It’s often hard to decide which season and species of fish is our favorite.
The biggest walleyes and saugers of the year are often caught just after ice-out when water still freezes in the guides of our St. Croix rods. Late spring is a great time for bass, both largemouth and smallmouth, and muskies, one of our favorites.
Many anglers hang up their fishing gear when the weather turns hot, though walleye fishing at night can yield some of the best action of the year. But daytime anglers believe fishing during the summer is tough. Lots of food in the water translates to narrow feeding windows. Some think a trip to the lake may be a waste of time.
If that’s your view, think again. Panfish can offer some great summer action for older anglers and kids alike. It can be the best time of year to hook kids and grandkids on the sport by catching crappies and bluegills. And scaling down the size of the gear can make the fight worth the time.
Bluegills and crappies also have other advantages. For one, they inhabit many lakes and ponds, so there are usually plenty of opportunities to fish for them close to home. For another, they’re often overlooked by other anglers so you have great spots to yourself. Catching a walleyes can be a bonus because they’re often located in the same places as the panfish.
Find and catch big panfish
Finding fish usually isn’t hard. Finding the biggest fish in the lake is the challenge. The process starts with finding lakes with solid panfish populations plus a good quantity of predators like bass or muskies. Check with your state’s Department of Natural Resource biologists. They know the honey holes. If a lake is out of the way and a little harder to reach, that’s even better.
Check out the lake map to find the weeds, then look for weed edges that offer something different, such as a point, an inside turn or gaps in the midst of plant life, or a transition from one kind of plant to another. GPS will help map the weed edge to locate fish-holding twists and turns.
Work a Lindy Rig slowly along the edge. A number 6 or number 8 Aberdeen hook works best with NO-SNAG sinkers. Use a longer, flexible seven-foot rod to avoid pulling hooks out of thin mouths. Use four- to six-pound-test Silver Thread line. For bluegills, use a small leech and small minnows for crappies.
Target 10 feet on shallow lakes to 20 feet on deeper, clear lakes. Move slowly in S turns to check deeper water nearby. Walleye will often be five feet deeper or so than the panfish. Big crappies are often nearby, too. Watch your sonar because crappies might be suspended.
Jigs also work on weed lines. Try using Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub or Watsit jigs. The Watsit features tiny flippers that cause a slow fall which keeps it in the strike zone longer. Experiment with colors. Add a piece of a nightcrawler or a wax worm. If the fish appear to be stacked in one area, switch to a slip-bobber rig.
Fish may move off the weedline to deeper water at midday. Trolling, where legal, or drifting can keep the action coming. Use a three-way rig where regulations allow two lures per line. Use one bait for bluegills and the other for crappies. A small Fuzz-E-Grub goes on the dropper and a twister tail goes on a hook on the trailer. Experiment with colors. Black is a great choice to mimic a bluegill’s favorite food, insects. Or, trade the plastic for a small silver ice spoon. Use several different kinds of rigs to start and see what yields the most fish.
Set your trolling motor so you move slowly and quietly to avoid spooking fish. Use icons on the GPS or buoys to mark fish when you get strikes. Drifting a minnow, tiny tubes, a half crawler or leech is a good idea, too.
How deep to set baits depends on the thermocline. Every summer when weather gets hot, a dividing point sets up between water below it with less oxygen and the water holding more oxygen above it. Fish generally will try to find their comfort zone temperature-wise, but oxygen is the deciding factor. If there’s no oxygen at the temperature they like, they will settle for warmer water. The thermocline should show up on good electronics as a line across the screen at a certain depth. If it doesn’t appear, try setting the unit to manual and crank up the sensitivity until the line appears.
For crappies, you can also try casting small crankbaits along weed lines. Crappies near wood is the often the answer in reservoirs. Look for standing timber on points. Tight-line small jigs and plastic or minnows on longer rods. Let the bait down to the bottom and reel up a turn or two, then another foot and another until fish are located. Rather than reeling that first fish in, lift your rod and use it to measure the active depth. That makes it easy to return the jig to the right spot. Slip bobbers will do the same thing.
Deeper brush piles and fish cribs are deadly during the hot months. Locate them on lake maps. Brush piles can be seen with side-imaging sonar. Track down the untouched ones by looking for turns in the old river channel where brush collects. Then use your sonar to pinpoint the spot, drop a marker buoy or use an electronic “marker” on your GPS to stay unnoticed.
Limits for panfish are often generous. But that’s not an invitation to over-harvest them. Studies indicate that taking too many big bluegills can stunt a lake’s population. Scientists believe if you take the biggest ones form the lake, natural selection no longer favors big bluegills and bluegills start reproducing at smaller sizes, leading to stunting. Take a meal for the family and leave the rest.
Image courtesy Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson