April 30, 2015
By Cory Schmidt
Funny thing about panfish — those vigorous, typically tasty crappies, sunfish, perch and white and yellow bass — and their perceived attachment to shallow water. Every year, about the time spring spawning season ends, a lot of folks manage to mostly, well, forget they exist. It seems in some ways, giant panfish are the groundhogs of the fishing world — they show themselves in spring, but people sort of forget about them after that. Which is odd. Particularly when you consider that for the balance of the calendar year, most of these compact little fighters simply take their game to deeper water. And it's here they remain, as predictable, feisty and catchable as ever.
Using Sonar To Find The Bite
Used to be that finding deep panfish stumped folks to no end. Admittedly, when fish linger offshore, well beyond known spawning bays, pinpointing panfish can take time. Yet modern knowledge of the fishes' nature, combined with remarkably vivid sonar screens, have led to major shortcuts to fish location.
Thankfully, most of the best deeper locations frequented by panfish aren't far from their springtime hangouts. Might be black crappies suspended off the end of a weed point in 18 to 25 feet of water; big 'gills on an isolated rockpile, surrounded by 30 to 40 foot depths; or yellow perch or white bass scattered 20-feet down atop a large soft-bottom flat.
With a little general knowledge of your waterbody, supplemented by the sharp, often-obvious images scrolling across a quality sonar monitor, you're bound to discover schools of untouched panfish. The other half of the equation — how to catch them — becomes far less complicated, once you've tied on any number of progressive presentations. Armed with the right deep water rig, in fact, some of these panfish may be the largest of your life.
Up Your Odds
Last February, working a simple dropshot rig and worm on a deep shelf in Arizona's Lake Havasu, Hector Brito found out firsthand, having just hooked a world-record redear sunfish. That Brito's 5-pound 12-ounce redear ate a dropshot wasn't particularly earth shattering. But in the larger context of deeper water panfish rigs, the finesse bass presentation likely opened some eyes.
The same could be said for a handful of other obscure rigs and deeper presentations — most of them originally intended for bass, walleyes or other species. With a bit of tackle shrinkage and downsize hocus-pocus, something like a dropshot or a walleye spinner rig transforms into a magical micro offering for palm-stretching panfish.
Seeker Rigs That Find Fish
In summer through early fall, Minnesota based guide, Brian "Bro" Brosdahl, borrows from his walleye bag of tricks to track down deepwater perch and sunfish. Performing simultaneous finding and catching functions, Bro tows a ¼- or ½-ounce Northland Tackle Rock-Runner bottom bouncer with a short leader, small spinner and bait. For attracting fish from across large flats, he often trolls a #2 or #4 Indiana spinner blade, a series of tiny plastic beads and a single #8 octopus hook, all tethered to a 2-foot leader of 6-pound test monofilament. Attached to the hook is anything from a small shiner or fathead minnow, to a baby ribbon leech or even scented softbaits, such as Northland Tackle's Impulse Mini Smelt or a 1-inch Berkley Gulp! Alive! Leech.
To present his bottom-bouncing seeker rigs, Bro engages his Minn Kota Terrova trolling motor and iPilot Link system. With the specialized handheld remote control, he can move the boat along at any speed, from .2- to well over 2-mph, while automatically tracking specific depth contours on his digital LakeMaster map. Or he can simply set the trolling motor to follow an exact heading at a precise speed and forget about it, regardless of wind.
Wielding a spread of 8- and 11-foot St. Croix Panfish Series rods, Bro drops each rig directly to the bottom and begins to move along briskly, maintaining about a 60-degree angle between his line and the water surface. Rods can either be hand-held or placed in rod holders, depending on the aggressiveness of panfish. Less aggressive fish sometimes require Bro to cat-and-mouse them with rod-tip twitches and pauses, in order to achieve hookups.
Many days, once productive depths and stretches reveal themselves, Bro pulls off a major catching clinic, with 20 to 100 fish days happening all the time. Sometimes, though, once fish reveal themselves, hitting the magical 100 mark means stowing the trolling rigs, and employing a direct hands-on presentation.
Heavy Head Bangin'
Tungsten is another accoutrement commonly associated with bass, and has become well known for its compact, fast-sinking properties. In the panfish world, loads of ice fishing jigs constructed from the dense, heavy metal perform equally well on open water, spring through fall. Cast a tiny tungsten jig dressed with a 1-inch tube, grub or other softbait, and you'll maintain perfect lure contact, even in 20 to 30 feet of water, and even on breezy days. Physically, a one-quarter ounce tungsten jighead is often no larger than a BB, allowing subtle presentations with tiny #8 to #14 hooks and 1- to 2-inch micro softbaits.
The advantages of working a diminutive yet heavy tungsten jig, such as a Custom Jigs & Spins Majmun or Akara Disco Ball, are almost mind-boggling, allowing you to drop quickly onto deep fish with the tiniest lure. It's a perfect approach for working tightly grouped pods of panfish, either directly beneath the boat or hovering near a deeper structure, such as a vegetation edge.
As an alternative to tungsten, small swimming minnow-shaped lures — Jigging Rapalas, Northland Puppet Minnows and Custom Jigs & Spins -- plummet rapidly and appeal to aggressive deepwater panfish. Simply drop the lure to the bottom, give it a short, fast rip and let it swing back to vertical, inches to a foot or more above bottom. Prolonged pauses with these heavy swimmers also trigger strong bites.
For working vertically with either lure type, shorter 5- to 6 -foot rods — rated light rather than ultralight — allow for supreme jig control and bite detection. G Loomis Trout Series TSR-691S-1 or St. Croix Premier PS56LF are both exceptional vertical jigging rods. Spool something like a Shimano Sedona 1000FD with 3-pound test PowerPro Microline, ending with a 2 foot leader of 4-pound test fluorocarbon. Conversely, for casting jigs, a slightly longer 6 ½- to 7-foot rod is a more comfortable, efficient tool.
A jig is an obvious choice in many panfish scenarios. Still, relatively few anglers consider depth when choosing a jighead, or the metal from which it's constructed. For shallow fishing to about 10 feet, a leadhead jig is often still preferred, especially when neutral or negative fish show a preference for slower sinking lures. On any spots deeper than about 12 feet, tungsten fishes like gold.
Deep Water Droppin'
The same statement often applies equally to a downsized dropshot rig — a set-up most panfishers rarely regard. The beauty of a rig like the dropshot lies in its flair for presenting a softbait or livebait at a precise level above bottom, right in the face of fish, for extended periods. It's wonderfully versatile, too. Vertically jig it. Cast it. Slow troll it. Jiggle it in place, bait hovering perpetually in the strike zone.
A dropshot can do as well as a jig, and sometimes, better. The rig provides instant depth control; fishes heavy without impairing bait movement; holds baits above grass and other bottom debris; shines in shallow and deep water alike; and activates micro softbaits in subtle and seductive ways.
Despite the rig's sophisticated undertones, the essence of the dropshot couldn't be simpler — a split shot rig in reverse. As a mode of delivery for sweet miniature softbaits, a dropshot may be a superior presentation, particularly in deep water. For crappies, sunfish and perch, softbaits twitched and wiggled in new and tantalizing ways hold amazing allure.
The heart of the rig is a small short-shank hook, sizes #4 to #14, attached to a length of monofilament or fluorocarbon with a Palomar knot. The Palomar is key in this instance, as it positions the hook perpendicular to the line, assuring a fluid horizontal presentation with soft plastics or livebait, such as a small minnow, leech or crawler. Up the leader, a foot or so up from the hook, many anglers add a tiny barrel swivel for attaching to the mainline.
At the base of the rig is a 1/8- to 1/2-ounce sinker — a round dropshot style weight or even a splitshot — pinched onto the line. A simple overhand or loop knot tied at the end of the dropshot line pins the sinker, preventing it from sliding off the line. Sinker position is typically dictated by the level of panfish relative to the bottom. For bluegills or perch scrounging along within a few inches of the substrate, you'll likely position the hook 6-inches or less above the sinker. For suspended crappies or white bass, you can separate sinker and hook by up to 3 feet, or possibly more.
Beyond the basic dropshot, numerous variations are possible. Rather than pinning the hook tight with a Palomar knot, some anglers prefer a short "dropper" line jutting from the leader, both for added spread and a fluttering effect on baits. Moreover, depending on local regulations, adding multiple hooks per rig affords the opportunity to probe different depths with various baits, and occasionally score two fish for the price of one.
Spawn season past, time to turn attentions out beyond the shallows. Scan offshore structure with sonar. Go deep, heavy and small. Probe the haunts of hungry 'gills, crappies, perch and who knows, perhaps the panfish bite of a lifetime.