August 13, 2023
The line transmits a slight jolt as, directly below the boat, a 15-inch perch sucks in a jig tipped with a minnow. A few hundred yards downstream a float dives under behind a wing dam, where dozens of chunky 8- to 10-inch bluegills set up in the main river. The next morning, another half mile downriver, 13-inch crappies feed around a fallen tree in a backwater.
This cornucopia of river panfish is far more reliable than most anglers understand. Crappies, bluegills, and perch thrive in river systems, particularly where backwaters exist to provide nutrient-rich environments out of the main flow. But during summer, panfish moving into the main river channel may be the most overlooked of all popular American fish. When discussing fisheries, we often talk about transitions from summer into fall and from there to winter. River fish are known to be among the most dynamic in terms of distances covered between seasonal habitats. But river panfish seem to be the least dynamic of them.
Kirk Hansen is a research biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) involved in a crappie tracking study on the Mississippi River and through observation and angling, he keeps tabs on the other panfish species as well. "They don't move great distances from their overwintering sites at any time during the year," Hansen says. "The average distances traveled, as revealed by earlier studies done through our office, found that bluegills moved 1.2 miles, black crappies about 1.5 miles, and white crappies .9 miles before doubling back to wintering habitat in backwaters."
Perch may be the most dynamic among river panfish when it comes to migration and foraging movements. "We use tiny jigs and plastics for perch all summer," says river Guide Tim "Hutch" Hutchison, owner of Hutch's Tackle. "We have great perch fishing on pools 3 and 4 and the backwaters of the Mississippi. Dabbing vertically and catching perch up to 16 inches is one of my favorite bites. All summer, we dap with 7- to 8-foot St. Croix Panfish Series rods in 1½ to 2½ feet of water. Perch stay amazingly shallow, but roam constantly. I know a couple places where they congregate, but once they crop an area down they spread out and become difficult to find in summer. If you find them, you have a week or so before they disappear again. Radio telemetry on perch proves they can move 4 or 5 miles in one day. They keep roaming right into winter when they're locked into those deeper spots, just like the rest of the panfish."
Kyle Schoenherr, crappie pro and owner of All Seasons Guide Service, fishes tournaments in rivers from Florida to the Canadian border. "There's not a lot of transition involved," Schoenherr says. "Crappies don't move far. What changes is what I do tactically. Techniques change. In the summer we fish slowly and in fall crappies are more active, moving more. In murky water we change bait color and size, and in clear water we go more to livebait."
Crappie and bluegill movements into and out of backwaters are relatively short and rather predictable. During late summer, backwaters can become depleted of oxygen at night, and then become flush with oxygen during the day as photosynthesis occurs. Low-water years exacerbate this dynamic, producing major diurnal swings in oxygen content in river backwaters. Plants photosynthesize during the day, producing oxygen, then respire at night, consuming oxygen. Flowing water can become a necessity for backwater panfish in lush environments during late summer at least during the morning hours.
"As oxygen fades, it falls in the upper part of a backwater farthest from the current first," Hansen says. "The farther you get from the flow, the higher water temperatures are. Most of the short movements of summer and fall panfish in rivers can be explained by conditions like those and other factors. In low-water years, we find a lot more fish in the main river. In high-water years, more stay in the backwaters."
The only major migration from summer to fall habitat takes place when waters drop to about 50°F, according to Wisconsin DNR Mississippi River Habitat Specialist Jeff Janvrin. "Studies over multiple years revealed that fish in Pool 8 near La Crosse had an even distribution throughout the pool area until November, then began to cluster near overwintering sites. Fish are caught throughout the pool until the last few weeks of October, when a lot more bluegills are caught in the lower parts. The sites they head for are out of current entirely. Ideal backwater habitat for a bluegill in late fall isn't necessarily deep, but 6 to 8 feet or deeper if they can find it. In summer, you find bluegills in a variety of patterns, near downed cover, behind wing dams, in vegetation just inside backwaters, or out in the main channel. As fall progresses and the river drops under 50°F, bluegills move into overwintering sites quiet areas with wind protection and no current."
Oxygen depletion in backwater areas is accentuated by low-flow conditions, so look for more panfish on the fringe of the main channel, or in the main river behind current breaks like bridges, woodcover, or wing dams. During high-water years, oxygen depletion is minimized in backwaters while areas too shallow for panfish to use in normal conditions become accessible and may be rich in forage. Often, panfish only need to make short movements to adjust to these changing conditions.
"In my opinion, river crappies and bluegills don't move much, but it's tricky," Hutchison says. "On the Mississippi with its vast backwaters, they don't change much from summer into fall because their habitat needs are met in the backwaters. Where backwaters are limited, it's different.
"When spawning is over, they head to brushpiles and lilypad fields in backwaters and stay in those patterns until late fall. Then they head to deeper water to winter. If the water level rises during late summer, panfish move into areas that are usually too shallow, but move out as soon as it starts to drop. I fish the same spots from postspawn into November. Bluegills and crappies need access to at least 6 feet of water at this latitude to survive, and they find deeper spots if available. But we sometimes catch crappies in 2 feet of water in winter. They need deeper water to be close by when the water drops into the mid-30°F range, when vegetation dies and oxygen drops."
In addition to being a crappie pro and guide, Schoenherr is a certified diver. "I often wondered what kinds of stumps and vegetation crappies were using," he says. "I wondered why we caught dozens from one big stump in 12 feet of water while so many seemingly identical spots produced nothing. By diving I learned sometimes it's bottom hardness, or sometimes the sediment is hollowed out underneath that particular stump. I learned that sometimes there's a stump in the middle of submerged vegetation that you can't see on a graph. Diving helped me to determine how to approach various spots."
From midsummer on, field biologists in Minnesota and Wisconsin have reported catching more panfish by weight in test nets in the middle of the Mississippi River than any other species. Imagine how many panfish must be using mid-river structures in rivers like the Alabama, the Susquehanna, or the Tennessee after spawning. Certainly, mid-river panfish populations must be among the least pressured summer fisheries in America.
Though adept on lakes, Schoenherr prefers rivers because so few anglers realize how many panfish use mid-river cover and structure. "The cool thing about river systems is there are few barriers to where these fish can be," he says. "No matter whether the rivers are clear or muddy, there's moving water, no thermocline, the fishing is the same. We push minnow rigs, toss slipfloats, pitch drop-shot rigs anything with enough weight to fight the current. We locate old stumps in the Alabama River 8 to 10 feet tall in 18 feet of water that are 4 to 5 feet in diameter. A lot of people look for natural current breaks, but few people look for current breaks made by giant stumps in the middle of a channel. If you find a dense object that blocks current, no matter where it is, fish will be there and they're aggressive. It's rare to find inactive fish in current breaks on stumps down in heavy current."
In the river environments fished by Hutchison and Hansen, backwaters tend to have few areas deeper than 10 feet. Schoenherr finds similar habitats all over the country. "On the Ohio River on the Smithland Pool, there are backwaters and a huge swamp," he says. "It looks like Reelfoot in there, and it's mostly 2 to 3 feet deep. A depression is 4 to 5 feet deep and crappies live around those depressions year-round. Crappies love it up there, and few people pursue them way back."
On the Mississippi River along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, Hutchison first looks for crappies in brushpiles, laydowns, and other woodcover in the backwaters or along the fringe of the main river channel. Where he fishes depends on water level. "In summer, I like to pull into brushpiles with tiny jigs and plastics on 6- to 8-pound line," he says. "Some use minnows or bits of worm with floats, but I pitch through and around the wood. I don't want to be bothered by smaller fish. Crappies may pull away from brush in fall and I've had my best luck where the pads have died and only stems remain. There are waterbugs in there they prefer and you have to use a float because they're extremely shallow and spooky in fall. I use a slipfloat and cast 40 to 50 feet from the boat, let it sit 10 seconds, twitch it a little and move it slowly because they're skittish in 2 to 3 feet of water. You catch both white and black crappies there."
On the way in and out of backwaters, Hutchison sometimes hunts for perch on the flats, where hard bottom meets soft, but crappies and bluegills are more dependable targets until water temperatures drop into the low-50°F range in fall.
Crappies may suspend in wood but Hutchison fishes closer to bottom for bluegills in summer. "We use a hook and a piece of worm and focus on the bottom few inches with 6-pound line," he says. "Bluegills are pickier and bait is all but required. In fall, because they're feeding, small baits work well. We pitch little plastic nymphs on 1/64- to 1/32-ounce jigs, concentrating on everything within 18 inches of bottom. A lot of little bugs come out of the vegetation when things start to decay. Those insects move into woodcover, precipitating a move to wood for bluegills as well.
Hansen is a biologist who loves to fish, and he agrees with Hutchison's observations. "Bluegills are right on bottom," he says. "Active crappies typically hold up high. In the fall, I vertically jig minnows in deadfalls and brush. I start just under the surface and work my way down for crappies. For bluegills, drop it down close to bottom to start. I buy the cheapest 1/32- to 1/8-ounce leadheads and cheapest hooks that bend out easily with 8- to 10-pound line we don't have clear water and it's not a finesse bite. The added weight keeps it vertical in the current. You don't want the flow to sweep you into the wood. With tiny jigs, big crappies get off more often. A bigger hook helps."
Hansen uses a 7-foot medium-light spinning rod. "I tie onto a snag to hold position," he says. "Often, fish are on the downcurrent side, but they can be on the upcurrent side, too. Depends on how much flow there is. You fish all around it with no success and suddenly pull five from one tiny spot. Some of these snags are in a foot of water, some drop off into 20-foot depths. I don't work the main channel much, but directly adjacent to it. We do see crappies move out to wing dams when tracking, but it's not an every-year deal. It's a low-water deal."
Much of Janvrin's research shows that when the water temperature drops to 50°F, crappies, bluegills, and perch begin to draw tighter together, near their respective wintering holes. Some of those places are only 3 feet deep. Other places might be 7 or 8 feet. "Now you're fishing a precise area," Schoenherr says. For him, it means spider-rigging or "pushing" with long rods in a tight grouping. "I look for crappies behind dense cover and I push double-hook minnow rigs behind it on the downcurrent side. We use smaller shiners in summer, but in the fall, fish are more aggressive and we use bigger minnows. In dense cover, everything should be tight together in terms of spacing of rods. We use three rods per person, six out the front, a foot and a half apart, all rigged with the same weight so the rod tips look and react the same to light bites."
Because panfish populations coalesce in the backwaters in the cooling environment, fall is the time to find big backwater panfish in small areas. During fall and winter, panfish make slight movements in response to rising or falling water and ebbing or waxing oxygen levels.
It keeps us on our toes, but as fall wears on, fishing pressure is all but nonexistent. When roaming panfish settle, the bite can be awesome, while shotgun blasts from distant duck and grouse hunters only serves to accentuate the solitude.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid panfish angler, exploring rivers, lakes, and ponds for the best bites.