How to Find a Summertime Panfish Pattern
August 07, 2018
In August, panfish patterns are like a crazy quilt. Fishermen can target whatever they want in summer. Why choose panfish? Because so many anglers are chasing other species while crappies, perch, and bluegills are getting fat.
During summer, panfish need to eat the most, as energy reserves burn faster in the warmest water of the year. Concentrations occur where forage is thickest and pressure is slight, meaning the action can be frenzied.
Every type of lake, backwater, and reservoir harbors patterns that are, in some ways, unique. In the last issue of In-Fisherman, we looked at panfish patterns for July. Patterns won't change that quickly, no. Most of those patterns are still in effect in August. But so many summer patterns exist for bluegills, perch, and crappies, it would be difficult to mention them all in dozens of articles like this, so add these to your checklist.
Crappies in Small Natural Lakes
Famous walleye guide Tony Roach is a closet crappie lover. "I won't guide for them because I don't want to give away my best crappie lakes," he said. "People tend to harvest crappies until the big fish are gone. I protect those slabs when I find them."
Roach pitches slipfloats on suspended crappies in August, using various lures beneath. "It really gets fun in August," he said. "It's like power jigging (see the walleye article in this issue). I hunt suspended crappies with sonar, then sit off the edge of the pod and suspend lures and baits just above their heads. The key is a big cabbage bed near a main-basin drop-off. Crappies love to hunt over and around the weeds during low-light periods. During the day, crappies suspend over deeper water nearby."
In August and September, crappies often suspend throughout the day in natural lakes. "The best spots tend to be adjacent to wintering basins," Roach said. "Crappies suspend above and near the same basin flats where they spend the winter. In late summer, you find them 12 to 25 feet down during the day over depths of 15 to 40 feet. Sometimes it's only 8 to 11 feet. By September, crappies leave the cabbage beds to mass near wintering spots."
Roach uses 2-pound mono on light 6½- to 7-foot spinning rods. He slips a Northland Pro Series Lite Bite Slip Float on the line, ties on a swivel, attaches a couple feet of 2-pound Northland Bionic Fluorocarbon, then adds a lure. He clips an ice-fishing depth bomb to the line so he can mark it with sonar. When it's hanging 2 feet above the crappies, he marks the point where line meets water with a bobber stop.
Lures include #2 Rapala Jigging Raps, 1/16-ounce Northland Forage Minnow Spoons, and 1- to 2-inch panfish tubes on 1/32-ounce Northland Gum-Ball Jigs. Artificials rule in the warmest water of the year, so Roach sometimes suspends a Northland Mimic Minnow Fry.
"I go from pod to pod, targeting the most active fish," he said. "Some are a little deeper or a little shallower. I can make adjustments on the fly with this system. Sometimes I take off the float and jig vertically, still using the bobber stop as a marker so I can stay just over their heads with Jigging Raps or tubes."
Dave Genz never abandons the hunt for goliath 'gills, and his attention turns to mid-size natural lakes by late summer. "In a lot of lakes, the weeds are falling down again," he said. "The trick is finding green weeds still standing on deep flats after algae and plankton blooms darken the water. One of the last to fall over is a big, Christmas-tree-like weed we call coontail. In other parts of the country, this happens with a weed called cabomba, which also stays alive late in summer.
"Coontail attracts bluegills," Genz said. "But when it's the last thing standing, it attracts all the bluegills, especially when it grows on or around hard-bottom features on flats they like. Coontail grows 4 feet high or more in water from 8 to 10 feet deep, but in clear water it grows down to 12 feet or deeper. When I spot bushy weeds with my Vexilar, I move just upwind, drop the anchor, and fish a Thill Shy Bite float rig behind the boat.
"It takes action on the lure to catch them," he added. "Keep it over their heads and shake it, like you would when ice fishing. Slow, up-and-down wave action isn't enough. Applying a quiver increases bites. The best way to effect the quiver is to fish straight down and work the rod tip the way you would on ice. Fishing straight down, tightlining, with my bobber as a line marker, I know precisely where the lure is positioned in relation to the bottom and the weeds."
Genz would rather cover water by reaching out with a long rod or making short pitches than by casting. "A 12-foot rod is more precise," he said. "It allows me to reach out and cover more water from an anchored position. The rod has to be stiff enough so you can pound the lure. Mine is 8 feet of pool cue with 4 feet of ultralight tip. You could do it slipbobbering with a medium-action walleye rod and move the line up and down without making the bobber jump around. When the intensity of the quiver is right, the bobber won't move much. I use a feather jig or an ice lure with #10 hooks."
Genz baits up with angleworms, waxworms, panfish leeches, or plastics. "It's the action that catches the fish, so sometimes plastics work best. Right now I'm using various shapes from Maki Plastics that are really soft. They're good mediums for translating the vibration you throw into the rod tip."
Reservoir Crappies and Shade
In the last issue, Todd Huckabee detailed patterns that draw southern-reservoir slabs to shallow wood and shade in the back of creek arms all summer. Panfish expert Jim Gronaw of Maryland finds similar patterns in northern reservoirs.
"Docks and the deep ends of fallen laydowns are big-crappie magnets," he said. "Laydowns with the longest, deepest limbs, reaching into at least 8 feet of water are best. The more complex the weave of branches, the more crappies it attracts. Crappies hold tight to deeper branches throughout much of the day and are neutral at best. But during late evening into the first few hours of dark, they become active and elevate. They venture out and away from the wood, feeding on insects and minnows."
Gronaw likes to pitch full-bodied, 1/32- to 1/64-ounce hairjigs on 2- to 4-pound mono. "Black-silver and pink-white minnow patterns rule," he said. "Hair jigs sink slowly. I cast so they fall on a tight line close to the wood, bumping the outside edges sometimes. Strikes are slightly heavier than the jig—no more than a light bump. A good laydown produces 6 or 8 crappies, but all could be 12 inches or better. When action slows, move to the next laydown. Great for clear lakes with steep shorelines."
Boat slips and marina docks in reservoirs hold suspended crappies through much of the summer for the same reason. "They use docks for shade during the day," Gronaw said. "Where boating is limited to daylight hours, there can be a late evening or early morning bite. We pitch the same hair-jig options or use 1-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnows on 1/32-ounce heads. Bites can be more aggressive than on deep, fallen trees. It's not unusual to get quality 'gills and even a big largemouth on this pattern. On marina docks, fishing can be good on cloudy, cool days when boating traffic is at a minimum, and during quiet periods during mid-week. Crappies often suspend 3 to 8 feet below the deepest marina docks and respond well to a slow, falling swim."
Perch on Deep Flats
Perch love huge flats, where soft substrates house annelids, burrowing nymphs, and larvae, adjacent to gravel and rock patches that harbor young crayfish and nymphs. To find these habitats in summer, perch go deep in the Great Lakes.
"Perch typically inhabit depths of 50 to 60 feet in lakes Erie and Ontario," says famous guide Frank Campbell. "I often find them slightly off bottom with sonar, then use the 'anchor button' on my Minn Kota to stay on top. Too deep to anchor."
Campbell uses his own hand-tied spreader. He either uses a 3-way swivel or ties in two sections of stiff 6-pound fluorocarbon with uni-knots 7 and 12 inches above a 2-ounce bell sinker, using a long (8-inch) tag end off each knot to attach a #8 Mustad Aberdeen hook. The best baits, if you can get them, are emerald shiners," he said. "Barring that, we use Gulp! Minnows, which are great for aggressive fish that are swallowing livebaits.
"Perch like flats," Campbell added. "They like transitions between soft bottom and sand, but they want to be near the edges of rockpiles and gravel fields, too. If I can find hard readings, I drive around above them until I graph those small hooks near bottom with bait all around, using the Lowrance StructureScan. Sometimes they're anywhere, in places you won't expect. StructureScan finds them."
Campbell uses 6- to 6-½-foot light-action rods. "You can't go too light because you're using a 2-ounce weight to get down there," he said. "I like 10-pound Berkley FireLine. It cuts the water and gets you down quickly. I catch a lot of perch drop-shotting with Gulp! Minnows and Mustad extra wide-gap hooks, using a SPRO swivel above the hook to eliminate line twist. Using a #4 to #2 hook, I can quickly adapt the rig for smallmouths by trading plastics, but 3-inch Gulp! Minnows often produce great catches of both species around deep rocks."
Steve Ryan hunts big 'gills all summer, and weedflats are his top target in August. "Weedflats draw bulls," he said. "But to skip over the schoolie fish, push off beyond the outer edge of the weeds. Big bluegills patrol the no man's land beyond the edge, where protective cover ends and the abyss begins. That's where I start hunting.
"The outside weededge in deep, clear oligotrophic lakes often ends abruptly in 14 to 24 feet of water. In mesotrophic lakes with stained water, weeds cease growing at 8 to 18 feet. Light penetration limits how deep weeds grow. All varieties of bluegill prey reside in vegetation.
"Drifting a weedy bay with a piece of worm suspended over the top of submerged vegetation just feels right," Ryan added. "It's a near guarantee for catching 'gills of assorted sizes. But to consistently catch bulls, think like they do. Their prey is concentrated in the thickest cover, under a canopy of broad leaves provided by cabbage, coontail, and pondweeds. Outside the edge, bulls take aim at anything naive enough to expose itself."
Advanced electronics find key locational elements quickly. "With Humminbird's Down Imaging sonar, weeds appear as individual objects," Ryan said. "One or two passes along the outside weededge paints a clear picture of minor outside bends in the weedline, revealing isolated, thick clumps bordering deep water. Fish are distinguishable from the weedcover and pods of baitfish are easily discernible."
Ryan uses marker buoys to identify specific targets on the structure once a key holding area is isolated, methodically fishing those spots instead of drifting the entire edge. "Deploy anchors bow and stern to minimize boat swing," he said. "Position the boat half a cast length from the outside edge, leaving an apron of at least 30 feet of clear, weed- free area to work for patrolling fish, along with the entire back side of the boat to cover deeper water. From an anchored position, Humminbird's Side Imaging sonar can be used to watch as fish transition on and off the apron. Based on their mood and location, the boat and baits can be repositioned to zero in on fish."
Ryan uses two primary tactics: Pitching and slipbobbering. He pitches a medium leech on a large Custom Jigs & Spins Poppee Jig and a slipbobber and minnow rig for a slower, more stationary approach. "I pitch the Poppee Jig and use 1/80- to 1/32-ounce jigs under floats," he said. "The Poppee Jig has a slow sink rate on 4-pound mono and leeches are superstars in warm water. Fish it semi-slack and watch for any jumps in the line. Cast the entire apron area leading to the weededge and work the bait slowly back to the boat after it settles to the bottom. The Poppee's thin diameter hook allows for easy hook penetration, even in deep water."
The pastiche of summer patterns goes on and on for panfish. Especially in summer, when their world expands into a big, open market of forage types and habitats ranging from 1 to 60 feet deep. Hunt long enough and you'll find them in places you won't expect, doing things you never dreamed of. A unique pattern is like dark energy. You won't know it's there until you discover how to look for it.