A Plastic Menagerie for Panfish
Members of the zooplankton clan, minute invertebrates that are important parts of the aquatic food chain. My course grade depended on identifying many species. For bluegills, crappies, and perch, however, these critters are dinner. In recent years, manufacturers have sought to make lures that simulate these little creatures. New lure styles have evolved, with new shapes, new colors (some glow), flavors, and even a new non-plastisol material that promises to change ice fishing and open-water presentations. Some imitate larger food items — shrimp, tiny craws, leeches, and other invertebrates that also are seasonally important panfish fare.
Turner Jones of Springfield, Missouri, has been crafting tiny baits for well over 30 years. His Micro Jigs and Guppies are staples for panfish but take surprisingly big gamefish as well. Jones has caught a pair of 8-pound walleyes on his 1/256-ounce Half Micro Jig, along with largemouths to 6 pounds, big channel catfish, as well as crappies over 4 pounds — strong evidence that plankters play, at one time or another, an important role in the food chain for all gamefish.
Here’s a look at novel products, along with tips on where and how to fish them, both during the winter season and when spring breaks winter’s grasp. During winter, minute natural-looking baits can be essential, but these presentations always have a role in enticing big lure-shy ‘gills, jumbo perch, and slab crappies.
Zooplankton is the general name given to the tiny animals that typically move about the water column. This category includes protozoans such as multi-legged ciliates; abundant but tiny rotifers, and two groups of crustaceans — cladocerans and copepods. Larger species can be spotted swimming in a jar of pond water. Well-known Daphnia, the water fleas, are cladocerans.
Tubes: One could argue that tiny tube baits look more like various zooplankters than small craws or minnows. The tube masters at Mizmo Bait Company offer a grand array of mini tubes, as well as bass-size offerings: The 1-inch Mini; 1 1⁄2-inch Spec, in 52 killer crappie colors; 1 1⁄2-inch Dusters with extra glitter; 1 1⁄2-inch Tracers, tri-color tubes in 16 contrasty hues; 1 3⁄4-inch Earth Tones, naturalistically colored to tempt panfish in clear conditions; and the 2 1⁄2-inch Crappie Teasers, when you’re after slabs or big perch.
Berkley’s popular Micro Tube is joined by the 1-inch Sparkle Tube, covered with flashy scales to leave a trail for predatory panfish. Lindy-Little Joe has added Salty Tiny Tubes to their line, with 25 color combos of 2- and 3- color 1 1⁄2-inch tubes. Berkley, meanwhile, offers the flashy 1-inch Sparkle Tube, which readily sheds flakes and is packed in a small jar for easy use.
Shards: Recently, tapered bits of soft plastic, skewered on a tiny jig or ice fly, have proven effective when standard lures and livebaits fail to produce. These shardlike shapes taper to nothing, so they move softly with the slightest shake of an ice rod. They could resemble a small worm, but their action is more planktonic. Try Lindy’s Nail Tail, available in three colors of their acclaimed Techni-Glo (red, chartreuse, and moonlight), as well as 7 standard colors, the Trout Worm from Case Plastics, the Red Wedgee from Custom Jigs & Spins, or ISG’s Leechette.
Other Invertebrates Zooplankters are real animals that breathe and breed and respond to heat and light. Larger invertebrates are well-known prey for virtually all fish. Nature’s perfect food, the earthworm, heads the list, but leeches, shrimp, small craws, and larval insects are prey for bluegill, perch, crappies, white bass, and more.
Hellgrammites: The notoriously nutritious larvae of the dobsonfly are predators in their own right, but redbreast sunfish, rock bass, gills, and perch relish these treats, as do stream bass. Ranging in size from 1 to 3 inches, they’re sensational livebaits. Plastic imitations work great for drifting on a weighted rig or bottom-hopping on a ballhead jig. In slower current, a small float keeps the bait moving through runs and pools, helping you quickly find fish.
Lunker City’s Hellgie is a 3-inch edition with 6 pairs of appendages and a split tail, available in 21 colors. Case Plastics offers their 2 1⁄2-inch Little Hellgrammite and 31⁄4-inch Hellgrammite in 10 colors. These ultra-realistic baits feature a segmented body and anatomically correct mouth parts. Fish the whole Hellgrammite on a split-shot rig in moving water, or snip off the head and rig it on a jighead. Venom Lures has compiled a Mitey Mite Kit, with a selection of Hellgrammite bodies with 1/16- and 1/8-ounce ballhead jigs. Venom also has a Horn Bug Kit, with a selection of this double-tailed replica of a generic insect larva, with 1/64-ounce heads to match. Fine for ice fishing or float-fishing.
Craws & Shrimp: Grass shrimp are important forage in weedy lakes where sunfish, perch, crappies, even bass and trout, slurp the tasty crustaceans. Custom Jigs & Spins developed the Shrimpo primarily for ice fishing, but it’s also a fine early spring lure when fished on a casting bubble or float. It’s a vertical bait, but the shrimp tail turns at a 90-degree angle. For a tiny craw look-alike, try Berkley’s 1-inch Micro Sparkle Power Trout Craw, available in bright colors and a natural shade. New this year is the detailed 1 1⁄2-inch Baby Craw from Spike-It.
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