Street-Smart Panfish

After extreme warming trends, we've had a week of comparably colder weather. The last week of April included snow accumulations of a foot or so in some parts of Minnesota. But, when the weather stabilizes, panfish respond, even though it feels cold to us. After 3 or 4 days in a row of the same kind of weather, river-backwater bulls and slabs were on fire.

River fish are tough customers. When the panfish in lakes are shivering out in the basins, river crappies and 'gills are having a picnic in the wood-infested shallows. Mississippi River crappies, besides being among the most beautiful I've found anywhere, fight harder than their local cousins in lakes. The bluegills fight like bass, and today we had plenty of opportunities to compare. Bass were on fire, too. Everything was biting. The first three fish we encountered were northerns, including a healthy 8-pounder that somehow got hooked right on the end of the snout. A bigger northern or muskie grabbed one of our struggling bluegills and almost held on too long — we had it alongside when she shook opened her big maw and let loose.

The gear we're using can handle some really portly customers. The rod I'm holding above is a Fenwick Elite Tech ERR76L. Mary's holding a St Croix Avid AVS 70UL. These rods can rip 4-pound Berkley FireLine through pretty heavy weeds and bring 5-pound largemouths out on the other side. The lack of stretch and thin diameter of the line combine to create slicing power. Move these quick sticks and you move the fish.

For stealth and abrasion resistance, we add 1 to 3 feet of Raven 5.6-pound fluorocarbon leader material, depending on the depths we're fishing. We tie the leader on using tiny Raven swivels, to eliminate line twist and create a strong connection for landing big fish in heavy cover.

Mary was using a slip-float setup. I was using a fixed Thill Shy Bite. Today we caught both species of panfish with Berkley Gulp Panfish Leeches, real leeches, minnows, and waxworms on TC Tackle Jigs (406/683-5485), and that's another link in a strong chain. The hooks on TC Tackle custom-made jigs won't straighten out.

As usual, the crappies showed a decided preference for minnows, the bluegills opted for leeches, and Gulp caught both. Strange, though, how the Gulp would fail to catch fish for long stretches of time then outperform livebait for an hour or so. Is Gulp better than livebait? Depends on when you ask the question.

What a dramatic day. As bright shafts of sunlight speared through the clouds, an osprey dove into the water nearby, dragging a struggling fish aloft. Loons were calling, eagles soaring, swans flying overhead, and various species of turtles were making up for lost time after sleeping through winter. We made our way home through several rain squalls, slipping through the shadows of the forest, rich with the ethereal echoes of horned owls calling through the dripping pines.

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