The truth is out there, found in the same general abyss used by panfish. But some panfishermen can't handle the truth. Panfish go deep. From postspawn through winter, most species of panfish suspend in open water, hold on deep structure, or populate deep basin areas at one point or another.
Rockpiles rising off the bottom of a 25-foot flat, for instance, are classic summer haunts for giant bluegills and crappies. But hunt panfish there in spring, or in early summer just after the spawn, and chances are the spot will hold perch, walleyes, or pike, but few panfish. So, until surface temperatures have topped 70F in spawning areas and until panfish have had time to disperse, humps, rockpiles, and other deep structural elements are poor locational choices for anglers. Timing is the first key.
July, August, and September are perfect times to probe deep open water panfish haunts. Even then, only a few panfish might position deep, like the minority that stays on deep weedlines, or the one that stays in shallow slop, or the minority that cruise open water, following wind-driven veils of plankton. Things like fishing pressure and forage density ultimately determine which pattern involves a majority, if any. But, because so few bluegill anglers hunt deep in summer, deep fish tend to be bullish in lakes where deep patterns persist.
Precise location is the second key. During the same time frame, crappies alternate between suspending off structure during the day and holding on it during low-light periods. Like bluegills, crappies also position on deep rockpiles, but more likely suspend up and away in morning and evening. And, like bluegills, crappies cruise open water, too, sometimes suspending over the deepest basins in the lake in search of plankton, or chasing minnows that also feed on open-water plankton. White bass will be nearby. And all species of panfish gather on deep weedlines, especially when the wind's been blowing into the area for several days.
Presentation is the final key to the final door. Put the right bait or lure on the right rig and it's lights out for deep panfish. Boat positioning, sonar savvy, and wind watching are all part of the game, components we've discussed at great length in past issues. Here we recap rigging options for panfish in various open-water attitudes, including tackle considerations, timing, and a few locational keys.
Bluegills and crappies aren't the only critters populating the abyss. Angling efforts and recent radio-telemetry studies in Wisconsin prove that perch also suspend in open water. And white bass are notorious open-water minnow rustlers. So, like it or not, big panfish are out there. And that's the truth.
Tricks Of The Panfishing Trade
1. Open-water drifting is easy, and productive from midsummer on. Sometimes the biggest panfish in the lake are out there, following wind-driven veils of plankton. Find suspended fish with sonar, or visually mark the densest concentrations of plankton. Drop unweighted or lightly weighted rigs back varying distances from the boat and drift slowly with the wind. Bait with worms, maggots, minnows, or Berkley Power Wigglers.
2. Rig for quick coverage over extensive humps or a series of reefs. Weighting systems like the Northland 1/4-ounce bottom bouncer or the Yellow Bird T-Weight are sensitive and keep the presentation vertical with 4- to 6-pound line. The bait or a tube on a bare hook tied on a loop knot (for freer action) stays near bottom. Drift with the wind or "slip" by fighting the wind with a drift sock or trolling motor. Try 3-way-rigging tiny floating minnowbaits, too.
3. Anchor along wind-blown weedlines and present slipfloats with tubes or baited jigs. Let the wind carry the floats across the open water in front of the weedline, then maneuver the floats into pockets, points, and clumps along the edge. Re-anchor often.
4. Move parallel to the weededge with the trolling motor, casting tubes and tiny grubs. Use 1/32-ounce heads on 4-pound line. Let tubes spiral down the edge. Swim small grubs over the weeds and along the edge. Work along bottom with brown-orange tubes and tiny plastic craws with 1/16-ounce heads.
5. Backtroll the weededge slowly with weedless rigs (plastic or wire hook guards).
6. Crappies suspend out a cast or two away from the weedline during the day. Search for them with small suspending minnowbaits on 4-pound line with a light 7-foot rod. Cast with the wind. Cover water. Work these baits with a light snap-snap-pause pattern. Concentrate your effort near open water within cups or big inside bends in weedlines, open water beyond areas where weedgrowth is densest or most diverse, or over flats adjacent to weedlines where the wind is blowing inshore.
6 Arc of Slabs, Northeast Mississippi
Like the Bordeaux region grows world-class wine grapes, the Arc of Slabs is famous for producing giant crappies. Grenada, Sardis, Enid, and Arkabutla — it's a tossup which of these reservoirs might be best for giant white crappies during March and April. Jigging in brush and spider-rigging are the best bets. Wading, too, at times. Contact: Guide John Woods, 731/334-9669; Guide John Harrison, 662/983-5999.
2 Lake Erie, Ohio
The best opportunities are between Port Clinton and Vermilion, says Ohio fishery biologist Travis Hartman. Many marinas and backwaters have excellent crappie fishing in the spring, peaking in late April to early May, and occasionally in the fall. Good open-water spots are East and West harbors and Sandusky Bay. Check connected rivers, too. Lots of fish to 12 inches, with 14-inchers not uncommon, Hartman says. Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters says Lake Erie is a surprisingly overlooked crappie fishery, considering the numbers of fish caught, up to 18 inches, as big as any in the state. Contact: Erie Outfitters, 440/949-8934; Ohio DNR, dnr.state.oh.us
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Guide Billy Blakley says the crappie forecast for the 'Earthquake Lake ' is excellent for 2013, with average fish running 1 to 11„4 pounds and catches up to 23„4 pounds. The lake contains both black and white crappies. From March through May, spider-rig and jig around underwater wood, and jig around exposed cypress stumps. The bite picks up again in the fall. Top-notch lodging and food at Blue Bank Resort. Contact: Guide Billy Blakley at Blue Bank Resort 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
7 Weiss Lake, Alabama
The crappie outlook is very good for 2013, reports Alabama district fisheries supervisor Dan Catchings. Samples indicate one, and possibly two, strong year-classes of crappies in 2010 and 2011. Expect good numbers of harvestable-size fish from the 2010 spawn this spring, with the 2011 year-class contributing to the fishing in mid- to late 2013. Fishing picks up in February as crappies move shallow. March through early May is best, with April being the peak. Contact: Guide Richard Green, 859/983-0673, or book through Little River Marina and Lodge (256/779-6461); Guide Mark Collins, markcollinsguideservice.com
8 Kentucky Lake, Kentucky / Tennessee
Anglers look forward to the 'Crappie Capital ' living up to its name in 2013, says guide Steve McCadams. Expect numbers of quality fish with a shot at slabs over 2 pounds. While action during the spawn in late March into April is outstanding, don't overlook May and June, when stable lake levels and weather patterns find crappies concentrating around fish attractors at midrange depths, he says. Contact: Guide Steve McCadams, stevemccadams.com
9 Kerr (Buggs Island) Reservoir, Virginia/North Carolina
Numbers of crappies from 1 to 13„4 pounds with a chance for 2- to 3-pounders. Once the spider-rigging bite wanes in shallower creek channels by April, action turns to jigging deeper brushpiles. Contact: Guide Bud Haynes, 434/374-0308; Guide Keith Wray, 434/635-0207; Bobcats Bait and Tackle, 434/374-8381.
3 Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma
This shallow reservoir boasts numbers of crappies in the 2- to 3-pound range, with 37-fish limits common. In spring, the action is shallow, doodlesocking flooded buckbrush in high water, or working rocky banks and brush cover in low water, says guide Todd Huckabee. Crappies move to deeper brush later in spring. Contact: Guide Todd Huckabee, toddhuckabee.net
; Guide Barry Morrow, barrymro.com
; Blue Heron Bait and Tackle, 918/334-5528.
5 Lake Fork, Texas
Numbers of slabs from 11„4 to 21„2 pounds tend to get overlooked in this lake famous for lunker bass. Mid-May through June is guide Terri Moon's favorite time for crappies, when the fish head to brushpiles and bridge abutments in 20 to 24 feet of water. Pitching Fork Tackle's Live Baby Shads on 1/16-ounce jigs is a top option. Ivan Martin and Rick Loomis also guide clients to Fork's crappies in November and December, when fish are on points and in deeper brush. Contact: Guide Terri Moon, 903/383-7773; Guide Ivan Martin, 918/260-7743; Guide Rick Loomis, rickloomis.com
; Lake Fork Marina for lodging, food, and tackle, lakeforkmarina.com
1 Lake of the Woods, Ontario
The Woods is top-notch for black crappies to 16 inches, says In-Fisherman contributor Jeff Gustafson. Many crappies on this massive water have never seen lures, so once you find them, the numbers and quality are second to none, he says. Action starts in mid-May, with fish moving to shallow areas with cover. After spawning in early June, target them on weedflats in 6 to 10 feet of water. Float-and-jig combinations excel. Also try small suspending jerkbaits and swimming marabou jigs. Contact: Guide Dave Bennett, davebennettoutdoors.com
, 807/466-2140; Guide Jamie Bruce, brucescanadianangling.com
10 St. Johns River, Florida
The stretch of the St. Johns River south of Lake George offers outstanding fishing. Crappies from 2 to 3 pounds are caught regularly, with average catches well over a pound. This was the scene of an In-Fisherman television episode that airs this spring. Weedflats hold fish that can't resist tubes fished under a float. Or troll channel edges using jigs or minnows. Contact: Lodging at Castaways on the River, 352/759-4522, castawaysontheriver.com
; Guide Steve Niemoeller, 386/846-2861, cflfishing.com