A Plastic Menagerie for Panfish
Members of the zooplankton clan, minute invertebrates that are important parts of the aquatic food chain. My course grade depended on identifying many species. For bluegills, crappies, and perch, however, these critters are dinner. In recent years, manufacturers have sought to make lures that simulate these little creatures. New lure styles have evolved, with new shapes, new colors (some glow), flavors, and even a new non-plastisol material that promises to change ice fishing and open-water presentations. Some imitate larger food items -- shrimp, tiny craws, leeches, and other invertebrates that also are seasonally important panfish fare.
Turner Jones of Springfield, Missouri, has been crafting panfish MiniBaits for well over 30 years. His Micro Jigs and Guppies are staples for panfish but take surprisingly big gamefish as well. Jones has caught a pair of 8-pound walleyes on his 1/256-ounce Half Micro Jig, along with largemouths to 6 pounds, big channel catfish, as well as crappies over 4 pounds -- strong evidence that plankters play, at one time or another, an important role in the food chain for all gamefish.
Here's a look at novel products, along with tips on where and how to fish them, both during the winter season and when spring breaks winter's grasp. During winter, minute natural-looking baits can be essential, but these presentations always have a role in enticing big lure-shy 'gills, jumbo perch, and slab crappies.
Zooplankton is the general name given to the tiny animals that typically move about the water column. This category includes protozoans such as multi-legged ciliates; abundant but tiny rotifers, and two groups of crustaceans -- cladocerans and copepods. Larger species can be spotted swimming in a jar of pond water. Well-known Daphnia, the water fleas, are cladocerans.
Tubes: One could argue that tiny tube baits look more like various zooplankters than small craws or minnows. The tube masters at Mizmo Bait Company offer a grand array of mini tubes, as well as bass-size offerings: The 1-inch Mini; 1 1/2-inch Spec, in 52 killer crappie colors; 1 1/2-inch Dusters with extra glitter; 1 1/2-inch Tracers, tri-color tubes in 16 contrasty hues; 1 3/4-inch Earth Tones, naturalistically colored to tempt panfish in clear conditions; and the 2 1/2-inch Crappie Teasers, when you're after slabs or big perch.
Berkley's popular Micro Tube is joined by the 1-inch Sparkle Tube, covered with flashy scales to leave a trail for predatory panfish. Lindy-Little Joe has added Salty Tiny Tubes to their line, with 25 color combos of 2- and 3- color 1 1/2-inch tubes. Berkley, meanwhile, offers the flashy 1-inch Sparkle Tube, which readily sheds flakes and is packed in a small jar for easy use.
Shards: Recently, tapered bits of soft plastic, skewered on a tiny jig or ice fly, have proven effective when standard lures and livebaits fail to produce. These shardlike shapes taper to nothing, so they move softly with the slightest shake of an ice rod. They could resemble a small worm, but their action is more planktonic. Try Lindy's Nail Tail, available in three colors of their acclaimed Techni-Glo (red, chartreuse, and moonlight), as well as 7 standard colors, the Trout Worm from Case Plastics, the Red Wedgee from Custom Jigs & Spins, or ISG's Leechette.
Zooplankters are real animals that breathe and breed and respond to heat and light. Larger invertebrates are well-known prey for virtually all fish. Nature's perfect food, the earthworm, heads the list, but leeches, shrimp, small craws, and larval insects are prey for bluegill, perch, crappies, white bass, and more.
Hellgrammites: The notoriously nutritious larvae of the dobsonfly are predators in their own right, but redbreast sunfish, rock bass, gills, and perch relish these treats, as do stream bass. Ranging in size from 1 to 3 inches, they're sensational livebaits. Plastic imitations work great for drifting on a weighted rig or bottom-hopping on a ballhead jig. In slower current, a small float keeps the bait moving through runs and pools, helping you quickly find fish.
Lunker City's Hellgie is a 3-inch edition with 6 pairs of appendages and a split tail, available in 21 colors. Case Plastics offers their 2 1/2-inch Little Hellgrammite and 3 1/4-inch Hellgrammite in 10 colors. These ultra-realistic baits feature a segmented body and anatomically correct mouth parts. Fish the whole Hellgrammite on a split-shot rig in moving water, or snip off the head and rig it on a jighead. Venom Lures has compiled a Mitey Mite Kit, with a selection of Hellgrammite bodies with 1/16- and 1/8-ounce ballhead jigs. Venom also has a Horn Bug Kit, with a selection of this double-tailed replica of a generic insect larva, with 1/64-ounce heads to match. Fine for ice fishing or float-fishing.
Craws & Shrimp: Grass shrimp are important forage in weedy lakes where sunfish, perch, crappies, even bass and trout, slurp the tasty crustaceans. Custom Jigs & Spins developed the Shrimpo primarily for ice fishing, but it's also a fine early spring lure when fished on a casting bubble or float. It's a vertical bait, but the shrimp tail turns at a 90-degree angle. For a tiny craw look-alike, try Berkley's 1-inch Micro Sparkle Power Trout Craw, available in bright colors and a natural shade. New this year is the detailed 1 1/2-inch Baby Craw from Spike-It.
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Panfish MiniBaits (cont.)
Worms: Big news on the worm front is expansion of Berkley's line of Gulp! baits. After nearly a decade of research and product design, this biodegradable line of baits came to fruition last year. New sizes and shapes have been added for 2005.
Gulp! is a water-soluble rather than a petroleum-based product, which means that flavors leach out several hundred times more efficiently than plastisol lures. Moreover, lost baits can be safely eaten by fish or will decompose to natural substances within a year. Gulp! baits also have a lifelike feel that panfish can't resist. The lineup for worms includes a 4" Earthworm, the 6" Extruded Nightcrawler, and a 1" Mini Earthworm, perfect for skewering on a #12 hook to tempt the most finicky shellcracker. Gulp! worms can be fished whole or cut into pieces like a live worm.
In addition to familiar terrestrial worms, panfish consume untold tons of tiny aquatic worms called oligochaetes that inhabit lakes and reservoirs. Bloodworms and tubifex are familiar, but other kinds of tiny segmented worms dwell on the bottom, many still obscure to science. Tiny tubular plastics, like the Noodel and Micro Noodel from Custom Jigs & Spins; Lindy-Little Joe's Split Tail, Mini-Spade and Nail Tail; and ISG's Copepod, Amoeba, Shrimpy, and Panfish Leechette resemble these tiny wiggly creatures. Match with a tiny head like ISG's Plankton Jig Hook, available in 1/100-, 1/64-, and 1/34-ounce.
Leeches are worms, too, and Berkley's Gulp! Leech will be the bait of choice for those venturing out to find bull 'gills come spring. Three inches of supple, jet-black bloodsucker, the Gulp! Leech is sturdily held on a baitholder hook. With Gulp!, you can even pour leech juice into the zippered pouch and the revolutionary substance will soak it up, releasing it when placed in the lake.
Grubs & Maggots: This group of larval insects has long been an ice-fishing favorite for tipping on tiny plastics or fishing on a jighead. The natural juices of a mousie, spike, Eurolarva, or waxworm seep as the grub is pierced, adding an enticing flavor to the presentation. Berkley's Micro Power Wiggler, a tiny grub, has been a mainstay for ice fishing and finesseful coldwater presentations. This year, Berkley has added Sparkle Power Wigglers, with micro scales that add flash, available in 3 colors; and also the Honey Worm, a slightly larger waxworm imitation. In the Gulp! line, you'll also find the Maggot, a 1-inch larva with lifelike taste and texture, available in 3 colors.
DeLong, one of the oldest names in soft plastics, has revived several favorites. The Mayfly Nymph, inch-long Mousie, and 3/4-inch Corn Borer come rigged with a hook for ease of use. Infused with anise, these baits are available in 6 colors. Custom Jigs & Spins Ratso is a mousie imitator, a horizontal hanging bait with tapered tail. Like the Shrimpo, they're available in glow colors. Berkley's Powerbait line also includes the 1-inch Power Nymph, with 10 tiny appendages for subtle action.
Does a "grub" imitate a grub, or is it more like a minnow? I vote for the latter, but due to their long-standing name, we'll talk about grubs, here. Casting a small twister-tail grub on a leadhead is a classic presentation for crappie, and trolling these lures also is effective all summer and fall. Twisters from 1 to 3 inches generally match panfish mouths. New to the line-up are the Little Joe Thumpin' Tails, available in 1-, 2-, and 3-inch sizes and 11 colors.
Using a new injection technology, Spike-It engineers have crafted holographic plastics to fill their Diamond Flash Holographics line, which includes 2-inch Holo Grubs and 2-inch Tubby Grubs. And Berkley's Gulp! line includes a 2" Minnow Grub. Bass Assassin's 2-inch Curly Shad has a tubby shad profile that matches their Assassin Jighead for casting or trolling.
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Panfish MiniBaits (cont.)
Panfish are frequent feeders on small fish -- minnows, shad, and the young of many species, including their own. Despite small mouths, bluegills, pumpkinseeds, and other sunfish can catch and swallow surprisingly large fish.
Minute soft minnowbaits work great fished vertically under a float, whether through an ice hole for perch or larger crappies, or among clumps of shallow grass in spring. The best style for float-fishing has a single pointed tail or a double tail, as these move enticingly with the slightest shake of the line or a soft breeze.
The Berkley Micro Power Minnow is a 2" forked-tail bait, a miniature version of a Jerkshad or Zoom Fluke. Its slender body and delicate tail make it ideal for slow vertical presentations. For ice fishing, try Lindy's Micro-Mino in their new Muchie Tiny Tails series, measuring less that 3/4-inch and about the diameter of a toothpick. Rig on the smallest Lindy Fat Boy then just quiver the rod tip to activate the bait and attract any nearby fish. Lunker City's 2-inch Fin-S-Fish has a slender profile crappies can't resist. Rig it on a 1/16-ounce jighead and cast shallow flats for crappies and perch, or fish it under a float. Bass Assassin's Tiny Shad, a 1 1/2-inch morsel, has a tapered single tail that quivers with the slightest rod motion. Choose from 27 hi-vis and natural colors to match any prey. All the baits in this category excel when drop-shot rigged.
Many mini minnows feature more active tails that must be retrieved to create much movement. Stanley's Wedge Tail design has been one of the most innovative changes in soft plastic tails to come along in a while. It's hard to understand its effectiveness by merely looking at the lure; you have to fish it. Its moon-shaped tail is broadened to catch water, while the body just in front of the tail (caudal peduncle) is extremely thin. This arrangement allows excellent tail movement. Try the 1 1/2-inch Wedge Tail for perch, crappies, or big 'gills.
While Lunker City's Fin-S-Fish shines in northern waters, the 1 3/4-inch Fin-S-Shad is favored where shad are found. Rig it on the specially designed LunkerGrip Fin-S-Shad Head. Lindy-Little Joe has just added the Thumpin' Shad, a broad little boot-tail available in 1- and 2-inch lengths. Rig it on their new Mino Jig, available in 1/48-, 1/32-, and 1/16-ounce weights.
Charlie Brewer's Slider Company has added delicate Crappie Sliders to their line. These ribbed grubs feature a broad boot-tail that beats wildly with minimal pull. The 1- and 1 1/2-inch models match heads from 1/64- to 1/16-ounce. The Slider Shad Minnow (1 1/2 and 2 inches) represents the shad-body line that's deadly on reservoir crappies wherever they feast on threadfin shad.
A slow retrieve is required to make these tails wiggle, so casting them on a jighead often works best, though intermittent pulls with a casting bubble also create sufficient movement when fish are staging in shallow water.
Other Critters: DeLong also offers the Tadpole in 3 sizes (1 1/2-, 2-, and 3-inch), a larval frog with beefy head and tapered tail, prerigged on a hook. Ice Eyes are imitation fish eyes that are deadly rigged alone on a hook, or set above a small jigging spoon or other search lure. Perch won't leave them alone.
Lindy-Little Joe offers the Fishin' Critter, a realistic prerigged cricket available in black and brown. Just add a bream pond. Custom Jigs & Spins' Red Nuclear Ant, measuring less than 1/2 inch, is a go-to ice bait. The red glow is hot.
3 Devils Lake, North Dakota
This ever expanding perch mecca is again on the upswing for trophy-size perch. North Dakota Fish and Game reports that the lake's perch population is at the highest level since 2003. With strong year-classes from both 2006 and 2007, perch in the 10- to 14-inch range will make up a large percentage of the catch this year. Contact: Guide Jason Mitchell, 701/662-6560, fishdevilslake.net; The Perch Patrol, 701/351-3474, perchpatrol.com
9 Lake Michigan, Indiana
Big water means plenty of opportunities to intercept roving schools of jumbo perch that can number in the thousands. High winds in spring have reduced angling pressure during the last two spawning cycles, and 2013 should be a banner year for fish in the 12- to 15-inch range. The prespawn bite starts in deep water over clay bottom during early spring, with fish moving to shallower rock and weededges in summer and fall. Contact: Capt. Ralph Steiger, 219/688-3593, captainsteiger.com
7 Finger Lakes, New York
Perch thrive in these 11 glacier-formed, deep, clear waters. Multiple lakes in close proximity allow for lake-hopping for beautifully colored perch. Seneca Lake draws much of the attention, but perch over 12 inches are in all of the lakes. Contact: Capt. John Gaulke, 607/319-0450, fingerlakesanglingzone.com
4 Glacial Lakes, South Dakota
With more than 50 lakes near the town of Webster, each year sees different lakes peaking for perch in the 9- to 13-inch range. Fertile waters from recent flooding help to ensure consistent good year-classes of perch. Bonus fish include a nice mix of crappies, bluegills, walleyes, and pike. Contact: Guide Cory Ewing, 605/929-3894, waubaylakeguideservice.com
1 Interlake, Manitoba
Situated between the mammoth waters of lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, local fisheries range from natural valley lakes of 30 square miles, to shallow inland lakes of modest size. Fantastic perch fishing runs from early December through ice-out. Plenty of perch hit the 12-inch mark in these fertile lakes, and there is a good shot at 14- to 15-inchers. Contact: Dino Branfield, 204/362-2945, nelsonvilleoutfitters.com
10 Lake Erie, Ontario
Along with its 'walleye factory ' moniker, Lake Erie produces more perch than any other lake in North America. A hot bite exists in fall along Erie's north shore. Once fish are located, 50-fish daily bags are the norm. Manmade structures, including midlake gas wells and underground pipelines, concentrate massive schools, making the fishing reminiscent of the Gulf of Mexico. Contact: Capt. Frank DiMarcantonio, 905/933-4834, niagarasportfishing.ca
8 Lake Gogebic, Michigan
Despite being the largest inland lake in the Upper Peninsula and producing more state angler award fish than any other fishery in the area, this trophy perch fishery somehow remains under the national radar. While not a numbers fishery, perch surpassing 2 pounds are caught each year, both during the open-water and hard-water seasons. Contact: Barry Drews, 906/842-3361, ninepinesresort.com
; Gogebic Lodge, 906/842-3321, gogebiclodge.com
5 Lake Simcoe, Ontario
Abundant freshwater shrimp and other small invertebrates allow this heavily fished lake in southern Ontario to continually produce good numbers and sizes of perch. While ice fishing generates the most angling pressure, some of the biggest fish are taken shortly after ice-out in shallow bays around Beaverton. Schools of big perch roam deeper water throughout summer. Contact: Guide Greg Klatt, 416/580-2541, profishntanglingservices.com
6 Lake St. Clair, Michigan
Lake St. Clair provides incredible summer and fall fishing for numbers of 8- to 12-inch perch. Target them just outside thick vegetation in 6 to 18 feet of water. By fishing shallower water, deep-water mortality among sorted fish isn't an issue. One hundred- to 200-fish days are common. Contact: Capt. Steve Jones, 586/463-3474, fishpredator.com
2 Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota
A big-water favorite in central Minnesota, this year-round fishery puts out jumbos averaging 12 inches, if you know where to hunt them, and fish in the 15-inch range aren't out of the question. For those willing to put in the work to locate a mess of jumbos, the rewards can be huge. Contact: Guide Tony Roach, 763/226-6656, roachsguideservice.com