Late Summer Into Fall
As summer wanes, panfish opportunity blossoms. From the heart of tangled weedbed jungles to the dark depths of the offshore abyss — and seemingly everywhere in between — options abound for targeting broad-shouldered bluegills, crappies, and perch. Over the past four decades, In-Fisherman has chronicled countless killer patterns, but so many strategies hold potential from August into fall, I often wonder if we've still barely scratched the surface of possible presentations.
Swimming lures like the Northland Puppet Minnow and Rapala Jigging Rap aren't exactly secret weapons for parting the jaws of hump-backed panzers. Still, relatively few panfish fans find the time or nerve to experiment with these horizontal-hanging beauties.
One of the enterprising souls who pushes the envelope in panfish puppetry is Dan Palmer. A diehard angler and seasoned guide on Wisconsin's legendary Chippewa Flowage, he's best known as the well-traveled and former world-record-holding tournament director of the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit.
When he's not marshaling a field of walleye warriors on a watery battlefield somewhere between Colorado's high-desert impoundments and Kinzua Reservoir, Pennsylvania, Palmer also pursues panfish with a passion. One of his favorite times for plucking plump pans from a variety of fisheries is the late summer-into-fall timeframe. And one of his preferred tactics is undeniably unusual, but decidedly deadly.
"I know it sounds off the wall, but I like fishing a small Puppet Minnow beneath a slipbobber," he says. "The first time some of the other guides I work with saw my rig, they laughed. But they quieted down when they saw the fish it caught."
Palmer's Puppet rig is a study in simplicity. A basic spinning outfit spooled with 6-pound Northland Bionic Panfish mono suffices. In states where anglers are limited to one hook or lure, the swimming jig flies solo. But where multiple lures are legal, he adds a small ice jig above the main attraction. "I tie on a 1/24-ounce Northland Bro Bug and leave enough of a tag end on the line to put a 1½- or 2-inch Puppet Minnow two feet below it," he says. "I suppose a loop knot might work better, but this is faster and easier to tie, and the crappies don't seem to mind."
He trims the Bro Bug with a juicy waxworm or small Northland Impulse Mayfly or Stonefly softbait. The Puppet Minnow is either stand-alone or sweetened with a half-inch Impulse Perch Eye. "Barely skin-hook the eye on the belly treble so it can move freely," he says.
A slipbobber big enough to balance the ballast rounds out the rigging. The setup can be deployed over pods of crappies marked on side- or down-scanning sonar, or used as a search technique to scour shallow water and the edges of potential panfish magnets such as floating bogs, fish cribs, brushpiles, and piers.
Despite the bobber, the presentation is far from sedentary. "Cast beyond the fish or area you want to explore," he says. "Then twitch and pop it to animate the jigs. Most of the time you have to keep everything moving to get bit, so avoid the temptation to let the rig sit. This is a simple yet overlooked technique, and once you get the hang of it, you can catch a bunch of crappies with it."
Palmer's puppet show is a hit wherever schools of wandering crappies gather to mow down baitfish and other sources of sustenance. "Last year on the Chippewa Flowage, one of the best spots I found was at the head of the flowage, where the Chippewa River comes into Moore's Bay," he says. "The fish congregated along the first drop-off into 6- to 10-foot depths, and hung around awhile."
While crappies are famous for frequenting deeper environs as summer fades to fall, Palmer says his shallow rivermouth hot spot held water through fall right to freeze-up. "The fish typically won't go anywhere as long as the food supply holds out," he says.
Veteran guide and In-Fisherman contributor M. Doug Burns has plied the panfish-rich waters of Iowa's Great Lakes for decades. One of his go-to late-summer strategies for catching supersize bluegills on West Okoboji is targeting small herds of stout bulls grazing the edges of deep vegetation.
"By mid-August, water temperatures are at their peak — from the high 70s into the low 80s — and weedlines are as deep as they're going to get, down to 35 feet, which is typically where the thermocline sets up and the biggest bluegills go to feed on minnows, small crayfish, and a variety of bugs," he explains. "It's an excellent time for using sonar to spot small groups of fish holding tight to isolated weed clumps just outside the main weedline on nearby deep humps."
With an eye on his Humminbird 998c, Burns idles over promising areas. "I'm not looking for giant schools, which are usually made up of smaller fish," he says, explaining that pockets of 12 to 20 fish are more likely to hold sunfish stretching 8 to 10 inches or more. "When I see what I'm looking for, I hit the Spot-Lock on my Minn Kota Terrova. It's much easier than anchoring. I can test the school and quickly be on my way if it doesn't pan out, instead of wrestling with a weed-covered anchor."
He relies on two presentations. One is a slipbobber rig. The float, bead, stopper, and a 3/16- to 1/4-ounce slipsinker ride on 14-pound high-vis Berkley Stealth Braid mainline, which is connected by a small swivel to a 12- to 16-inch leader of 6-pound mono with a medium or large leech impaled on a #6 octopus hook. "High-vis line helps you know where the bobber is and which direction it's moving, which is key when setting the hook," he says, noting that the leech should be positioned just above the level of the fish.
"Big bluegills bury the bobber," he says. "If the float goes under and pops right back up, you're on small fish and should move on."
His second option is a 1½-inch Shuck's Jigger Minnow tipped with a redworm. The slender, dropper-style spoon is fished vertically on a 6½-foot medium-power spinning combo spooled with 10-pound Berkley FireLine, with a 36-inch leader of 6-pound Trilene Sensation -monofilament.
"Drop the spoon to the bottom, raise it 6 inches, and gradually work it higher with shakes and twitches until you find the school's preferred height in the water column," he says. Strikes are classic sunfish pecks, though Burns recommends executing a slow, tempered hook-set a split-second after feeling the first tap. "If you wait for the second or third peck, you miss the fish," he says.
Burns' deep game lasts until the weeds wither, at which point deep rocks become more important. "Docks can be late-season hot spots, too," he says, adding that structures extending to the first drop into 15 feet or more can be panfish magnets.
Not all beefy sunfish roam deep water in late summer. Panfish fanatic Bob Bohland looks in the opposite direction, toward shallow vegetation — both near the bank and on offshore structure — on central Minnesota lakes from midsummer into September.
"I use soft-plastic frogs designed for bass to locate bluegills, green sunfish, pumpkinseeds, and hybrids in 2 to 5 feet of water," he says, noting that greens, 'seeds, and hybrids favor lily pads, while 'gills are drawn to thick stands of pencil reeds. In both scenarios, ample amounts of coontail, cabbage, and other greenery typically sweeten the pot.
In search mode, Bohland buzzes the frog across the surface until sunfish swirl at it, at which point he slows down and deploys a panfish-sized presentation. "A 1/32-ounce Lindy Jig, tipped with a small softbait like the company's Watsit Grub, is perfect," he says. Using a long rod of 8 to 11 feet, he dips the jig into areas where sunfish attacked the frog. "When you hold the rod out, your arm usually shakes just enough to make the jig dance," he says. "Lower the jig about a foot below the surface, just enough to clear the top of the weed canopy. Ideally, you should still be able to see the jig — which is why I use bright colors. When the jig disappears, set the hook immediately."
To fully appreciate Bohland's passion for panfish, consider that one of his other top summertime patterns is executed from beneath the surface. "I love snorkeling through weedbeds with an ice rod and a small jig, like a Lindy Toad, tipped with a waxworm or plastic," he says. "Bull bluegills are curious, and follow you to see what's up. Turn around, wave the jig in their face, and hang on. If you've never caught a fish above your head, you haven't truly lived." Get the picture?
Perch in Transition
From late July through freeze-up, jumbo yellow perch frequently gravitate toward transitions from hard to soft bottom. Depths vary from 10 feet in shallow inland systems to 40 feet or more on the Great Lakes and other large, deep fisheries.
Southeastern Wisconsin Guide Dave Duwe connects clients with pot-bellied perch year-round on Lake Geneva. "When perch leave their main-lake summer haunts in favor of shallow, pre-winter staging areas, I look for sand or rock with scattered weeds in 8 to 12 feet of water, close to soft, mucky bottom," he says. "Clouds of baitfish are also a must for attracting hungry perch."
Drifting a 'crawler or pulling spinner harnesses can help locate active fish. Once atop a feeding school, Duwe drops anchor and goes to work with a slipbobber rig. "Even big perch can be subtle biters, so a small float and light rod are essential," he says. A 1/2- to 3/4-inch Thill Pro Series Slip Float or 1/8-ounce Crappie Cork is a fine option. He favors a 6½- to 7-foot, medium-light Fenwick spinning rod paired with a Mitchell Avocet reel loaded with 4- to 6-pound line.
He ties a #12 Kahle hook or 1/32-ounce Lindy Ice Jig with a #10 hook to the rig, then threads on a minnow ranging in size from a small fathead for general duty to a medium-size shiner when true jumbos are on tap. "Minnows tend to take bigger perch, while keeping small fish from stealing your bait," he explains.
"Perch are typically bottom oriented, so position the float to keep the minnow within 6 to 12 inches from it," he adds. "Often, weed height or thickness dictates how high to set the bait."
New England Guide Tim Moore targets hefty white perch on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee, but his late-summer-into-fall patterns produce whites on fisheries across their native and introduced range. "In late summer when water temperatures are high, white perch move into deep water close to the thermocline, often in depths of 35 to 45 feet," he says. Soft-bottomed areas of the main basin are top prospects, though fish don't always show up on sonar. "They're less active now than in spring or fall, and when you find them it's like waking a sleeping giant," he says. "You won't see much on your sonar until you drop a jig and the whole bottom comes apart as the fish start moving around."
Voracious members of the temperate bass family, white perch hit a variety of baits. Moore favors vertical presentations when over a school of deep fish. A 1/8- to 1/4-ounce Clam Blade Spoon tipped with a worm is one of his favorites. "Drop it to the bottom, rip it upward, and let it flutter back down," he says. "White perch are like any other fish. You have to experiment with different jig strokes and pauses to see what they want at the moment."
In calm conditions, he wields a short rod and keeps the spoon beneath his transducer so he can watch the action unfold. In heavier seas, he "old-schools" it by feeling bottom and visualizing the sleight of hand.
Early in the day, the fish often shift into shallower water near shore, where Moore says they're suckers for walleye-style crawler harnesses with flashy, hard-thumping spinner blades. "Troll them behind bottom bouncers in depths as shallow as 12 feet," he says.
As water temperatures cool, white perch become more active and often rise higher in the water column. "They act like crappies and suspend over basins," Moore says. "You can catch them on just about anything then, but I still prefer vertical jigging." When you hit a hot school of fall whites ranging from 1½ to 3 pounds apiece, it's easy to put on a clinic, offering yet another reason to stay on the hunt for panfish until winter draws the curtain on the open-water season. â–