July 10, 2012
Double-duty lures for panfish have been around a long time. Spreader rigs for perch that present two or more minnows at slightly different levels appeared long ago. Fly-fishermen have, for centuries, attached extra flies up the leader for brown trout, a practice borrowed by many who fly-fish for sunnies. Tying in droppers with surgeon's knots and presenting two, three, or more tubes for crappies on each line is popular with tournament fishermen.
Extra baits on the same line produce the illusion of a school of minnows or hatch of insects, which triggers a behavioral response. With the exception of fly-fishing techniques, most "double-duty" rigs are designed for drifting or anchoring and presenting baits at different levels on a vertical plane. The goal is to cover more of the water column with the potential for hooking more than one fish at a time.
New-wave double-duty rigs have a different goal in mind: Attract panfish to a smaller bait with the disturbance caused by a larger lure, while creating the potential for hooking larger predators in the process. A short leader attached to a surface lure or floating-diving bait holds a tiny jig, fly, soft-plastic stickbait -- even a baited hook. The larger lure acts as both attractor and float. This is a horizontal tactic -- providing much faster coverage than double-duty rigs of the past.
Bluegills and crappies are notorious for going after larger lures. Minnowbaits, crankbaits, and surface lures designed for bass deposit some pretty nice panfish specimens into my boat every year. And who hasn't been plagued by bluegills pecking at big plastic worms and dragging them off bottom by the tip of the tail? Panfish sometimes spook from a larger lure, but when they're obviously drawn to it, why not take advantage of the situation? When panfish move to larger lures, they bite a dangling "extra" without fail. When they bite, the larger lure moves.
By the same token, who hasn't had a largemouth or pike attack their bobber while panfishing? Happens all the time. Well, what if the "bobber" has a hook on it?
In-Fisherman Editor Jeff Simpson has been playing with double-duty creations for years. "Any type of floating crankbait or topwater will work," he says. "How you modify it is up to your own imagination. The larger lure serves as a casting bubble -- allowing you to cast for distance -- then acts as an attractor and a float. Floats and bobbers act as attractors, too. Anything that makes a surface disturbance attracts more panfish than most anglers realize. The lure acts as a bobber, or a strike indicator, while performing its normal function as a lure for bass, pike, or any fish that will hit surface lures. Leaving the belly treble on the bait will hook these larger fish, even though your main target is panfish."
Simpson uses this technique primarily behind floating minnowbaits, poppers, big deer-hair surface flies, and bunny-strip flies. With lures, he removes the rear treble and ties a leader to the hook anchor (rear hook eye). "If panfish are taking flies on the surface, I use a popper and tie a 4- to 5-inch leader of fairly stout 4- to 6-pound mono to the tail," Simpson says. "You need fairly heavy line because a short leader like that doesn't offer much shock absorption. Otherwise, big bluegills will get down into heavy weeds or wood and break the dropper. When they're hitting on top, I might use a surface fly. If they won't rise up to feed, I switch to a subsurface version, like a wet fly or slow-sinking nymph behind the popper.
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"If panfish are hitting a little deeper, I opt for a #7 floating Rapala, big enough to entice the occasional bass, but not too big to catch a bull bluegill. With minnowbaits and panfish biting subsurface, I might use a slightly longer 9- to 10-inch leader. And, instead of a fly, I use a 1/64- or 1/80-ounce jig, which gets deeper faster. When sight-fishing for bedding bluegills, for instance, you can see that they won't rise up for a fly. An 8- to 10-inch dropper gets down and invades their territory. Defensive instincts take over. A lot of times, they're just trying to move the thing away from the nest. When that happens, I use a white jig with a white plastic body so I can see it disappear."
Simpson uses a 6 1/2-foot light or medium-light-action rod and a small to medium spinning reel filled with 6- to 10-pound line, depending on cover and conditions. With lighter lures, I opt for 7-foot ultralight rods and a thin, tough 4-pound line like Stren Magna-Thin. But when bluegills and crappies hover around shallow woodcover during prespawn, it's sometimes necessary to upgrade to 8- or even 10-pound test. Even that might be too light when smallmouths enter the equation, and a floating minnowbait twitched on top is a proven, classic killer of all the black basses during prespawn.
Whatever main line you're using, just clip off a piece big enough to make the 4- to 10-inch leader before tying on the main lure. The combo can be fished relatively fast to cover water and find fish -- another huge advantage. But it also can be fished slowly at whatever speed is necessary to trigger the most panfish possible. A minnowbait like the F7 Rapala (3 1/4 inches) imparts a unique action to the trailing "tailgunner" fly or jig. In fact, it might be impossible to duplicate that kind of action with anything but a double-duty rig.
When the lure is retrieved for a short stretch, it pulls the tailgunner down and throws it side to side -- but only slightly. The longer the leader, the more subtle the action. Pause the lure and, of course, the tailgunner rises. Twitch the minnowbait on top, and the tailgunner rhythmically rises, swings to the side, and drops. "Some days, a light twitching action on the surface attracts most of the strikes," Simpson says. "Other times, a higher percentage of strikes occur during a dead pause."
When the wind is up, the jig is constantly moving as the lure bobs in the waves. Sometimes this is a positive, sometimes not. Small crankbaits designed for panfish, like the PRADCO Creature series -- the deep divers in particular -- allow you to cover even more of the water column vertically, then float it back up for the twitching tactic on the surface. On windy days, however, the long, slow rise back to the surface can entice more strikes than twitching on top, so you have to maintain a tight line.
"Bigger baits select for larger bluegills," Simpson says. "Crappies, too. The attractor is the thing. A slightly bigger minnowbait or popper won't dissuade a giant bluegill or crappie from approaching. In fact, the opposite occurs. With trophy-caliber panfish around, the biggest fish at times will select the crankbait over the smaller jig or fly."
1 Clear Lake, California
The largest lake in California (43,000 acres near Lakeport) is known for lunker largemouths, but houses overlooked giant 'gills, yielding the 3¾-pound state record last year, along with others over 3. The bite by docks and at the edge of tules is strong from mid-April into September. Nearby Collins Lake, renowned for trophy trout, also produces massive sunnies — 2 to 3 pounds. The best bite starts in April and lasts into the spawn in May and early June. Contact: Clear Lake Information, lakecounty.com; Clear Lake State Park, 800/444-7275, parks.ca.gov
; Collins Lake, collinslake.com
6 Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
This impoundment in the northwestern corner of Maryland yielded the state record 3-pound 7-ounce 'gill, giving evidence of its productivity. With a deep basin, the Prespawn and Spawn periods are protracted, with prime action from mid-April into early June. Contact: Fish Deep Creek, 240/460-8839, fishdeepcreek.com
; Guide Ken Penrod, 301/937-0010,
7 Coastal Impoundments, Virginia
Four reservoirs near Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia, are regular producers of big bluegills and shellcrackers. Fertile lakes Cahoon, Western Branch, Prince, and Burnt Mills have a history of trophy fish production. Western Branch (1,265 acres) reopened to public fishing in 2010 and is known for outsize redear, with certified specimens approaching 3 pounds. Boating permits required. Contact: Burnt Mills Reservoir Manager, 757/441-5678; Chesapeake Bay Office, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 757/465-6812, dgif.virginia.gov
5 Kentucky & Barkley Lakes, Kentucky-Tennessee
These massive impoundments — Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River and Barkley on the Cumberland — are joined by a canal and offer outstanding fishing for big redear sunfish, as well as bass and crappies. Contact: Jack Canady, Woods and Water Guide Service, 270/227-2443, woodsandwaterguideservice.com
2 Lake Havasu, Arizona-California
Lake Havasu, impounding about 45 miles of the Colorado River, has become redear central after producing the all-tackle record 5-pound 7-ounce fish, along with many others over 2 pounds. The record was 16¾ inches long and boasted a 19-inch girth. Best action runs from April through June, when fish gather in coves to spawn. Locals fish livebait but small spinners and cranks catch some monsters. Contact: John Galbraith, basstacklemaster.com; Captain Jerry's Guide Service, 760/447-5846, havasufishingguide.com
; Havasu Fishing, havasufishing.com
3 Pelican Lake, Nebraska
Nestled in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, Pelican Lake consistently produces the biggest 'gills in the region, many over a pound and occasional 2-pounders. Blessed with abundant and diverse large invertebrates, growth is fast in this shallow waterway. Abundant vegetation provides habitat for bugs and a sanctuary for big sunfish. Most giants are caught through the ice or in early spring. Contact: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, http://www.fws.gov/valentine/
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Labeled 'Earthquake Lake, ' a mighty tremor of the New Madrid Fault in 1811 diverted the Mississippi River, backing up this highly productive 11,000-acre waterway in northwestern Tennessee. Big bluegills and shellcrackers roam the shallow lake's cypress forests and lily pad fields, yielding prime pole-fishing opportunities all spring and summer. Contact: Bluebank Resort, 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
; Eagle Nest Resort, 731/538-2143, eaglenestresort.com
9 Richmond Mill Lake, North Carolina
Located near Laurel Hill, North Carolina, Richmond Mill likely offers the best shot at a 2-pound bluegill, truly a rare animal. This pay-to-play waterway, owned by the Kingfisher Society, is managed to ensure balance between bluegills and largemouth bass and habitat quality. After refilling in 2000, it's approaching prime productivity. Giants sometimes require finesse presentations, such as tiny jigs tipped with a bit of 'crawler. Contact: Kingfisher Society, 910/462-2324, kingfishersociety.com
10 Santee-Cooper, South Carolina
This lowland jewel produced the former world record shellcracker and continues to yield amazing numbers of platter-sized bluegills as well as redears, not to mention big catfish, bass, and crappies. Spring comes early and a fine bedding bite starts in late March, lasting into May, but recurring on a monthly basis until September. Anglers also take jumbos in the Diversion Canal between the paired impoundments in fall and winter. Contact: Santee-Cooper Country, 803/854-2131, santeecoopercountry.org
8 Tidal Rivers, North Carolina
Flowing into Arbemarle Sound in the northeastern part of the state are a series of blackwater rivers that represent the northernmost range of the coppernose bluegill, the southern subspecies known to attain large size. Panfish expert Jim Gronaw picks the Pasquotank, Yeopim, Perqimens, and Chowan rivers, with loads of 9- to 11-inch fish and some over 1½ pounds. Local expert Jeffrey Abney scores with hair jigs tied in a grass shrimp pattern. Contact: bigbluegill.com
; Pembroke Fishing Center, 252/482-5343; Bethel Fishing Center, 252/426-5155.