Trolling For Panfish
October 16, 2015
The canoe pulled away from the bank rigged with an attached transom for a light Minn Kota. I hit the release to swing the small trolling motor down and slipped off into a green, misty dawn on a small lake near Traverse City, Michigan.
It was summer, 1978. I had a flasher on the floor in front of me, the transducer attached to the bottom of the motor. I watched the bottom drop away, down to 15 feet, where the weeds stopped, and pitched a lure behind me. I was using an 8-foot ultralight rod, 2-pound line, and a vintage Young Bumblebee crankbait.
With over 100 feet of line out, the bitsy crank probably dove no more than 8 feet. But in a neck-down 15 feet deep between two weedlines, the rod bent deeply. A 15-inch largemouth soon was squirming in the net. I doubled back through and popped a 15-inch perch. Every pass produced a jumbo perch or a small bass, both species apparently hanging out in the same suspended pack. Casting produced nothing — the tiny lure couldn't attain the same depth — but trolling brought fish to net every pass for an hour or so.
I still have that Young crankbait, the finish mangled by teeth and errant plastics tossed carelessly into the same tray, turning the paint to goo. But the presentation of that tiny crank wobbling through "space" way back there and way off bottom led to success for panfish of all kinds over and around vegetation and rocky structure.
One summer, hunting for walleyes, I found giant bluegills when backtrolling Lindy Rigs and jumbo leeches over a deep rock reef. I'm certain the same kinds of experiences led many guides and pros to experiment with trolling lures and bait rigs for panfish. It works in every imaginable system, from Lake St. Clair to small natural lakes, to big reservoirs.
On Lake Roosevelt in Arizona we pulled little Yo-Zuri Snap Shads on longlines when we couldn't find the lake's stud crappies in their usual haunts. Though fun and effective, we probably didn't need to use lures quite that small. Tournament pro Tommy Skarlis proved as much by winning the 2013 Bass Pro Shops Crappie Masters Championship with walleye-size Berkley Flicker Shads and Salmo Hornets.
Skarlis Slabs Out
Using Abu Garcia 6500 line counters, 10-pound Trilene XT, and 8-foot St. Croix Eyecon rods, Skarlis pulled six boards — three off each side. The lures were placed 56 to 77 feet behind Off-Shore OR12 Side Planers and pulled at .8 to 2 mph to rack up 27.83 pounds of slabs in two days for the win. Average size was just under 2 pounds.
"We targeted sandflats about 15 feet deep," Skarlis reports. "Without cover, crappies are wary — a situation that screams 'boards.' Getting lures well away from the boat was key. When panfish spread out in clear water, approaching close with the boat is inefficient. I've encountered many instances in walleye tournaments when I wished we were fishing for perch or crappies. Board goes back and here's a 15-inch perch. All kinds of fish are living in vegetation. Present something just over the top and it pulls them up and out where you can wail on them."
Some crappie pros have resorted to longline trolling with jigs and plastics these days. "They let out all the line they can and troll at 1 mph," he says. "They know the lure has to get away from the boat, so why not use boards? They offer precise depth control. Distance behind the board determines depth, whether it's a jig or a crankbait. Tether it with a short 10-foot lead to get over brushpiles and aquatic plants. Or just use different jigs from 1/32- to 3/8-ounce. A 3/8-ouncer going .7 to 1 mph is getting down about 5 feet on a 10-foot lead. Look at the angle of the line behind the board and you can gauge the running depth with fair accuracy as you change speeds. Run four boards and let the fish tell you which jig is hitting the kill zone anywhere between 20 feet and the surface.
"When fish are on top and likely to spook from the boat, I use a Hutch Hair Jig. It barely gets below the surface. Just a hook with plastic stays on top, too. In most instances I use plastic. Minnows and 'crawlers work, but I've never encountered a situation where bait was essential. I spend a lot of time trolling Hutch's Hair Jigs and Johnson Beetle Spins. Little safety-pin spinner arms deflect off wood and slip through vegetation better, but I often tip them with Berkley PowerBait or Gulp!"
The Skarlis rule of thumb: In clear water or around dense vegetation, no-action tails shine. "Straight tails hang up far less," he says. "Action is overkill in clear water. Bluegills love little Gulp! Leeches on a #8 Daiichi Octopus hook (I prefer red) with a 1/4-ounce split shot 3 feet ahead of it. You can get right down on bottom in 15, 20, even 25 feet of water with that rig. Just let out a bunch of line until the sinker drags bottom. An egg sinker might be more efficient at raising sediment to attract panfish. That combination, when trolled for bluegills, turns your corn picker into a combine."
The Off Shore OR 34 Mini Planer detects lighter bites, he says — but pulling any board requires at least a medium-power rod. "I use St. Croix Eyecon 8-foot ECT80MM rods with Abu Garcia LC6500 line-counter reels filled with 10-pound Berkley XT Solar," he said. "No leaders are required unless the water is crystal clear. Then I might tie in an 8-pound fluorocarbon leader behind a swivel."
Skarlis likes Gulp! Alive! Helgrammites, BloodWorms, and 2-inch Minnows on hooks or jigs for bluegills and perch, but often starts with a crank for crappies. "I pull a #5 or #6 Berkley Flicker Shad or Salmo Hornet to find fish," he says. "Interesting how well bluegill-, crappie-, and perch-imitating patterns work for these little cannibals. With two trebles, if they come up and lick it, they own it. Trolling is a great way to find 'em. You can turn around and target fish with slipfloats or fixed-float presentations, or by casting jigs and plastics. But if they're spread out and you're being successful, why change? I stick with trolling at least half the time."
Contrary to conventional thinking, trolling can be most effective around dense cover. "From late spring through mid-fall, thick vegetation promotes great trolling bites," Skarlis says. "As the plants grow and get closer to the surface, shorten lead-lengths behind boards to make them effective. The most active fish are up high, above brush and vegetation. A short to moderate lead behind a board is more precise at covering specific depths than longlining."
When bluegills and perch go deep from late summer through fall, Skarlis starts hunting basin areas with his "combine" approach. "With the exception of Minnesota, where you can only fish one line per angler, a wide spread with boards excels at finding perch, bluegills, and crappies on and over nondescript basin areas," he says. "During fall I fish deeper flats, humps, and rockpiles with a bell-sinker rig. By longline trolling I find the effective range of line length. When lures start ticking bottom across the tops of deep structure or on the floor along basin transitions (from soft-to-hard bottom), I clip those lines to boards to spread my coverage and start zeroing in."
The Bro Method
Brian Brosdahl, guide, lure designer, and tournament pro from northern Minnesota, developed a lot of similar wrinkles by trolling to find panfish in the natural lakes up in "Moose and Squirrel" country. "Even Bullwinkle would have eventually figured out the safety-pin-spinner rig up here," Brosdahl says. "For bluegills, crappies, and perch, a hairpin-style spinner clipped to a small jig has been my bread-and-butter fish locater for a long time."
He often trolls with a 1/32- to 1/8-ounce Northland jig. "I often tip it with a piece of 'crawler above a little Northland Impulse paddletail plastic. Adding a little meat on top of the plastic often helps. In summer I look for the thickest stuff and search for concentrations of panfish in and around that cover. Trolling covers water faster than casting and often catches more fish. Trolling increases coverage. It's no different than trolling cranks for walleyes. Especially in vegetation during summer when weedlines are extremely dense. If you learn to pull baits over the top, you spend more time with the lures in the water."
To stay "over the top," he employs much the same technique as Skarlis, tethering jigs on short lines behind boards. "I use Off-Shore boards, too," he says, "I like big boards, like the OR12 Side-Planer. But in a lot of cases a long rod can replace a close board. With no board, you can set hooks by just pulling the rod forward while it's still in the holder with flexible plastic rod holders. Panfish — bluegills especially — can throw slack into the line in a nanosecond, so long rods often beat boards when the water's really warm."
Brosdahl likes the 9-, 10-, and 11-foot sticks in the St. Croix Panfish Series when not using boards. "The long rod gets the lure out farther from the boat path," he says. "And you can raise those rods high overhead to keep big specimens up and out of the vegetation. Along the outside weededge, I'm more likely to use a long rod with my Humminbird set to side-imaging to stay parallel with the cover. I use boards on top of the vegetation because they control how deep the lure or rig runs more precisely. Experiment with lead lengths behind the board until you find the happy medium between hanging up and catching fish. Boards are fun. They're visual."
He estimates his jig is 7 to 10 feet behind the board when skimming the weedtops. When there isn't much room up there, he uses a split shot, a small spinner blade, and a #4 Mustad Slow-Death Hook. "It spins slowly with a chunk of crawler," he says. "A silver or gold #00 spinner on a tiny clevis flashes constantly. I put two or three red glow or chartreuse beads between the hook and the blade. I've had good luck with orange blades and propeller blades, too. They do get plugged up more with algae once the blooms get dense, but until then the propeller makes a lot of noise and vibration. One little split shot is just enough to get it down a foot or two, right where you want it for slab crappies. It's subtle, but they're looking for mayflies and other bugs hatching up on top early, before the algae blooms."
Later as the vegetation reaches peak growth, Brosdahl uses a #4 or #6 Aberdeen hook behind a Jann's Netcraft Propeller Blade and a couple beads. A weed-shedding bullet sinker leads the way. "It has to be light," he says, "like a 1/16-ounce — just enough to get down a foot or two at .7 to .9 mph. I tie in a swivel and 2 feet of fluorocarbon behind the sinker and put the rig on that. It's a jungle. You need heavier line. I might use lighter leaders in the open.
"The right trolling speed is essential. Put the spinner in the water and watch. You want it to flicker — not truly spinning. When I keep the speed at .7 to .9 mph, crappies and bluegills erupt on the spinner rig. Move too fast and fish come off. It works well with a crappie minnow or a small panfish leech."
Sometimes he anchors the rig with a 1/32- to 1/8-ounce jig that has a long sharp hook that allows him to use Northland Impulse plastics with a hunk of 'crawler. Plastics add bulk and keep it from dropping too fast when the bait is on the inside of a turn. You don't want it falling too far down into the vegetation. Plastics add color, action, scent, vibration, and texture, too."
The rig is pitched back about 40 feet while the boat is moving. "You don't want it right next to the boat," he says. "You want it coming through right after the disturbance leaves. Sometimes that disturbance attracts attention. Cast the jig-spinner while the boat is moving and it holds its depth. The blade keeps it up, but get up to .9 mph and then cast. Ripping weeds is another disturbance that attracts fish. That's why I use 8-pound braid most of the time. You get more hookups. It powers the hook in because it has less stretch, but you can't reef on the fish. Long St. Croix Panfish rods match braid, absorbing shock and muscling fish up without ripping hooks out."
Brosdahl uses fluorocarbon leaders for abrasion resistance in the jungle. "Fluoro stays nice and straight, he says. "And it resists nicks. The clevis is trying to nick the line, too. Mono is good, but you get several extra qualities from fluorocarbon. When the water's turbid and things are in full bloom, fish are less line conscious. They get wary in spring, when the water is clearer and vegetation is thinner, so I go thinner, too."
Long ago, trolling with light lines and long, light-power rods became my ace-in-the-hole for finding panfish and bass in tough conditions. Fishing small cranks, jigs, and plastics in space is highly effective. Skarlis and Brosdahl not only discovered similar dynamics, they translated them into tournament wins and guiding gold.