Strategies for Shallow Panfish
March 06, 2018
Nothing against the deep bite, but I'd rather fish for shallow panfish any day, especially with fast-paced, aggressive tactics that yield solid strikes and big catches. Opportunities to target panfish holding in shallow water or hovering high in the water column are both diverse and numerous.
Many shallow panfish patterns are tied to the spring feeding fling and spawning period that follows. Crappies and sunfish feed in fast-warming areas in spring, then settle into harder bottom spawning areas in late spring and early summer. Prime prespawn areas include dark-bottomed bays and canals. Popular "community" fishing areas can draw legions of anglers, leading to combat-style fishing most of us would rather avoid.
Years ago, panfish guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl taught me that standing beds of last season's wild rice can also be hotbeds of shallow-water panfish feeding activity during the Prespawn Period. Moreover, such areas are often overlooked by panfish fans during that period. Top beds for connecting with crappies and various sunfish often sprout on soft bottoms in about 5 feet of water, although depths may vary depending on water clarity.
Fishing a tangled rice paddy can be frustrating unless you focus on open pockets within the bed. Casting to these openings is an option, but dipping float rigs with a 9-foot or longer rod reduces snags and makes it easier to hoist feisty panfish from the jungle. Riggings include small fixed or slipbobbers above a feather jig, jig-and-plastic combo, or nose-hooked minnow on a plain hook (when fishing a minnow, pinch two or three small shot onto the line above the hook). Brosdahl's favorite jigs for shallow pans include a 1/16-ounce Northland Fishing Tackle Gypsi Jig or 1/8-ounce Thumper head tipped with Northland's Impulse Paddle Minnow, Water Bug, or Core Swimbait.
Ricing spring pans is productive during the prespawn, but Brosdahl says that rice loses its luster when the spawn arrives and panfish move to firmer substrates.
Get Your Gills On
Bluegills and other sunfish swarm the shallows each spring to feed heavily. Soon after the binge subsides, action shifts toward spawning grounds. Fish location and behavior during this period depends on a number of factors such as water temperature, weather conditions, bottom content, and variations in cover and structure.
Early in the season, warm, sunny spring days lure waves of hungry bluegills, pumpkinseeds, and other sunfish into fast-warming shallows to feed. But cool nights and cold fronts often force them back into deeper water. Longtime Minnesota guide Jeff Sundin says sunfish don't linger long in shallow water until major bug hatches and the emergence of young-of-the-year perch and walleye fry tempt them to stay. In northern fisheries, that can be mid-May or later.
When prespawn sunfish move shallow, panfish fanatic Paul Fournier recommends focusing on bays rich in soft, mucky substrate. "Crappies are roamers and may show up almost anywhere, but bluegills love to root around in the mud," says the Minnesota angler, who often fishes waters around the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.
To avoid spooking skittish spring 'gills, particularly in pressured systems near urban areas, Fournier favors long-distance casts with light jigs suspended below small floats. "One of my favorite setups is a 9½-foot steelhead rod spooled with 4- to 6-pound mono," he says. "I fish a Lindy Little Nipper, Watsit Jig, or Lindy Bug below a small Thill Wobble Bobber. The pear-shaped float casts well and rocks back-and-forth at the slightest twitch or ripple, imparting subtle action to the jig."
Water temperatures rising into the upper 60s trigger spawning activity. Bluegills and other sunfish nest in colonies, excavating beds on firm bottoms of sand or gravel. Though some stay in early-season feeding areas if they can find suitable spawning habitat, it's common for most fish to relocate to shallow, hard-bottomed areas around the main-lake shoreline and along the edges of islands. In lakes where hard bottoms are scarce, gravel boat ramps can be a primary attractant.
Sunfish spawn in colonies that often are easy to spot with polarized glasses. Since the same spots tend to attract bedding fish year after year, make note of top locations for future reference. Bed-fishing tactics include anything that triggers nest-guarding fish to strike.
Fournier fishes 1/64- to 1/32-ounce Little Nippers on a flyrod, employing, "a pull-pause retrieve just like you would fish a streamer fly." Other options include a variety of small jigs under floats and casting bubbles. I've also had a lot of fun casting and retrieving tiny crankbaits — their trebles tipped with chunks of nightcrawler or angleworms — through bedding areas.
Slabs On The Ceiling
Rather than remaining at the same depth, postspawn crappies and sunfish often make daily movements through the water column, following vertical movements of plankton, preyfish, and predators. Phytoplankton (minute plant organisms) rise and fall in the water column based on light intensity. Zooplankton, which eat phytoplankton, tag along. So do minnows and sunfish, which feast on zooplankton. Hungry crappies follow to eat plankton and baitfish. The entire entourage moves closer to the surface during low-light periods around dawn and dusk, and descends as light levels increase.
Understanding this vertical shift helps you catch more panfish. For years, I struggled to pinpoint a consistent depth at which to target crappies during evening bites on my favorite Northcentral Minnesota lakes. While I learned to keep raising my bait as the sun set, I lost track of the fish just before dark and figured they stopped feeding. But I eventually realized I wasn't fishing high enough. Crappies are rarely thought of as surface feeders, but when conditions are right, they follow the forage to the surface — especially as darkness falls, and sometimes deep into the night.
Topwater crappie action can happen whenever insects or baitfish are on the surface. One of my favorite scenarios, which routinely produces a mixed bag of big crappies and sunfish, occurs where a weedbed growing on the side of a hump, mid-lake island, or shoreline point meets the stratified waters of the main lake.
I'm no fishery biologist, but my take on the bite is this: Such areas produce a perfect storm of panfish activity because there's lush cover close to cool, deep water into which zooplankton descend during the day. When plankton rise in the water column in the evening, everything converges along the weededge, sometimes spilling over into open pockets in the vegetation and open water nearby.
Topwater tactics include a variety of flies and panfish poppers. One of my favorite approaches is casting a tandem rig, consisting of a 2- to 2¾-inch bass-style topwater popper, like a Rebel Pop-R, armed with a feathered rear treble, followed by a dainty piece of artificial softbait threaded on a panfish-size single hook on an 8- to 10-inch mono trailing line. For legality reasons in Minnesota, I fish the popper with hooks removed, tying the trailing line to the rear hook eye. Crappies may smack the lure, but enough hit the trailer to make the rig a success without the extra hardware. Where legal, you can leave the hooks on the lure.
Fish it by sharply popping the rod tip one to three times to create surface commotion, then pause to let the dropper slowly settle. Crappies often attack the popper, while sunfish prefer the trailer. Crappie strikes are easy to see. Sunfish takes are subtler. Watch for the lure being tugged backward on the pause.
Look for swirls along the outside of the weedline. Cast beyond the fish and work the rig back into the area of fish activity. Since the action often spreads, pockets within vegetation, open water over submerged vegetation, and shallow grass flats are always worth a cast or two.
Spinning Up Crappies
The shallow crappie scene is flush with casting and jigging tactics, but trolling can sometimes be your best bet for banner catches. Trolling jigs and crankbaits can be effective, but other options can be deadlier under the right conditions. For example, midwestern panfish tournament angler Shawn Bjonfald spins up shallow slabs on spinner-and-minnow rigs built for walleyes.
"Big, aggressive crappies holding along the edges of bulrush beds and other weedy cover in 6 to 8 feet of water aren't shy about hitting a #3 Indiana blade," he says. "The flash and thump of the spinner blade draw their attention, and the minnow trailer seals the deal."
Bjonfald's go-to setup is a stock spinner rig like a 72-inch original Lindy Spinner Rig. Strung from 14-pound-test fluorocarbon, it has a single #2 octopus hook followed by quartet of colored beads. "Bead and blade color hinges on water clarity and forage," he says. "In tea-colored conditions in places like the U.S. side of Rainy Lake, your best bets are silver blades with white and silver beads, or gold blades with green and light-orange beads."
He tips the rig with a small minnow or half of a nightcrawler, and has often found the setup deadly on slabs that are suckers for livebait spun sideways. He also tweaks the rig to reduce fouling in vegetation and to enable speedy rig changes. These include a bell sinker attached to the mainline via a Lindy X-Change Clevis. A large red, faceted bead and small snap round out the rig components.
He typically trolls the setup on a 7-foot spinning combo spooled with 6-pound monofilament mainline like Berkley Sensation. "I cast the rig about 40 yards behind the boat and use my bowmount trolling motor to troll at .8 to 1.2 mph about 15 yards off the weededge," he says. "It's important to keep the line at about a 45-degree angle and not let the sinker drag. With the weight just off bottom, you avoid most snags, while the spinner blade lifts the rig about a foot in the water column."
Hookups are easy when slabs slam spinners, but light biters require finesse to execute successful hook-sets. To sting tentative feeders, Bjonfald trolls with the bail open and his trigger finger on the line. When he feels a fish bump the rig, he immediately feeds line (the clevis allows the crappie to take line without feeling resistance from the sinker). Next, he closes the bail and takes up slack while lowering the rod tip. If he feels the weight of the fish, he sets the hook. If he doesn't feel weight, he feeds more line.
While perch are prone to roaming deep flats, they offer shallow options as well. Sundin, for example, chases shallow jumbos both early and late in the season. As his clients can attest, action can be fast and furious for fish of portly proportions. Of the many patterns he uses for shallow perch, one of my favorites is early-season sight-fishing that's as exciting as it is productive.
Though the pattern hinges on finding areas linked to the spring spawn, it persists into summer when conditions are right. As broadcast spawners, perch scatter clusters of eggs in shallow water over vegetation, roots, and brush. Key depths hinge on cover and water clarity, but 3 to 5 feet is a good starting point.
Locations worth checking include bays, marshes, and backwaters. Perch move into these areas prior to the spawn, which occurs soon after ice-out at water temperatures from 45°F to 52°F, and linger until the water warms into the mid-60s where minnows or other food is abundant. Bulrushes and adjacent vegetation can be dynamite during the spawn, while short stands of emerging coontail are often hubs of postspawn activity.
Sight-fishing is an option where water clarity allows. Sundin uses his electric trolling motor to slip through areas with the potential to hold fish, peering beneath the surface with polarized sunglasses. "Perch stand out from their surroundings better than other panfish," he says. "You can often see small packs of them prowling the shallows."
When a group of perch is spotted, he lobs a slipfloat rig beyond them and slowly works it back to the strike zone. "Rigging is simple — 1/16- to 1/8-ounce ballhead jigs and Lindy Frostee Jigs tipped with a live minnow are all you need," he says. "Nose-hook minnows on standard jigs. With Frostees and other vertical-hanging hardware, lightly hooking parallel to the dorsal fin is best."
The shallow bite fades as perch move into deeper water, but heats up again in fall. Once water temperatures drop below 55°F, Sundin looks for portly perch cruising weedflats in 5 to 10 feet feeding on juvenile baitfish and small panfish. He covers water with a 1/4-ounce leadhead jig tipped with a minnow, then switches to a Lindy Watsit Spin when he finds perch.
In between these patterns, mature perch move to feed in a variety of environments. While the hunt for food often leads them onto deep bars, flats, and other spots in the main basin, they can also be found on shallow sandflats near drop-offs and rocks. Pulling spinner rigs perpendicular to shore is a proven search tactic in such situations. Cast and vertically jig 1/16- to 1/8-ounce leadhead jigs once you find fish.
Don't overlook perch binging on crayfish over shallow gravel and near-shore rocks — a common occurrence in many lakes in midsummer. Here, a jig tipped with half a 'crawler can outproduce other options.
*Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contacts: Brian Brosdahl, 218/340-6051; Jeff Sundin, 218/259-2263.