October 25, 2020
Whether you fancy crappies, perch, or bluegills, fall presents opportunities for both numbers and trophy fish. From sea to shining sea, stellar panfish fisheries dot the landscape. Some locations have a history of being prolific panfish producers, while others are riding a new surge in size and numbers. Before fall turns to winter, it’s time to pick a species, choose a location, and put a few primetime techniques into play to put panfish in the boat or on the bank.
Clear Lake, California
This destination about 100 miles north of San Francisco has a reputation for producing trophy largemouth bass. Anglers toss swimbaits the size of stocker trout in hopes of topping the lake record at 17.52 pounds. What often goes overlooked is that Clear Lake also holds the state record for white crappie at 4 pounds 8 ounces and is experiencing a boom of fish topping the coveted 2-pound mark.
Captain Ed Legan guides on Clear Lake for bass and crappies and is a veteran tournament bass angler and crappie tournament organizer. The crappie fishing is so good that the winning 10-fish bag at a recent tournament was 22.32 pounds. Imagine getting on a school of crappies averaging well over 2 pounds.
Catching these skillet-size fish is less difficult than finding them on this 43,000-acre fishery. “During fall, we’re fishing deep-water docks that extend into 25 feet of water and offer shade and overhead cover,” Legan says. “The lake has plenty of shoreline development—hundreds of docks need to be searched to find a handful of those that hold a motherload of crappies. I use my Humminbird to sidescan and downscan. When I find a school, I switch to my Garmin Panoptix to see exactly what poles and depth the fish are at and to judge their general attitude and movement.”
He uses a livebait-free presentation, consisting of 1/16-ounce hand-poured Do-it Molds round jighead, paired with either a 2.5-inch Keitech Swing Impact Swimbait or 2-inch Bass Assassin Pro Tiny Shad. He uses natural colors such as pearl, silver, and blue, and fishes these supple softbaits on 6-pound hi-vis Slime Line to help detect crappie bites.
“Late fall to early winter are among the best times for crappies here,” he says. “Fish transition to deep open-water areas, suspending 12 to 20 feet down over 30 feet of water. Some schools are the size of a football field. It’s not uncommon to catch serval hundred in a day and for several dozen boats to be working such a school for two weeks before the fish move.”
Lake Cascade, Idaho
If Clear Lake offers the option to produce 10-fish crappie bags topping 20 pounds, Lake Cascade, in Southwest Idaho, does the same for yellow perch. There’s no greater perch fishery in North America for fish topping 2.5 pounds, and you have a decent shot at 3-pound fish.
This impoundment of the Payette River encompasses nearly 28,000 acres and has benefited from fishery management intent on restoring a strong perch population. The lake is peaking for trophy fish, as more than half of the perch sampled in recent fall nettings are between 12 and 16 inches.
Cascade isn’t necessarily a numbers fishery, though. Andy Fiolka, a walleye and perch angler from South Dakota, considers these perch as a top predator. “With the absence of walleyes and pike, the perch are free to roam, eat, and grow,” he says. “They don’t have a diet of freshwater shrimp and bugs like their counterparts in the Dakotas. These perch eat bigger baitfish, crayfish, and juvenile perch.”
Cascade perch are nomadic, scattering on expansive flats and along breaklines during fall, instead of being homebodies and holding near weedbeds. This makes vertical presentations less effective, so Fiolka trolls for them. “I cover lots of water and use baitfish-type presentations,” he says. “I use typical walleye crankbait trolling methods, with 6- to 12-foot-long medium-action trolling rods matched with line-counter reels.
“I spool 15-pound Sufix Advance Leadcore line on the reels. At the end of the leadcore, I attach a 25-foot leader of 8-pound Sufix fluorocarbon and a VMC crankbait snap to allow for quick lure changes. The two shorter rods are angled off the back of the boat and the 12-foot rods are flatlined off each side.”
He favors #4 and #5 Rapala Shad Raps. Other options include Walleye Nation Creations Shaky Shads, Rapala Minnow Raps, and Storm Smash Shads. A variety of colors can be effective depending on light and water conditions, with his favorites being Yellow Perch, Purpledecent, and Dark Brown Crawfish. He trolls at speed of 1.7 to 2.3 mph and keeps his lures within a couple feet of the bottom, unless he sees fish father off bottom on his electronics.
Lake Havasu, Arizona
Looking for a 10-fish bag of redear sunfish topping 20 pounds, or a shot at a sunfish topping the 5.8-pound world-record mark? Arizona’s Lake Havasu is the place to be. This vast 45-mile long impoundment of the Colorado River has produced redear sunfish topping 2 pounds for decades. Then came the 2007 invasion of quagga mussels. A dramatic increase in the size of redear sunfish ensued as mussels spread throughout the system. Fish in the 3- to 4-pound range are caught regularly now and most years a fish in the 5-pound range is caught.
But the giant fish aren’t easy. The heaviest fishing pressure occurs in spring as redears make a push shallower to spawn. Fish become skittish with this added angler activity, making it more difficult to catch trophies, so fall is the perfect time to pursue giant redears in deep water with less fishing pressure.
The key during fall is finding deep water with easy access to food. On Havasu, that means long points that extend into the main lake and rock humps at the mouth of coves. Look for mussel beds on the topside of structure in depths of 15 to 30 feet. Since redears are constantly roaming, one option is to search with your electronics until you spot fish. Other anglers prefer to anchor on prime structural areas and wait the roaming fish out.
In deep water, the stretch of monofilament line makes detecting bites difficult. In addition, unlike bluegills that often take a bait and swim off with it, redears are quick to drop a bait if they aren’t convinced it’s a real meal. I use a no-stretch line such as 4-pound Berkley NanoFil with a 3-foot leader of 4-pound-test fluorocarbon.
Redears feed on mussels, crayfish, and snails, so work baits tight to the bottom. Occasionally, cruising fish can be caught with a redworm suspended under a slipfloat; however, a better approach is working small bladebaits, lipless rattlebaits, spoons, or jigs within a foot of the bottom. Tip these lures with bait for added scent attraction.
I work these baits from the shallow to the deep edge of the structure, stopping the bait and allowing it to rest on the bottom several times throughout the retrieve. The noise of a bait rattling attracts fish. For those looking to keep fish, consider those in the 1/2- to 11/2-pound range. Release the bigger fish to grow larger and to sustain good fishing for trophies.
Lake Osakis, Minnesota
For anglers after big bluegills in the northern half of the country, Lake Osakis in West-Central Minnesota offers tremendous fall fishing for fish generally in the 8- to 9.5-inch range. There are trophies topping 10 inches, though, along with an occasional 11- to 12-incher.
Garrett Svir operates Slab Seeker Guide Service and is one of the state’s premier panfish guides. “Osakis has miles of wild celery beds that provide great cover for fish during spring and early summer,” he says “It also has freshwater shrimp that spur fish growth. But by mid-September, bigger bluegills move from deeper water back to the shallows, holding along the outside edge of coontail beds in 6 to 9 feet of water. They stay in those areas in the north end of the lake right until ice up.”
The lake covers 6,300 acres and has regular algae blooms, so he sidescans with his Humminbird unit to find the outside weededge and then works down the edge, moving with his trolling motor set at .2 to .5 mph. He uses a Northland Tungsten Punch jig tipped with a Maki TOI soft plastic that resembles a black leech.
“The weight of the tungsten jig paired with the sleek softbait body keeps the jig running on a horizontal plane almost vertical below the boat,” Svir says. “It’s the most efficient way I’ve found to cover water to find fish.”
Once he finds fish, his clients use Thill Mini Stealth floats to present the same jig-and-plastic combo. He instructs his clients to shake the rod tip to get the bobber wobbling on the surface. This in turn imparts a seductive dancing action on the jig below. Big bluegills can’t resist it.
Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
This lake in Northwest Tennessee was formed by a series of earthquakes in the winter of 1811 and 1812, causing land adjacent to the Mississippi River to sink and fill with water. At over 16,000 acres, the lake has thousands of flooded cypress trees and stumps. It’s a panfish paradise, offering consistent year-round action for hefty bluegills and crappies. Bluegills typically measure 8 to 9 inches and crappies run 10 to 14 inches.
Reelfoot has a number of iconic fishing resorts that offer reasonably priced fishing packages that include lodging, a boat, motor, gas, and bait. With 38 years of experience, Billy Blakely is the head guide at Blue Bank Resort. Fall is his favorite time of the year to pursue crappies. “The crowds are gone and the fish are still here,” he says. “People love staying at the resort and crappie fishing is as good as it has ever been over the last 10 years. We fish deep cover in fall—meaning cypress trees in 8 to 12 feet of water. We look for shad flipping on the surface. Where there’s bait, there’s crappies.”
Blakely, like other local anglers, uses spider-rigging to score limits of fish. He favors B’n’M 14-foot BJP crappie rods and uses crappie rigs with two #1 Eagle Claw Aberdeen hooks with a trolling sinker rigged between the two hooks. He tips the hooks with lively minnows and suspends them 3 to 4 feet above bottom. If the minnows die quickly, you’re fishing below the thermocline. He moves the boat along at .2 to .4 mph, going from one series of stumps to the next.
Kerr Lake, Virginia and North Carolina
Captain Keith Wray, the Fish Doc, has 50 years of fishing experience along the East Coast and considers Kerr (also known as Buggs Island) Lake on the border of Virginia and North Carolina one of the country’s finest crappie fisheries. He says the crappie fishing keeps getting better, as white crappies have joined the resident black crappie population for a near 50/50 mix. He notes that 100-fish days are possible in fall, with half of those fish in the 10- to 14-inch range.
As a veteran angler on the lake, he has more than 400 brushpiles marked on his GPS plotter. “I drop a marker buoy as a point of reference about a half a cast upwind of the brushpile,” he says. “Then I position the boat downwind and cast hand-tied 3/32-ounce bucktail jigs without any livebait toward the brushpile. I use 4-pound Sufix Elite hi-vis yellow monofilament to help detect bites. Swim the jigs at various depths around the brushpile.”
He uses spot-lock on his trolling motor to hold the boat in position, then to systematically move around the brushpile to achieve different casting angles, before moving on to the next brushpile. The crappies generally face upwind.
The lake has two primary inflows, from the Roanoke and Dan rivers. Each fall, the lake is drawn down several feet, creating current breaks around midlake rockpiles on the lake’s north end. These areas attract crappies during early fall. As water temperatures and lake levels fall, crappies move downstream and hold on brushpiles in 20 to 30 feet of water. With a Garmin Panoptix Livescope, he can see the “light bulb” shaped crappies and pinpoint the largest fish often holding above and off to the side of the cover.
During post-frontal and dirty-water periods, he uses a more vertical approach. Wray: “When the bite gets tough, crappies pack in tighter to cover and are less inclined to chase a lure. We fish our jigs straight down over the side of the boat into the thickest part of the brushpiles.”
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is one of North America’s most traveled anglers and an exceptional multispecies angler.