North to South, livebait is a favorite among many panfish fans. Yet swimbait-style artificial softbaits are often equally if not even more deadly. As a bonus, they're easier to gather and store, tougher than delicate natural baits, and provide options in color, profile, action, and taste that livebait just can't match.
Early Season Strategies
Often relegated to targeting aggressive panfish in summer peak situations, swimbaits and other softies shine all season. Indeed, slab masters like Florida Guide Jared Leverette, who plies crappie-rich Lake Talquin, longline troll 1¾- to 2-inch curlytails pinned to 1/16- to 1/8-ounce ballhead jigs from September to June.
Location varies. He often keys on crappies suspended a dozen feet down over 20-foot-deep creek channels in the dead of winter, but pulls jigs 4 feet beneath the surface in just 6 feet of water around woody cover and pad beds during the spawn, which typically lasts from late February through March.
Adept at deploying multiple lines for each client on board, Leverette runs 8- to 16-foot rods loaded with 6-pound monofilament mainline, with curlytails swimming along in both single- and double-jig configurations. He trolls at .8 to 1.2 mph, and he says that solo leadheads often require a small split shot 1½ to 2 feet above the jig to reach deep strike zones during winter.
Although Paul Fournier is focused on hardwater escapades while Leverette plies the southern winter bite, the central Minnesota panfish fiend quickly transitions into open-water mode once the ice recedes from his favored fisheries. And while other anglers soak livebaits such as crappie minnows, angleworms, and waxworms, he factors softbaits into the mix at every opportunity.
From ice-out until bluegills and crappies abandon their spawning beds, Fournier dons waders to stalk the shallows, slinging softbait-sweetened bobber rigs for plump panzers other anglers miss. A typical setup consists of a 1/64- to 1/8-ounce jighead such as Lindy's Watsit, Ice Jig, Toad, or Little Nipper tipped with a 1- to 2-inch body. His tippings include a variety of creature, beaver, and straight-tail designs including the Watsit Grub and YUM's Houdini Fry, Teeny Shad, Wooly Beavertail, and Wooly Bee.
Float style is tailored to the situation. "I use Thill's Wobble Bobber for covering water," he says, explaining that the Wobble Bobber's shape and weighting fuel long casts. "It also rocks back and forth when you're reeling, which moves the jig left and right, and can sometimes trigger panfish that pass on other retrieves." For concentrated fish, he turns to Thill's Crappie Cork. "Properly balanced, it tells you a lot about how fish are taking the bait, and the stem is easy to see when waves are an issue," he says. With both styles, Fournier matches float and jig size so the bobber rides with its waterline stripe at or just below the surface. "Thill's weight-rating system simplifies the process considerably, but on occasion you might need to add a series of tiny shot spaced 6 inches apart to balance a rig," he says, noting that the float is first positioned to rest midway in the water column, then raised or lowered as needed if the fish show a preference.
He wields a 6- to 10-foot spinning rod strung with 4-pound mono mainline, tipped with a small swivel and short leader of 2-pound fluorocarbon for low visibility.
When covering water, Fournier favors slow-rolling, similar to how bass anglers often present spinnerbaits. "The lure should rise and fall rhythmically throughout your retrieve," he says. "The mechanics are straightforward: Cast. Let the rig come to rest. Then, keeping your rod tip at a 45-degree angle to the water, turn the reel handle three or four times. Pause 30 seconds to a minute, then make another series of cranks, and repeat the process." In this presentation, the float serves as a strike indicator. "Watch for slight ticks that betray bites," he says. "When a fish hits, make a reeling hook-set to avoid tearing the jig out of its mouth."
Fournier also fishes swimbaits and other soft plastics with an erratic, popping approach. "Sweep the rod tip 12 to 36 inches at a time, popping the float and jerking the jig forward," he says. "Then let it sit five to 15 seconds and sweep it again." Sometimes he blends the two techniques together to create pop-reel-pause theatrics, which further reveal the versatility softbaits bring to the table for spring panfish.
Veteran Northwoods Guide Tom Neustrom also suspends, sweeps, and pops jigs and 1½- to 2-inch swimbaits such as Trigger X Boot Tail or Curl Tail minnows beneath bobbers for early season slab crappies. But he notes that freewheeling, floatless presentations also work, particularly when a bobber might spook skittish fish.
"I rig the same plastics on a 1/16- to 1/32-ounce jig, with a hook large enough for a solid hook-set, on 4-pound Sufix Elite mono mainline and cast it with a 7-foot ultralight or light spinning rod," he says. "Keeping the boat in 6 or 7 feet of water, I pitch the jig 20 to 40 feet into three feet of water. If your casts are longer, it's tough to feel a soft bite." He adds that old reedbeds and stickups in transitional zones between muck and firmer bottoms are his favorite spring hunting grounds.
On the cast, Neustrom manually closes the reel's bail as the jig nears splashdown. "You need to be ready to set the hook right away because sometimes crappies get fired up by the splash of a jig landing and hit early in the drop," he says. With the rod tip at 10-o'clock, he lets the jig fall about two seconds, then begins a slow swimming retrieve, punctuated by "microsecond" pauses. Most of the action is imparted directly by the reel, though he adds subtle 6- to 12-inch rod-tip lifts to spice things up. "The idea is to make the swimbait act like a real baitfish, which rarely swim 40 feet in a straight line at a steady pace," he says.
As crappies settle onto beds, he cuts cast-lengths to 25 feet or less, targets individual fish, and keeps retrieves short. "I fish specific nests, so if nothing hits on the initial drop or within the first 15 feet, I reel in and cast again," he says, noting that when he needs to slow the jig's fall rate, bulking up from a 2- to 3-inch swimbait offers a quick fix without retying.
As the water warms and vegetation matures, Neustrom moves his swimbait program to hearty cabbage beds in 7 to 10 feet of water. "Not large, thick beds of solid cabbage that are tough to fish," he says. "I look for isolated stands that can be covered efficiently with a series of long casts."
With his boat hovering just off the bed over deeper water, he fires a small safety-pin spinner with a VMC jighead and Trigger X softbait 40 to 50 feet out over the bed, and makes a mostly steady retrieve with the bait barely ticking the weedtops. "Crappies ride high, settling into ambush points," he says. "Sometimes I let the bait fall for a two-count after coming over a clump, but otherwise rarely let it drop into the cabbage."
While Neustrom's high-flying casting scores good catches of active crappies, longtime panfish hunter Scott Glorvigen plays the deep game for broad-shouldered bluegills hunkered toward bottom. "Like a forest, aquatic vegetation may be thick at the top, but typically opens up below, providing bull bluegills ample shade and room to hunt," he says. "Punching through the canopy with a bullet sinker and small jig tipped with a softbait is a great way to target these fish."
Glorvigen uses GPS mapping in conjunction with Lowrance downscan and CHIRP sonar to locate weed-capped points and humps. "The best spots have a mix of coontail and cabbage," he notes. His punchbait program includes a 7- to 8-foot, medium-power St. Croix Panfish Series spinning rod spooled with 10-pound braid. "You need horsepower to muscle bull 'gills out of the jungle," he says. He slides on a slipfloat large enough to support a 1/4-ounce bullet weight and panfish-sized jighead such as a Northland Tackle Mud Bug, Gill-Getter, or Hexi Fly, then ties on a small swivel and 12-inch leader of fluorocarbon or mono.
Jigs are tipped with a variety of 1- to 2-inch bug- and minnow-shaped plastics, including Northland's Impulse Stone Fly, Mayfly, Mini Smelt, Tadpole, and Water Bug. A 1.25-inch Mini Roundworm, rigged wacky-style, is a favorite when tight-lipped 'gills play hard to catch. Plying the greenery is a matter of making a short pitch, letting the bullet sinker plow through the canopy, then twitching and popping the float in place to animate the softbait below. With a long rod and the float close to the boat, vertical lifts are also top options.
Glorvigen puts plastics into play year-round, at every opportunity. "My panfish epiphany occurred while I was bluegill fishing a few seasons ago," he recalls. "When I saw clouds of zooplankton on my underwater camera, I dropped a Gill-Getter tipped with a white Impulse Mayfly and the fish absolutely tore it up. I've been hooked on plastic presentations ever since."
Yellow perch also fall for supple swimbaits and other softies. For example, once water temperatures cool below 55°F in autumn, veteran guide Jeff Sundin targets pot-bellied jumbos on weedflats in 5 to 10 feet of water. Such surroundings attract scads of juvenile baitfish, crappies, and sunfish, which in turn draw schools of opportunistic perch.
He covers water by dipping a 1/4-ounce Lindy Jig tipped with a minnow into promising pockets, particularly sweet spots created by gravel spits or clambeds. But once atop a hot school, he drops anchor and switches to the company's Watsit Spin, which sports a #1 Indiana blade and 2-inch Watsit grub body. "The blade adds flash, while the cupped tail, when twitched, mimics an injured minnow," he says. "Perch love it. You can often stir up a feeding frenzy."
Sundin and the rest of our sources rely on a stable of softbait tricks to take panfish throughout the year. By following their lead, you can put more bluegills, crappies, and perch in the boat from your first cast to the last. â–
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contacts: Jared Leverette, Lake Talquin Lodge, 850/627-3822; Tom Neustrom, 218/327-2312; Jeff Sundin, 218/246-2375.