7 Summer Panfish Hotspots
May 18, 2018
Panfish opportunities are boundless during the Summer Period. Fish are active, moving and feeding regularly.
Location drives presentations, and appropriate presentations bring success on these select waters across the country.
On the deep clear reservoirs of Southern California, crappies can surpass three pounds. Large specimens often are pelagic, rather than holding tightly near cover. To connect with them, panfish expert Chris Salmon utilizes a double-jig rig, which allows anglers to experiment with two different colors and jig styles at the same time. This rig can also be worked deeper and more quickly with the weight of an additional jig.
His favorite setup is with the lighter jig on top attached with a loop knot and a heavier one on the end of the line. "I like a 2-foot distance between the first and second jig," he says. "It provides vertical and horizontal separation between them. I tie a 1/64-ounce Eggie Jiggie on top and a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce Buggie Jiggie or 1/16-ounce Slab Jiggie below. In deeper water, increase jig weight. I use this rig across the country and it works great both from shore or a boat."
A steady retrieve with an occasional pause and twitch of the rod tip gets the jigs changing direction and depth. As the rig is retrieved, the jigs swing upward in the water column. Note depth where bites occur and try to replicate them on successive casts. This rig also works well under a float when fish are scattered over large shallow flats.
Great Lakes Harbor Perch
Harbors across the Great Lakes draw perch during summer. The spread of zebra and quagga mussels has increased water clarity and vegetation in previously barren areas. Perch have capitalized on the aquatic insects, crustaceans, snails, and baitfish that utilize this newly formed cover.
An effective approach from shore is to cast compact tungsten jigs to offshore patches of grass. Many of these are out of reach for anglers fishing slipfloats and livebait. Jumbo perch patrol the edges and lanes of these vegetation patches to devour prey of all sorts. The key is being able to reach these spots with small baits.
Select a fast-action rod to precisely vault jig-and-plastic offerings long distances. My favorite setup consists of a 13 Fishing Envy Black 6-foot 10-inch light-power rod with a medium-size spinning reel and 3-pound-test Berkley NanoFil. Join the mainline to a 4-pound-test fluorocarbon leader with a tiny XX Raven micro swivel. While the thin diameter of NanoFil delivers unparalleled casting distance and sensitivity, its extra slick surface is not conducive to tying FG or double uni-knots, so a swivel is ideal.
Make long casts along weededges and pockets. Hop and swim jigs within inches of the bottom. Give a good rip of the rod to rip through clinging grass. For this reason, avoid livebait that easily tears off the jig. Instead, use flavor-infused softbaits, such as a Berkley PowerBait Power Nymph or 13 Fishing Bernie grub. They have long tails and appendages for maximum quivering action with each hop of the jig. Since most tungsten jigs, such as Custom Jigs & Spins 5-mm Chekai, are not equipped with a keeper barb, glue the nose of the soft plastic to the jig to ensure a straight-running bait.
Jumbo perch rarely shy from a full-size meal. But under tough conditions, downsizing can help. In such cases, switch to a 13 Fishing 1/32-ounce Doug Jig and Coconut Crab grub. Every movement of this smaller offering can be felt in the rod handle. Plus, the "uppercut" hook on the Doug Jig means that once you detect a bite, it's easier to set with a rod lift. Tipped with a small piece of softshell crayfish, this setup is deadly wherever perch are found.
Polk County, Florida, Coppernose
Florida's summer heat can be oppressive, but the bluegill bite often is hot enough to make it worth fishing under sauna-like conditions. Florida-based author and educator Paul Bristow suggests that coppernose bluegill are the ideal summertime targets.
"The coppernose is suited to Florida summers," he says. "They're found throughout the southeastern U.S. and are adapted to feed in water that would turn off northern 'gills. Like the Florida strain of largemouth bass, coppernose bluegills feed more regularly, grow faster, and spawn more often than northern varieties. They may bury in overhead cover like cypress tree stumps or lily pads during the hottest part of the day, then move to adjacent deeper flats to feed during the first few hours of daylight."
In tight cover, using baits that lightly hit the water near their chosen lair is effective. Here, Bristow deploys a strategy borrowed from the saltwater realm, using floats to "pop" a lure around in the strike zone. "I often fish for speckled trout on the brackish flats of the Tampa Bay Estuary," he says. "A pop on the surface gets the attention of nearby predators, especially when fish are tight to cover. I modify it for summertime coppernose in cover. Try to mimic a small insect, crustacean, or terrestrial hitting the water after falling off nearby vegetation or stumps. Pops should be light. I've had success with grass shrimp, redworms, crickets, and various small jigs. Anglers who prefer using cane poles can improve success by lightly splashing the pole tip on the surface every few minutes."
Lake Havasu Redears
Lake Havasu on the Colorado River grows the largest redear sunfish on the planet. This reservoir's size and depth are imposing. Redears here seem to grow to record proportions by feeding primarily in deep water beyond the reach of most panfish anglers. It takes a different mentality to target these deep-water nomadic giants. A drop-shot rig excels in these situations. Hector Brito used this setup, baited with a whole nightcrawler on February 16, 2015, to catch the 5-pound 13-ounce world record. While bass were the target of Brito's presentation, it's ideal for deep-water redears wherever they're found.
This system excels because it allows excellent depth control of the bait, as well as improved sensitivity, by placing the weight below the bait. In deep water, use 4-pound Sufix NanoBraid as a mainline for its strength and sensitivity. With a micro swivel, attach a 30-inch leader of 6-pound fluoro. Tie on a #8 VMC Spinshot Dropshot hook and finish the rig with a 6-inch leader of 4-pound-test monofilament. Tie an overhand knot at the end of the dropper line and clip a VMC Drop Shot Cylinder Weight on it. Bait with a lively nightcrawler, leech, crayfish, or softbait, such as a 3-inch Berkley PowerBait Drop Shot Minnow or DUO Realis V-Tail Shad. These artificials have great tail action with even the slightest movement of the line.
While this rig requires a few more knots than most, each element increases the odds for success on redears. With braided line, you feel every tap on bait or change in bottom composition. Transitions from sand to rock or rock to mussel beds can be key areas. Also consider using an Aqua-Vu underwater camera with this approach. The fluorocarbon leader increases stealth in clear water while the wide-gap VMC Spinshot hook ensures positive hook-sets by being in a horizontal position. Finally, the thin-diameter VMC Drop Shot Cylinder Weight slides snag-free through rocks and mussel beds where trophy redears cruise and feed. A 3/16-ounce weight works well for vertical presentations, while a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce one works better when drifting or fishing greater than 30 feet deep.
Tail-Gunning Pond Bluegills
Small ponds everywhere have populations of large bluegills that spend a lot of time in summer away from the shoreline and feeding high in the water column. Small poppers and stickbaits draw bites from eager bluegills but lose their allure after their initial curiosity wears off. To spruce up lures that attract fish from a distance, add a small fly, popper, or jig to them with a 4- to 8-inch dropper line attached to the lure's rear hook eye. This technique, called tail-gunning, has been used successfully for many fresh- and saltwater species.
With bluegills in mind, select small to mid-size surface lures such as the Rapala Ultra Light Pop or Yo-Zuri 3DS Popper. Popper-style lures can be worked aggressively to make a surface commotion in less than calm conditions. The noise and spraying water calls bluegills to the disturbance. Big bulls then must decide whether to bite the larger popper or smaller trailing tidbit. The bite ratio tends to be close to even between the two offerings, with larger bluegills routinely coming on the main lure. Keep dropper length short, approximately 4 inches, to make certain the fly gets noticed.
Under calm conditions, substituting a floating minnowbait for the popper and an ice jig for the trailing fly can be the ticket for wary fish. The minnowbait doubles as an attractant and a bite-indicating float. For best results, work this combo much more slowly and less aggressively than the popper combo and use a longer 6- to 8-inch dropper length. Most bites occur after the tail-gunner bait has swung down for several seconds. Fish tail-gunner rigs on medium-light-power rods and slightly heavier 6-pound-test line to deliver better hook-sets and manage bass that inevitably attack this rig.
Lake Cascade, Idaho, Trophy Perch
Due to the size of Idaho's Lake Cascade and the sumo perch that call it home, summer is a great time to head out West with your walleye trolling gear. Perch here often measure 14 to 17 inches and consume 3- to 6-inch perch. No need to downsize gear. Flatlining leadcore line helps cover water quickly and gets lures precisely to deeper water. It works well on any large-basin lake with distinct breaklines or deep weededges that attract nomadic perch throughout the day.
With line-counter reels spooled with 15-pound-test Sufix Advance Leadcore line and 25-foot leaders of 8-pound Sufix fluorocarbon, lures such as Rapala Shad Raps, Shadow Raps, and DT4s in perch patterns, can be presented precisely. Each colored segment of the Sufix Leadcore delivers lures 7 to 8 feet deeper. Vary trolling speed between 1.5 to 2.5 mph. When aggressive, big perch have no problem tracking down baits at the upper end of this speed range. Greater speed means more water covered to locate and catch perch. Apart from precise depth control, the key to this technique is entering waypoints with each perch caught and circling back through fish-holding zones.
Big Green Lake,
Wisconsin, White Bass
While white bass often find themselves outside the panfish spotlight, there's no denying their tenacity and fighting ability. For a summertime treat, try casting surface baits or snapjigging for these dynamos. They're a resource that Captain Justin Kohn of All Seasons Adventures takes advantage of each summer on Wisconsin's Big Green Lake.
On Wisconsin's deepest natural inland lake, over 230 feet deep, Kohn relies on natural cues to narrow his search for white bass. The first cue is flocks of diving birds signaling schools of white bass corralling baitfish on the surface. Action can occur over 20 to 200 feet of water. Lure selection isn't critical, according to Kohn. "The key is getting to the fish quickly before they go down and working lures on or near the surface," he says. "Surface lures like Heddon Zara Spooks and Rapala Skitter Walks work fine at times. But we often cast whatever is on our rods when we spot surfacing fish. With jigs or spoons, it's important to work lures quickly with the rod tip high so they stay within a foot or two of the surface. Early-morning hours and cloudy days tend to produce the best surface activity."
If white bass aren't surfacing, Kohn idles with eyes glued to his Humminbird sonar. "With CHIRP technology and Mega Imaging, I can count the number of fish and distinguish white bass from carp or other species down 35 feet or more," he adds. "A thermocline sets up 25 to 35 feet down on Big Green and this also is a zone to concentrate fishing efforts. A 1/4-ounce Johnson Splinter, Acme Kastmaster, or Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon are good options for snapjigging. Count down the spoon to the desired depth, then aggressively snapjig it back to the boat." In clear-water settings these lures pull fish from nearby areas. Freedom Tackle's Swing Hair jigs and 3-inch Kalin's Grubs work great once you find fish.
Panfish provide a diversity of superb summertime pursuits. While I've highlighted a few of the very best around the country, similar tactics can likely untap excellent options close to home.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid panfish fan and travels extensively to seek the best bites.