July 13, 2012
A hot bite, going gangbusters a few minutes ago, is now seemingly dead. Crappies were hitting minnows on Aberdeen hooks before the float could even settle and stand up. One on every cast. Happens every year. At some point, a torrid bite dies as if somebody turned it off with a switch. More often than not, a brief examination of what's going on around the boat solves the problem.
Panfish can switch from one forage type to the next in an instant, a change caused by things we often can't see, such as a sudden migration of crustaceans, plankton, leeches, or insects, or a sudden "bloom" of minnows. Panfish may not be as selective as trout, but they're not stupid. If the water they're swimming in suddenly comes alive with little brown wormy things, minnows are off the menu for a while.
Sometimes nature gives us clues. When the air is clear of insects and suddenly gnats or midges are crawling on your sunglasses, expect the panfish bite to change, if it hasn't already. This is most pronounced in spring, and every spring when we begin to see bunches of flying insects for the first time (usually in the afternoon), switching baits can make all the difference. If fishing with minnows, especially, a switch to maggots, waxworms, or softbaits that imitate larval stages of insects almost always precipitates a faster bite when insects begin to hatch. A hatch can last only a few minutes or all day. When it dies, switching back to minnows, other softbaits, or leeches tends to increase the regularity of bites again.
In summer, with insects all around us all the time, a new hatch can pass unnoticed. In fall, hatches start to become rare, and most insect migrations take place near bottom. From June through November, the whys and wherefores of sudden changes in the panfish bite can remain entirely hidden from view. But it's possible to make informed guesses. When a hot bite suddenly dies, the question begging to be asked is: "What's the bottom of the lake composed of around here?"
Most anglers know that rock, gravel, and clay-bottomed areas can have a substantial crayfish population that should, at many points during a season, attract the undivided attention of crappies, bluegills, and perch. But what lives in the muck? How about in marl, silt, sand, or in combinations of these substrates? Rest assured, when panfish concentrate in any area it probably has a lot to do with bottom composition and what thrives on or in it.
For instance, some of the most common forage items for panfish during the cold months are bottom-dwelling worms called annelids (segmented aquatic earthworms). Another huge food source for panfish during the warmer months -- leeches -- are related forms of these annelids. Both can be found in greatest number wherever particle size in the substrate is relatively small, suggesting mucky areas. Some species of annelid do quite well in silt (0.6 millimeter particles and smaller), which includes the smallest particle sizes of all possible substrates. Rich, organic sediments (with finer particles in the .07 to .09 millimeter range) tend to harbor the densest populations of annelids.
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Such sediments also tend to harbor weeds. Which plant species grow best depends to some extent on the combination of bottom types that exist. Marl, calcite, sand, muck, clay, gravel, and other substrates each favor specific weed types. Reeds, for instance, grow well in sand mixed with gravel. Cabbage, milfoil, hydrilla, coontail, crispus, hyacinths, lily pads, and others thrive in substrates of varying composition, and each harbors its own particular crop of weed-clinging invertebrates like grass shrimp.
One can tell what the bottom type is by the weed type growing in it, what comes up on the anchor, and by viewing with underwater cameras. Several clues point to what's living in that substrate. Samples can be scooped from the bottom and sieved. Flying insects that appear during a prolific annual hatch can be captured and identified, so the larval form of that creature can be found in books on aquatic biology. Examining stomach contents of caught fish, however, might be the most proficient means of determining what's down there in the greatest abundance.
Many of the macroscopic (visible) invertebrates living in hard-bottomed areas have a well-camouflaged carapace, or case. Stonefly nymphs, mayfly nymphs, crayfish and mysis shrimp, for example, all have some version of protective armor, possibly because they're exposed to predation a higher percentage of the time than the things that burrow or hide in softer substrates. Many critters living in soft substrates tend to have a soft outer layer (epidermis), in shades that vary from dull green to bright red. Caddisfly larvae appear in a wide variety of shades. Many species of caddisfly live in rocky areas, creating their own camouflage and armor by building a case or shell made of tiny bits of wood, gravel, or both.
Some invertebrates that panfish prey upon spend most of the summer clinging to weedstalks and the bottoms of lily pads. Moth larvae, scuds, and darners are examples of "epiphytes," weed-clinging critters from various families of invertebrates. These tend to be brown, green, off-white, or black. Some appear like little black beads with a tiny shell, some look like maggots, and some have legs and a carapace.
The basis of every angling pattern is the approximation of something the targeted fish eats. Whether presenting an actual livebait, lure, or soft plastic, the idea is to imitate the size, profile, and color of things actually being eaten underwater just a few feet away. If you're fishing with a good approximation of what fish are eating most, you're onto a primary pattern.
Primary patterns for crappies in many southern reservoirs are relatively easy to deduce. Imitate a shad, or present a live one, and you're halfway home. Crappies of a size anglers pursue eat small shad all year in many of these environments. If you can see or net the clouds of young shad crappies are targeting, you can easily imitate the size of the primary forage.
Uprooting patterns in natural lakes, backwaters, northern reservoirs, and ponds tends to be more complicated. We can't always see what the fish are feeding on and have to rely on noting what they spit up, examine their stomachs, or fish blind -- which is why it pays to experiment with a variety of baits. Anglers often believe the only requirement for catching panfish is a container of the same type of fresh bait that worked last time. And, with few exceptions, it does produce. But something else always works better for at least a portion of the day.
Finding a panfish bite is one thing. Staying on the hottest bite is tricky. When a hot bite dies entirely, it rarely means all the nearby panfish became inactive or vacated the area. With two hands on deck or -- where the law allows the use of more than one rod -- somebody on a second (or third) rod should always be experimenting with something different. That goes for southern reservoirs, too, where panfish are not entirely immune to a sudden hatch or migration of billions of tiny critters that offer an easy meal. During a mayfly hatch, even shad fingerlings take a back seat on the food-chain train.
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Maggots -- A logical progression: Start with the most prolific, universal form of all insect larvae worldwide: the maggot. Berkley, FoodSource, Custom Jigs & Spins, Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle, and I.S.G. are just some of the companies making a plastic or softbait version of a maggot. A small, cylindrical, off-white or butter-yellow piece of plastic imitates the larvae of mosquitoes, caddisflies, shoreflies, dance flies, watersnipe flies, soldier flies, marsh flies, crane flies, and literally thousands of other flying insects that "hatch" (really, metamorphose) from aquatic eggs and larvae. Most, if not all, of these critters spend their underwater years in silty areas around the softest substrates, so start searching areas like lily-pad fields and weedbeds with maggots or some version thereof.
Worms -- Following the "maggot form" is the basic worm. Basic, perhaps, but not garden variety. Aquatic worms live in a variety of substrates from silt to sand and gravel and appear in most shades of the rainbow. Some are pink or red, so a red 3-inch Berkley Power Micro Crawler isn't just another pretty colored plastic designed to catch the fisherman's eye. It's a natural color down there. Natural can also mean lime, pale blue, metallic green, and a rainbow of nail-polish shades you've never heard of. The real deal is stranger than fiction, and real colors exceed our wildest Technicolor dreams in the world of aquatic invertebrates. Many species of aquatic worm are mere millimeters in length -- thus, the wild success of very small artificial varieties from Custom Jigs & Spins, I.S.G., Lindy, and other companies.
Those two patterns skip lightly through the many possibilities for fishing the softest substrates. Predictably, imitations of mayfly, dragonfly, and damselfly nymphs perform well on sandflats. Examples include the Berkley 1-inch Micro Power Nymph and Case's Little Hellgrammites. And who says a fly has to be fished on a flyrod? Local fly shops have imitations of nymphs and larvae that match the naturals in your area.
On Rockpiles and other hard-bottomed structure, a tiny craw imitation is a good starting point. Spike-It, Berkley, Bass Pro Shops, and many other companies market plastic craws in the 1/2- to 2-inch range. Without other indications to go by, simple logic can direct us to the most likely inhabitants of the substrates we're fishing. Over time, other clues fall into place -- things found in the livewell, insects that land on the boat, or critters you see with an underwater camera -- that allow you to better match the colors, sizes, and shapes of the primary inhabitants of the lifescape below.
The logical syllogism to extract from all this would run something like this: A) All aquatic invertebrates have specific habitat requirements, and most require specific substrates to thrive; B) invertebrates in areas of homogeneous substrates are limited not in number but in type; C) invertebrates in areas where a variety of substrates comes together might not be limited in either number or type. If A, B, and C are true, the areas that harbor the greatest variety of substrate types harbor the greatest variety of invertebrates. The point has been made in this magazine many times: Areas where diverse types of weeds and substrates all come together tend to provide the fastest fishing for panfish.
Livebait -- It pays to be ready for sudden changes in the bite. I seldom go fishing for anything without at least one livebait option but rarely have more than two. When panfishing, I go with at least three varieties. Red worms, waxworms, maggots, crickets, grasshoppers, crappie minnows, panfish leeches, live nymphs -- I'll take them all, and more, if possible. Worms, maggots, leeches, and waxworms are particularly well suited to imitating aquatic invertebrates that can be found in any waterway on the planet. And if I can't get the live version, my trusty panfish box has a reasonable facsimile of almost anything that swims, scoots, or crawls along the bottom, no matter where I am.
While panfish may never be as picky as trout, a lot of evidence and experience suggests that slow bites can be prompted to speed up considerably: Just imitate critters that panfish are finding in abundance and feeding on to the near exclusion of all else. You should be ready to imitate any naturally occurring invertebrates that are abundant in the environments you fish. Consistent panfish action is a direct result of being in touch with their environment. But take care. The more you know about it, the more you'll want to protect it.