Fishing For Panfish: What Bluegills, Perch, And Crappie Eat
June 01, 2013
Bluegills, Perch, Crappies
Do most fishermen know what panfish are eating under the ice? With bass, pike, and walleyes it's easy. They eat fish. But panfish forage on so many things throughout the year, often switching from one food source to another several times a day, that determining what they eat can be impossible without a thorough understanding of the lake's biota.
Even biologists don't know in most instances. Fewer than one percent of all micro-organisms have been identified and classified worldwide, according to biologists writing for Time. Of the macro-invertebrates, which provide the bulk of a bluegill's diet, only about 10 percent have been identified. Jeff Zernov of Aqua-Vu underwater camera fame recently brought in a video showing millions of macro-invertebrates rising from the bottom to dance in front of his underwater lens at sunset. None of us, including our resident biologist, knew what we were seeing.
The good news is that panfish forage lots in winter — which is why they can be caught so readily at times. But what exactly are they eating? With little doubt, panfish are eating zooplankton at some point every winter. Perhaps all day every day. And will that knowledge help you catch them? Only one way to find out.
Zooplankton (microscopic animals) feed primarily on phytoplankton (microscopic plants). This predator-prey relationship of the aquatic food chain takes place virtually everywhere year 'round. Bluegills, sunfish, perch, crappies, and minnows feed directly on zooplankton, confirmed from observation and by examining stomach contents.
Not only do panfish eat zooplankton, but they thrive upon it. Studies in Michigan suggest that lakes producing big zooplankters tend to produce big bluegills. In most cases, these fish are feeding upon some variant of the common water flea, from the group called Daphnia. Big in this case is 2 to 3 mm long and visible to the naked eye.
Dr. Harold Schramm of the University of Florida has studied the interactions of bluegills with various zooplankters. "Some zooplankters are big enough to see without a microscope," he says. "They're suspended in the water, almost neutrally buoyant, making little jerky movements and hopping around in all directions. They use swimming appendages to move both vertically and horizontally, but tend to hop along in one direction long enough to be intercepted quite easily. To be most accurate, you might say that larger bluegills key on larger crustacean zooplankters."
One way to get big is to eat what's most abundant in your environment, because it takes less energy to travel between meals. And, perhaps more importantly, it takes less time. In many bodies of water, zooplankters are so prolific that bluegills, perch, and crappies can drift and graze endlessly through winter. It's like living in a zero-gravity chamber with thousands of M&Ms floating around.
But many bodies of water have far fewer zooplankters to graze upon in winter. In waters that don't have stable plankton counts, populations crash periodically if predation is too high or sunlight steadily decreases due to mounting snow cover and ice thickness. In those lakes, panfish forage on nematodes, blood worms, and other wormlike critters that live in soft bottoms. They might switch to small minnows, too, or a mixed diet of burrowing nymphs, worms, and grass shrimp.
Fishing For Panfish
Cladocerans — Also known as water fleas, Cladocerans include the genus known as Daphnia. These creatures move by waving their antennae, which are located on relatively strong appendages near the head. Daphnia move by a series of "hops" produced by short, rapid strokes of the antennae. Other Cladocerans, including those of the genus Latona, use single powerful strokes to propel themselves in quick darting motions. All of the Cladocerans are capable of moving both vertically and horizontally.
Cladocerans reproduce in spring at water temperatures in the 40°F range. As the water warms, reproduction accelerates, then levels off. In ponds and hypereutrophic waters, populations wane to the point where few individuals can be found during summer. A secondary "bloom" may occur in fall, but numbers invariably die back in winter, though a few tough specimens always survive the winter.
In large bodies of water, numbers may peak in spring and fall, but populations remain much higher through summer and winter than in ponds and tiny lakes. Large specimens are visible to the naked eye, often reaching 1 mm and sometimes over 3 mm in length. Most Cladocerans are translucent or clear with little pigmentation, though some secrete shells and may appear yellowish, reddish brown, gray, or black.
According to Robert Pennak in Fresh-Water Invertebrates of The United States, "It's useless to predict or formulate any preconceived notions concerning the seasonal abundance of Cladocerans in a particular lake or pond. Relative abundance and the specific timing of maximum or minimum populations may vary considerably within a single species in the same lake from one year to the next. Predation pressure is being given importance in the seasonal abundance problem."
Most Cladocerans undergo daily vertical migrations, upward at night and downward with the rising sun. During most of these migrations, water fleas like Daphnia rise and descend between 6 and 30 feet, depending on the clarity and depth of the water. These migrations take place in winter as well as summer. Where bottom is above the thermocline, zooplankters settle into the substrate at the end of their downward migrations and become less active until light begins to diminish.
At ice-up, zooplankters tend to migrate out to the middle of bays and basins, staying under open water or thinner ice away from shore — another reason why panfish often migrate to deep basin areas in winter.
Copepods are another important class of invertebrates for panfish. Almost universally distributed from shallow to deep water throughout freshwater habitats of North America, some species of Copepoda crawl or run along bottom, but most swim with a backward kicking motion. This causes a jerky stop-and-go motion through the water.
Copepods tend to sink, and those that swim retard this process by extending their antennae forward at the end of each stroke. These function as parachutes, which they bend back in line with the body a split second before the next stroke. Copepods are quicker and more elusive than Daphnia.
Copepods may exceed 3 mm in length, but typically max out just under 2 mm. Interestingly, most copepods are dull gray or brown, while others are garishly adorned in bright shades of orange, purple, or red. Brightly colored versions tend to be heavily preyed on by panfish.
Panfish approach these two types of zooplankton differently. When panfish attack and capture a Daphnia, they casually swim up, hesitate in front of their prey, then suck it in. When panfish attack the more evasive copepods, however, they carefully position themselves before aggressively swimming into the prey, trying to overtake it and suck it in before it can scoot away. Success rates for panfish attempting to capture Daphnia are three or four times higher than with copepods.
Amphipods — These scuds and "freshwater shrimp" live in ponds, lakes, rivers, and streams. They tend to cling to bottom or weeds and range in size from about 5 mm to 20 mm. Amphipods are most active at night, and they tend to thrive in cold, dark environments. Specimens have been found 300 meters down in Lake Superior. They tend to skitter on their sides, hence the nickname "sideswimmers."
They swim by flexing the body, much as true shrimp do, in an undulatory backward fashion. Locomotion occurs in a sort of dart-sink-dart or dart-dart-dart pattern. They can crawl on weed stems, swim freely, or burrow deep enough to hide themselves. Bluegills, and sunnies in particular, love them. One species, considered a zooplankter, roams open water. Amphipods are clear, translucent gray, cream colored, or white.
Ever wonder why we carry so many colors of jigs in our panfish ice boxes? Or why one or two colors seem to catch all the fish? Study these tiny creatures long enough and you'll find one for every shade in the rainbow.
Daphnia comprise the major zooplankter forage for panfish in northern states, according to Gary Montz, aquatic biologist for the Minnesota DNR. "Copepods are quite prolific, too, though they move much quicker and tend to be more difficult for panfish to corral in winter," he says. Grass shrimp, scuds, and other amphipods are mostly macroinvertebrates, though one species is considered a zooplankter.
"Some northern lakes support thick populations of amphipods, while others don't," Montz says. "Amphipods, Daphnia, copepods, dragonfly nymphs, midges, mayflies, fish larvae, and bottom-dwelling nematodes and blood worms probably are the most important items panfish feed upon, but the complete list is long." (And nobody has one.)
Jigga Witha Wigga
Most of this information is of incidental value unless you know the biota of your lake. How do you evaluate the macroinvertebrate community for type and number? Who knows. State biologists almost never try to determine population densities of these little creatures at the base of the food chain. But they do run across them and, at least from an anecdotal point of view, asking a local biologist about them is as good a place as any to start.
If Daphnia populations are strong, count on their being important to gills, crappies, and perch in winter. Since zooplankters can move move up or down and migrate up as the light fades, down as it increases, vertical jigging techniques are perfect for imitating them. Some of these little bugs can move several times their body length with one stroke or swimming motion. But that still isn't far by our standards. A hop-pause-hop in the evening or a drop-pause-drop in the morning might be effective for bluegills feeding on zooplankters, but be subtle, especially when you see a fish approach your jig.
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A short movement of the rod tip hops the jig several times its length. Bluegills, especially, are quite myopic, with good vision close up and poorer vision farther away. And they might expect the item they approach to move like the other items they've been approaching all day. Move the jig too far too fast while a bluegill is making a close inspection and it might lose track of it and quickly lose interest or even spook. Move the rod tip in little 1/8- to 1/4-inch hops.
The word from In-Fisherman on ice fishing technique always has been to separate jigging into two realms: (1) attraction jigging, to gain the attention of the fish from a distance, and (2) enticement jigging, to trigger strikes. Even when you're imitating tiny bugs, call fish in with larger jigging motions, raising the rod 1 to 3 feet, then letting the jig flutter and fall, flashing its little "c'mere" beacon all the way down. But once panfish appear on sonar or can be seen milling around under the hole, concentrate on enticement.
Daphnia, for instance, exhibit an almost constant fluttering motion. After trying to imitate their swimming motion, the basic technique shifts to a jiggle-jiggle-jiggle-pause, repeat, moving the rod tip only 1/16 to 1/8 inch at a time — a subtle motion. The best way to accomplish this is to tap the rod blank or the line softly with one finger. Some studies show that panfish rarely take dead Daphnia, so limit the pause and accentuate the jiggle.
Most of the time, bluegills and crappies are size conscious only to a point — the point at which prey no longer fit in their mouths. If the jig is four times bigger than a real zooplankter, they don't really care. All they know is, they've seen lots of these translucent-gray or cream colored things hopping around and they're real tasty. If tiny versions are good, then big versions are real good.
Panfish are size selective about zooplankters, but only because they generally want (or can readily see) the biggest specimens. Something that moves like zooplankton, especially something with a tiny smoke, cream, pale yellow, or clear plastic grub attached, probably provides enough of a trigger.
When bluegills, crappies, and perch get finnicky, scale down. Even the smallest jig we know of, the 1/500-ounce Scampi from Turner Jones, is bigger than 99 percent of all zooplankters on earth. Something close to the right size, like the tiny 1/250-ounce Talon Tears from Thunderhawk Tackle sweetened with a single maggot, can turn a tough day into a good day when you're working pressured or inactive panfish. When things are really bad, go with a tiny single hook (#10 to #16) and a single maggot. Use light line (1- to 2-pound test) and .2 gram to BB-size soft shot, such as Anchor, Dinsmore, or Thill.
With tiny teardrops, a quick 1/2-inch hop with the rod tip can flip the jig into a horizontal position. Use this to your advantage by holding the rod still for a moment and letting the jig settle. It will flutter, hang, and turn side to side slightly, perhaps best imitating the motions of Daphnia.
Copepods move much more aggressively. Hops should be vigorous and large — up to 2 feet — and the pause should be accomplished while the rod tip descends ever so slightly (about 1/4 inch), since most copepods sink at rest. The basic copepod-imitating jig movement is a hop, hold-descend, hop, hold-descend, with the pause lasting no more than two or three seconds. Though copepods are tougher for panfish to catch, they might be the only game in town at midday if Daphnia have descended to bottom.
Don't worry about panfish not seeing the jig. Studies show that crappies begin to detect 1/32-inch zooplankters from five inches away, and can see 1/16-inch specimens from 10 inches away. Bluegills and sunfish do a little bit better. But in low-light periods, those distances dwindle. Using tiny baits to imitate plankton can be great up to a point, but think about sizing back up as the sun goes down and before it rises in the morning, especially in lakes with reduced visibility.
If the lake in question has lots of grass shrimp, use them for bait. Sometimes bluegills aggressively smack grass shrimp when they merely toy with other baits. More bait shops carry them today, but grass shrimp are still rare at most stores. Pet shops sometimes carry them as turtle or lizard food.
Plenty of small plastics imitate them quite well — lures like the Custom Jigs & Spins Ratso or Shrimpo; the tiny, tiny augertail grubs from Thunderhawk Tackle; and the tips of Pinpoint Plastix Bob Tails. Plastic tails can sometimes be more effective without adding bait. During a tough bite last season, I decided to try plastic, and for about an hour I iced more crappies than two friends did using minnows. (As evening set in, however, minnows again began producing the most fish.)
Grass shrimp move much like shrimp and crayfish, with a series of backwards undulations that propel them forward in a dart-dart-dart-pause pattern. Unfortunately, ice fishing limits us to vertical imitations of this movement, but it's still effective. Raise the jig with three quick consecutive motions of 1 to 3 inches, then pause. Probably, imitating or using grass shrimp is most important around deep weededges, since amphipods are mostly weed dwellers — but grass shrimp catch bluegills and crappies quite well in basin areas, too.
What, specifically, are they eating down there? Zooplankton? Which types? Or could it be grass shrimp? How can you tell? By what the panfish respond to best, perhaps. These basic jigging motions and a few simple variations developed through trial and error can help make that determination for you.
The good news is that today we have dozens upon dozens of jigs and plastics in sizes that approximate the tiny things panfish eat. A little more than 10 years ago, that wasn't the case. Lures and paint jobs are more intricate than ever before. And guess what? Those little details on lures and plastics are more important for panfish than for any other fish, with the one possible exception being stream trout.
Even more good news: If panfish are feeding on zooplankters, as they commonly do, it takes them a long time to fill up, and they feed all day — one reason why panfishing on ice is so nice.
Three Basic Jigging Presentations
Duplicating the movements of tiny critters panfish feed on can be important. Zooplankters like Daphnia , copepods, and amphipods all swim and act differently. Panfish recognize the differences and might be keying on one particular critter, revealing which one by responding to one of these three basic jigging presentations.
Daphnia flutter and bob constantly, making them easy prey for panfish, which probably prefer to forage on Daphnia whenever possible. To imitate Daphnia, begin with a jig that has a tiny, translucent plastic grub on the shank of the hook, since zooplankters are mostly transparent. Sweeten it with a single maggot. Place it in the hole six inches down and watch.
Tap the rod blank with one finger. The jig should move no more than 1/8 inch, so adjust force applied accordingly. That's the best way to imitate the fluttering motion of Daphnia. A pause is required now and then to trigger and feel strikes. If no fish appear on sonar or are visible below the hole, add several 1-foot hops for attraction.
So the basic presentation is flutter, flutter, flutter, pause, flutter, flutter, flutter, pause, hop, hop, repeat. Graphically illustrated along a horizontal plane, the vertical jigging frequency looks like this:
Tinkering with the basic presentation often helps. Daphnia migrate vertically during the day, up at night, and back down at daybreak. In the evening, while fluttering the jig, raise the rod tip 1 to 2 inches, then pause and repeat. Panfish at times will follow this presentation up for several feet before inhaling the jig. In the morning, reverse the procedure. Start high and lower the jig while tapping the blank, or slowly lower it during the pause.
Copepods are more difficult for panfish to catch, but are preyed upon, especially during midday periods when Daphnia aren't available. The basic copepod motion is a hop, hold, repeat. Graphically illustrated on a horizontal plane:
The hops should be vigorous and large, and the holds still, or the jig should descend ever-so-slightly during the pause, as copepods tend to sink at rest.
Grass shrimp tend to remain in vegetation. When fishing deep weedlines, be mindful that grass shrimp could be the preferred forage of bluegills there. Imitate amphipods with a scoot, scoot, scoot, pause, drift, repeat. Lift the rod tip about 2 inches or so to scoot the jig upward, hold the jig still during the pause, then slowly lower the jig back to its original position:
Experiment with slight variations of these retrieves each day on the water to arrive at the best triger. Lengthen the pause, flutter the jig fast or slow by varying the frequency of your finger tapping, vary the distance of the hops, and keep working at it until the panfish let you know which cadence is just right.