Tips for Fishing Small Streams for Cold-Weather Panfish

Casting upstream and fishing from the shallow side of the shore can lead you to bigger catches

Late autumn brings cooler water temperatures, and as fall turnover begins, panfish in lakes and ponds scatter, making schools more difficult to pinpoint. Some are shallow, others deep, and anglers must keep moving to pick up numbers of fish.

Fishing streams eliminates these problems. These flowing environments aren’t subject to the vagaries of turnover, so fish can still be found in familiar haunts.

The word “stream” can describe practically any body of flowing water, from a tiny creek to a river the size of the Mississippi. Here, we’ll confine our discussion to small flowages—streams small enough you’d have no trouble tossing a pebble from one side to the other. One beauty of these little gems is their usually convenient location. Small streams are found throughout the U.S., sometimes several to the mile, and each may be home to several species of panfish including rock bass, bluegills, redbreasts, longear sunfish, crappie and others. All these waters have something special to offer the adventurous angler.

Fishing for small-stream panfish is like hunting with a rod. Many creatures would eagerly devour these fish, so they are a nervous and wary lot, ready to streak for cover at the slightest intrusion. The silhouette of an angler standing upright will put them under rocks, brushpiles and cutbanks in short order, so like a hunter, you must slip up on the prey unannounced and do your work with extreme stealth.


Any decent cover in a foot or more of water is a potential panfish hideout. Cast upstream or quartering upstream to fallen trees, boulders, brushpiles and ledges adjacent deep water; along the edges of coontail, willow shoots and other vegetation; under overhangs, root wads and logs along the banks; and any place where the water drops into a pool or run. The best of these spots will be in or near long, deep pools, so when you encounter a big hole or long stretch of deeper water, work it methodically. Drop successive casts about a foot apart, covering a variety of depths until fish are found.


One technique that elicits smashing strikes is to cast up on the rocks or the bank and jump the bait or lure into the water. Panfish get a bit crazy when a popping bug or cricket behaves in this manner, or when a tiny spinner leaps from the bank and starts swimming away.


Any bait or lure you use elsewhere will work here as well, but the best bait might be right under your feet. Tiny crayfish, nymphs, scuds, leeches and insect larvae can often be collected by carefully rolling over rocks in the stream. Worms get lots of attention during or after a rain and can sometimes be found by kicking through leaf litter along the shore. Impaled on a small hook and drifted through a deep hole, any of these baits can entice a hefty bluegill, bullhead or other panfish when your favorite artificials aren’t paying off.

When stream fishing, remember these additional guidelines that will lead you to bigger catches:

  • Cast upstream whenever possible, allowing your bait or lure to ride with the current in a natural manner.
  • When walking the shore, always fish from the shallow side, entering the water only when necessary. Should you enter the water, do so below the hole you plan to fish, so the moving current will carry your vibrations away from the fish.
  • Stay as far back from the bank as cover will allow. Move quietly.
  • Use small baits and lures and the lightest line feasible for the type of cover you’re fishing.

Though you can fish most small streams by wading or walking the banks, a canoe or other boat can be much more productive than going afoot. You’ll cover more territory and be able to fish locations inaccessible by wading. Belly boats, or float tubes, are useful for covering short stretches. And for a special taste of panfishing fun, try an overnight campout/fishing expedition when the trees are ablaze with the reds and golds of autumn. Pan-fried fish never smell or taste better than they do when cooked over a streamside fire.


Remember, catching fish is a big part of stream fishing, but catching a limit of memories is the bigger part. Share the joys with family and friends.

Recommended for You

Brush-style bowfishing arrow rest and kits designed for simplicity and reliability. Bows

New TRUGLO Bowfishing EZ•Rest

May 23, 2019

Brush-style bowfishing arrow rest and kits designed for simplicity and reliability.

Crankbaits mimic exactly what they eat when hungry — other fish! Bass

Baitfish for Bass: Search, Suspend or Sink Crankbaits

Jason Houser - May 21, 2019

Crankbaits mimic exactly what they eat when hungry — other fish!

It must be time for summer fishing because records are falling everywhere. Records

State Records Reported in Maryland, Michigan

G&F Online Staff - May 23, 2019

It must be time for summer fishing because records are falling everywhere.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Minn Kota's Brad Henry shows OSG's Lynn Burkhead that there's much to like in the new Minn Kota Riptide Terrova saltwater trolling motor that comes with I-Pilot and an 87-inch shaft.

Abu Garcia Virtual Rod with Bluetooth

Abu Garcia Virtual Rod with Bluetooth

Pure Fishing's Andrew Wheeler tells Outdoor Sportsman Group writer Lynn Burkhead all about the brand new Abu Garcia Virtual rod that integrates Bluetooth technology through a free ANGLR smartphone app.

New Optimum and Optimum TS Downriggers from Canon

New Optimum and Optimum TS Downriggers from Canon

From rugged reliability to smooth integration of cutting edge technology across several different platforms, OSG's Lynn Burkhead learns that there's much to like about the new Optimum and Optimum TS downriggers from Canon.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Unless you live in Antarctica, the only continent they aren't known to inhabit, there is a species Catfish

10 Biggest Catfish World Records of All Time

Jack Vitek - December 08, 2014

Unless you live in Antarctica, the only continent they aren't known to inhabit, there is a...

When it comes to fishing baits, you won't find a more unusual variety than the strange brews of smelly ingredients often used to catch catfish. Catfish

How To Make Your Own Catfish Dough Bait

Keith Sutton - August 04, 2015

When it comes to fishing baits, you won't find a more unusual variety than the strange brews...

Want to test the outer limits of your shooting skill? There's more to successful long-range Ammo

10 Best Long-Range Cartridges Ever Made

David Hart - January 14, 2015

Want to test the outer limits of your shooting skill? There's more to successful long-range

See More Stories

More Fishing How-To

Learn to tackle new lakes like MLF pros. Bass

How to Find Bass on Strange Water

Gary Lewis - July 01, 2019

Learn to tackle new lakes like MLF pros.

Muskies hunt baitfish with great aggression as temperatures cool in the fall. Make the most of this treasured time. Other Freshwater

The Baitfish Connection for Fall Muskies

Joel Nelson - October 03, 2019

Muskies hunt baitfish with great aggression as temperatures cool in the fall. Make the most of...

Jacob Powroznik powers through his hot-weather bass secrets. Bass

Summer Bass Gear, Tactics from MLF Pro

Joel Shangle - August 07, 2019

Jacob Powroznik powers through his hot-weather bass secrets.

See More Fishing How-To

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

×