Tail-Hook Rigs for Panfish that Nibble
January 31, 2018
How many times have bass anglers had their plastic worm or Senko-type stickbait nipped in the butt by aggressive bluegills? Decades ago while fishing my first Creme worms on lakes of eastern Pennsylvania, distinguishing taps of tail-nibbling bluegills and a bass bite were quickly learned, but another important lesson was missed. Regardless if it was in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, or Texas, fishing soft-plastic worms and stickbaits often resulted in encounters with tail-grabbing bluegills. For years, they were trying to tell me something, but it wasn't until nearly 10 years ago that I finally listened.
While the bulk of a bluegill's diet is composed of small invertebrates, being opportunists they at times eat larger food items. When they consume a minnow or leech, this windfall of nourishment can temporarily relieve them of the need to consume countless smaller insect larvae or zooplankton. While rarely the largest fish species in any lake, bluegills can be fearless. With a small mouth and large attitude, they occasionally take on quarry one would think they have no business messing with. Their mouth, however, has determined their feeding norms, exceptions, and how they must go about eating a meal.
After viewing many fish-feedings in large freshwater aquariums across the country, I've observed how bluegills address larger food offerings. After closing the distance with prey, most gamefish like bass and trout can simply flare their gills and inhale their meal. Bluegills, however, require a more labor-intensive technique. First, their small mouth requires they be closer to their quarry than most other species because it doesn't allow them to move the same volume of water larger-mouthed species can, including other panfish like crappies and perch. They're less able to inhale foods not in their immediate proximity. Most often, bluegills approach larger prey from behind to create an advantage by staying out of sight as long as possible. They then overtake their target and grab it. This isn't much different than when a bluegill grabs the tail of your plastic worm while bass fishing.
Nine years ago I came upon a clearance bin of 2-inch Yamamoto Senkos. While looking at this lure and remembering how bluegills harass my 5-inch baits, I thought, "What bull bluegill on the planet could possibly resist these?" This lure was perfect to capitalize on the sometimes aggressive nature of large bluegills, but it would need to be rigged in a way that yielded a high hooking percentage with their little mouths.
Bluegills almost always attack a soft-plastic worm on the back end, so I needed to figure out how to rig worms with the hook in the tail — tail-gunner style, you might say. I borrowed a tool used by livebait fishermen, the Kalin's Worm Threader. It's designed to run your hook and line through the entire length of a live nightcrawler. After some experimentation, I discovered they work equally well on plastics, including the little Senko. Small softbaits are easily affected by hook weight, so proper selection is critical. I didn't want a situation where the hook tipped the bait to a vertical position while sinking. I settled on the Mustad 94840 Dry Fly Hook in #8 and #10. The hook's light weight doesn't overpower the bait and is durable.
My first test of the tail-hooked Senko occurred in the spring of 2007 on my favorite bluegill lake in the Minneapolis metro area of Minnesota. It was spring when warming water brings bluegills shallow but before spawning. I cast the tiny Senko and began a slow retrieve with pauses to let it fall tantalizingly. Immediately I hooked and landed a large bluegill. Many bluegills later I concluded it was an effective presentation that targeted bluegills of above-average size, as well as bonus species like crappies, stocked trout, and bass. There was a time when I believed that a tail-hooked, 2-inch Senko was the most productive big-bluegill presentation on the planet. While I've modified that opinion somewhat since then, there was no doubt I was onto something.
There were two primary limitations of this lure, however. Despite the popularity of larger Senkos, the 2-inch model was hard to find. Also, you need to take time to rig them tail-hook style, because hooking them in the front like a bass presentation reduces hooking percentage. While I horded a large supply of 2-inch Senkos, I also experimented with the more readily available 3-inch version. The jump from 2 to 3 inches is where a Senko becomes less of a panfish lure and more of a bass bait. The 3-incher isn't just longer but also is thicker, attracting more bass and fewer bluegills. I've found that with tail-hooking, worms in the 2- to 2½-inch range are best for big bluegills.
I researched the tackle industry to see if any manufacturers offered anything similar to the small tail-hooked Senko and I found three options. Ike-Con (ikecon.com) offers the P-Wee Worm, a 2½-incher that's pre-rigged with two #8 hooks, one in the front and one in the tail. The tail hook catches the most fish. Kelly's Annealed Bait's (kellysbassworms.com) offers the Reveille Jr. Panfish Worm. Like the P-Wee, the Reveille Jr. is a 2½-inch worm pre-rigged with hooks on the head and tail ends. Kelly's also offers several pre-rigged worms for bass that feature a "bonus" hook in the tail end specifically for biting panfish. The third option is by K&E Stopper Lures (stopperlures.com) and their Worm Rival. This also is a 2½-incher pre-rigged with front and rear #10 hooks. One advantage these three options offer over the Senko is not having to rig them. With the P-Wee you simply tie your line to the front hook.
The Reveille Jr. and Worm Rival have a short leader with a loop. While you can use a small snap swivel, when fishing in shallower water I prefer a "cleaner" presentation that involves cutting off the loop and using the remaining leader to attach it to your mainline using a back-to-back uni-knot. You also can borrow a technique used by fly fishermen for leader attachment: Tie a loop knot on the end of your mainline and interlock that loop with the one on the worm leader. While all three of these pre-rigged worms are similar, each has a slightly different shape, action, and drop rate, which increase your options.
I started altering other lures to adapt them to tail-hooking. One option is with a Zoom Trick Worm — cut off about a 2-inch section from the front and from the back. This leaves you with three worm baits each approximately 2 inches long, perfect for bluegill tail-hooking. Using the Kalin's Worm Threader, you can rig each of these sections and have three surprisingly different lures. The head end of the worm has a different thickness and taper than the other two sections, so each has a slightly different profile and action. Also, rigging either of the tapered ends forward or a flat "cut" end forward results in different actions and water displacement, offering yet more variety. I've found that variations of the tail-hook concept are only limited by one's imagination. Attacking many of my bass plastics with a utility knife and worm threader has yielded many "Frankenstein" tail-hooked variants that have turned out to be bona fide bull bluegill producers.
I've found that tail-hooked plastics cast easier and farther than most typical panfish baits rigged without a float. In general, they're a bit heavier and more wind-resistant than most panfish offerings. I consider them on the heavy side for ultralight tackle. They should be treated more like finesse presentations rather than typical ultralight offerings. I like a 7-foot light-power rod for tail-gunning. Spool with 6-pound Berkley NanoFil and you're in business.
Rigging & Retrieves
From the first appearance of bluegills in shallow water in spring until early summer, I mostly fish tail-hooked baits without additional weight. Cast and use a slow stop-and-go retrieve. Experiment with speed, pause length, baits, and colors to identify the most productive pattern.
With tail-hooking there's little need to give fish time to take the bait. As soon as a bluegill grabs the worm, it's hooked. When you feel one, set the hook — a steady lift of the rod is usually all that's required. One situation where you lose the benefit of tail-hooks is with fish on spawning beds. These bluegills aren't interested in eating your lure and don't grab it like a feeding fish does. They're interested in defending their nest and often attack the bait cross-ways. This loss of hooking percentage is enough incentive to leave spawning bluegills alone and pursue them in other locations.
Another variation to try is a split-shot rig. Add a splitshot from 12 to 24 inches ahead of your lure. I mostly employ this tactic with floating baits like the Berkley Gulp! Alive!
Floating Pinched Crawler or a 2-inch section from a Berkley Powerbait Floating Steelhead Worm. Because of its texture, the Pinched Crawler is more difficult to run your line through to rig tail-hook style. Once rigged, however, a single bait may account for a number of fish before re-rigging is necessary.
Adjusting the distance of splitshot from the lure affects how far off the bottom it floats. Drag the splitshot across the bottom and then pause, as if you're using a mini Carolina rig.
The resistance of the water pushes the lure down toward the bottom and when paused it rises back up. This stop-and-go forward motion combined with up-and-down action has incredible fish attraction. Still, in typical bluegill fashion, they circle around the bait and approach it from behind to grab it in the butt.
When bigger bluegills start to move deeper, I switch to drop-shot rigging. The P-Wee Worm works great for this application. Use a Palomar knot to attach your line to the front hook of the worm while leaving ample tag length for a drop-shot weight. This is a perfect rig for probing transition areas as bluegills move from early-season shallow locations towards deeper summer structure.
Once bluegills set up on their deep summer haunts, I employ a technique that's a hybrid of drop-shotting and three-way rigging. I attach a weight to the end of my line, and depending on where bluegills are with respect to bottom, I attach a tail-hooked worm. It can be a lure like the P-Wee Worm tied directly to the mainline, or you can tie on a small snap swivel and attach one of the pre-rigged worms with the leader/loop arrangement. You can also rig your own creations tail-hook style with short leaders for attachment to the down-line. I also like to add a second worm 12 to 18 inches above the first, but be sure to check regulations for your area for legal lure configurations. I use enough weight to fish between near-vertical and 45 degrees while drifting or using the trolling motor to slowly pull through fish-holding areas.
Drop-shot weights or Water Gremlin Snap Loc Dipsey Sinkers in 1/8 to 3/8 ounces work well. The drop-shot rig works great around cribs, humps, deep weedlines, or any other area you find summertime bluegills. It can be effective through most of summer and into fall when bluegills set up in locations where they winter.
The next time you're bass fishing and you feel the tap, tap, tap of a bluegill on your soft-plastic worm or stickbait, pick up a rod with a tail-hook rig and listen to what the bluegills are trying to tell you.
*Robert Reznak is an avid angler and freelance writer from Lodgepole, Nebraska.