October 19, 2015
By Matt Straw
Panfishing in North America was all about round corks and porcupine quills for a century or more, and every float-fishing tactic involved suspending baits on hooks. Though largely pushed aside by the dreaded round plastic floats that clip onto the line, corks and quills remain.
Old-school techniques passed down from our grandfathers refuse to disappear, and that's fine — but North American float systems for panfish continue to evolve rather glacially along European lines. The decades-long success of Thill Floats is all the proof required. European match fisherman Mick Thill brought designs like the TG Bodied Waggler and the Shy Bite over here and people have been buying them ever since.
American tactics have increasingly involved slipfloats over the years, but new wrinkles continue to improve efficiency over the old round floats that damage line, get blown around on windy days, don't cast well, offer far too much resistance to biting fish, and can be easily smashed to little red-and-white bits. Worse than all those factors combined, round floats are one-trick ponies offering little versatility. Slipfloats, on the other hand, score in a wider variety of situations while European styles specialize.
Some methods outshine others dramatically in the conditions that best suit them. Better to tailor techniques with specific floats than to continue driving nails where wood screws work better. Some relatively recent methods are entirely overlooked, but so wildly effective we can't keep them secret any more.
Dragging rigs along bottom accomplishes several things. Bottom rigs stir up sediment, attracting panfish — especially crappies, perch, shellcrackers, and bluegills. Bottom rigs can maintain a consistent distance between bottom and the bait. And bottom rigs find grooves, depressions, and troughs in the bottom.
A depression of 6 inches to a foot on a tabletop-smooth flat can have intriguing characteristics. Sometimes the plants that grow there are different than those that surround the spot. When a groove is created by ice being pushed into shore by wind, it may harbor no vegetation at all — creating a small clearing. Sometimes a small trough is packed so tightly with panfish, you wonder how it's possible.
On flats 10 feet deep or less, bottom rigs that employ floats find subtle depressions quicker than anything else, stirring up bottom sediments along the way. When pitching a classic bottom rig shallow, it can be difficult to feel where the depressions are. Floats offer immediate visual confirmation. And since the float isn't suspending the weight — just keeping the line vertical while providing strike indication — we can choose a float that matches other conditions, like wind, waves, and water clarity.
Bottom rigs utilizing floats can be designed several ways. A three-way rig allows minnows, small crayfish, panfish leeches, and worms some freedom of movement. Place a bobber stop on the mainline, slide a slipfloat, waggler, or almost any kind of sliding float on after the stop. Tie on a three-way swivel, or tie a dropper to the mainline side of a standard barrel swivel. Or use a surgeon's knot or Bro's Loop Knot to create one or more dropper lines.
With swivels, use a leader a third to half as long as the dropper. Tie on a #12 to #6 Aberdeen, baitholder, or weedless hook — depending on the cover and the size and motive capability of the bait. With droppers from knots, leave 3- to 6-inch tag ends to tie on hooks. To anchor the rig on bottom, tie on a 1/8- to 1/2-ounce slinky, bell, or Lindy No-Snagg Sinker — enough weight to drag the float under. Set the float stop so just the tip of a waggler-style float pokes through the surface film.
This rig becomes a remote depthfinder, meant to be fished in a drag-stop-pause fashion, finding depressions wherever the float submerges. When the weight pulls the float under, reel in, slide the bobber stop up accordingly, and fish the spot hard. Three-way rigging pulls a squirming livebait along behind the disturbance. You can feel it when the rig hits cover. Stop pulling and the bait remains free but tight to the cover. Light bites pull a waggler completely under.
Drop-shot rigging is the rage for panfish. Call it up on the Internet and dozens of videos, blog posts, and articles pop up. A specialized hook with a slightly up eye is tied, using a Palomar knot leaving a long dropper, or try the new Lazer TroKar Helix and tie the dropper to the swivel on the hook. Clip a drop-shot weight to the dropper 6 to 20 inches below the hook as the situation demands. Pitching a drop-shot rig often works fine, but in many of those videos and posts we hear comments on verticality. "The more vertical the rig, the more it seems to get bit some days," says In-Fisherman Senior Editor Steve Quinn. Easy to stay vertical in deep water, but not on shallow flats. Since the hook is tight to the mainline, it rests at the same angle as the line and might be on bottom to 10 inches off, depending on the length of the cast.
Using a float, the rig can be kept vertical no matter how far it's pitched. As with the three-way rig, the clip-on weight should be heavy enough to pull the float under so it acts as a depthfinder and ensures bottom contact. Again, I like straight or bodied waggler-style floats. The hook can be baited with plastics, Gulp! Minnows, live minnows, leeches, crickets — whatever turns them on.
One drawback: Until you're familiar with the area, a bottom rig can drive you crazy because it requires precise depth settings. Depth often changes with every placement. Get past the initial annoyance, however, and it's amazing how effective these rigs are.
Few activities are more enjoyable to me than fishing floats in current for trout, steelhead, salmon, and panfish. I use the same European designs in petite sizes for panfish in the main stems of the Mississippi, the St. Croix, and other rivers.
After spawning in backwaters, bluegills and crappies move to the edge of the main river. Dr. Steve Gutreuter, fishery scientist working with the U.S. Geological Survey, surveyed panfish populations in Pool 10 on the Mississippi River (near Prairie du Chien) by trawling. He found that when water levels were below median flow, bluegills moved into the main river. When flows were high, they pushed back toward shoreline-related structure and cover. But last year I found bluegills holding behind rockbars in the main channel even when the water was 2 feet higher than normal. By early fall, crappies were holding in the deeper pools, too.
Floats designed for current represent the best approach for catching numbers of river panfish many days. Out on the humps and bars that bluegills frequent, smaller Red Wing Blackbirds, Raven Floats, Drennan Avons, and Thill Turbo Masters, weighted with bulk shotting patterns that drop quickly through the current, efficiently present leeches, small minnows, waxworms, and soft plastics.
Floats designed for current have stems with elongate to round bodies set high on the stem. Nine- to 12-foot rods are optimum for controlling line and floats. River floats allow current to slip past, so a long rod can stop it in place or slow it down for long stretches — giving reluctant fish more time to consider the offering on key spots before it drifts past. Most river rats use standard slipfloats for panfish, which are less efficient in current. Bottom rigs snag more often and force the boat to pass over fish. Casting jig-plastic combos often finds fish quicker, but floats catch more on those spots.
The rig should be anchored with a jig to keep the bait down in current. Depending on the strength of the flow, jigs in the 1/64- to 1/8-ounce range work best. When the flow is up and the water is cloudy, bulk up with hair, feather, or marabou jigs. Plain or painted 1/64- to 1/32-ounce ballhead jigs work best in low, clear water.
When bluegills occupy rocky flats or crappies hang by deadheads and submerged woodcover, it's rare to see anyone else fishing this way. Which is too bad, because it's a blast. Sensitive river-float systems cover water naturally, taking baits downriver just like Mother Nature delivers food — the way panfish expect to see it. And it's fun using tools designed specifically for the job as opposed to making do.
Pole floats are popular in Europe and fairly common in the southern U.S. On Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, guides showed me years ago how they used 14-foot poles to reach in through cypress branches to place floats precisely so our hooked crickets would deploy right at the edge of the umbrella-like cap extending around the base of the trunk. Place it anywhere else and the float never went down.
Plenty of spots like that occur on lakes, reservoirs, and river backwaters all over the country where I never see people using long rods, poles, or pole floats. Instead of wondering what might be hiding in a tangle of pilings or fallen trees that casts can't reach, why not reach in and drop baits vertically into obvious pockets and clearings?
We use 12- and 13-foot rods to place pole floats around timber in river backwaters, but we also deploy them around vegetation. On lakes with visibility of 4 feet or less, it's easy and productive to approach close. Drop anchor upwind, let out rope, and drift back to strategic spots surrounded by visible cabbage stands and coontail hedges. Uncle Buck's Deluxe Crappie Poles from Bass Pro Shops come in 10-, 12-, 13-, and 16-foot lengths, all rated for 4- to 10-pound lines, and can cover a 26- to 46-foot diameter circle around the boat without spooking fish.
A pole float isn't designed for casting or holding up a lot of weight. While we often pitch these rigs short distances, the idea is exact placement, so pole floats like the Thill Shy Bite tend to be long and thin. The idea is to spread the buoyancy vertically rather than horizontally because the more vertical the body, the less resistance fish feel. No sense forcing them to submerge a buoy when all you need is the slightest indication of a bite at close range. Long floats also transmit subtle up-bites by rising slightly (something round floats can't do), so it's critical to focus on the float as it rests.
It would be no surprise to learn that round, cheap, red-and-white plastic floats outsold almost every other individual float style last year. Nobody wants to see grandpa get his boxers in a bunch, but better methods tell you more about what's down there, where the precise level of activity might be, and how hot the bite really is.