smaller version available, the recently introduced 1 3/4-inch Micro TRD.

Former fishing guide and Z-Man marketing manager/bait developer Cory Schmidt is a bluegill nut. "The new Tiny TicklerZ is my new favorite big bluegill bait," says Schmidt. "Its multi-tentacled tail provides a subtle wag, which catches a big bluegill's eye. It's a great search bait to cover a variety of depths or just work along the bottom like you would a traditional Ned rig for bass."

The vast majority of the time, Schmidt leans on one specific color. "I'm throwing green pumpkin 90 percent of the time. On stained waters I'll fish chartreuse-and-black. But I think the magic lies in how the buoyancy of the ElazTech makes the tentacles stand up and quiver, imitating a minnow or insect feeding in the substrate." The Tiny TicklerZ is also deadly on a drop-shot rig, with the bait set at 4 to 6 inches above the sinker. A lot of times, nose-hooking it on a panfish hook will produce as many fish as when it's fished on the bottom with a jig head.

CONSERVATION MINDED

  • Let the biggest sunnies live to fight another day.
Bluegill
Trophy sunfish are a product of aggressive conservation. Release big fish to keep the population healthy. (Photo by Jim Edlund)

We all love catching big sunfish (and eating them), but not all waters can grow trophies if the population isn't managed correctly. Without the big specimens in a lake or pond, the population will start stunting and the overall size of the sunfish will decrease as the breeders are removed from the ecosystem.

Mindful angling is even more critical in the spring when big sunfish are sitting on beds and willing to attack any bait that comes their way. So do your part—catch some big fish, take some photos, then let them go. Keeping only medium-sized fish ensures future generations will have the opportunity to fish for the trophies, too.




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