August 28, 2015
By Cory Schmidt
If there's a more impressive fishing -portrait than Hector's Britto's 5-pound 13-ounce redear sunfish record, I'd like to see it. Last February, while news of the super shellcracker and its location (Lake Havasu) rattled the cages of the centrarchid community, lost in the hype was Britto's presentation. That the fish ate a nightcrawler on a drop-shot rig wasn't earth shattering. But it was an interesting sidebar to the story — you don't often hear the terms drop-shot rig and panfish in the same sentence.
It's curious that such a versatile rig — a brilliant presenter of soft plastics and livebait — would be so little used by panfish fans. But this overlooked rig could easily be on equal footing with the bobber and bait. And a drop-shot can be as good as a jig — the most universal panfish presentation. It provides instant depth control, fishes heavy without impairing the presentation, shines in shallow and deep water, and activates softbaits seductively.
Despite the drop-shot's sophisticated undertones, the essence of it couldn't be simpler — a split-shot rig in reverse. As a softbait delivery method, it excels for bass. So it's no surprise that for crappies, sunfish, and perch, softbaits twitched and wiggled in new and tantalizing ways hold allure. If you can cast, you're in. If you can tie a Palomar knot, you can master a drop-shot rig.
While certain shapes marry most effectively with a jighead, others couple beautifully with a drop-shot. Curlytail grubs excel on a jig. But straight-tail worms, minnows, and other subtle shapes spring to life on a drop-shot. Many classic softbait shapes traditionally threaded onto 1/8- to 1/64-ounce jigheads are even more activated when pinned to a hook above a sinker. Consider Bobby Garland's Sword Tail, a lively twitcher now replaced by the company's subtle yet vivacious Scent Wiggl'r. Impaled lightly on a #8 short-shank hook above a 1/4-ounce sinker, baits like these can be ideal for crappies, bluegills, and big perch.
Scale down further, coupling a #12 to #18 hook with a 1- to 2-inch softbait. Deployed with a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce drop-shot sinker, these tiny morsels fish beautifully, even in deeper water. Micro softbaits like Northland Tackle's Impulse Bro Bloodworm, Trigger X Spike Worm, J&S Custom Jigs Ice Mite, and dozens more perform alluringly on a drop-shot.
Likewise, tiny tubes pair well on a drop-shot, their tentacles quivering nervously with each shake of the rod tip. Even micro minnows like the Garland Baby Shad, Strike King Mr. Crappie Shad Pole, and Panfish Assassin Tiny Shad get chomped. Anything with soft appendages and a fine quivering tail is potent. So long as it fits on a #12 to #4 hook, such as a Gamakatsu G-Code TW or C13U, nearly any miniature morsel can tempt bites.
"Any time I need to put a bait at an exact depth and keep it in a fish's face, a drop-shot is priceless," says panfish pioneer and Guide Brian Brosdahl. Not only can you cast a drop-shot rig and twitch it in place, you can also drag it, swim it, stroll it, troll it, or work it vertically beneath a boat or a hole in the ice.
Limitations? Shallow dense cover, such as thick vegetation or brush, is largely off limits. Fish suspended higher than 3 feet above the bottom also are better served with other approaches, but there are exceptions. When fish suspend in treetops or sparse brush deep enough to fish vertically beneath a boat, a drop-shot can shine. Drop the streamlined rig into precise depths, eying sonar to monitor fish and your rig. Alter the rig to match conditions. Increase the dropper length from hook to sinker and switch to longer leaders between the mainline and hook.
A drop-shot rig can be built to match cover, depth, and other conditions. For bite detection, I find it best to start with 4- to 8-pound-test braided mainline, such as Power Pro or Sufix 832. Building the rig begins with choosing mono or fluorocarbon. Fluoro protects better against line scuffs from wood and weeds, yet the supple yielding property of mono offers advantages for panfish. For picky-biting sunfish or perch, I mostly use a soft line, such as 4-pound Sunline Super Natural that yields and allows fish to draw the bait easily into their mouths.
While you can join braid mainline to mono or fluoro with double uni-knots or an Improved Albright knot, I typically connect them with the smallest Invisaswivel. Drop-shotting is most effective with rods in the 61„2- to 7-foot range, and casting a knot or this small swivel through line guides isn't usually an issue. Typically, a sidearm lob with a soft-tipped rod casts the rig as far as necessary. The swivel eliminates line twist — especially when rigging with split shot or other weights lacking a swivel — and allows for faster retying.
In most instances, the drop-shot leader doesn't need to be longer than 36 inches. When fishing within a foot of bottom, an 18-inch section of 4- to 6-pound-test mono is often best.
When attaching the hook to the leader with a Palomar knot, it's critical that the hook point faces up. If you begin the knot by passing the loop (doubled line) first through the bottom (gap side) of the eye, this usually results in the correct hook orientation. Otherwise, take a length of leader line and tie on the hook with a Palomar knot roughly in the middle of the leader and then connect the leader to the mainline with the hook point facing up.
To finish the rig, tie a surgeon's loop or a couple overhand knots at the end of the line. This knot acts as a stopper, preventing a drop-shot sinker from sliding off the rig. Beyond traditional drop-shot sinkers that pinch the line with a wire clip, you can also use a split shot or bullet sinker stopped by a bead and stop knot, which is a good option for sliding through cover. Finally, nose-hook or lightly thread on a softbait.
Brosdahl says exceptions to a standard drop-shot rig become necessary with light-biting fish. To mitigate missed 'gills or perch, he often rigs with a short dropper or pair of droppers. Beyond the advantage of the semi-slack dropper line making it easier for fish to draw in the bait, he also likes the "flutter factor." "Once the sinker hits bottom, a 3- to 8- inch dropper gives your bait a nice fluttering effect as it sinks to catch up," he says. "The dropper also gives baits extra whipping action when you move the rod tip."
He explains that big bluegills and occasionally perch often mouth a softbait rather than quickly committing. So even a short 2- to 4-inch "hangnail" dropper can give the bait enough freedom to be easily engulfed. The trouble with shorter droppers is that they can be difficult to tie. The easiest way is to use a Seaguar knot, which involves holding the mainline and dropper line parallel, forming a loop, twisting it back on itself about three times, and then passing the tag ends back through the loop. Trim the dropper to the desired length, tie on a hook, and add bait.
An alternative knot to use is the dropper loop, with the size of the loop determining the length of the dropper. I've found this knot somewhat unreliable with lighter line, and I don't much care for the doubled-line-to-hook connection. But you can try it and decide. For dropper lines, I use a supple, dark green 4-pound mono, such as Sunline Super Natural or Ande Premium.
Both knots work fine for adding a second or even third dropper, and where Brosdahl and I fish in Minnesota, no more than three lures are allowed per line. On other fisheries, I've never found it beneficial to fish more than two droppers without feeling like a commercial fisher. My goal here isn't to stack and pack a mountain of fillets, nor is it to burn valuable time untangling rigs.
Noteworthy is a fine pre-tied double dropper rig from Bullet Weights, called the Mr. Crappie Double Down Crappie Rig. A turn-key rig for presenting live minnows — and one designed to resist tangles — the Double Down sports two #2 Aberdeen hooks on short dropper loops, as well as a swivel and a 1/4- to 3/4-ounce sinker at the base. Spaced 15 inches apart, the two hooks rarely tangle, even with two fish on the line at the same time. Texas based pro "Mr. Crappie" Wally Marshall says most anglers slowly troll or drift these rigs using a method called "pushing" to keep the sinker on bottom and baits close to cover, such as brush or trees along a channel ledge.
Asked what makes a drop-shot so powerful for panfish, Brosdahl says, "Best rig there is for fishing just inches above low-growing grass or small rocks, keeping a bait clean and at eye-level with the fish. With a 1/4-ounce sinker and 4-pound-test, I can get down to 20 feet of water fast, and fish with finesse and precision.
"In flooded trees and bushes, I position my boat directly above a school of fish and slide the rig down to a certain level — tops of the trees or just inches above the level of fish I'm marking on my Humminbird sonar. With Spot-Lock engaged on my iPilot, I hover directly above and shake the rod tip to activate the tiny tail of a Northland Tackle Impulse Bloodworm. The control you have with this presentation is unbelievable. In calm conditions, it's even possible to feather the sinker in place and rest it on a tree branch, while the little tail quivers above," he says.
A similar presentation becomes possible when fishing through a canopy of vegetation or amid sparse vertical stands of pondweed. It's the panfish version of "punching" weedmats. With a 3/8-ounce bullet sinker stopped in place by a small bead to the end of the drop-shot rig, Brosdahl can fish through cover relatively snag-free. These cover situations also prompt him to pin his hook and bait directly to the mainline with a Palomar knot rather than on droppers, which easily snag.
Using an Aqua-Vu camera, he's seen that dropping a sinker onto soft bottom creates a mushroom cloud of sediment. "Crappies and sunfish are notorious for holding just above this murky, stirred-up water," he says. "A drop-shot set to position the bait at this level excels. And a well-tuned sonar shows you where the muddy water meets clean water. That's the depth I like to pin a bait, where fish can easily see and eat it."
Brosdahl says a 1-inch Northland Impulse Bloodworm is a perfect drop-shot bait in this situation, as bloodworms dwell within soft-bottom areas. Threaded a quarter of an inch back on a #12 Gamakatsu C13U or Owner Mosquito hook, the Bloodworm's tail undulates with each little shake of the rod tip.
To search for perch scattered on 10- to 20-foot flats on lakes like Minnesota's Leech and Winnibigoshish, he uses a rig with two droppers spaced at least 8 inches apart, slowly trolling or drifting with the wind. Once pods of perch are found, he slows and casts this rig with a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce sinker. From June through October, baited with small live shiners, leeches, or an Impulse Tube or Mini Smelt, Brosdahl's drop-shots mow down masses of feisty perch.
Years ago I discovered a deep-hump pattern for big sunfish while drop-shotting for largemouth bass. From summer through fall and occasionally into winter, small- to medium-sized humps rising to within 10 to 25 feet of the surface can be prodigious producers of bull bluegills. These hard-bottom humps also can attract crappies, particularly if sparse vegetation is present.
Each time I approach one of my favorite humps, one of which is the size of a convenience store parking lot, I immediately deploy a drop-shot rig and monitor sonar while slowly moving along with the electric motor. In 26 feet of water, a 3/8-ounce sinker is heavy enough to keep my rig vertical. Often, panfish hover within 1 to 2 feet of bottom on these spots, so rigging the hook about 18 inches up from the sinker works well.
Each time I gently shake the tip of my 7-foot St. Croix Avid AVS70MLF, the Ice Mite's fine tail jumps and wobbles, activated by its dense bulbous end. Soon, the rod tip stops, flexes lightly, and I sweep it into a nice deep 'gill-fighting arc.
As you read this, I hope to be basking in the springtime sun, working a drop-shot along Lake Havasu's southern chalk cliffs. If all goes well, I'll be setting into a sunfish the size of a hubcap. –
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt is a avid panfish angler, seeking them across the country.