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Panfish Senses and Triggers

Panfish Senses and Triggers

Illustrations: Peter Kohlsaat

One concept we have long used to get anglers to consider what they're doing when they're fishing a lure or a bait is this: The presentation moves we make have two parts, each with different purposes. First, we work our presentation to attract attention in order to get panfish to move in close to check it out. Secondly, we manipulate the lure to trigger fish to bite.

Say we're working a spoon vertically. We lift the lure, let it fall, then hold momentarily. The lift-fall is the attracting maneuver, while the pause usually triggers the fish. We might add twitches to the pause to further tempt (trigger) fish that have been called in.

At times attracting maneuvers also serve as triggering maneuvers. I like to fish tiny crankbaits like the #3 Countdown Rapala for panfish. Another favorite is a miniature swimbait like the 3-inch Storm WildEye Swim Shad. The realistic swimming movements of these lures attract panfish that overtake the lure from behind and eat it — attraction becomes triggering. At other times, it takes a little hitch or pause in the straight swim to get fish to bite. Or, it might take pausing the lure to let it fall to get fish to finally react.

Vision is important, but anglers often overlook the importance of vibration in this process. My search for answers about how vital vibration can be lead me to Bluegills — Biology and Behavior, by Stephen Spotte. An in-depth and enlightening look at the biology of the bluegill proved a good place to find answers about how panfish respond to the vibrations that come from the things that live around them as well as vibrations from the lures and baits we use to fool them. In no other scientific discussion have I seen such detailed analysis of swimming movements and how those movements are sensed by fish with their lateral line.

Spotte talks about the hydrodynamic vortices generated by fish as they swim. He says: "The wake left by a swimming fish or other aquatic animal slowly attenuates (dies: my word), but not without alerting intercepting predators or prey of its owner's location and distance. These hydrodynamic 'trails' have been playfully called 'fish footprints.' The size of a wake depends on the size of the fish, but its morphology varies by species. If 'fish footprints' are indeed unique to species, and if they can be recognized and used to advantage by conspecifics or predators, they might better be named 'fish fingerprints.'"

Spotte says that trails remain distinguishable from the background noise for several minutes and may, in still water, remain detectable after 5 minutes. He mentions the process by which a muskie goes about finally feeding on a prey species — after saying that fish, without any visual cues can continue to feed effectively using only their lateral line, but they can not continue to feed effectively when the lateral line sense is blocked.

Quivering-Minnow-Illustration-In-FishermanSpotte reports that a muskie feeds in two phases: "it sulks stealthily toward its prey using the pectoral and caudal fins, then strikes quickly. The process involves vision for initial target detection, but the lateral line assumes dominance during the strike."

So, look at what we've learned. Fish happening through the "trail" of another fish can tell what fish species it is (finger print it) and perhaps even tell if it's swimming badly — wounded or injured. Likewise, predatory fish also don't have any trouble tracking a school of minnows or other small prey fish, sensing the school in larger context as it moves.

Surely this explains why fish like bluegills and crappies in deep water where vision is limited suspend motionless for long periods. Like the starship Enterprise in space, sensors on alert, they're waiting for their lateral line sense to pick up the movements of tiny prey species, fish fry or aquatic insects. Even without adequate vision, once the prey is moving they can track and strike.

This likely also explains what's at work when fish see and then track and strike a lure like a small swimbait or a crankbait — or even a small curlytail plastic. We know the lateral line sense is for close-quarters sensory perception having to do with low-frequency vibrations.

Once a fish sees something interesting it swims steadily toward the offering, gets behind it, and tracks it — or just swims up and stops. Once the lure or baitfish is in a zone a foot to inches in front of the fish, vision is important, but so too has the lateral line sense kicked in. Often the fish almost goes on autopilot, relying on the lateral line to make the final judgment about whether or not to eat the thing. Again, at times it's the lateral line, not vision that tells a fish to break off the chase and avoid the lure at the last second — or to go ahead and eat it.


The reason certain lures often so completely fool fish must be because the lateral line is getting feedback from something that feels perfectly natural as the fish closes in, traveling in or holding in the vortex of the lure. It has to look alive — and it better also feel alive.

Editor's Note: Bluegills — Biology and Behavior, by Stephen Spotte, is a publication of the American Fisheries Society,

Big Lake Bluegills

Brian 'Bro ' Brosdahl guides for bluegills year-round on some of Minnesota's largest lakes. 'In July, big 'gills move into cabbage and coontail beds directly outside spawning reeds, ' he says. 'Average depth is 10 to 12 feet. Weedbeds can be massive on big natural lakes, but don't be overwhelmed. The biggest bluegills hold tight to broad-leaf cabbage or coontail where it's thickest, on the deepest part of the outer edge. If those spots feature a rock, log, or hump, it adds fuel to the fire. '
Bro likes to pitch Northland 1/32-ounce Thumper Jigs and tumble-swim them down the outer edge of the tall weeds. Or he uses a plain jig, firetiger pattern, no plastic, and a chunk of crawler. 'A 1/32-ounce Fire-Ball Jig slips through the weeds nicely. Once you find an active pod and sit on it, they come to rest right under the boat. I jig vertically with a 7-foot St. Croix PFS 70 LFX and Shimano Stradic 1000, filled with 4-pound Bionic Braid with a 3-foot, 6-pound Bionic Fluorocarbon Leader. '
Active bluegills in stable conditions typically suspend on the outside edge of a weedbed, over a log, rock, bottom transition, or other 'special something ' that intersects the weededge. After fronts, even the biters bury in the grass, but they stack tightly around that special feature. Find one and you may not have to move the boat for hours.

Farm Country Bluegills

Classic fishing patterns can be counted on year-after-year. Panfish classics tend to be defined or augmented by environmental conditions that recur naturally, or through common needs. Warming water and the need for cover are two prime examples.
Patterns are repeatable. They describe why fish go where they do, and how they behave while they're there. In summer, postspawn patterns are foraging patterns. Panfish go where the food is in summer, with one overriding caveat: They want cover if they can get it. A complete pattern also suggests the primary method for catching fish in that location. Alternatives may come along, so that's up to you and 40-odd million other panfish enthusiasts to figure out.
Sometimes a pattern is so logical you wonder why you didn't think of it before (if you didn't). Sometimes a pattern is just the opposite — obscure, counterintuitive, and occasional, like finding crappies suspended over 60 feet of water chasing a massive, once-every-five-year hatch of emerald shiners on an obscure lake. Sometimes a pattern is fleeting — connected to a bug hatch, the eggs of spawning fish, or another ephemeral event. Classic patterns, however, tend to last for weeks, even months.
I contacted experts North, South, East, and Midwest to learn which patterns recur every year, for perch, bluegills, and crappies. I asked them to share the patterns they find in their region, from all kinds of environments.

Great Lakes Perch

Steve Ryan is one of those 'Have fish? Will travel ' guys who loves anything with fins. 'Great Lakes perch are in high gear by mid-summer, ' he says. 'With an abundant food, they take to grazing. But not all perch hit the same buffet. Anglers have options on how and where to pursue jumbos. The size of Lake Michigan allows me to ignore basin fish and concentrate on perch within casting distance of shore. Individual weed clusters within harbors, breakwalls, rip-rap shorelines, and the outside edge of primary weedlines are my main locations for perch in July and August, and I fish each one differently. ' 'Harbor weedbeds can be targeted from shore or from an anchored boat with a simple slipfloat or jigging presentation. Concentrate on older harbors with soft-bottom areas with large, irregular weedbeds. Newer harbors with sand bottoms support less weedgrowth and attract fewer perch. As quagga mussels continue to filter Lake Michigan, prime weedbeds can be found in depths of 6 to 16 feet. These weeds support a diverse menu of aquatic insect larvae, snails, and baitfish. '
Ryan uses a medium-light, 7- to 9-foot rod with 4- to 6-pound mono, a small slipfloat, and a minnow, piece of softshell craw, or 1- to 2-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnow. 'A 6-pound braid like Berkley NanoFil or Sufix 832 increases casting distance, coverage area, and sensitivity, ' he says. 'I cast floats along the inside (shallow) edge of a weedbed during low-light conditions, but the deep outside edge of the weedbed becomes the key holding area after a big wind event or front. '

Meso Perch Patrol

One of the best perch guides in the Midwest has to be Tony Roach because he thinks his way to fish on big water, rather than taking them for granted. 'Mid-summer means finding big schools of perch in deep water adjacent to structure, ' says Roach. 'Deep is relative. 'In some lakes it's 20 feet, 40 in others, but my favorite summer spots are transition lines between rock and mud. That's where perch seem to find the best food options with the safety of deep water nearby — the best of both worlds for a jumbo in search of a meal. 'Their diet consists of invertebrates — bloodworms and tiny crayfish, as well as minnows. Perch find safety in numbers and the herd roams the edges of reefs, looking for food. I rarely see big schools of jumbos in the rocks for any length of time during July and August. Perch slip up over the rocks to feed and quickly retreat back to deep water. This is where I capitalize on the herd mentality. They're like gazelles roaming the savanna, in constant fear of the lions. '
Perch are notorious roamers out of necessity, he says. 'They live out their existence near the bottom of the food chain. To survive they roam. Herds can be tracked down if you know where to look. I use the 'spot and stalk ' method.
'I start my search at the base of reefs where the contour lines start to flatten out. I find sweeping inside turns or deep pockets with rock on both sides. On big meso lakes, these transitions can span for miles. I use the graph to find schools, and pitch on them immediately, hitting reverse on the trolling motor to stay above them while the jig sinks. We work it until the school moves, then repeat the process. '
I was fortunate enough to do this with Roach last year, and he likes to drop a small Northland Puppet Minnow or Rapala Jigging Rap with 6-pound mono, or sometimes he uses a dense spoon like the Northland Macho Minnow. If perch are negative, he jigs vertically with a Northland Fire-Ball Jig baited with a small minnow. The key is searching the flats with electronics, focusing on the depths they're using.

Reservoir Crappies North

'After spawning, crappies in northern reservoirs filter out into the same habitats as summertime largemouth bass, ' says bass pro Joe Balog. 'They collect where channels swing up against main lake points, and where sunken timber intersects channel banks. When active, crappies suspend off the ends of those trees.
'The best pattern generally exists in the upper end of a reservoir, where water is a bit stained and channels are 8 to 15 feet deep, ' he says. 'Searching 40-foot depths in the lower reservoir wastes time, but when the main channel in the upper end of a reservoir is 10 feet deep, likely the only deep water around, find wood adjacent to the channel and you find crappies. '
Balog searches with his Humminbird 1198 side-imager. 'Idle the channels, find brush, and look for crappies suspended above the tree limbs, ' he says. 'You can easily spot them on the Humminbird. If you don't see any, run to the next spot. '
Balog checks aggression levels with a small crankbait, using a slow, steady retrieve with a #5 Rapala Shad Rap or Norman Deep Baby N. 'If crappies won't bite that, or if I just catch a couple, I get close to them and fish a tandem twister-tail rig. I rig two 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jigs with 2-inch grubs 2 to 3 feet apart on 4-pound line. I cast to the trees or brush, let the rig fall, then lift-drop it back to the boat. Crappies hit on the drop. Sometimes, in a deep spot, you can get right over them and fish vertically. Watch 'em on the screen and hold on 'em. It's like drop-shotting for bass. '
Great anglers and guides appreciate classic patterns — those that occur predictably. Now's the time to find those predictable perch, crappies, and bluegills wherever you live.

Southern Reservoir Crappies

Todd Huckabee, renowned crappie guide from Oklahoma, looks for crappies in the hottest time of year to do the opposite of what northern anglers expect of them. 'The bottom line on all southern lakes like Eufaula, Oklahoma, or Truman in Missouri, ' he says, 'is this: Once the water reaches its warmest point, thermoclines develop, pushing crappies shallow. In many cases, they run all the way to the back of creek arms, into 6 feet of water or less, back to areas where they spawned.
'They're readily catchable, ' he adds. 'Late July into August is a great time of year for crappies, my favorite time to guide. The pattern's simple. Look for wood in shallow water — fallen trees, standing timber, brushpiles and you find crappies. Location can vary, though. Some days they're all in laydowns, other days in stumpfields. Sometimes they use the shade of trees standing on the bank — especially where willow branches hang to the water's surface.
'Local experts have recognized this pattern for some time, but shallow wood has become the focus of tournament anglers as well. The best spots are only 3 feet deep, but I start each day reaching in and jigging vertically with 1/4-ounce jigs and 2-inch Yum Wooly Beavertails. If that isn't working, I pitch 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs tipped with the same plastics. Make a short pitch to the shady side of cover and let the jig swing by them, using 10-pound mono. '
Warm is relative, Huckabee says. 'At Truman, the water might be 89°F at its max. Whatever it is, once the water drops 10°F, the thermocline begins to dissolve and that pattern vanishes. '

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