The old saying "variety is the spice of life" certainly holds true when it comes to hardwater panfish expeditions. Lakes offering a diversity of perch, crappies, and bluegills are fertile fields for creating fond fishing memories. Maximizing success on waters where a panfish potpourri is on tap often hinges on assembling a selection of lures that see you through the presentational twists and turns of a multispecies day on the ice — along with strategies for deploying your options in a logical order. Another key is keeping it all manageable, so the process of stocking your tackle box and choosing which lures to fish, and when, doesn't become so overwhelming that it takes the fun out of the wrangle.
Guide Scott Seibert plies a simple but efficient three-step presentational program that begins with a bang and ends in finesse. "I start big and flashy, with an 1/8-ounce Clam Speed Spoon," he says. Though this jigging spoon is fresh on the market this winter, Seibert, an Ice Team pro, put prototypes through their paces last season. The spoon has a chain and matching epoxy dropper, available in #12 treble and #8 single-hook options. When fishing the treble, Seibert adds two to three eurolarvae per tine, while the single hook fits five to eight.
Once the first, most aggressive fish are on the ice, he tones things down, tying on either a Maggot Drop or Duckbill Drop, both of which are dainty new jigs in Clam's Dave Genz Tungsten Drop Series. The Maggot Drop hangs vertically, while the Duckbill dangles horizontally. Both are dressed with maggots or tiny softbaits offering quivery appendages, such as Maki Plastic's Jamei or Maki. "Rig plastics so they hang horizontally, even on a vertical jig like the Maggot Drop," he says. "And, if the fish are finicky, don't be afraid to trim the tails."
Step three is a #12 or #14 Ant Drop, also new from Clam. "Made of tungsten, it hangs at a 45-degree angle," he says. "It's perfect for one or two maggots or spikes, lightly hooked in the blunt end so you barely pierce the scent sac, but the bait remains live and wiggly. Fish it with a subtle bouncing action, and if that doesn't get them to bite, it's time to punch holes somewhere else."
On South Dakota's panfish-rich southeastern lakes, veteran guide Joe Honer's multispecies trips target mostly perch and crappies, plus the occasional 'gill. Assaults are launched with a 1/16-ounce Northland Forage Minnow Spoon, or similar-sized jigging spoon such as a Kastmaster or Johnson Splinter — with one treble tine removed. Common tippings include an ample array of waxworms, hung chandelier-fashion on the remaining tines, or a supple softbait like a 1-inch Berkley Gulp! Alive! Cricket. "Don't jig the spoon like you would for walleyes," he says. "Start high and shake it down to the fish."
Honer's follow-up drop, should the fish play hard to catch, is a small, easy-quivering, horizontal-hanging jig such as Berkley's Atomic Mite, Wishbone, or Fry. Northland's Hexi Fly, Custom Jigs and Spins iconic Rat Finkee, and a host of similar standouts also fill the bill. Small softbaits are stellar dressings, though Honer concedes, "It's hard to beat a maggot when things get tough."
Rather than wander through an endless progression of lures, Honer focuses on fishing these two tactics — small spoon and horizontal jig — with precision. "People change up too much sometimes, looking for the perfect lure or color," he says. "More often, action is key." For Honer, the right action invariably includes perpetual motion. "Raise and lower your jig while quivering," he says. "Never quit moving it, not even when you're getting bit."
While action is crucial, Honer's final tip for plucking as many panfish as possible from a given hole centers on the lure's position in the water column. "Always stay above the school," he says. "When you pull fish out of the pack, the rest freeze up or flare away. By trimming off the top, you can catch far more fish before it's time to move."
Longtime guide Jeff Sundin earns his keep in northern Minnesota. With a territory spanning a multitude of A-list lakes within a 100-mile radius of the Deer River, he's often faced with multispecies panfish scenarios. To help solve the presentational pickle of any given outing, he wields a four-pronged approach that starts with a predictable first strike and ends wherever the fish take him.
"I rig my first rod with something bigger and heavier than necessary for most of the fish I expect to run into — something I can drop in fast to quickly get a handle on the situation," he says. "Often, that first lure is an above-average size Lindy Frostee Jigging Spoon, 1/8 ounce or larger, jammed with waxworms — at least one on every hook, and one sideways across the trebles. If I'm in a predominantly perch area, with crappies mixed in but few sunfish, I may opt for a rattling jigging spoon, dressed in similar fashion.
"Let the spoon fall to about 2 to 3 feet off bottom and see if you can get fish to follow it up," he says. "Panfish require a much softer jigstroke than walleyes. Wobble the rod tip like you're wagging your finger at someone, and watch your sonar like a hawk.
"In a decent hole, this first spoon presentation should produce four to five fish — typically jumbo perch, crappies to a lesser extent, and occasionally a sunfish," he says. "It's not unusual to catch sunfish on a spoon. It may be unusual to spoon up big numbers of them, but there's nothing stopping you from tying on a Fat Boy or other horizontal jig, once you figure out you're on top of a school of 'gills."
Which brings us to step two. "The second rod is rigged with a small, bug-type jig," he says. While the Fat Boy and jigs with similar stocky profiles work well, he commonly favors a Lindy Bug or Ice Worm. "Option three is my old standby — the Frostee jig," he says. "A #4 or #6 is perfect. Skin-hook a crappie minnow parallel to the spine, so it hangs horizontally."
The fourth prong of Sundin's plan is adaptation. "Be prepared to mix and match," he says. "A lure box with a variety of jigs, spoons, and plastics helps you improvise." He offers the following cautions. "If the first fish on your first drop is a sniffer, it's time to move. Also, downsizing when small perch are in the area can be frustrating."
Finally, Sundin maintains that mastering a handful of core panfish tactics is better than becoming the proverbial Jack of all trades. "I don't do 80 things, but I do a half-dozen well," he says. "Focusing on these keeps me in my comfort zone and area of expertise. Sometimes I struggle when I get too fancy."
Triple XL Bluegills
Veteran guide and In-Fisherman friend Jon Thelen offers another option in the presentational palette — a super-sized strategy that quickly targets the largest bluegills in any setting.
"We tend to think small when it comes to bluegill baits, but large lures have a place at the table, too," he says. One of Thelen's top choices in XL options is a horizontal-hanging, rattling hardbait that swims on the drop. Lure colors depend on water clarity, but flashy chromes and golds are good all-around picks.
"I tie a 11â'„3-inch Lindy Darter direct to 3- to 4-pound monofilament mainline, which is strong enough to handle the incidental bass or pike," he says. "Then I tip the trebles with waxworms or eurolarvae, and drop the bait just above the level of the fish."
Lure in position, Thelen begins a subtle lift-fall-pause-jiggle move. "The Darter draws curious bluegills close. Some big fish hit the bait, but most slide in for a better look. That's when the secondary attraction of livebait jiggling on the hooks seals the deal. Lift the lure 6 feet and let it swim down on a slack line. Let the bait come to rest slightly higher than the fish, hold it still a few seconds, and jiggle the hooks with a back-and-forth of the rod tip, with slight up-and-down quiver."
Thelen's Triple XL program attracts the biggest 'gills on the block. "A five-incher has no interest in hitting a bait this size," he says.
*Dan Johnson, Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Contact: Guide Joe Honer, 320/260-6143, joeguidesyou.com; Guide Scott Seibert, 612/759-0845, sksguides.com; Guide Jeff Sundin, 218/246-2375, jeffsundin.com; Guide Jon Thelen, 612/720-3837.