As panfish like crappies and bluegills disperse into summer patterns, some remain shallow. Others use deep weedlines or cruise open water feeding on drifting veils of plankton, or on the pelagic minnows that follow this nomadic food chain. Open-water patterns tend to be in the top 15 feet of the water column, but some panfish go deeper yet and relate to structure.
In clear water, weedlines sometimes extend down to depths of 18 feet or more. Some bluegills and crappies go even deeper, to rockpiles, humps, ridges, and saddles that may top out from 18 to 35 feet down, sometimes deeper. Hard bottom with nearby transitions to soft bottom key this pattern.
In-Fisherman put a spotlight on these deeper panfish years ago, but despite repeated reminders to anglers, deep panfish remain neglected. Which is why, of all the panfish following all the patterns in any given lake, deep panfish tend to be the biggest fish on average.
Bluegills go as deep or deeper than crappies, if they can find a niche down there. That niche must include more than food. Oxygen is nice to have, too, and it’s not available below the thermocline in many lakes and reservoirs. The thermocline is a distinct boundary between warm upper layers and the colder layers of water below. Reservoirs, the Great Lakes, and deep, geologically young lakes tend to have dissolved oxygen below the thermocline all year.
A lack of big predators creates another draw. If oxygen is high in the deep layers of a lake with no pike or muskies, bluegills are not afraid to use deep structure if they can find food down there. But that kind of anomaly isn’t the only thing that draws panfish deep, and “deep” is relative. Humps that top out at 20 to 25 feet are deep, compared to most panfish scenarios.
Key spots are offshore in the main lake, and the more isolated the better. Deep panfish are structure-oriented, so the tactics of choice remain backtrolling and drifting with rigs, or vertical-jigging.
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On large structures like humps and sunken islands, panfish can be scattered. Not always, but the odds-on approach to begin with would be drifting or backtrolling with a rig. Not only will rigging cover more area laterally, but vertically as well. While the most active panfish tend to use the top of a piece of structure, groups can be biting somewhere around the base or even along the sides.
When lakes have a series of large humps to cover and you have no clue which one is best or how panfish are relating to them, run from one to the next and troll with a three-way rig, which employs 4- to 8-pound braided line. Braids are thinner than mono and cut the water better, so the rig stays near bottom on a shorter line with less weight.
Use a 3-way swivel or a bottom bouncer to create some space between the swivel and bottom. If the bottom is rocky, use a slinky (parachute cord with buckshot inside, heat-sealed at both ends). If the bottom is soft, use a bell sinker or pencil lead. Use a 3- to 5-foot, 4- to 6-pound fluorocarbon leader and tie on a small crankbait, like a #3 Floating Rapala or a Yo-Zuri Snap Bean.
This efficient rig generally does not catch numbers, but it locates fish fast. Properly tuned, most of these small baits can tolerate speeds between 2 and 3 mph. And before long you have some idea about how scattered or concentrated the fish are, so you can determine which method to try next.
One way to cover the top and the base of a structure while searching is to drift with slipfloats. When winds are lighter than 15 mph and waves are small, slipfloats cover an area up to 70 feet wide.
Today we have a variety of slipfloats to choose from, and one of my favorites for deep panfish tackle is the Cast Away Bobber. Because the bait has to get deep in a hurry and stay deep while the boat moves, the right slipfloat holds a good deal of weight; has a low enough profile to avoid blowing along like a paper cup; stands off the water enough to catch some wind and keep up with the boat; allows line to pass easily through the stem; and remains slim enough for light biters to pull under.
Cast Away Bobbers have a body made with some kind of indestructible foam (the owners drove over one with a truck several times to prove their point) that holds up more weight per surface inch than any other bobber. The stem is topped with a metal grommet for easy line passage. It has a low profile, but the body sits in the surface film, unlike a waggler-style float (which can also be a slipfloat, and remains a great choice when fish are concentrated on small spots). Another good option here is the Rod-N-Bobb’s Slip Bobber.
Place a line of marker buoys along the lip of the break on an offshore hump and position the boat upwind. Put a string of small split shot on the line about 2 feet above a hook or small jig until the float stands with the body half-submerged. Say the hump tops off at 17 feet and its base is 22 feet. One angler in the boat sets the float stop 161⁄2 to 15 feet above the hook and pitches inside the markers, while a second angler sets the stop 21 feet above the hook and pitches outside. Then drift, tweaking your speed and direction with the bowmount trolling motor.
If panfish are scattered and pegged to bottom at a certain depth level, go with a classic Lindy rig and a leech (bluegills) or a minnow (crappies). Then slowly backtroll, keeping an eye on the depthfinder to maintain the bait in the right zone. I like to use a small leader float like the Beau Mac Cheater or Worden’s Lil’ Corky in most cases. If panfish are concentrated on a knob, high point, or at either end of the structure, jigging takes over.
Panfish always go deep at certain points during the year and jigs always catch them when it happens. What we lack is any kind of selection of heavy jigs with small hooks. Jig manufacturers point to hook-makers, explaining that no small hooks are made to accommodate molds for big jigheads. Which is true. But the hook maker blames you. He says there is no demand for tiny hooks with a big, extended elbow that would fit a 1/4-ounce head.
Upon hearing this, most panfish anglers shrug and crimp on a few more split shot. But some of you will call a custom jig maker and get the right tools, which are 1/8- and 1/4-ounce jigs with size #10 up to size #8 hooks.
A jig is more precise than a rig because the weight and the hook are part of one compact unit; so if you can feel the jig, you know precisely where your bait is. The farther the weight is placed from the hook, the less sensitive the rig is. If sinkers are placed 2 feet up the line, a panfish can move the bait 2 feet toward the sinkers and then 2 feet past them without you feeling a thing. That’s a 4-foot dead zone. Rigs allow the bait freedom. Jigs allow the angler better control.
Put split shot on the line above a jig and you end up with the worst of both worlds. The bait has no freedom and sensitivity is reduced. When using a light jig below split shot, there’s a dead zone the jig falls through after the sinkers stop falling. And when the jig stops falling, it becomes difficult to feel an up bite, when a panfish bites on the rise and keeps going.
Best to use a TC Tackle Panfish Specialty jig. Tim McFadden of TC Tackle in Dillon, Montana, can make 1/8-ounce jigs with size #10 hooks and 1/4-ounce jigs with size #8 hooks that match up better with small leeches, but also make it possible to fish with slender, delicate baits like maggots without having to add split shot to the line.
Jigging is precise with a heavier jig. It gets back down to a hot bite more quickly. In the past, we substituted small spoons or blades, like the Acme Kastmaster or Reef Runner Cicada, to get straight down quickly, and that still works just fine. But a jig presenting bait or plastic horizontally sometimes works better, and the heavier the better, making tiny swimbaits the most overlooked options for deep panfish today.
The smallest (11⁄2 inches), like the Creme Spoiler Shad (internal head design) and the Northland Mimic Minnow Fry (external head design), work fine with no split shot on a calm day, or in water less than 17 feet deep. The models with a 90-degree eye remain horizontal when the knot is kept right on top of the eye, and it seems important because panfish often strike during a pause. Slightly larger versions, like the Storm Wild-Eye Curl Tail Minnow and the Bobby Garland Swimming Minnow are perfect for slab crappies.
Lift a swimbait 6 inches to 3 feet (depending on the activity level of the fish) and simply let it fall. Repeat and pause. Realism and soft plastic do all the rest.
But the best way to match the perfect hook with the right bait in depths of 18 feet or greater is with a drop-shot rig. Drop-shot rigs are perfect for panfish suspended a foot or two off bottom, because you can determine exactly how far up to present the bait simply by watching the depthfinder screen and adjusting the position of the weight on your line below the hook accordingly.
Using a Palomar knot on 4-pound line, you can make almost any hook with a slightly upturned eye work for panfish with a drop-shot rig. The idea, of course, is to tie up so the hook stands out away from the line with the point up. Take your favorite panfish hook (hopefully one with a short to medium shank and an up eye) and just keep tying Palomar knots until you get it right, leaving at least a 2-foot tag end below it.
In addition to perfectly presenting any kind of livebait, drop-shot rigs present plastics really well. Wacky-rig a Berkley Gulp! Angleworm on a size #10 Owner Mosquito hook, or nose-hook a Bobby Garland Baby Shad on a size #8 Eagle Claw baitholder. The possible combinations of hooks and baits are endless. When the bite gets really hot, bait is unnecessary. In fact, plastics are more efficient because you replace them less often and fish swallow them less. With the weight down below the hook, you can feel bites or see the line twitch, even when allowing the bait to flutter down with the sinker on bottom.
For all these tactics, both rigging and jigging, I use the same rod. It’s a 7-foot light-power fast-action stick. Almost every company makes one these days. Some people prefer a shorter 5-foot model because they want to watch the jig go up and down on the depthfinder. The point is to feel the bottom, feel the strike. Be a jigging Picasso. Paint the bottom lightly at first then pound away at it. I use small reels for vertical-jigging (like the Daiwa Regal RG1000), and moderate reels (like the Daiwa Regal RG 1500) for all other tactics. All reels are spooled with 4- to 6-pound Berkley FireLine, and 4- to 6-pound fluorocarbon leaders are added.
On calm days, it’s nice to hover on the spot with the bowmount trolling motor. On windy days, once you’ve identified the spot-on-the-spot, move the boat upwind and drop anchor, letting the boat drift back over the spot. Anchoring the back of the boat right on the spot is something I seldom do, preferring to allow the boat to swing over the area for better coverage. Dropping an anchor right on the spot isn’t always a good idea, anyway. If the boat is swinging too much, switch to a Thill or BigShot waggler-style float and fish it slipfloat style. The body of the float and the line connection are both underwater, so the wind won’t drag a waggler off the spot.
Few things in the realm of panfishing are more satisfying than finding a deep, isolated rockpile populated with 1-pound bluegills or 2-pound crappies in lakes with a lost reputation, lakes where most people think 9-inchers are big. But keep it to yourself and release the big fish. Showing off photos or (far worse) livewells full of slabs and bulls results in followers that watch for your boat. And many of those followers tend to have no regard for the future of the fishery, or the lake’s reputation would never have been lost in the first place.