by Jason Mitchell
There is always an increased level of intensity whenever you are fishing for your next meal. When you know that you and other people are relying on what you put on a stringer or in a live well, you have your game face on. For so many anglers, harvesting fish for the table often involves panfish. In so many regions, crappie, perch or sunfish still allow some harvest where anglers can proceed to keep some fish for a meal.
Panfish are sometimes considered a fish for kids… sunfish off the dock and a three-foot-long Snoopy rod; but lets face it, adults love panfish as well. Big panfish are especially coveted, and big crappie, sunfish or perch get anglers as excited as big bass or walleye. Match wits with these fish with the right tackle and you have every bit of a challenge with a fish that can just as easily break your line. Some of the most popular television episodes we have ever done were crappie and sunfish segments. Anglers love big panfish.
Some of the biggest panfish I have ever personally caught were caught accidentally while targeting bass or walleye. Over the years, I have caught fifteen-inch crappie on Carolina Rigs intended for bass; ten-inch bluegills have hit top water poppers that were meant to target bass. Big perch have been caught on spinner and night crawler setups meant for walleye.
These accidental catches tell me a few things… first off when it comes to finding big panfish and narrowing down lakes that have big panfish, anglers are often going to find these fish by accident while targeting other species. Some of the best Intel I get comes from talking to bass anglers. What also becomes obvious is that big panfish become predators and these larger fish have no issue hitting a presentation that may be three inches or longer.
Panfish angling has evolved over the past ten years with a lot of changes happening in the last five. Anglers targeting panfish are becoming more selective with their harvest. In many regions, limits along with size limits particularly on heavy use crappie lakes have made anglers realize that panfish populations are not never-ending. Anglers are starting to understand the importance of releasing some of the largest size fish. New technology and equipment is making anglers more lethal and efficient than ever before. The catch-and-release ethic for trophy caliber panfish is gaining in practice.
In my opinion, few technological advances have changed crappie fishing more than side scan or side imaging. Suspended schools of crappie glow like lights on a Christmas tree, and finding fish suspended in brush piles or under docks is so incredibly simple today. Hard to believe how we used to have to work to find these fish and also how long it used to take. Today, most anglers won’t stop to fish until they see fish on their electronics.
A lot of tackle refinements for open-water panfish have crossed over from the ice fishing industry. Tungsten first became popular with ice anglers in Europe and has exploded in popularity on the American front. Anglers are discovering that the same advantages that tungsten has over lead in the winter can also be used for open water applications where panfish anglers need that extra sensitivity and weight, particularly for finesse vertical presentations. Other presentation tweaks, like using dropper chains below fast-falling spoons, are becoming more popular amongst open water panfish anglers. The Clam Tackle Speed Spoon is an extremely popular perch lure for ice anglers searching for perch over deep water; boat anglers in the same locations for the same species are using this same lure over open water.
Our Jason Mitchell Elite Series 48-inch Meat Stick rod was originally designed as an ice fishing rod that was built with a two-piece finesse tip action that loaded up to a fast backbone. Ice anglers used this rod for hole-hopping shallow-water panfish. Open-water panfish anglers have discovered this same rod action and length is a perfect vertical jigging rod whenever anglers need extra finesse, and the 48-inch rod length keeps the presentation in the sonar cone angle when fishing vertically over deep water. Not to mention that a four-foot rod is a lot of fun to fish with when vertically jigging for panfish.
Few presentations have caught more panfish than traditional cork-and-jig combinations slowly retrieved back to the boat. Soft plastic options really shine for crappie in particular. A classic two-inch Lunker Hunt grub has caught countless crappie. For slow speeds and slow pendulum affect on the jig when fishing a jig below a classic slip bobber or casting bubble, the Kalin’s 1.75 inch Crappie Scrub is a twin paddle tail that has tremendous vibration at extremely slow speeds.
Slow fishing speeds might be popular when water temperatures remain low in the early spring when fish first come up in the shallows to spawn. But another situation where slow-rolling these soft plastics works extremely well is around heavy brush and docks, because the fish have more time to respond. Fishing fast presentations in heavy cover can sometimes miss fish, particularly when fish have turn around or leave the cover to hit the jig.
Micro-size crankbaits and trolling equipment is also changing the game in some regions. While panfish are notorious for slamming bass or walleye size lures, smaller-profiled hard baits like Salmo’s H4F Hornet are tremendous lures for panfish. As panfish equipment and methods continue to evolve, we also see regional tactics and hacks getting shared across a much wider region. Spider-rigging or long poles might be regionally popular on one particular fishery, whereas something else becomes popular right down the road. As more anglers discover the joys of targeting panfish and more information gets shared, we begin to see small scale regional tactics–like trolling small crankbaits behind inline planer boards–become more mainstream.
Panfish presentations are quickly evolving. The use of soft plastic designs and shapes continues to expand. Applying ice fishing jigs to open water vertical fishing situations is another trend. Trolling crankbaits is another growing presentation. Slip bobbers and live bait still works, but more anglers are discovering that versatility and confidence in numerous presentations allow anglers to catch more fish as panfish anglers take on new tactics and equipment.