Livebait Probably accounts for more panfish than any other presentation. And among artificials, jigs sweetened with softbaits are king. But at certain times and places other methods rule, including hardbaits. Over the years, I’ve found that a fat-bodied panfish crankbait and slim-profile minnowbaits produce more and larger bluegills and crappies than livebait or jigs.
One of hardbaits’ biggest advantages is in covering water, making them a solid choice when fish are scattered, or when schools of panfish—most often crappies—roam offshore. In the northern waters I fish most often, this pattern starts shortly after ice-out, when crappies are drawn to fast-warming, forage-rich shallows. They can be skittish, and long casts with dainty minnowbaits like Rebel’s 2½-inch Holographic Minnow help me connect with slabs roaming over relatively featureless, dark-bottomed bays.
Watch for swirls, ripples, and wakes from cruising fish and fire casts well beyond, at an angle to intercept them. I prefer a fairly slow, steady retrieve, but it pays to vary the speed, feathering in a subtle twitch here and there to trigger followers. A lack of surface activity doesn’t necessarily mean crappies are absent, however. As with many skinny water situations, a good pair of polarized sunglasses are worthy investments, because on calm days you can often spot fish.
The shallow hardbait blitz begins earlier in southern climes. In-Fisherman contributor Mitch Looper of Arkansas casts cranks for prespawn crappies in late January and February. Like the spring feeding binge up north, it hinges on food, in this the case near-shore migrations of juvenile gizzard shad. “When water temperatures are in the high-30°F to low-40°F range, schools of young shad move into shallow pockets along shore, and predators follow,” he explains, while adding a cautionary note, “Crappies are the first to follow the shad shallow. But once bass move in, crappies move out.”
Bays off the main channel are key, and the best ones have feeder creeks. Crappies often gather on points near channel bends. Depths vary, but Looper favors 4 to 8 feet of water on the point, and 12 feet in the channel. With his boat over the channel, he casts over deep water first, then focuses on the point itself.
Unlike the small stickbaits I favor for ultra-clear natural lakes, Looper ties on beefier weapons. “Full-size lures can tear ’em up,” he says. His favorite: a 4½-inch Smithwick Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue with chrome sides, black back, and orange belly, followed by a 2½-inch Rebel Tracdown Minnow in rainbow trout. Both are suspenders, or close to it, a characteristic Looper demands. “The Rogue suspends,” he says. “And the Tracdown is a slow sinker, but with 8-pound-test line, the sink rate is virtually nil in such cold water.”
Looper experiments with retrieves. “Cast out, jerk the bait a couple of times and pause, then try a pull-pause-pull retrieve, using the rod tip—not the reel handle—to move the lure 6 to 12 inches,” he advises.
Crankin’ isn’t just for crappies. Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, hybrids, and other members of the sunfish clan hit hardbaits, too. One of my favorite times to cast for ’gills is during the spawn. Bedding fish gather on firm bottoms, often in large colonies. A major challenge of fishing the beds is keeping small fish from inhaling your bait before the bulls can get it. That’s where a panfish crankbait helps.
At one favorite lake, for example, shoreline substrate is mostly soft and mucky, unsuitable for spawning. As a result, hordes of sunfish assemble at the few patches of hard bottom. There are quality-size fish among throngs of small ones.
To target the bulls, I cast a shallow-running, wide-wobbling bait, often with an angleworm or chunk of crawler on one of the hooks. Creature baits like the Rebel Bumble Bug and Big Ant take fish, along with miniature cranks such as Bomber’s BO2A Model A. I prefer floaters or neutrally buoyant baits—sinkers tend to dredge bottom. Color isn’t critical, but matching nest-robbers like perch is okay, as long as the lure is easy to see.
The biggest bulls often bed toward the deeper end of the colony, sometimes just out of sight. As you fancast the area, make sure lures cover this deeper zone as well as visible nests. Reel the bait down so it cruises just off bottom. Let it tick, then pause so it rises just a bit.
A slow retrieve that wobbles the bait through a series of beds virtually guarantees a hit. Nest-guarding males can’t help themselves. Be sure to practice selective harvest, releasing bump-headed bulls, to protect the population from being overrun with the offspring of cuckholders with lesser genetics.
Much of the year, Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma, guide Todd Huckabee catches crappies by the score on jigs tipped with softbaits, but he benches his leadheads and dippin’ poles when crappies move offshore in two distinct periods, early and late summer.
“Right after they’re done spawning, crappies move offshore and don’t relate to anything except shad,” he says. “When that happens, I troll crankbaits from 1.2 to 1.7 mph in open-water areas of the main lake to catch these scattered schools. When the water warms and shade becomes more attractive, crappies move back around cover and structure, where jigs work better. But in late summer, as the water cools, they move back out and trolling cranks again becomes productive.”
In both situations, Huckabee selects lures with actions, profiles, and colors that are easy for crappies to see. “Crappies don’t look at a lure and decide not to bite because it’s the wrong color,” he says. “If they see it, they hit it.”
A true-running, tight-wiggling lure with a shad profile fits the bill. Options include Lindy Shadlings, Bomber Fat Free Fingerlings and Shads, and many other choices. Colors are a wild card. “Some days it takes a black bait, others a white bait, and they may want chrome in the morning and chartreuse later in the day.”
Huckabee’s early and late summer pattern is solid on Eufaula, but open-water action occurs during summer on some reservoirs and natural systems, wherever crappies shadow schools of wandering baitfish. Mitch Looper has enjoyed success north to south, trolling Cotton Cordell Grappler Shads from 6 to 15 feet deep, for crappies keying on shad. When looking for fish on sonar, balls of baitfish with scattered arcs around the edges indicate crappies. “They pick off stragglers that leave the school,” he says. “Bass bust in or chase the shad to the top, so it’s easy to tell the difference between bass and crappies.”
Locations can seem random. On Eufaula, Huckabee relies on the lake’s staggering crappie numbers instead of looking for structural cues. “There are so many fish, I’ve found that if you just go out and start trolling, you’ll catch them.” Looper looks a bit deeper, however, seeking irregularities in the bottom—such as humps on channel edges and long points extending off otherwise flat channel bends. His trolling speeds hover around 1.5 mph, with a consistent let-back of 100 feet, tweaking lure size and line diameter to pin baits a foot above the fish.
Offshore tactics are fine in relatively weedless waters, but in many natural systems, vegetation is a factor in summer slab location. Here, too, hardbaits have a place. Veteran panfish hunter and longtime In-Fisherman ally Spence Petros taught me years ago to cast downsized lipless crankbaits (1/8- to 3/16-ounce) over weedtops at prime feeding periods early and late in the day. Weed-related panfish are often scattered, and casting fast-moving lures helps you pick off as many fish as possible before the bite wanes. At midday, crappies often move to open water, where trolling patterns like Looper’s and Huckabee’s are golden.
One key to cranking weedtops is a consistent depth of water over the top, which limits snags. A distance of 18 inches to 4 feet is ideal. One tip from Petros is swapping stock trebles on dainty rattlebaits with beefier steel, upsizing from #14s to #12s or #10s.
Brawny, big-mouthed slabs are hard to hook on small trebles. The only downside is that larger hooks grab more grass, but you can get around it by clipping off each treble’s leading tine. On the belly treble, it’s the one that faces down when you press the hook against the bottom of the lure. Snip the low-hanging tine on the rear treble when the hook is extended straight back.
Another Petros tip: In heavy salad, scrap the trebles. Replace ’em with a short-shank single hook. You’ll rip through weeds easier, especially crisp cabbage, yet miss few strikes. It’s just another way to milk the most fish possible from every trip, especially in situations when hardbaits dethrone livebait and jigs as rulers of the panfish scene.