Water Edge Panfish
June 12, 2014
Electronic breakthroughs have enabled a greater understanding of the world of fish. Color sonars draw bottom contours and mark individual fish, while GPS allows anglers to electronically mark key spots, record routes, and consult digital contour maps as they drive the boat and troll. Underwater cameras let us inspect the underwater world, examine habitat features and how fish relate to them. In combination, these tools have changed the way we fish for edge panfish, making us far more efficient.
One consistent observation is the way fish tend to hold near some sort of edge. Panfish, particularly yellow perch, crappie, and bluegill all fit this pattern. You may spot a pod of big bluegills just outside the edge of a deep cabbage clump. Sometimes they're holding close to the bottom, other times just under the surface. But they're near some sort of edge.
As you scan the bottom, a small finger of rock appears, extending from a deep weedline, and you startle a few perch. Looking up, you may find crappies suspended above the hard-bottom spot surrounded by sand and silt. Again, edges key location.
Types of Edges
Bottom-oriented and cover-oriented species make more use of physical edges for resting and feeding, so walleyes and bass often share these spots with bluegills. Weededges and bottom-type transitions are the most important edges in natural lakes. In reservoirs, other important physical edges include submerged treelines or brushlines, roadbeds, and creek channels.
Vegetation Edges: Weededges form where lake or reservoir depth increases and sunlight can't penetrate into the depths. In some spots, bottom type shifts from sand or silt where plants can root, to rock or gravel, yielding weedless areas. Such deep weededges are high-percentage areas for big bluegills and crappies through summer and into fall.
The shallow side of a weedbed presents an edge as well. Inside edges are prime spawning sites for sunfish and sometimes crappie. Most larger panfish move deeper, though, once water temperatures approach summertime highs and baitfish and plankton are abundant on the edge of the main lake or reservoir basin. Here, other types of edges can be important.
Structure Edges: In reservoirs, structural edges often define the summertime homes of crappie, and sometimes bluegills and white bass, too. Submerged roadbeds are concentration areas for summertime crappie, as are the edges of creek channels where a sloping flat meets deeper water at the flooded stream bank, often adorned with timber. While relating to this edge, groups of crappies shift vertically with time of day. Toward evening, they may move near the surface to feed on young shad, and closer to the channel edge during the day. And when cold fronts buffet the lake, crappies often move into thick brush along the channel or drop deeper into the channel, but still relating to this edge.
Unseen Edges: Some edges aren't as visible with an underwater camera. Current edges, temperature clines, and features like mudlines position panfish. In rivers and the upper portions of large impoundments, current brings prey and positions it. While shad tend to school in a narrow band in fast-moving water, white bass are powerful swimmers and can attack from any angle, scattering shad in all directions. At other times, whites instinctively find the current seam where fast water meets slack. They hold close to current, burning little energy to maintain position while waiting for baitfish to swim by. Casting along this edge, retrieving in a downstream direction, can be deadly.
Panfish are keenly sensitive to surrounding temperature and can follow gradients to find prime conditions for feeding, digesting, and resting. In summer, cool tributaries and springs bring milder temperatures, current, and oxygen that attract baitfish. In winter, these spots offer milder conditions that fish often seek.
Heavy rains in a watershed create murky conditions that begin at the upper end of an impoundment where most inflows occur. The stained or even muddy water gradually advances downstream as a mudline, forming a sharp edge where it meets clear water. The advancing murk pushes baitfish ahead of it, and this glut of food draws white bass and crappie, along with bigger predators like stripers, bass, and walleyes. On large windblown impoundments, wave action also can create shoreline mudlines that white bass favor all year long.
Chemical edges, particularly of pH and dissolved oxygen, dictate fish position, too. During summer, many ponds and small impoundments stratify thermally and chemically. Of interest to anglers is the gradual and often complete loss of oxygen in the depths of these waters by mid-summer. Even catfish are forced to suspend above the bad water or move to shallower banks. Defining this oxycline requires an oxygen meter; but if your minnows die when soaked under a float or bottom rig, you're fishing too deep.
Highly fertile waters, thick with planktonic algae and vegetation, often suffer oxygen drops at night during summer. Photosynthesis ceases then and respiration by plants and animals, along with decomposition of organic matter, reduces oxygen. Early morning fishing can be slow, as fish are sluggish due to low dissolved oxygen. Action improves as the day progresses.
Big waters, many of which are great producers of hefty perch, can be intimidating — so much water for fish to get lost in. Savvy anglers find that edges often are the key to finding big schools of active perch occupying the deep rolling flats of Lake Erie's Central Basin, for one prime example.
Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters in Cleveland, Ohio, guides for perch and his clients rarely go home without a full bucket. "The most important edge for our perch is a bottom transition from rock to mud," he says. "Perch often hold near the break, and at times they switch their feeding from the rock side to the mud side of the transition. In fact, one day they may be feeding on the rocky side, then switch the next day to mud.
"On Erie, the best transition areas have a sharp change in bottom content. At times, we've been anchored and anglers in the bow, fishing over mud, are catching fish, while those in the stern aren't getting a bite. Perch are versatile feeders, but on Erie their favorite forage is the emerald shiner, and shiners typically school over mud bottoms. At other times, though, perch eat zebra mussels that colonize rocky areas."
Top-end LCD sonars clearly display such mud-rock bottom transitions. Hard bottom gives a sharper return and you often get a double echo, even with the unit on auto-mode. With some units, you need to turn up the sensitivity until there's a second echo below the first.
According to Lewis, the positioning of perch on either side of the edge can make a difference in presentation as well as location. "On rock, perch stay close to the bottom, and you must keep your baits down to get bit," he instructs. "When shiners are the target forage, perch often ride higher. But they all tend to hold at that same preferred level."
In-Fisherman website editor and Staff Photographer Jeff Simpson, a Dakota native, notes the importance of edges and prey positioning to perch on smaller lakes as well. "Many of South Dakota's prime perch waters have open basin areas where perch gather during much of the year," he says. "Perch school for two reasons. First, they seem to know there's safety in numbers.
"Second, larger groups of fish make it easier to find food, which typically is aggregated in confined areas but is abundant within those areas. Once the feast is found, there's plenty for all. Thus it pays for all members to hunt for the good of the group. Common prey options include shrimp, larval insects, and baitfish.
"At times, it's difficult to know what has concentrated the food supply," he continues. "I often drop down a camera and drift. You may see nothing for 75 yards, then all of a sudden it's a writhing mass of green heads and black bars. They stay in that area until the food supply dwindles. These areas are what I call prey edges.
"Over the years, we've found ways to create our own prey edges and draw perch in. If you catch enough small crayfish, you can chum a school of perch into your area. Toss out crayfish meat and tails and the perch find you.
"Another trick," Simpson says, "is to double-anchor your boat in a productive area. Anchor off the bow with a long line to hold position. Drop a smaller stern anchor straight down and tie it off so the rocking of the boat in waves raises and lowers the anchor at the bottom. This banging creates a silt plume and dislodges food items, drawing fish to you across a broad, featureless area of the lakebed.
"Once you've drawn perch in, fish as many lines as possible, as this seems to duplicate a scenario of abundant prey," he adds. "In shallow water, you can anchor and perch move to the shadow edge that the hull throws on the bottom."
During summer, crappies display what biologists call "crepuscular feeding" — most activity is early and late in the day. Apparently, their large eyes enable them to see well during these times of reduced light when minnows and shad are less able to elude them. At dawn and dusk, crappies use the surface edge to trap emerging insects and small minnows, and you can spot their swirling strikes with an occasional dorsal fin breaking the top.
Crappies also hold and feed at irregularities in weedlines, such as channel cuts, changes in weed type, and rocky breaks, as well as underwater points and the inside turns on either side. They use these pockets and turns to corral prey. They function well as close-range feeders, quickly sucking in small fish with their extendable, gulping mouths.
As the day progresses, crappies tend to move deeper and hold farther from the weededge itself, though still relating loosely to it. They may not actively chase prey at this time, but they'll sneak up and suck in a small marabou jig or tube slowly swimming through their zone, or a live minnow set on a float rig. Midday fishing can be productive, though usually not as fast as at dawn or dusk on a sunny summer day.
In clear lakes, shallow shoreline areas contain primarily small bluegills once spawning is completed. Big bluegills may move to the deep weedlines, joining crappies, walleyes, and bass, though often segregated a bit in their precise location. Crappies tend to hold nearest the surface, walleyes closest to bottom. Bass and bluegills roam the lower third of the water column along outside weededges. Pulling a small Lindy rig parallel to the deep edge accounts for big bluegills on natural lakes and weedy impondments.
Bluegills are uncanny in their ability to range and feed from surface to bottom. Somehow, news spreads across an entire bay that bugs are hatching. Bluegills quickly go from being bottom-grubbers to surface feeders, and fish dimple the surface as far as the eye can see. The next day, they may be in mid-water, sipping zooplankton.
After the spawn, white bass in reservoirs typically migrate down tributary creeks and feed in open water over deep reservoir basins. They forage on large schools of shad but often use the surface edge to trap baitfish. Their fast, slashing attacks seem ideal for this approach, and surface-feeding schools can be seen from June into October.
Casting or trolling small crankbaits like a Shad Rap, CountDown Rapala, Bomber 5A, or 1/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap is effective, along with casting medium-sized spoons and jigs. At night, however, shad often move inshore and night-feeding white bass use main-lake points, riprap banks, bridge abutments, and offshore islands to feed. Here, casting Roadrunners, Storm Spinner Jigs, and marabou jigs, is deadly.
At other times, whites feed on bottom, taking larger invertebrates that live in the upper layers of the sediment. Jigs and downsized Carolina rigs with softbaits like Case's Hellgrammite, Lunker City Hellgies, or Berkley Gulp! Alive! invertebrate baits work well.
During summer, the thermocline forms an edge that panfish typically don't cross, as this cooling layer separates warm and productive surface water from the often oxygen-depleted cold depths of deep lakes and reservoirs.
For most anglers, keying on edge patterns is straightforward. As predators, we are undoubtedly tuned to them as well. While some are obvious, others lie out of sight but visible via underwater lenses or detectable with other electronic tools. All are vital to fish. Tune in get in on action that will keep you on the edge of your seat this season.