Vertical Tactics for Fall Panfish
Across North America, panfish stack up and move to deeper water as temperatures cool. What constitutes deep water varies among fisheries, however, and cooler temperatures are relative throughout their diverse habitats. But what remains consistent is that winter is coming, and deep panfish are especially susceptible to vertical presentations at this time of year.
The mid-South is crappie nirvana and Kentucky Lake offers aficionados a slice of heaven. Captain Jack Canady has fished these waters for more than 40 years and has devised a strategy for following the seasonal movements of crappies. Canady explains, “Kentucky Lake is full of man-made stake beds and submerged brushpiles for more than 70 miles from the dam to New Johnsonville. It seems as though every dock and marina has some form of cover in front of it. In fall, the key is to move away from the bank and focus on deeper cover in the 12- to 14-foot range at the mouth of bays and along creek channels.”
To locate this submerged cover and to determine where crappies are suspended in the water column, Canady starts with a horizontal approach, prior to quickly switching to vertical tactics. He flatline trolls six lines with Bandit 300 Series crankbaits to cover water. With his bowmount Minn Kota Terrova, linked by iPilot to his Humminbird sonar units, he trolls at .9- to 1.2 mph with three rods on each side of the boat. He uses B’n’M Pro Staff trolling rods of 8, 10, and 12 feet. They’re matched with Abu Garcia Black Max baitcasting reels and spooled with 10-pound-test mono. He favors high quality gear for its reliability, durability, and performance; it also helps lessen the anxiety when the occasional 3- to 4-pound crappie comes along.
“While trolling, my eyes are peeled to the sonar’s side-imaging display,” he says. “I adjust my course as my Humminbird side-imaging unit detects cover up to 150 feet off the side of the boat. I’m not necessarily looking to fish over the top of brush with crankbaits, but I scout for cover with a mother-load of fish on it. When we find them, we go back and precisely target fish with vertical presentations.”
Canady’s standard techniques include a classic Kentucky Rig. It consists of a 1/2- to 2-ounce bell sinker tied to the end of the line and two short dropper lines spaced 12 to 18 inches apart with Eagle Claw #4 gold Aberdeen hooks dressed with lively shiners. The light Aberdeen hooks allow minnows to swim naturally. And the thin wire straightens easily when snagged in wood. To dress their rigs, anglers can add colored beads, Lindy snell floats, or tiny spinner blades in front of the hook as attractors, or substitute a jig for the plain hook.
To eliminate the added fuss of livebait, he suggests using artificial baits with various vertical techniques, such as fishing tandem-rigged crappie jigs like Southern Pro Lit’l Hustlers or Slab Jiggies Buggie Jiggies. To fish jigs in tandem, attach a slightly lighter jig to the mainline with a loop knot and a heavier jig at the end of the line with a fixed knot. This rig can be fished more aggressively with a snap-and-fall retrieve when dressed with a 1-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnow or Slab Jiggies Minnow, both of which stay on the hook better than live minnows.
Another overlooked option is to fish flutter spoons vertically. Fall crappies often feed on large preyfish such as lake shiners and shad, which are susceptible to die-offs during severe cold fronts. Spoons like the Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon and Luhr Jensen Coyote Spoon in the 2- to 3-inch range match the size and shape of this prey. With polarized glasses and down-imaging sonar, pitch the spoons along the outside edges and into open pockets in the wood where schools of crappies suspend.
When fishing tight to cover, remove the pre-rigged treble hook from the Slender Spoon and the heavy-gauge hook from the Coyote Spoon and replace them with an Eagle Claw #210 single hook. This short-shank hook has an open eye that makes it easy to clamp over a split ring. Use slightly heavier 10-pound-test monofilament line with these spoons to slow their descent and keep them fluttering in the face of crappies for as long as possible. By using a line like 10-pound-test Stren Hi-Vis Gold, you can also more easily track the fall of the spoon and watch for line jumps or premature stoppages of the spoon, which indicate a bite.
Spoons can be further modified into a double rig by adding a swivel to the rear split ring. Then attach one end of a 3- to 6-inch leader of 8-pound fluorocarbon to the open end of the swivel and tie a fly to the other end of the leader. The fly lures more tentative fish and also may be snatched by trailing fish when the spoon is the first lure to be eaten.
Perch are beautiful any time of year, but they have an added allure in fall when their brilliant orange and yellow markings match the fall foliage. Minnesota Guide Tony Roach favors fall for numbers of jumbo perch. He notes that Minnesota is blessed with legendary perch lakes such as Lake Winnibigoshish, Mille Lacs, and Leech Lake, as well as many smaller waters with different characteristics.
“Perch aren’t solely concentrated in deep basin areas in fall,” he says. “During calm sunny days, my favorite technique is to cruise the 6- to 12-foot flats and pitch jigs.” He looks for pockets in vegetation, transition areas where vegetation meets rock, and depressions in sandflats that hold schools of hungry perch. Roach favors Northland’s Whistler Jig as a search bait, pairing it with a 3½-inch Impulse Jig Crawler. This combo has the flash, sound, and vibration created by the jig’s propeller blade and an undulating paddletail. This bait can be cast far and worked quickly with a hop-and-drop retrieve.
When concentrations of perch are found on the flats, Roach pitches 1-inch Impulse Water Bugs, Mayflies, Tubes, and Mini Smelt on Bro Bug jigheads. He explains that perch are on their last feeding binge of the season and weedflats offer them a buffet of aquatic bugs, larvae, and minnows. The small Impulse baits offer a slow fall and don’t sink into the weeds upon coming to rest. Instead, they sit up on top of the plants, tempting perch to eat them even when little to no movement is imparted. Give the rod top an occasional shake as these baits sit on the weed tops where perch slurp them up.
As winter approaches, Roach shifts his attention from the flats to deep basin areas. Here he uses baits like the Rapala Jigging Rap and Rippin’ Rap to quickly get to the bottom and capitalize on the curious nature of perch. When fishing Rippin’ Raps, Roach likes to use a medium-light-power, fast-action rod paired with a spinning reel and 6-pound braided line, tipped with a 24-inch leader of 8-pound fluorocarbon.
Roach notes, “Braided line provides a much better presentation with lipless rattlebaits and the fluorocarbon leader provides increased protection against bite-offs from pike that are ever present around schools of perch. I fish the Rippin’ Rap with a standard rip-and-fall retrieve. Most bites happen on the fall.” As an added tip, don‘t be afraid to upsize from the smallest #4 or #5 sizes to the #6 Rippin’ Rap to target the biggest fish in the school.
The bait should be kept within a foot or two of the bottom at all times. So don’t be aggressive with the ripping action, and maintain frequent bottom contact. If perch are in a neutral mood, remove the forward treble hook, add a 3-inch leader of 8-pound fluoro to the hook harness and tie on a #6 Owner Mosquito hook. Bait with a medium fathead minnow or a piece of ‘crawler. Allow the Rippin’ Rap to hit bottom at the beginning of the cast and fish it with a lift-drop-hold retrieve. The Rippin’ Rap serves as an attractor, with sound, color, and vibration.
Smaller alternatives to the Rippin’ Rap include Dynamic Lure’s HD and Clam Psycho Shad. To trick-out these baits, substitute the back treble hook with a small spring coil plastic keeper with a 1-inch curlytail. Perch are mesmerized by the twisting action of the grub on the fall and attracted to the lure’s tight vibrating action on the upward pull.
If perch have their heads buried in the mud looking for bloodworms, pound the bottom with heavy compact spoons like the Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, Macho Minnow, VMC Rattle Spoon, Clam Blade Spoon, or Custom Jigs & Spins Demon Jigging Spoon. Many of these lures now come in glow or UV finishes, and the Macho Minnow has an added clackin‘ kicker tail for a sound attractant. With all of these baits, the treble hook can be removed and replaced with a single hook on a 2- to 3-inch mono leader. The single hook can be baited with waxworms, spikes, red worms, or minnows.
Bluegills transition from shallow weedy flats to basin areas as the leaves start to change colors. In most natural lakes, the sweet spot for ‘gills is the 15- to 25-foot range where bottom composition changes from rock to gravel or from vegetation to sand. Big fish are often on the move, looking for food and typically cruise within three feet of bottom.
Focus on this depth range and study your electronics to spot pods of big fish. An underwater camera is especially useful this time of the year to identify trophy panfish.
When fishing areas free of vegetation, the most efficient approach is to vertically jig artificials and drag livebait rigs while drifting. To maintain constant lure contact in waters more than 20 feet deep, steer away from monofilament line, which has too much stretch and lacks feel. Instead, use an ultra-thin diameter, no-stretch line like Berkley Nanofil or Sufix Nanobraid for sensitivity. Nanofil in 4-pound-test is thinner than 1-pound monofilament. This means it cuts through water and wind for a more vertical presentation when drifting.
Plenty of jigging spoons, such as the classic Swedish Pimple, Acme Kastmaster, and Northland Fish-Fry Minnow Spoon, are well suited for fishing vertically for bluegills, but my favorite is the Clam Speed Spoon. This spoon sinks quickly into the feeding zone and has a nice wobbling action on the fall. Below the narrow spoon is a 1-inch dropper chain to a #8 treble hook with an attractor bead on it. To add scent to this package, thread a few spikes or Berkley Gulp! Maggots onto the hook. Make a long cast and hop it along the bottom, then let it come to rest. Watch your line and rod tip for bites as the lure hangs motionless.
Bluegills often pick up this bait at rest. Occasionally give the spoon a quick pop to propel it off bottom. Then jiggle and hold it a few inches above bottom to tempt following fish.
Another great drifting option is a Michigan-style tandem rig. This setup allows two different bait options to be used simultaneously at slightly different depths. At the bottom, use a jighead like a Northland Thumper Jig that has a large profile to serve as an attractor. Make sure the jig’s hook is large enough to accommodate a whole ‘crawler, which is a favorite meal of trophy ‘gills. With a dropper line or loop 12 to 24 inches above the jig, attach a #10 Woolly Bugger or other small fly and place several spikes on the fly for scent and flavor. This combo is tough for big ‘gills to resist.
No matter where you pursue panfish, overlooked vertical tactics and tricked-out rigs can make a big difference this fall. Give flutter spoons and heavy compact spoons their due, and experiment with tandem rigs, which can double your late-season panfish action.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an avid multispecies angler, fishing year-round and across the globe.