October 13, 2015
Some panfish remain shallow nearly the whole calendar year, especially around green vegetation. But truly jumbo pans swim to the beat of a different drummer. It's this game of hide-and-seek that keeps us chasing brutes. The pursuit of double-humped 'gills and hubcap crappies can be like hunting unicorns, an obsession that sends us deep into lake and fisheries data, which only fuels the drive to push harder and farther.
There are waters on the map — most of them private — where colossal panfish have been genetically engineered, but fishing there is the privilege of a select few. Perhaps what's more intriguing is the quest to find and catch giants on public waters. So what's the juice? It's a combination of practical, oddball, and overlooked approaches that combine the right locations on big-panfish waters with small tweaks to pragmatic presentations.
When I first mentioned "overlooked panfish patterns" to northern Minnesota Guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl, his eyes lit up: "Thing is, panfish relate to current more than most anglers imagine," he says. Panfish begin relating to current areas in spring, as crappies and bluegills follow warm water through channels and rivers — even hidden currents in lakes — to bays which commonly serve as spawning sites. Following the spawn, many panfish remain shallow, but the larger fish vacate to feed in deeper water.
Later, as water temperatures increase in summer and vegetation starts choking shallow bays — especially in smaller lakes within chains of lakes — panfish once again seek out current areas. "Panfish move to areas like bottlenecks, current seams, and oxbows where there's easy food in the form of insects, tiny fry, and minnows," Brosdahl says.
He insists that while panfish waters vary throughout the country, what's happening in Minnesota and Wisconsin flowage areas during summer is relevant to other waters. "Panfish have basic needs — cover, oxygen, and food — so current can play a big part wherever you find panfish. Look at how crappies on Lake Oahe, South Dakota, move from bays to current areas. Same deal," he says.
He compares these summer movements to a winter phenomena well known to Ice Belt anglers: "As lakes start losing oxygen in winter and vegetation dies off, bluegills have to find healthy areas with cover and abundant food. Same goes for current areas in the heat of summer. Current brings food. That's what you see in many places on the Mississippi River. Bluegills and crappies start moving out onto wing dams during late summer and fall — exactly the same spots where you'd expect walleyes to be."
While the Mississippi River is a wing-dam mecca for bluegills, on other rivers panfish congregate around brush or neckdowns where they can rest and intercept food drifting past. Again, fish areas where you'd find walleyes in the spring and early summer.
Add an algae bloom to oxygen, food, and ideal water temperatures, and you've got everything bluegills need. "The algae darkens water just enough so the fish aren't spooky," Brosdahl says. "It's the reason why walleyes will be on top of a 5-foot flat in the middle of a 90°F afternoon. The water's dark enough that they can feed in shallower water, even during the day. Same for 'gills and crappies in shallow current."
Vegetation remains healthy longer near current areas, offering additional cover. "Some fish we find in current sweet-spots are those that head for deep water in the fall when the water's cold. Or they winter in a slack-water area nearby, like an oxbow."
Find Current Areas — One of the best ways to locate current areas is to study lake maps and use digital GPS mapping like the SD card-based LakeMaster and Navionics charts available for today's sonar/GPS units. On lakes, Brosdahl recommends anglers first look for river or feeder-creek entrances and neckdowns. Especially in moving water between lakes, watch for areas where you don't need much thrust to stop the boat. "These calm areas in front of the bottleneck and current can be productive," he says.
He then scouts prospective areas with Humminbird Side Imaging, which can scan 240 feet off each side of the boat, although he typically dials the range in to half that distance. "I like to check the lay of the underwater land. I'm looking for 'sweet spots' where wing dams, brush, or neckdowns might reveal additional cover like logs, little hard-bottom areas, and weeds. I set waypoints and start fishing."
He reiterates the importance of water clarity. "The more stain to the water, the more big 'gills hold on open-water structure during the day," he says. "In the morning and evening they're more aggressive around grasses, wild rice, lily pads, any kind of vegetation. The fish also hold to those edges during the day, but during low light they move shallower. The more stain, the shallower you find them."
But no matter the water clarity, he says proper boat orientation is key to prevent spooking fish. "I approach the sweet spot from downstream and hit the Spot Lock feature on my Minn Kota Terrova iPilot trolling motor. This holds me on the spot all day."
Brosdahl recommends a long spinning rod when targeting vegetative edges, current seams, and cover. "First, it allows you to stay back from the fish; second, you can make a shorter cast and stay vertical on the fish, like cane pole fishing."
He typically matches a 9-foot 9-inch to 11-foot St. Croix Panfish Series spinning rod with a Shimano Stradic 2500 reel. "The soft rod lets me lob the bait without it falling off," he says. "It's all short, accurate casts — within 30 feet of the boat. You also keep a lot more fish on. You fight the fish on the surface rather than dragging them through the current."
His Stradics are spooled with Northland Bionic Braid in 8- to 15-pound test. He attaches a 2-foot leader of 6-pound fluoro with a tiny SPRO Power Swivel.
"Given the current dynamics, I like to use different jig modifications that combine beads and a spinner — what I call 'Bro's Flicker Rig' and deadstick it on a pole. Set it in a rod holder and wait for the line to twitch — but you can use a float in some cases."
Whether tightlining or using a float, Bro's Flicker Rig combines a 1/32-ounce Northland Fire-Ball, Bro Mud Bug, or Gamakatsu Round 211 jig with one to three beads and a small Colorado blade or bowtie/propeller on a clevis. "Both types of spinners ride up your line and spin down when you drop your bait, creating a tick-tick and flash that excites big 'gills," he says. "I like to use a bullet sinker or split shot above a #8 to #12 SPRO Power Swivel to keep the bait vertical. Sometimes I switch out the jighead for feather jigs like a 1/64- to 1/16-ounce Northland Fire-Fly Jig because they plume out in the water and you can use a smaller chunk of meat with feathers." Lindy's feather-dressed Little Nipper jig is another good option.
His meat choice is anything from a small panfish-size leech, chunk of 'crawler, to a sliver cut off a big leech. "Plastics can work well, too. Plastic and meat can be a double threat. But every lake is different. Try different combinations and colors until you find what works."
Grand Rapids, Minnesota-based Guide Tom Neustrom is almost pathological in his pursuit of 15-inch plus papermouths. "Monster crappies, not those 9- to 10-inchers, are a rare breed," he says. "Fifteen-inch-plus crappies exist in the waters of northern Minnesota and southern Ontario, and that's what I'm after." Neustrom utilizes two primary approaches for catching big crappies summer through fall.
Salad Spinning — "This technique can be used all summer around and over vegetation, but it works best when cabbage reaches high in the water column," Neustrom says. "I use side-imaging to locate the edges of smaller weedbeds that curve around points — typically in 6 to 10 feet- — not the big ones on flats."
Backtrolling these areas with a Minn Kota Vantage, he pulls spinner rigs at 1 to 1.2 mph with 30 to 40 feet of line out. "Depending on weedgrowth, you have to adjust your speed to just barely tickle the vegetation. The other part of the equation is the right spinner rig." He uses a 3/32- to 1/8-ounce tungsten bullet sinker, which is light and small enough to stay weedless, as well a 7-foot or longer soft-tipped spinning rod.
His "salad spinner" rig is tied to 6-pound Sufix monofilament mainline for its stretch to keep papermouths impaled, with a 36- to 40-inch, 12-pound-test fluorocarbon leader to prevent bite-offs by pike. He adds 5 to 7 Owner glow beads between the hook and spinner to ensure crappies strike the bait, not the spinner. Below the beads, he ties a 1/0 Aberdeen-style hook rigged with a live chub or Berkley PowerBait TwitchTail minnow. "When you get a bite, it's amazing — these big crappies whack it, like bass. Use a long rod to fight crappies high and out of the grass."
Mud Dragging — As summer progresses, crappies move out past weededges and suspend over deeper water. "I don't think water temperature is the trigger as much as it's a change in food availability," Neustrom says. "When the bloodworm buffet opens, crappies are there for the all-you-can-eat deal. When we pull in these fish, their mouths are full of bloodworms."
To find these brutes, Neustrom focuses on large waters that contain a range of depths and bottom composition. He says the exceptions are out-of-way lakes that get little pressure, typically those without a good boat launch.
"I like bays that have depths of 25 to 40 feet with mud bottom. Even better if these bays are connected to main-lake points. I use Side Imaging on my Humminbird 999c to find transitions between hard and soft bottom. An area of rubble or gravel shows as white on screen, while the soft bottom area around it shows as black 'nothingness.' Then, if I see white spots in the black, I go back over with my sonar and verify they're fish," he says.
"I can tell if crappies are biters by what I see on sonar. Suspended fish with bright red returns indicate aggressive crappies. Feeding crappies also stack differently. They won't be in one big clump; there will be a broken line here, a broken line there. There's a step-like structure to it. Find that along with insects emerging out of the mud and you've got a Royal Flush."
After locating favorable bottom and aggressive fish, two primary factors come into play for Neustrom: presentation and speed. "I like to drag 1/8-ounce VMC Mooneye Jigs tipped with 2-inch chubs," he says. "When they're in the mud, you've gotta get 'em to bite, which a wiggling minnow does. The fish are down there like Willie Mays waiting for the ball to drop. I don't know if it's competition or what, but once you incite the bite and the frenzy starts, it can be easier to keep catching fish with soft plastics, not having to re-bait constantly. That's when I switch to a Trigger-X Boot Tail or Curl Tail Minnow body on the same jig.
"I let 40 to 50 feet of 4-pound monofilament line out and backtroll slowly, usually between .3 and .5 mph. Since the bite can be very subtle, I use a 7-foot ultralight spinning rod with a soft tip that loads when a crappie inhales the bait. As soon as I see the tip begin to bend slightly I tighten up and set the hook."
He tunes his Minn Kota Vantage to maintain precisely the right speed. "When fishing suspended crappies, you have to fish slowly and quietly and stay on top of them or drag it through them. Suspended crappies are tough to catch when it's windy, but this is a way to do it."
With eyes still glued to his electronics, if he spies a big red mark in the middle of a mass of emerging larvae, another rod comes to bat. "That tells me crappies are feeding so much on larvae that you have to trigger the bite. That's the time for a Rapala Jiggin' Rap or VMC Tingler Spoon."
Neustrom says natural browns and reds produce if crappies are feeding heavily on bloodworms, although UV glow pink, orange, and blue are his confidence colors. "Crappies love pink, orange, and glow. You don't have to match the hatch. Use what works."
Weed Edges with Ice Tackle
Illinois' Walt Matan chases big 'gills and crappies with the same tackle he uses on the ice, focusing on weededges throughout the summer. "On Illinois lakes, bluegills and crappies spawn in 3 to 4 feet of water and then move out to weededges in 5 to 8 feet. In southern Wisconsin on lakes like Delevan and Geneva, the spawn is deeper in 6 to 10 feet and then fish move out to weededges in 12 to 20 feet," Matan says.
He rigs one rod with an 1/8-ounce Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon and another with a horizontally-oriented Chekai tungsten ice jig tipped with plastic. "I orient the boat parallel to weededges, using iPilot Link to follow and offset a contour by 15 to 20 feet," he says. "I make short casts from the bow, letting the spoon flutter down, followed by short rips back to the boat. It can produce the biggest, most aggressive bluegills and crappies in the area."
Once the action slows, he switches to a 4.5- to 5-mm Chekai with a Nuclear Ant plastic body slid up the hook shank and further dressed with a Wedgee microplastic. "My experience has been that matching the color of the jig/plastic combo to the spoon color that's working is key. Pink spoons or a glow plum Chekai with pink plastic are champs in our stained waters."
He opts for a 6-foot 6-inch St. Croix Panfish Series rod with 4-pound fluorocarbon for precise pitching and jigging. "I like to tightline. You don't need split shot with the tungsten jig, which makes the system even more sensitive. I often place my finger on the fluoro to pick up subtle bites. High-vis line also can help as crappies in our stained waters aren't line-shy."
When fish are more tentative, he switches to a feather Flu Flu jig — typically with a pink or red glow head — tipped with a waxworm or Wedgee microplastic. "I let the fish tell me what they want. But I typically start with the spoon, move to the tungsten and plastic, and then add some meat to a feather jig if they're fussy."