Proven Patterns for Panfish
May 22, 2018
While some panfish purists are content to pursue a single species, most anglers are quick to take advantage of situations where several species are available. Such situations exist in waters from coast to coast, allowing anglers who play their cards right to catch a rich diversity of panfish all summer.
Emerging vegetation sets the stage for much of Brian "Bro" Brosdahl's multispecies mayhem. This guide and avid panfish fan says the most fertile underwater fields are expansive beds that offer a variety of plant types. "Big weedbeds with a mix of cover and structure are better than small single-species plots," he says.
"In an ideal world, the scenario starts with hardstem rushes in the shallows and transitions out to coontail and cabbage on the outside. If you have a muddy bottom with scattered rockpiles and a few logs, plus a good drop-off or trough, you're looking at panfish paradise for crappies, perch, bluegills, and rock bass."
In early June, Brosdahl fishes close to the hardstems, catching postspawn fish that linger around firm-bottom bedding areas. As summer progress, he delves deeper into the broad-leaved vegetation farther from the bank. "Following panfish as they leave hard-bottom areas to feed on bug hatches on softer bottoms in deeper water is a key pattern," he says. "The fish often occupy the thickest plots of vegetation available, but toward the end of June many shift to the deepest weedline they can find."
Presentations in Plant Life
Slipbobbers are a big part of Brosdahl's multispecies approach. "Casting and reeling is an option, but bobbers keep jigs and rigs aloft, allowing you to slowly slip-drag through prime areas without the lure falling to the bottom or fouling on vegetation," he says. "I cover water drifting or slow-trolling at .7 or .8 mph until I find biting fish, then deploy my Talon and thoroughly fish the area before moving on."
His rigs consist of a 2½- to 3-foot leader of 4-pound-test fluorocarbon, attached to the mainline by a small swivel. The mainline is either 8-pound fluoro or 10-pound round braid. "Slipfloats slide nicely on round braids," he notes. A bead, float stop, and slipfloat complete the setup. "Be sure to choose a float that rides up so you can see it," he cautions.
"If it lies on its side halfway underwater as it moves on the troll, drift, or retrieve, you have a hard time detecting bites, especially in wavy conditions. Don't be too concerned with achieving neutral buoyancy; aggressive summer panfish smack the bait. You can't miss the bite, even with a bit larger float than you'd typically use for a stationary presentation."
At the business end of the line, he experiments with a handful of options. He favors a spin-jig like Northland Fishing Tackle's Thumper Jig, which has a belly blade for attraction.
"The 1/8-ounce version works well in depths of 3 to 6 feet," he says. "Use a 1/4-ounce head in deeper water. When extra weight is needed, add split shot or a bullet sinker to the setup. Bullet sinkers don't catch on vegetation as much as traditional shot.
"Water conditions dictate jig color. Gold is good in tannin-stained water. Chartreuse-greens are great patterns for panfish in clear water, as is pink. And if you're mixing it up with perch and rock bass, anything with blue can be a game-changer because it resembles the bluish tint on a crayfish's claws. But wherever you are, don't be shy about experimenting with colors; sometimes purples and darker patterns are hot, and there are times when white outfishes everything." Brosdahl tips the jig with a soft-plastic body like Northland's Impulse Paddle Minnow, Water Bug, or Core Swimbait. Then he piggybacks a chunk of nightcrawler above the softbait for good measure.
Feather jigs also are deadly. Brosdahl's top pick is a 1/16-ounce, bright-colored Northland Gypsi Jig weighted with a small shot positioned on the far side of the swivel. Micro-spinners also can be deadly. "It seems old-fashioned," he says. "In the old days, people used to drag spinners and split shot through vegetation. But a #4 spinner blade and Aberdeen hook with a 'crawler or leech still works great, although I prefer a bullet sinker over shot."
He notes that electronics can help pinpoint pods of panfish. "On a deep weedline, you often can see fish below before they swim away," he says. "I use Humminbird side-imaging to spot fish without driving over them. And I'm eager to see how the latest developments in CHIRP and MEGA Imaging sonar provide even more detail for locating panfish in vegetation."
Mixing It Up
Paul Fournier, another panfish expert, shares a trio of tested patterns for panfish. "June typically offers a variety of options depending on location," he says. "Weedlines are usually well established in many of the Twin Cities metro lakes near my east-central Minnesota home. In these situations, I fish the outside edge with a two-pronged approach, fishing feather jigs like Lindy Little Nippers under a float, and pitching leadheads tipped with plastic grubs, like the Lindy Watsit. As a third option, I slow-roll bladed jigs like the Watsit Spin over the weed tops."
For his slipfloat rig, Fournier chooses bright jig colors. "Orange, chartreuse, and green are top picks, but don't forget sleeper options like black," he says, noting that he starts without tipping, then adds waxies or softbaits if needed. He forgoes minnows unless he's guiding youngsters. "In that case, I swap the Nipper for a Lindy Frostee Jig with a small crappie minnow hooked in the tail or below the dorsal. Kids have a lot easier time with this setup because it's hard to go wrong when a hungry crappie eats the bait."
Other presentation particulars include adding weight, or not. "Ideally, the jig is heavy enough to get to the fish and do the job without extra ballast," he says. "In deep water or windy conditions, add a shot a couple feet up the line, so the Nipper can still swim when jigged or retrieved. If the fish aren't responding to the movement of a heavy jig, try a lighter one with a sinker to create a different swimming action."
When he ventures farther north, he works a spoon into the mix for a blend of broad-shouldered bluegills and crappies. "In lakes where the deep weedline drops off to a transition from sand to mud or sand to gravel, large sunfish and crappies often collect at the base of the break. You also find big perch in these areas, and in some cases rock bass as well," he explains.
"Spoons are an efficient way to target these fish, which tend to be consistently larger than the ones in vegetation. This is a big-fish technique, focused on mature fish competing with other predators in relatively open water. They're not afraid of walleyes, and don't spook as easily as their cousins hiding in grass. I vertically jig spoons while slipdrifting, bow into the wind, until I find fish, then use the Spot-Lock feature on my Minn Kota trolling motor to hold over the fish. If you're using a traditional anchoring system, it's best to drop the hook some distance away and slide back on a long line, so you don't drag the anchor through the school."
Fournier's spoon arsenal includes iconic choices like Lindy's Frostee and Rattl'n Flyer Spoon. Finishes lean toward silver and blue, to mimic offshore baitfish. He often ties directly to a spoon, though he notes a small snap can enhance fluttering action. "Tying direct limits most of the action to the treble, which is usually fine, but when aggressive fish want more side-to-side fluttering, consider using a snap," he advises, adding, "I tip with a variety of natural baits, including insect larvae, waxworms, and minnow heads."
Tackle-wise, the deep game calls for a medium- to medium-light-power spinning outfit with 4-pound-test mono mainline, followed by a swivel and 3-foot fluorocarbon leader.
"I've found that a long rod, at least 7 feet, helps anglers make a sweeping hook-set," he says. "A 9- or 10-footer is even better." As for presentation, Fournier says less is more.
"Keep a tight line and use subtle jigging movements, following the jig down on the drop," he says.
Fournier's favorite early-summer, double-dipping panfish pattern has nothing to do with either vegetation or deep structure. "In June, we usually get at least one week of hot, flat weather," he begins. "When the heat wave hits, some of the lake's biggest bluegills and crappies hold in the shade underneath docks. Perch not so much, but some docks are magnets for rock bass, too. It's an oddball pattern few anglers fish, but it produces some of the summer's best multispecies panfish action, hands down."
An admitted dock snob, he focuses on large, complex structures with ample surface area. "Jet-ski platforms, boat lifts, and U-shaped appendages for pontoons all add to the appeal," he explains. "And the real finds are multi-section, wishbone-shaped monsters with canopies and cutouts for large boats. The distance from the platform to the waterline also is important. Docks a foot or more above the surface may be good for bass, but seldom hold a bumper crop of panfish. Fish low-slung structures with 6 inches or so of freeboard and you catch more fish. They might be tougher to skip a jig under, but they're worth the effort."
He also offers advice on timing the bite. "Hot, flat, sunny days are best; cool, overcast conditions tend to scatter fish," he says. "Since docks tend to get busy with human traffic during the day, I focus on early morning as the sun breaks the treeline after a humid night."
Fournier gears up with a short whippy spinning outfit spooled with 10- to 12-pound mono, which leads to a small swivel and a 12- to 18-inch leader of 6-pound fluorocarbon.
"Thill's weighted Wobble Bobber shines for sling-shotting under docks," he says. "I set the float just above the swivel, and tie on a jig and plastic like Lindy's 1/32-ounce Watsit Jig. The tail has just the right action, and the lightweight head is ideal because the slower the fall, the better."
When a slab strikes, Fournier doesn't dally. "Besides posts, pilings, boats, lower units, and other hazards you can see above the surface, many docks have chain or wire anchoring systems fish can wrap around," he warns. "If you see the line move sideways, set the hook and get the fish out immediately."
Sometimes the multispecies mix includes species not generally included in the panfish category, such as rainbow trout. In-Fisherman contributor and High Country salmonid stalker Bernie Keefe, who guides out of Granby, Colorado, reports that double-dipping for rainbows and yellow perch is a common option from late spring well into summer. He pursues them on Colorado's Rifle Gap Reservoir and similar systems, but says these tactics should work wherever perch and trout cruise the same early-summer areas.
"In early June, perch and trout both move onto shallow, near-shore mudflats 6 to 12 feet deep," he says. "Fishing small tube jigs tight to the bottom is a great way to catch lots of both species, which are feeding on insects and small crayfish." Keefe's system is simple yet deadly. He starts with a light spinning outfit spooled with 4-pound-test Berkley Trilene XL mono, tied to an 1/8-ounce tube jig and 1- to 2½-inch softbait such as a Berkley PowerBait Power Tube. He typically uses tubes of white, green, or crayfish, though he admits color is secondary compared to location, proximity to the bottom, and the jig's motion.
"Make a long cast and let the jig fall to the bottom," he says. "Tighten your line and twitch the rod tip 6 inches to hop the tube. Reel as you lower the rod back down to keep a tight line, while closely watching the line for signs of a strike. Most bites come on the fall, and the fish won't hang onto something that feels suspicious, so be ready to set the hook the instant your line jumps."
If nothing bites on the initial hop, Keefe lets the jig touch down for a split second and repeats the twitch-fall-land process back to the boat. "Don't be in a hurry, but keep the jig moving at a steady pace," he says. "And above all, keep it close to the bottom throughout the retrieve."
The shallow mudflat bite lasts two or three weeks, after which he says perch and trout move into deeper water. "Often, you can still find them together over the same type of substrate," he adds. "But the two species separate as water temperatures rise. Perch say on bottom feeding on insects and crayfish, while trout suspend above them, feeding on insect hatches."
Keefe says similar double-dipping scenarios arise during the hardwater season in winter as well, when rainbows and perch stack up in the same areas, taking similar positions in the water column. "If I'm targeting jumbo perch hugging bottom, it's sometimes hard to get my spoon or jig down through the trout — but I guess that's a good problem," he says.
The early season is too short and offers too many opportunities for anglers to pigeonhole just one type of fish. Take advantage of the many options available while waters are yet cool, to fish for bluegills, crappies, and perch, even trout and white bass if they're available. These multispecies tactics open that window.
*Dan Johnson is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contacts: Brian Brosdahl, 218/340-6051; Bernie Keefe, 970/531-2318.