10 guide-tested tricks for catching more sunfish and crappies
Although panfish are sometimes considered easy marks, consistently catching the biggest fish in any system is no easy matter.
The task is especially challenging outside of peak feeding and spawning periods, particularly when panfish roam wide-open spaces or hunker in thick cover.
To help you conquer the slab quest and catch more fish on every trip, we gathered the following collection of 10 top panfish tricks from some of the sport's most seasoned guides and experts.
When panfish invade the shallows on their spring feeding blitz, noted Berkley researcher and lifelong slab seeker Mark Sexton ties on a 1/32- to 1/16-ounce pre-rigged PowerBait Atomic Tube and heads for fertile shallows.
"Bays on the northeast side of the lake that have dark bottoms or old vegetation to soak up the sun's heat are hard to beat, especially on sunny afternoons," he says. "Water temperatures rising into the 50s attract large schools of hungry bluegills."
Wielding a 6-foot spinning combo strung with 2- to 4-pound Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon or Trilene XL monofilament, Sexton methodically works likely areas in depths ranging from mere inches down to eight feet.
"Docks, bridges, and other heat-gathering structures are golden," he says.
Sexton suspends the jig beneath a small fixed float and fishes it as close to such cover as he can. "Hit the structure on the cast and let the bobber ride next to it," he says.
Waves or slight current sometimes provide ample animation, but a little extra motion is a plus on flat-calm days. To achieve it, Sexton slowly reels the rig. "The fish want to eat, but they're lethargic, so don't overdo it," he warns, noting that the pattern holds water until the water temperature reaches 60.
"After that, bluegill schools scatter," he says.
Cold fronts can also push panfish out of shallow feeding areas. To catch them, veteran Northwoods guide Jeff Sundin plies offshore hotspots adjacent to the feeding grounds.
"Before the spawn begins, you can usually find fish hanging out along primary drop-offs that lead into deeper water," he says.
Sundin favors soft, marl-bottom flats near the base of shoreline breaks. "I look for the kind of bottom that sticks to the anchor when you bring it up, so you have to swish it back and forth in the water before lifting it in the boat," he chuckles. "That kind of sticky mix of sand and clay breeds all forms of insect life."
When he marks fish on sonar or settles on a promising area, Sundin ties on a pint-sized jig like a 1/16-ounce Lindy Watsit or standard Lindy Jig.
"Insect-imitating ice fishing jigs like the Lindy Toad and Ice Worm are great, too," he adds. Tippings range from waxworms to crawler parts and tiny leeches. "Mix and match until the bluegills show a preference," he says.
"The presentation is similar to late-winter ice fishing," he adds. "Hold the jig as still as possible, so sunfish can sneak up and inhale it." Sundin prefers tight-lining, but he says bobber rigs work, too.
Longtime panfish hunter Scott Glorvigen plays the deep game for broad-shouldered bluegills hunkered at weedbed bases.
"Aquatic vegetation can be just like a forest — thick at the top but open below, offering bull bluegills ample shade and plenty of room to hunt," he says.
To target these bruisers, he punches through the canopy with a bullet sinker and small jig tipped with a softbait.
Glorvigen's program includes a 7- to 8-foot, medium-power St. Croix Panfish Series spinning rod spooled with 10-pound superbraid mainline for muscling bulls from of the jungle.
He slides on a slip-float large enough to support a ¼-ounce bullet weight and panfish-sized jighead such as a Northland Tackle Mud Bug, Gill-Getter, or Hexi Fly, then ties on a small swivel and 12-inch leader of fluorocarbon or mono.
Jigs are tipped with a variety of 1- to 2-inch bug- and minnow-shaped plastics, including Northland's Impulse Stone Fly, Mayfly, Mini Smelt, Tadpole, and Water Bug. A wacky-rigged 1.25-inch Mini Roundworm is a favorite when bites come hard.
To fish the rig, he makes a short pitch, lets the bullet sinker plow through the canopy, then twitches and pops the float in place to animate the bait below. With a long rod and the float close to the boat, vertical lifts are also top options.
It's worth noting that Glorvigen uses GPS mapping in conjunction with Lowrance downscan and CHIRP sonar to locate weed-capped points and humps. "Areas that have a mix of coontail and cabbage are hard to beat," he notes.
Crappies and docks are a winning combination, but few anglers reap their full potential, especially early in the year and in mid-summer.
Panfish fiend Paul Fournier fishes docks from the time the first wave of crappies hits the shallows in 38-degree water well into summer.
He finds the best docks on each lake by studying lake maps to find structures abutting steep breaks, and keys on docks extending into depths of four feet or more.
Fournier also looks for added amenities such as large wooden pilings and complex L- and T-shaped protrusions complete with boat lifts and canopies. He notes that swimming docks adjacent to the main dock may also collect crappies.
Docking panfish calls for no special gear. Often, Fournier doesn't even use a boat — instead donning waders and stalking the shoreline.
He prefers spinning gear strung with 4-pound mono, adding a 24- to 36-inch light fluorocarbon leader to calm the nerves of line-shy slabs.
A 1/32- or 1/64-ounce, feather-tailed jig such as Lindy's Little Nipper is one of his favorite weapons, either tipped with a waxworm, small softbait, or fished plain. He fishes the jig beneath a small float, methodically working the dock's perimeter before attacking the inner sanctum below.
No matter the panfish situation, Glorvigen recommends always using as light a line as the conditions allow.
"I prefer 2-pound-test monofilament because it's harder for fish to see, and gives the bait a more natural fall," he says.
Using light line can at times make a huge difference in catch rates. "I was fishing an ice-out crappie tournament with my brother," he recalls.
"We were throwing tube jigs on 4-pound-test and catching a few fish. But when we switched to 2-pound line in an effort to cast the same jigs just a little farther, we absolutely lit them up. We placed second, but might have won if we hadn't wasted the first hour fishing with heaver line."
No, that's not a misprint. Glorvigen advises ditching traditional anchors to win the battle for boat control when pursuing panfish.
"Shallow-water anchoring systems like the Minn Kota Talon, which evolved on the bass scene, work wonders for panfish, too," he explains.
In a nutshell, shallow-water anchors are mounted on the boat — typically astern — and are capable of quickly deploying a spike to pin the boat in place. When not in use, they fold or retract, thereby keeping a low profile.
While such systems shine for keeping the boat safe while docking, loading, and unloading, Glorvigen says a main benefit on the fishing front is allowing him to thoroughly dissect prime lies with the utmost efficiency.
"When working a break, weedline, or flat, I can Talon down and explore every fish-holding facet the spot has to offer, without the hassle of dropping anchor or drifting out of position," he says.
"In contrast, when you rely on a trolling motor or the wind to push you through an area, you tend to move too fast. And when a fish hits, it's easy to drift out of position, or even over the spot you're trying to cover, blowing the rest of the school out of the area."
When fish are found, he can easily fine-tune boat position without wrestling with an anchor or banging it against the hull and spooking fish.
Glorvigen notes that while shallow-water anchors are handy by day, they're absolute godsends once darkness falls.
Connecting clients with deep-water crappies on windy days can be challenging, so Sundin developed a bobber trick to turn the tide.
"One trip, for example, we found active fish suspended a few feet off bottom in 26 feet of water, but 40 mph gusts made presentation difficult," he begins.
Sundin knew that vertical jigging was the way to go, but the wind and whitecaps made it tough to keep baits in the strike zone.
"The only way to keep clients in touch with the correct depth was to rig up with ¼-ounce jigs and use Thill slip-floats designed for 1/8-ounce weights as depth markers," he recalls.
Sundin's clients could raise or lower floats as needed to match the depths at which he spotted fish on sonar, eliminating guesswork on how far beneath the boat their jigs actually were hovering.
Suspended Fall Crappies
As late fall settles in, Glorvigen looks for deep, mid-lake basin holes, where schools of hump-backed slabs roam the abyss in search of sustenance.
"Much of the feeding focuses on zooplankton and other small prey, but crappies eagerly snap up larger meals such as minnows and other baitfish," he says.
Leaning on cutting-edge electronics such as Lowrance's Elite-5 CHIRP Gold sonar-chartplotter to pinpoint pods of wayward panfish, Glorvigen scans potential hotspots in depths of 50 feet or more.
Once on fish, Glorvigen deploys 2- to 2¾-inch swimming jigs such as Rapala Jigging Raps and Northland Puppet Minnows.
"Horizontal jigs tipped with flavored softbaits such as Berkley PowerBait and Gulp! bodies also work well," he says. "You can use spoons, too, but vertical baits aren't nearly as effective this time of year."
Glorvigen shelves traditional snap-fall tactics used for walleyes and other large predators, favoring a slower hand for suspended cool-water crappies.
"I prefer dead-sticking over a standard jigging presentation," he says. "When crappies see the lure's profile, they think it's a minnow mixed in with the zooplankton and boy, do they smack it."
Ponds are standard fare in Southern states, but many northern anglers write off small waters as winterkill-besieged bullhead factories.
Panfish ace Bob Bohland says that's a mistake, since even the smallest pond could be paradise. "I spend a lot of time pond-hopping in northwestern Minnesota," he says. "And even this far north, many ponds hold a surprising number of perch, bluegills, and crappies.
Bohland's honeyholes range from one to 20 acres in size. He says incoming streams and springs can portend panfish nirvana, but aren't absolutely critical.
"Inflows can help prevent winterkill," he says. "But some ponds see die-offs and then bounce back with a vengeance, producing big panfish a few seasons later."
One of the surest signs a pond holds fish, he notes, is actually a sign.
"If you see a road sign that says, 'No Parking,' or 'No Fishing From Roadway,' find a place to park and check it out," he laughs. "Trust me on this one. I've caught some really big bluegills just by reading the signs."
When hordes of fish-hungry, winter-weary panfish anglers converge on community fishing areas during the crappie's spring fling into shallow water, the mob scene can make fishing a nightmare.
To combat the crowd, Fournier looks for fish-holding areas away from the carnage.
"Warm water and food are key right now, so I look for areas with the warmest water the system has to offer," he begins. "Dark-bottomed bays that soak up the sun's rays are classic spots, but they're not the only game in town.
"I also look for old bulrush and cattail stems, clumps of dead weeds, flooded shoreline brush, and anything else that absorbs heat and kickstarts the food chain.
"Incoming streams, dead-end canals, and shallow channels linking lakes can also be gold mines. Don't be afraid to look up a creek for crappies, either, because the fish often move in when the water is warmer than the main lake or river," he advises.
When forced into a community hole, Fournier fishes the edge of the crowd. "Spring crappies are roamers, and often move away from the commotion," he explains.
Tactically speaking, Fournier fancasts likely areas with small jigs such as 1/64-ounce Lindy Little Nippers suspended under a slip-bobber.
When hard-pressed crappies short-strike the jig, he boosts hookups by trimming back the tail feathers and bending the hook point about 30 degrees to the side.
Such combat fishing tactics are a fine finish to our roundup of slick panfishing tricks that collectively can help you catch more fish all season long.