Panfish in Wood
March 20, 2017
The silhouettes of limbs and branches become dark tendrils reaching out in all directions. Black shadow envelops creatures hiding within. These denizens of darkness come to feed on tiny things living in moss and bark, and to hide from monsters with rows of razor-sharp teeth gliding through veiled light on the fringe of this shadowy realm.
Welcome to wood world. Every species of panfish uses wood if possible. Some environments have little of it, but put a stake bed or brushpile down in the right spot and watch what happens next. In the black holes of wood world, crappies, bluegills, white bass, and other species find sanctuary from pike, catfish, muskies, and big bass. At least, they think they're safe, but "safer" might be more accurate.
On the Upper Mississippi River, the hunt for crappies and bluegills can be fruitless for hundreds of yards, even a half mile, until a fallen tree or deadhead is encountered. We once filmed a couple television shows for river bluegills on a single deadhead, in a bay that seemed entirely devoid of bluegills. But allow a float to drift in current right up to the wood and it disappeared. Over and over again, we caught bluegills from the same spot about one-foot square, while miles of water around us seemed fishless.
In rivers, current helps you find those tendrils with float rigs. A breeze works the same way on reservoirs, ponds, and natural lakes. In clear water, wind or current allows you to keep the boat away from the fish. Position slightly upcurrent or upwind where a protected hook can be retrieved gently after the float stops and starts to tip. Guides and pros have developed ways to protect hooks to approach wood that way and every which way — even with hardbaits. In cloudy water, experts get right on top of the fish.
Minnesota Guide Tom Neustrom hunts for black crappies in natural lakes and large reservoirs where placing brushpiles is illegal and woodcover tends to occur only in the form of fallen trees. "Laydowns make good spawning cover for crappies," Neustrom says. "In spring, I look for fallen trees near deeper water. Those are the ones that hold fish that are easiest to find. If you can find at least 12-foot depths within 30 yards or less of the tree, that's where the crappies are. In spring, better trees tend to be on the northern shoreline with more exposure to the sun. In summer, they could be anywhere."
In spring, crappies may retreat to deeper water during cold fronts, but during stable weather, most activity is in depths of 6 feet or less. "It's visual," he says. "I look for crappies holding in the branches using polarized glasses. With woodcover around them, crappies often hold close to the surface where you can spot them. In summer, when they might hold deeper, I drop a camera down between the branches. But you don't have to fish right in the wood. I prefer pitching to the edges. Guys down south use 20-pound mono or braid and park the boat over the fish. We have clear water up here, and we catch more fish if we back off and pitch."
A slipbobber, a few shot, and a small jig is good enough in most cases. "Small jigs have a smaller hook gap," he says. "I add a softbait so the hook point rests on it, with little hook exposed. I like the chunky little nymphs from VMC with a #8 hook for that reason. I pitch small jigs tipped with soft-plastic grubs, too — especially over and around logs on bottom."
Logging days left some big timber on the floor of many Minnesota waters. "I use side-imaging on my Humminbird ONIX to find isolated logs in 12- to 15-foot depths," Neustrom says. "There's lots of bugs in the moss and algae on those logs. Any 12-foot or longer log almost always has bluegills, crappies, or perch near it. Usually I pitch a jig-grub combo and swim it over the log. I might vertically fish it, but if I know the fish are there I move off and pitch jigs or drop-shot rigs tipped with a tube or a small VMC soft plastic. I use a Daiwa DWX 7-foot rod that has light power and softer action, yet a fast tip, coupled with a Daiwa Laguna 500 — a sweet little reel for crappie fishing. I use clear, 4-pound Sufix Elite mono — a soft line for pitching. Sometimes I use Sufix 832 braid in wood with a 4-pound fluorocarbon leader."
Kyle Schoenherr and partner Rodney Neuhaus swept both the Crappie USA Classic and the Crappie Masters National Classic in 2015. And both tournaments were won in wood world. "Almost all the time on the tournament trail, we're looking for the thickest, most dense tangles of wood we can find," Schoenherr says. "You can catch crappies suspended in open water, but to do it consistently on the tournament trail is hard. Heavy woodcover produces consistently. The right wood in the right spot always has crappies around."
They won the USA event on a giant beaver hut on Patoka Lake in Indiana. "This hut was 40 feet in diameter," Schoenherr says. "It produced 9 of our 14 biggest fish. We found it using side-imaging on a Lowrance Gen3. Only one tiny twig was sticking out above the beaver hut, which was a thick, tangled mess. The day before the Classic we caught one over 2¼ pounds, but the fishing was tough. Over 75 percent of the field weighed in 3 pounds or less for the entire tournament."
Schoenherr attacks heavy woodcover by spider-rigging with six 16-foot B&M BGJP poles on a Tite-Lok rod-holder array. "They're basically jig poles, instead of rigging poles," he says. "Some bites were subtle, and the limber rod telegraphed the difference between wood and crappies. A stiff rod misses some of them. We were using 15-pound Gamma braid mainline and 16-pound Gamma Fluorocarbon for leaders — mostly with minnow rigs, but some Blakemore Road Runners. I like it when you have a little current to turn the blade."
His minnow rigs, pre-tied on barrel swivels, can be from 3 to 10 feet long. "I tie them for the depths we're fishing," he says. He ties the specified length of 16-pound line to the swivel, then forms it into a loop leaving a 6-inch tag end. He ties a spider hitch at the spot where the first hook will go, then cuts the line just below the knot. He ties a #2 Tru-Turn Aberdeen hook to the 6-inch tag, which is now a dropper off the main leader. He wraps the line three times through a 1/4-ounce egg sinker 8 inches above the end of the line, then ties another hook to that end of the leader.
"The hooks were 30 inches apart in those tournaments," Schoenherr says. "On deep structure we may space the hooks as much as 8 feet apart, unless all the active fish are near bottom. We don't retie often. We might not get as many bites with line that thick, but it allows us to straighten hooks.
Watching Schoenherr "push" through dense woodcover is something to behold. The boat slips slowly along as he lifts and replaces rods like a railroad man operating a track straightening car — lifting this line over a limb, unsnagging that hook, bending the next, and setting hooks.
"I want the minnow to have room to move, but not enough to wrap around limbs," he says. "So the hook should be about 3 inches away from the line. At the Crappie Masters event on Kentucky Lake, we were fishing over stake beds 3 feet high in 12 feet of water, so we had the rigs set a little over 9 feet from the rod tip to the end hook. Sometimes we stagger rigs at different depths, but there we had the most success lightly brushing over the stakes. We have five Lowrance Gen3 units on the boat for side- and down-imaging. On some beds we can count the fish. It allows you to spend time fishing fish, not wasting time. Limber rods, light weights, and constant line manipulation — that's how we approach wood so thick that nobody else goes near it."
In the bayou-like stillness of Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, we pulled on overhanging branches to within 12 feet of a cypress trunk and dropped anchor. Long rods extended slipfloats over the edge of the umbrella-like crown surrounding the trunk a few feet under the surface. Baits dropped quietly into "the zone" beneath the umbrella, where bent-nosed bluegills slowly finned out of the shadows to investigate.
Dapping vertically among fallen trees, logjams, and standing timber with a 12-foot rod is the most efficient way to take bluegills around timber. The long rod can reach down and quickly dislodge a snagged jig. Just point and reel until the tip is under the jig by a few inches and push lightly. A fixed float — the kind you might use on a weededge with the same rod — is worthless here. With branches overhead or stickups protruding from the water, a 12-foot rod with 5 to 10 feet of line dangling from the tip doesn't work.
The same "wood wisdom" applies to all panfish in timber: Smaller hooks are better. Less gap finds fewer snags. If a big hook is required for bigger panfish or baits, bend the tip down toward the shank, slightly reducing the gap. Use thick softbaits that almost reach the point of the hook, or Texas-rig them by running the hook through and resting the point on the back of the bait. Even live minnows can be Texas-rigged. Use thin-wire hooks that can be straightened wherever the water is cloudy enough to tie direct with braid or 8-pound mono.
Jason Feldner guides on Devils Lake in North Dakota. In addition to walleyes, pike, and perch, he also targets white bass. Devils has a surprising white-bass population, considering the latitude. Few if any places farther north produce bigger whities.
White bass, like their bigger striped-bass cousins, tend to school and follow the wind, which drives plankton and baitfish location. "Sometimes they're in wood, sometimes weeds, sometimes in open water," Feldner says. "It depends on which way the wind is blowing. White bass congregate in wood when the wind has been blowing into a series of deadfalls for several days straight. In bays, white bass tend to prefer cabbage edges where they key on young-of-the-year perch. In the main lake, which has fewer weeds, they roll up into the timber."
The key for Feldner and his clients is swimming or running baits near the surface. "Typically, whites in wood use 1- to 3-foot depths right along shore where wind washes baitfish in," he says. "Lipless crankbaits in silver or gold are one of the favorites around edges. Little Bill Lewis Rat-L-Traps stay down on a fast retrieve. White bass like anything with a lot of flash, but it has to stay down at speed, like the Lindy Slick Spin. It's heavy with a centered line tie that creates a nose-down attitude, allowing it to move through wood well even though it has a treble."
Another good panfish lure in wood is the Lindy Watsit Spin. "The spinner arm deflects the hook away from the wood," he says. "You can fish it high and shallow, like a lipless crank. I keep the rod tip up and fish the top foot of the water column. Start the retrieve as soon as it hits the water. We always have 3 or 4 followers behind every hooked fish, so pitch right in behind a hooked fish. Any jig spinner, like a Beetle Spin, works well. Start the retrieve right away.
"Retrieves are generally fast, spring through summer," Feldner says. "I haven't had much luck with regular small spinnerbaits because they come right to the surface when you reel fast. Speed is a consistent trigger for whites. That's why the Slick Spin works in wood even though it has a big treble on the bottom. With a fairly fast retrieve, the nose stays down and shields the hook the while the blade thumps and draws them in.
"White bass typically spawn in the late May at water temperatures of 55°F to 60°F around rocks and wood. Typically they use current areas at ice-out, but they follow the wind, too. They typically use the same locations year after year," he says.
White bass love white. "If the timber's not too thick, we swim 3-inch grubs quickly over submerged wood at times, or around the fringe," Feldner says. "They can snag, so keep the jig riding high in the water column. It works because a jig-grub combo is probably the most consistent lure for white bass from spring through fall."
You never know what you'll find in those dense, dark shadows. You might discover you're actually fishing bass or catfish, but some kind of panfish will always be there. Welcome to wood world.