Panfish come limping down the breaks in fall, like the victims of a Soviet pogram or some kind of aquatic Dust Bowl. Standing in witness with wet suit, goggles and scuba tank, you might be reminded of The Grapes of Wrath or Fiddler on the Roof. Exiled from summer homes by hungry predators, crappies, bluegills, and perch march steadily down to the flats they inhabit in winter.
But predators alone don't send panfish in exodus. They flee a changing world that gets colder, windier, and darker. They seek stability. They find it on basin flats they sometimes can't inhabit in summer because of the lack of oxygen below the thermocline--that barrier now broken by fall turnover.
As day length shortens and waters cool, weeds die and plankton counts diminish. Water temperatures and oxygen content in the shallows bounce up and down, compromising stability. As weeds die, minnows disappear as well. Plankton declines and the primary food for panfish often becomes burrowing insects and aquatic worms living in the substrates of deeper flats. When water temperatures drop and plankton counts take a nosedive, crappies join the basin brigade and become harder to find on sonar by blending into the bottom.
As in the shallows, biological diversity keys location. Different invertebrates live in different substrates. Places where mud meets sand or gravel house a diversity of invertebrates. Edges are important, but panfish key on the most abundant food source, and even with a lot of scientific equipment, determining what they're eating and where they're finding it when you hit the water is almost impossible. An abundance of one type of annelid could draw panfish away from an edge and out over flats composed of mud and silt. An abundance of tiny crayfish and other rock-dwelling creatures could move them in the other director, over harder substrates. These changes in preference can take place quickly.
Hard-bottom areas around the base of a primary main-lake drop represent a starting point for the hunt, and these can be found by using sonar (the hard areas giving a hard reading, with a thicker, more pronounced bottom line). Areas where hard readings give way to softer, thinner, less distinct lines are key spots.
Some transition edges are extensive. If you can't find panfish along transitions, check the base of adjacent gravel or rock structure as well as massive soft-bottom flats--sometimes the size of several football fields. In natural lakes and reservoirs, the best way to find basin crappies, bluegills, or perch might involve trolling.
Spider-rigging produces big catches of crappies in southern states well into November and sometimes, in a modified form, right through winter. An array of rods 7 to 12 feet long ate placed in rod holders to strategically cover water. Each rod may have a different length of line out, to cover different depths, and jigs might be dressed with a live minnow, tube, or other plastic bait.
Famous tournament crappie anglers Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman concentrate on cover along ledges in fall, pulling tubes or live minnows on spider-rigged rods. In cold water they practice what they call "slow vertical trolling." Such a search system is required because crappies roam even when conditions force them to consolidate.
We've previously described jig-trolling or dragging techniques for use in northern states where multiple rods means "just two"--or in the case of Minnesota "just one." The angler slowly backtrolls or to uses a bow-mount trolling motor to push into the wind over transitions and flats, trailing just enough line to keep a jig and plastic or jig and minnow within a foot of bottom.
When fish are on flats and not concentrated on edges, we might switch to long-line trolling, using the "gales of November" to move the boat and a drift sock to control speed. Keep the boat sideways to the wind with the trolling motor and a drift sock attached in the middle of the boat.
We often use 7- to 9-foot rods to present miniature worm harnesses with tiny spinner blades, or to present baited jigs, the idea to set out just enough line to keep the bait just above bottom. A three-way rig works well, with the weight on a dropper from 1 to 2 feet below the swivel. Leader length is determined by dropper length and by the weight of the jig or rig. Leaders should be long enough to keep the bait close to bottom without dragging.
Tiny crankbaits, which resemble shad or shiners, can also be used in a basin search. They can be fished faster, with less time spent baiting up and more time spent fishing. Once panfish are found in specific areas, we usually drop the trolling rod in favor of a jigging rod.
One Simple Trolling System
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange uses a simple system to find basin crappies and perch, from Lake Ontario west to the Dakotas and from Texas north into Ontario. "I troll the smallest Countdown Rapalas to find fish and see what size they are," he says. "I use a 9-foot ultralight spinning rod with 4-pound Berkley FireLine on a 30-class reel.
"No need to use a three-way swivel to rig up. Try a standard two-way swivel. The dropper is 4-or 6-pound mono--usually about 12-inches long--tied to a pencil weight, the other end of the dropper tied to the lead ring on the two-way swivel. The mainline also attaches to this ring, with the leader attaching to the trailing ring."
The pencil weights Stange uses are poured at home and have a brass ring at the top. They start out weighing 1.5 ounces and are thin enough that they can easily be trimmed with a wire cutter to just the right weight given the depth and trolling speed. He gathers the trimmings in a plastic bag and takes them back home to be used in the next batch of hand-pours.
The lure is attached to about a 2-foot-long mono or fluorocarbon leader testing 4 or 6 pounds. Stange: "My favorite search lure is the #3 Countdown Rapala. When I suspect bigger fish are present I troll the slightly larger #5. These lures are 1.5 and 2 inches long, respectively. Rapala also offers a #1 Countdown, at just an inch long, but I've never had a chance to troll it. Should work great--might increase the incidental catch of bluegills.
"I prefer the Countdown to the Floating Rapala in this instance because it gives off a slightly more intense wobble, but you can try just about anything instead of the Countdown, if you prefer. I have a lot of anglers tell me they like the smallest Jointed Floater (#5) for finding big perch on parts of the Great Lakes. I use a loop knot or small swivel--Berkley #1 Cross-Lok--to attach the lure to the end of the leader."
As the water temperature falls into the low-50[degrees]F range, perch and crappies usually drop into basin areas, although some fish also hunt along weededges. Stange: "I might troll weededges at times, but most of the time I'm using my electronics to look for baitfish and bigger marks in basin areas. Sometimes the fish are along transitions from hard to soft bottom. Other times they're over soft bottom. You just need to start looking and get a feel for what's going on in the basin. Once you're seeing things on your electronics it's time to drop a lure and see how big the fish are and how aggressive they are.
"I don't always begin trolling. Sometimes when I see definitive marks that are obviously bunched panfish, I drop tandem jigs right away and fish vertically over and through the fish. Often it's just as efficient and effective to start like that, especially when you see balled up baitfish in the same area as the panfish. That often means the panfish are chasing.
"Jigging is the way I want to end up fishing, even when I start trolling. It's just that whenever any kind of searching is involved a trolling approach often works best to quickly get a feeling for what's going on down below."
Stange says holding a single rod in hand has advantages. "Most of the fish are in 25 to 40 feet of water so holding the single rod is efficient, as opposed to using multiple rods and trying to maintain that kind of depth with light lures on a bunch of lines. The no-stretch FireLine helps by telling you bottom content as you tip the weight along the bottom. As I've said, I troll until I find fish and see what size they are--then switch to jigging. At times, though, trolling can be the best method to catch bigger fish overall."
Various weighting systems work. Water Gremlin Pencil Lead comes in a long roll. Trim off the length you need, flatten one end with pliers and punch a hole in the flattened end to tie it on. In rocky habitat, Eagle Claw Slinky Weights (buckshot in parachute cord) make more sense, snagging up far less often than bare lead. A string of split shot works, too, allowing you to adjust weight incrementally. Drop-shot weights clip on quickly and come in a variety of sizes and weights. Bell sinkers work, too.
The same thing applies to lures. At times we suspect small suspending baits might work best. And you might want to replace the minnow shape with a shad shape. Several companies make small lures that imitate shad, such as the Yo-Zuri Snap Shad.
Working A School
When Stange finds fish and they're big enough to continue fishing for, he typically pitches out a marker and uses one of two jigging methods to fish the area more effectively. One method is to fish vertically over the fish, the other is to stay slightly away from the fish and pitch to them. For fish holding 25 to 40 feet down, the vertical approach often works best. For fish holding from about 20 down to 30 feet, the casting method might work better.
Stange: "I know there are many different jigging approaches one might use, but I just keep it simple. Where it's legal, which is the case in most places in North America, I use two 1/16-ounce jigs tied in tandem. I usually want one jig riding about 6 to 8 inches above the other jig.
"A variety of ways exist to tie tandem rigs. The typical method I use is to cut about 20 inches of tag line and place it right alongside the end of the main line. The main line becomes the 8-inch dropper, the tag line the 16-inch dropper. Connect the two lines with a double-over hand knot, often called a surgeons knot. Tie one jig on the shorter dropper and the other on the longer dropper, then trim off the remaining short tag end. Once you get the hang of this you can quickly alter the distance between the jigs. I tie jigs direct to the FireLine using a three-wrap Uni knot.
"The advantage of jigs hanging 6 to 8 inches apart is that the weights work against each other--counter balance each other--as you jig them. Worked vertically with a sharp upward lift of about a foot, the jigs rise up and then fall in a left-right walk-the-dog fashion. Same thing happens when you jig the rod tip when you're retrieving after casting the jigs out and letting them sink. Of course you can just gently lift the jigs and let them fall vertically; or just gently swim the jigs back to you in lift-fall fashion. Here again we experiment to find what the fish want."
For jigging, Stange uses the same reel and line as for trolling, but goes with a 6-foot 6-inch ultralight rod. You can experiment with all manner of softbaits and soft plastics on plain jigheads. Tiny tubes can be good; so too small straight minnows. The standard option is a 2-inch curly tail.
Stange: "One of the advantages of the tandem jigs is having a constant comparative test going on with size and shape, body action and color. With two of you in the boat you can have four experiments going on at the same time.
"The other advantage to tandem rigging is the extra weight to make longer casts--1/8-ounce total weight sinks much faster than 1/16 ounce, too, especially on 4-pound FireLine. In waters where there's cover in deeper water, go with 6-pound FireLine."
One jig design works consistently well across North America when panfish become picky. It's a simple hand-tied option with a chenille body and a little butt feather, maybe a little hackle around the neck of the jig, although it isn't necessary. In this case Stange goes with two 1/32-ounce jigs.
This style of jig is available in baitshops across the country, but if you can't find them in your area, crappie guide Jim Porter of Palm Bay, Florida markets a jig he calls the Perfect Jig. Check his website at stickmarsh.com.
Matzuo Nano Minnow
Rapala #6 Husky Jerk
#1 Countdown Rapala
#3 Countdown Rapala
Yo-Zuri Snap Bean
Yo-Zuri Snap Shad
Rebel Cat'r Crawler
XCalibur TD47 Suspending Minnow
XCalibur TD47 Tracdown
Luhr Jensen Kwikfish
Pitching And Vertical Jigging
Lunker City Jig & Yamamoto Grub
Kalin's Crappie Scrub
XCalibur Tungsten Drop-Shot Weight
Jim Porter's Perfect Jig
Kalin's Triple Threat Tube
TC Tackle Vertical Panfish Jigs
Northland Bro's Bloomworm
Straw, Matt, and Doug Stange. "Panfish on the quick & easy." In-Fisherman Oct.-Nov. 2009: 48+. General OneFile. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.
Gale Document Number:A209043292
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