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.

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