Fall Panfish Tactics

Autumn, Bluegills, Crappies, John Rasmussen, panfish, Tungsten Jigs, zoo plankton -

Fall Panfish Tactics

Bright autumn leaves stirred from the lake bluffs like fresh threshed grains caught on a strong wind, dance wildly then reluctantly scatter. Below, a splendid spectacle of fluorescent scarlet and golden yellow now blankets the same still shallows, where not long ago, we were pitching floats and small jigs into pockets in the green weeds. Like these small, floating vessels of brilliance, and the vast fields of aquatic vegetation, and like those relentless deer flies, the water temperature has now too fallen. The great fall is upon us, and where the water has cooled into the low fifties, a temperature suitable only to the sincerest of fisherman, no pleasure pontoons or fair weather fisherman are found. Aside from shotguns sounding off in the early morning distance, there is a quiet peace found in that low lying fog not easily replicated in the natural world. Yes, the fall turnover has begun to take place in these forever green, lake laden woodlands of northern Minnesota. In this turnover, a re-oxygenation of the depths is amply affording bluegills new opportunities to capitalize on food sources long left abandoned, yet still thriving in the mud bottom basins of deep bays and main lake areas. Foods like freshwater shrimp, water fleas, copepods, daphnia, and the tiny mosquitofish are now stewing in one hundred acre plus, kettles of soup... as a plethora of tiny worms, annelids, and a host of other hatchlings garnish the soft, silty bottoms of these extensive holes and troughs.   

Small deep-water basins teaming with massive schools of bluegills and crappies

Fall Panfish Tactics

Many small, deep-water basins that were completely devoid of fish in the spring and summer months are now teaming with massive schools of bluegills and crappies. When a deep-water basin is smaller than say, one hundred acres, or very narrow and isolated by hills or tree growth, it will have set up a thermocline in summer as it never received enough wind and wave action to mix the water thoroughly, resulting in layers of cold, oxygen depleted water near the bottom. Expired plankton, decomposing in the depths can also contribute to the oxygen depletion below this thermocline. Not until the turnover takes place, will these deep areas become accessible to frenzied schools of panfish. In fall, as the surface water gets close to fifty degrees, it begins to become denser and slowly sink to the bottom, bringing with it the fresh oxygen it had accumulated from aerating rain events and surface currents above. This turnover process is a gradual one. A few weeks ago I was catching bluegills suspended near main lake structures as new, mid column water was becoming re-oxygenated but the entire four or five feet below these schools were completely void of fish. Lately however, I'm catching them with their bellies to the bottom and up to five feet off as they hold tightly to a new layer of oxygen rich water, now just as warm as the surface. In fact, even as drifts of cold blowing snow begin to pile up on a frozen ice cap and the air temperature goes as cold as thirty below zero, this new bottom layer of the lake will maintain a balmy thirty-nine degrees all winter long... a subtropical climate compared to the frozen tundra of ice and snow that will soon consume the surface above.  

Confirming locations of key transitional areas can save you a lot of drilling time during early ice

In any given deep water basin there is usually a "hole in the hole" with somewhat of a shelf surrounding the deepest of the two. In sandy lakes, the inner edge of this shelf, where it plummets from deep to really deep, is often where a transition of sand to mud is located. Right now, bluegills are schooled heavily in these transitional areas as they feed on an incredible variety of aquatic arthropods, annelids, worms, and larval insects that have been largely left to flourish all summer long. They will continue to use these transitions well into the early ice period. Using your electronics now, during open water, to confirm the locations of these key transitional areas can save you a lot of drilling time during early ice. Hard and soft bottoms will leave very different signatures on almost all sonar units. Look for this hard bottom signature then locate its edge. Another great way to confirm transition locations is by dragging a 3/8 oz walking sinker along the bottom using a sensitive rod. Feel your way through the mud until you hit gravel or vise versa, then mark those spots on a GPS. While these methods can quickly confirm the presence a transitional shelf, the most effective strategy by far is to locate them utilizing topographic maps. These maps are available for almost every lake in the country and will quickly point you in the right direction. Before you even launch your boat, you can get a good idea where transitions lie by literally learning to read between all those straying squiggly lines and tightly columned contours... but remember, each lake is different. As I've already mentioned, some more sandy lakes will have transitions further out into the basin near the edge of that "hole in the hole" while other, more muddy lakes, will have them at or near the bottom of steeply sloping breaks associated with underwater bars, humps, and points. In this case, the bottom of these break line areas will have a thin layer of mud above a hard gravel foundation, which allows mud dwelling creatures to live there, but prevents their escape down into the mud when preyed upon by big nasty bluegills. Essentially, this allows bluegills to corner their prey between an actual rock and a hard place. Rock and sand dwelling invertebrates thrive nearby as well and minnows are suspended above as they've recently left the cover of fast dying vegetation in a migration to these immediate, most accessible open water areas. With safety in numbers, the seemingly vast emptiness will become these minnows new found cover. They too will find plenty of food to eat as daphnia and other micro organisms rise and fall daily into the sun and moonlight. Crappies are just outside of and below these minnows, often suspended in the very same column of water. Put simply, this transitional area is now teaming with life... a conclave of creatures, and as they make preparations for a long and relatively docile winter, all of them are instinctively gorging themselves on any and all the food they can find.

The heaviest #6, #8, or #10 tungsten jigs tipped with an angle worm or crawler tip are a deadly combination during fall for those big burly bluegills and slob crappies

The heaviest #6, #8, or #10 tungsten jigs tipped with an angle worm or crawler tip are a deadly combination during fall for those big burly bluegills and slob crappies. Jig vertically over schools of fish using the spot-lock or anchor feature on your trolling motor to stay positioned. Use your electronics to quickly locate these schools. If the school is within five feet of the lake floor, plummet your jig quickly to the bottom. To measure the exact depth of your jig, reel in the slack with your rod tip near the waters surface until the line goes taut, then slowly raise the tip of your rod about three feet. Provided you keep your line fairly vertical, this will ensure your jig is always about three feet off bottom... this is where the bluegills are. You can raise your jig several addition feet if needed by counting cranks on your reel. For example, on my Pflueger President 6925, one crank equals one and a half feet. For crappies, look for suspended schools, usually (but not always) around ten feet off the lake floor, and slowly drop your jig about half way to the bottom paying close attention for fish taking your jig on the fall. If your line goes slack, your jig has fallen right into the mouth of a hungry crappie! This happens far more often than one might think. If you don't have spot-lock on your trolling motor, you may be forced to drop an anchor. Dropping an anchor can potentially spook some of the fish and lower your catch rate, but if a school is big enough, do not hesitate to do so. I've found the low profile of woodland camo 550 para-cord used as an anchor rope helps maintain stealth in such situations. It is a very thin but incredibly strong cord. If you don't have a trolling motor, and don't want to risk spooking smaller, more scattered schools with an anchor, you can use days with a gentle breeze to your advantage by silently gliding over fish you've located with your electronics. Try to pick up a couple fish each pass then circle back and repeat. Braid is crucial here because it has zero stretch and telegraphs the most subtle bites instantly as you fish in twenty to as much as fifty feet of water. Just as quickly as it allows you to detect bites, it will in turn, telegraph an instant hook set back down the very same line. I like to tie on a three foot section of clear, fluorocarbon leader (which also has very low stretch) using a uni-knot so schools don't pick up on my braided line. When using fluorocarbon lines, always moisten knots before you cinch them up to prevent this incredibly dense but brittle line from fraying against itself. In windier conditions, I'll sometimes put a small split shot about 2 to 3 feet up my fluorocarbon leader to keep the line more vertical. I double wrap this weight to prevent slippage or loss during battles. Use a rod with a sensitive tip to detect the sometimes softer, more steady bites of larger panfish. The 7' Light - Ultra Fast Action in the Panfish Series from @St. Croix Rods is absolutely ideal for this. It's stiffer backbone produces a fast loading hook set while its extra fast tip detects every strike below. Even on a rod this sensitive, when the fish are biting softly, you may need to sort of check if a fish is on by jigging your rod tip an inch to see if it bends more than normal before you actually set the hook. You will still feel the initial bite but may not be sure if the fish is still holding the bait. Always watch your rod tip. The biggest panfish are notorious for biting baits much more deliberately yet steadily and subtly. Use this trick for those extra light biters. The main objective is to keep the line between a 0 and 45 degree angle so you know your jig will remain at your chosen depth. If the boat is drifting too quickly, the jig will ride up higher into the water column, making it impossible to calculate its depth. Switching to a heavier jig can be effective in staying vertical but remember, more often than not, will include switching to a larger hook, which I don't like to do. In fact, the only heavier, 1/4 ounce lead head jigs with a small #6 hook I've personally ever seen were made by an old-timer I know in his garage. I think the size of the ball begins to interfere with the small hook shank and gap acting as a sort of lip guard against good hook sets. That is probably why jig manufacturers don't make them... plus panfish want jigs they can inhale rather than try to work there jaws around. As a rule, the smaller and lighter you can get away with, the better. It's often a tricky balance to find when fishing so deep and in often windy conditions. [wpsc_products product_id="3622" limit_of_items="1"]

These realistic creations are made with the heaviest metal available –  tungsten 

Tungsten jigs offer the most weight in the smallest size and often times no split shot is needed with them. I've been field testing a new, much heavier, Tungsten Jig from jeffsjigs.com tipped with tiny, scented tails for an artificial presentation. This particular jig is built on a horizontal platform with a super sharp sickle hook that wedges itself against a fishes jaw much more securely than conventional hooks. It's small but extra heavy head is perfect for open water panfish applications. These realistic creations are made with the heaviest metal available - tungsten. Despite their heavy weight, the hair tied onto these jigs is readily caught up in the draw imposed upon them during the powerful, vacuum-like suction a bluegill produces while assaulting its prey, and greatly assists in the carry of these jigs through this powerful current. Bluegills often swiftly stop right in front of their prey, inspect it, then inhale. If the jig doesn't get caught in the rip-current they produce, they'll often leave it be. That's just one of the many reasons Jeff's Tungsten Jigs work so well. In addition to their small, appealing profiles, his jigs flawlessly mimic aquatic terrestrials found in these very same lake bottom areas. In fact, they were originally designed with enlarged, high resolution photographs of actual freshwater shrimp, zooplankton, and copepods lying beside his fly tying vice! They have a level of detail, depth, and quality that goes completely unrivaled in the fishing industry. Unlike most fly tyers, Jeff designed his with a unique combination of materials such as arctic fox fur, epoxy, and custom mixed, powder coated paints that hold up very cleanly to the abuse dozens of bluegills and crappies can quickly put on a jig. Each design, color, and size is extensively field tested before release. These truly are proven producers of big panfish all across the country. Tip them with an angle worm or crawler end threaded up the hook shank like a plastic twister tail. Plastics like the 1 Inch Berkley Gulp Fish Fry will hold up to a multitude of fish strikes and couples very nicely with these jigs as well. The key right now is locating the schools and staying on top of them without spooking them. Even catching just a few fish from a school can sometimes spook them onward so it can be quite challenging... but ultimately, very rewarding to hunt big panfish right now. Happy fishing and tight lines!  John Rasmussen