During the bygone years that consumed my occasionally misspent youth, idle hours often found friends and me slinking our way along the banks of local smallwaters — urban ponds, miniature water supply reservoirs, and spring-fed beaver ponds. Not all of these waters resided on the public side of barbed wire fences; at least in our minds, the best ones didn't, and almost certainly fished better once darkness concealed us.
Foot patrol meant toting no more than two rods, often just one. Targets of our little jigs were anything from rainbow and brook trout to black crappies, white bass, and orangespotted sunfish — still one of the most resplendent freshwater fish I've ever palmed. For my purposes the holy combo consisted of a light (not ultralight) 7-foot St. Croix spinning rod teamed with a Daiwa Black Gold BG10 reel and 2-pound test low-vis green Berkley Trilene XL. For a backup, I coupled a 61„2-foot Cabela's Fish Eagle Graphite rod with a Garcia Cardinal 752, and later, a Daiwa Tournament SS700. Armed with a small box of hand-tied marabou jigs, mostly 1/32- to 1/64-ounce black or brown beauties, we'd put a big hurt on almost any local panfish population. Everyone who saw our jigs told us they were much too small for casting on spinning tackle, at least not without the aid of a bobber.
My friends and I had worked through numerous of rod-reel-line pairings, having immediate access to tackle at the bait shop where we worked. We realized that longer light-power, moderately slow-action rods — not ultralights — propelled our "jigflies" like little rocks. Two-pound test monofilament, virtually unheard of then, even in the panfish world, allowed us to cast and work these miniscule lures to perfection. Landing big fish on 2- and 3-pound mono — crappies, perch, and bluegills of any size, as well as brown trout as large as one particular 17-pounder — was perfectly within reason, given use of a forgiving rod blank and a flawlessly performing reel.
We found that the tiniest "UL" designated spinning reels weren't right. Spool diameters on these micro reels were so compact that loops and bird's nests in the supple line were inevitable, particularly when casting into wind. Smaller, more compact spools formed line into tighter coils, increasing the risk of line twist, which often led to a loose coil working its way free from the rest of the spool, causing a major headache. Further, because the roller bearings on tiny reels were so small, as was the space into which line must fit on the spool, you ran a risk that retrieved line would end up tangling itself up somewhere outside the spool — more agony.
The light line and light jig answer for us was to move to a slightly larger reel with a wider spool — the second smallest reel in any particular model was often right on, even if these reels weren't strictly rated for 2-pound test. Some of the light-duty saltwater reels, the Daiwa Black Gold in particular, worked like a little panfish Stradivarius. A little later, when wider "longcast" spools became available, reels like the Daiwa Tournament SS proved a superlative option for zinging out major casts with wispy line and tiny jigs.
At the time, these reels offered some of the smoothest overall performance and drags available — at least on a youth's budget. With 2- and 3-pound-test lines and micro baits, we soon realized, there's no room for flaws. You can't have something in your fingertips that winds like there's gravel in the gears, because sensitivity with tiny baits requires an intimate connection between your hands and the lure — a connection that can't be interrupted by rough operation, lest fish be missed. Likewise, the drag can't have any bumpy spots, catches, or spikes in resistance. The Daiwas were flawless in this regard, but so were many others, then and now, including the Abu Garcia Cardinals and Shimano Stradics. The spools were light, yet wide enough to prevent coils and the tangles. Line spilled off in straight, coil-free ribbons — the soft tips of our long rods propelling 1/64-ounce jigs in excess of 30-yards. Even in big headwinds we could punch out some bullet casts, so long as we positioned ourselves facing directly into the gust.
One of the keys to working our perfect panfish system was to fill these slightly larger spinning reels first with a thicker backing material, wound tightly onto the spool. Nearly half a spool of 6- or 8-pound test would then be topped off with a limp 2-pound monofilament, such as 2-pound XL or 3.3-pound test Damyl Tectan. We filled each reel to within a 1/8-inch of the lip of the spool, taking care not to overfill them to the point where the line began to "bulge" beyond the rim.
Still the best way to spool spinning reels with light line is to take them to a local tackle store, and have a qualified attendant fill them with a line-winding machine. Note, though, that if the clerk doesn't know what he's doing, you can have a real mess on your hands. Inspect spools carefully to ensure that line's been wound straight, even, and not overly loose or overly tight.
Those are the details — a prescription for the "holy panfish combo." Light (not ultralight) 7-foot rods, 1- to 3-pound monofilament, 1/32- to 1/80-ounce jigs, and medium-light duty, rather than ultra-light spinning reels — elements that work flawlessly to provide seasons of faithful service. Here is a summary of new or otherwise noteworthy panfish reels to help you devise your own sweet combos.
Abu Garcia: The new Soron SX is a high-performing spinning reel featuring 7 HPCR (High Precision Corrosion Resistant) bearings, X-Craftic alloy body for corrosion resistance, Duragears, and a sealed, multi-washer, carbon matrix drag system. The SX10 is the smallest of five sizes, at 7.8 ounces — $99.95.
A reliable, yet reasonably priced panfish option is the Cardinal 100 Series, model C101-C. At 6.9 ounces and a 110- yard 6-pound-test capacity, the 101 is the second to smallest model. Spooled with 2- or 3-pound test, it throws trouble-free casts with 1/16- to 1/80-ounce jigs — $39.99, abugarcia.com
Bass Pro Shops: The MicroLite Elites are available in reel-only or rod-and-reel combos. Both the MLE05F (5 ounces) and slightly larger MLE25F (6.4 ounces) offer liquid smooth performance at economical prices. Both include 7+1 bearings, instant anti-reverse, carbon frames, and aluminum handle and spool — $39.99 to $59.99.
The Wally Marshall Signature Series Tightline Special is a mini casting reel designed for specialized crappie techniques like tightlining, spider-rigging and spread trolling. The reel features an aluminum cover, sideplate, and spool, 3.2:1 gear ratio, all brass gearing, and an aluminum star drag. Holds 70 yards of 6-pound-test mono and weighs just 4 ounces. Made to be coupled with a 12- to 18-foot crappie trolling rod, such as the Tightline Special — $19.99, basspro.com
Daiwa: Unchanged for 20 years, Daiwa's classic Tournament SS Series reels remain one of the choicest options for medium-duty panfishing. Silky drag, trouble-free longcast spool, and a durable design. The SS700 weighs 7 ounces, handling up to 150 yards of 4-pound-test monofilament — $94.99.
A newer higher-end option is the Fuego, model 1000A. This 6.5-ounce reel has an exceptionally light "Zaion" super-carbon body and rotor material, 4 corrosion resistant ball bearings, DigiGear digital gear design, and infinite anti-reverse. A noteworthy feature for light line is a "Twistbuster" line twist reduction system — $279.99.
Worth a mention, too, is the Daiwa's Underspin US XD. Close-faced underspin reels are fine options when coupled with a longer spinning rod or crappie pole for drifting approaches. Model US40XD-CP handles 85 yards of 4-pound test, with one ball bearing, 4.1:1 gear ratio, and at a dainty 5.5 ounces — $16.99, daiwa.com
Mitchell: The Avocet II Gold is fine a light-line tool, especially given its economical price. The AVG-G500ULF includes 8 bearings, a dual-bearing supported pinion gear, EZ flow balanced rotor, 5.2:1 gear ratio and a "NeverFail" bail-spring system. This ultralight reel weighs 6.9 ounces and holds 100 yards of 4-pound line — $34.99, fishmitchell.com
Okuma: The Epixor EF 20b is rated for 190 yards of 4-pound mono and is a proven reel on many freshwater fronts. Features include a quick-set anti-reverse roller bearing, brass pinion gear, die-cast aluminum frame, and an Elliptical Oscillation System that retrieves line level onto the spool. The smallest of the Epixors, the 20b weighs 8 ounces, has a 5:1 gear ratio and contains 9 stainless-steel ball bearings — $59.99, okumafishing.com
Pflueger: The Cetina Spincast series, a new underspin option features lightweight aluminum frames and spools, titanium line guides and pickups, heavy-duty gearing, 5 bearings, instant anti-reverse and a carbon-fiber drag system. Model SC4UX weighs 6.3 ounces and is prespooled with 90 yards of 6-pound monofilament — $39.99.
The Microcast 4410U is a tiny 5.8-ounce underspin reel preloaded with 70 yards of 4-pound premium monofilament — $24.99.
In spinning reels, the President, model 6720X, is a sweet panfish option. Weighing in at 6.4 ounces and offering 9 stainless ball bearings and a speedy 5.2:1 gear ratio, the President is one of the smoothest performing reels for under $100 — $49.99, pfluegerfishing.com
Pinnacle: The Matrix MX25 features a reinforced graphite body housing, balanced rotor for smooth retrieves, precision-cut brass gears, and ResistTwist line roller. The MX25 is the smallest model, weighing 9.7 ounces, and offering 9 ball bearings and a 5.5:1 gear ratio — $49.99, pinnaclefishing.com
Quantum: The 7.5-ounce Q-Micro XT (QM05XTF) is a compact reel with continuous anti-reverse, anodized aluminum spool, front-adjustable drag, a long-stroke spool, and 5 ball bearings. The reel has a 5.2:1 gear ratio and holds 175 yards of 4-pound test monofilament — $29.95, quantumfishing.com
Shakespeare: The 5.4-ounce Prius UL is Shakespeare's specialty panfish spinning reel, with 2 ball bearings, a machined aluminum spool, and 5.2:1 gear ratio — $17.99.
In the underspin department, try the Synergy Titanium Ti6 Underspin. This little reel has 2 ball bearings, dual titanium pickup pins and line guide, and an elastomer pinch ring for reduced line abrasion — $14.99, shakespeare-fishing.com
Shimano: The new Stradic CI4 is a marvel of a spinning reel, built with a reinforced carbon fiber developed for parts on high-end bicycles. The featherlight 1000F, although not technically a panfish reel, weighs 6.2 ounces with a capacity of 140 yards of 4-pound test. The reel features some of the finest components available, including a front drag, Paladin Gear Durability Enhancement, and six shielded A-RB anti-rust bearings — $199.99.
The Sedona 500FD is a no-frills panfish reel with 4 stainless-steel ball bearings, a front drag and 4.7:1 gear ratio. It weighs 6.2 ounces — 59.99, shimano.com
U.S. Reel: The wide, short spools make these reels a fine choice for propelling smaller baits greater distances, with minimal line twist. The all aluminum SuperCaster 180SX is 7.3 ounces and includes a stainless-steel roller bearing, spool shaft, and 4 ABEC ball bearings — $159.99.
U.S. Reel also offers the SuperCaster 180X, weighing just under 7 ounces — $84.99, usreel.com
WaveSpin: Wavespin reels have a unique jagged "wave-edged" spool that reduces line snarls. The tooth-like projections gather line smoothly on the retrieve, eliminating loops. The special spool design is said to increase casting distance by reducing friction. The WaveSpin DHxL weighs 7 ounces and features 9 stainless-steel ball bearings, an oversized bail roller, Nano Drag, and a 2-year unconditional warranty — $72, wavespinreel.com
Zebco: Micro and Micro SS are ultralight combos, available in spincast, triggerspin, and spinning editions, with a ball bearing drive and spooled with 4-pound mono. The front cover and pickup pins on the SS are stainless steel. Each combo includes a 2-piece 41„2-foot Z-glass rod — $14.99 for Micro, $19.99 Micro SS, zebco.com
Booyah Boo Rigs
- I'm convinced that walleyes love these things as much as bass do. Just one requirement: shad, smelt, or other schooling baitfish. These new rigs offer arrays of arms and spinners, designed to give crankbaits, swimbaits, and other lures a multi-baitfish appearance that's made umbrella rigs so successful.
- Entering their 41st year, Fenwick's iconic High Modulus Graphite (HMG) has received an overhaul with new Fuji reel seat, titanium guides, and slim handles to reduce weight.
Frabill Crankbait Net
- This addition to Frabill's extensive net line uses a new coating and weave pattern to produce a mesh that resists snagging crankbaits and other multi-hook lures. Three sizes are available.
Humminbird Bow 360
- Humminbird's latest wonder took Best of Show honors in the Electronics category in Vegas. In this fast moving field, blink and you're behind. This new imager shows what's ahead of the boat, a step beyond side-imaging. The unit attaches to the bow-mount trolling motor and its transducer turns 360 degrees to scan all around the boat. It tracks the movement of schooling fish, allowing you to plan the best approach. Units should be available early in 2014.
Lindy Lil' Guy
- This innovative device from the inventors of the Lindy Rig imparts floating and wobbling action to your presentations. It comes with a 36-inch fluorocarbon leader, two #2 octopus hooks, and is available in seven holographic colors.
- MotorGuide's new technology enables the trolling motor to 'anchor ' on a waypoint or spot, or follow bottom contours or preset routes. It links with the company's new Pinpoint GPS system.
Plano Guide Series Tackle Bags
- This new series (4 sizes) features a solid 'work station ' on the lid. Stowaway boxes are easily accessible, and waterproof pocket for maps and padded pockets for sunglasses finish its details.
Rapala Scatter Rap
- Rapala's international team of designers brings a new lip design with a potato-chip shape to give lures a wandering, side-to-side action. The series includes a suspending minnowbait, floating minnow, shad-style bait, and shallow-running crank. Last fall, nocturnal trollers found them deadly along sharp breaks and across shallow reefs.
Wavespin Legend 250
- Wavespin President Russ Riley has released the fruits of fishing legend, Doug Hannon's engineering dream, the latest spinning reel in their line. This spool system virtually eliminates aggravating coils in line spools.
Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon XL
- Trilene engineers have succeeded in producing the most angler-friendly fluorocarbon yet, supple enough for spinning tackle, yet with the durability and visibility advantages this material brings. Available in tests from 4 to 12 pounds.