The panfish family includes several of freshwater's most popular and best-tasting fish. They are a favorite quarry from youngsters to experienced anglers looking for a fun fishing outing or to stock their freezer with tasty filets.
Their wide range makes them accessible to most anglers and they're generally eager to bite when you locate them. One of the greatest things about fishing for them is that it can be as straightforward or as complicated as you want to make it, but catching more and bigger panfish takes the right live bait or lure for the situation.
Minnesota-based fishing personality Nicole Jacobs and Wisconsin guide Vince Moldenhauer share their insights on bait selection for three popular panfish species.
A prized target everywhere, crappies are aggressive fish that are fun to catch and make for excellent table fare. Catching them is possible with a wide range of baits, depending on the season.
When the ice has just recently thawed early in the year, Nicole Jacobs keeps the ice fishing mindset with small ice fishing jigs when fishing for fun or guiding clients on Twin Cities Metro area lakes.
St. Croix Report
Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, a prolific fishing guide with a penchant for all things panfish has been on the leading edge of bluegill, crappie, and perch-fishing techniques and innovations for well over two decades now.
While Bro pursues panfish year-‘round, he gets particularly giddy come ice out.
“Wintertime sticks around for a long time in Northern Minnesota,” the St. Croix pro says. “While you’ve always got something going on beneath the ice, most northern anglers are eager to make the switch to open-water fishing as soon as the ice goes out.” And for good reason. Bro says the months of April, May, and June bring some of the best panfishing conditions and opportunities of the entire year.
“Of course you’ve got the unique aspects of the spawn – perch and crappies first and then the ‘gills – but those details aside, the common denominator for springtime panfishing is shallow water,” Bro advises. “It’s the first water to warm, so it’s where the weeds get growing and where concentrations of bait begin to get active. As a result, it’s where the panfish want to be, too.”
Bro says he spends ample time covering warming, shallow-water flats by casting micro jigs early in the season. “I’m looking for any weed growth,” he says. “The fish I’m hunting are often scattered in less than six feet of water. I’m usually searching with a Northland Thumper Jig or a Fire-Fly Jig tipped with a wax worm or a small crappie minnow.” Bro says he rigs with eight-pound Sunline green braid with a four-pound fluoro leader. His rod of choice is a 7’ light power, extra-fast action St. Croix spinning rod.
By Louie Stout
There’s a movement afoot within the Michigan DNR to give more attention to the state’s panfish population.
And why shouldn’t there be more attention? Panfish, especially bluegills, are the most popular fish within inland waters.
Southwest Michigan biologist Matt Diana recognizes that and recently conducted a survey of state anglers to see if there was support for a more diverse management beyond statewide bag limits.
The survey indicated some anglers were in favor of even more restrictive bag limits on some lakes and better protection of larger size panfish.
Diana certainly isn’t proposing such changes on all lakes, but on a few targeted lakes that need more management control. He’s specifically interested in lakes with good panfish growth and those in which bluegills are stunted and over populated.
By Josh Lantz
(For St. Croix Rods)
Whether targeted for fun or for the table, panfish please most anglers– especially lunker crappies and hand-sized bull bluegills. Fall is a great time to catch them, but with variables like changing vegetation, cooling weather, turnover, and fall bait migrations, how do you crack the code for consistent success?
We asked four of the nation’s top panfish specialists five questions about fall crappie and bluegill fishing. Their answers will help anyone become a more successful fall panfish angler.
Q1 - What factors are influencing where and how you are fishing panfish right now and throughout the fall?
Joel Nelson – As lakes turn over and water temperatures no longer restrict their depths, you’ll see bait moving shallower to seek out cover for protection. I’ll typically find big crappies and even bluegills following them up on any available cover or structure – especially rocks with nearby wood.
Jeremy Smith – Weather is the primary factor influencing where I’ll target fall panfish. Deep bites in fall tend to be the most consistent. From my experience, it’s easier to find fish in deeper water basin areas and get them to bite when the weather is nasty. On warm, pleasant fall days, however, shallower fish relating to weeds, cribs, or other cover aren’t buried in as far and can be easier to find and catch. If there is good weed cover, meaning vertical standing weeds, all fish – including panfish – will use them throughout the fall and into winter. I’ve found a number of great panfish spots on accident while bass fishing that are far shallower than I thought panfish would be in the fall… dense weeds in five-to-eight-feet of water. It’s no secret, fish love weeds and if you find good weeds in the fall, chances are bluegills and crappies will be using them for as long as they are green and standing, sometimes all the way ‘til first ice.
Blake Tollefson – I spend the majority of my time on small lakes, like 200 acres or less. Dropping water temperatures and weed die offs are the biggest factors with the most significant impacts on where and how I’ll target panfish throughout the fall. As long as standing, green weeds are available, panfish will be there.
Brian “Bro” Brosdahl – Warmer waters in many areas this year – definitely including my stomping grounds in Northern Minnesota – have created some atypical behavior in crappies. Many absorbed their spawn this spring and they’ve stayed inside the shallow weed beds all summer – never moving out into the basins. They are largely still lingering on the outer edges of green weed edges.
By Cory Schmidt, Z-Man
Even among the nation’s best bass anglers, whispers of words like big crappies attract a captive audience, every time. When tournament seasons end, plenty of bass fans go hot on the trail of their favorite panfish—silvery, palm-stretching wraiths known evocatively as “hubcaps.” Prospects of hundred fish days and flaky-white fillets—battered, seasoned and sizzling in a skillet—prompt even the most jaded anglers to drop what they’re doing and beeline for the nearest crappie hole.
It should come as no surprise then that while driving home from his last big bass derby of the year, Major League Fishing competitor David Walker found himself daydreaming about his local crappie lake and the makings of an epic fish fry. “After a long season of bass tourneys, I love coming home and catching a boatload of crappies with my daughters,” says Walker, a wizard with a small jig and softbait.
A lifelong panfish pursuer, Walker has discovered something big in the arena of soft plastic baits for crappies, perch, and bluegills—an idea that occurred to him while fishing a bass tournament.
“When I first started throwing ElaZtech softbaits for bass, I quickly learned an almost magical advantage of the material, which was that panfish and other nuisance fish couldn’t peck the tails off the back of your bass jigs. While bass fishing with traditional soft plastics, it’s always been a headache and major time waster when you’ve got perch, sunfish and other tail-pecking fish in the area. But using these new wave softbaits, I realized panfish could peck them all they wanted. I could stay in the game, non-stop, without constantly grabbing and re-rigging a new bait.”