Fishing Fundamentals: Bait Selection for Panfish
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, the crappie 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.
"Here in the North, we start the year fishing vertically in deeper water and continue to move shallower as it gets warmer," she says. "We start the year with small 2 and 3-mm Acme Pro-Grade Tungsten Jig ice jigs. Gold, silver, and chartreuse do the best for us. I tip them with a one-inch Berkley Gulp Minnow to add some scent. As it gets warmer and the fish become more active, we switch to 1/16 and 1/32-ounce jigheads with crappie tubes or grubs."
For both lure types, Jacobs says it's hard to beat a bobber for crappie that are notorious for suspending in the water column. Any bobber will do, but she's partial to the Rocket Bobbers made by Tackle 2000. They are designed for better casting distance, which is paramount with lightweight lures.
"They cast great and there's just something about the action they give your bait when you pop the rod," she shared. "Most fish will hit the jig right when you pop it and the bait is swinging back under the bobber."
Fishing for crappie can be done with a standard spin cast or spinning setup, but Jacobs likes to go ultralight for a little more fun.
"An 8-foot ultralight St. Croix rod with a 1000-sized reel is a lot of fun to fight crappie," she said. "I spool the reel with 10 lb Seaguar Smackdown Flash Green, which helps to detect light bites because the line is so bright. I'll use an 8-foot leader of 4 lb Seaguar Gold Label fluorocarbon. It's a very thin line and more like using a 2 lb test, so your lure will have even more action under the bobber."
La Crosse, Wisconsin guide Vince Moldenhauer targets panfish, including crappies, year-round, primarily on the Upper Mississippi River. For crappie, he's generally fishing with live minnows, crappie jigs, and more aggressive lures like a Rapala Rippin' Rap lipless crankbait.
"Live minnows are one of the quickest ways to locate crappies," he says. "I'll generally start with that and then mix in Kalin's Crappie Scrubs in either the white with green tails or purple with a chartreuse tail on a small jig head under a Rocket Bobber. The Rippin' Rap in the #3 size is also a fun way to catch them and they like the shiny chrome colors."
Moldenhauer has developed a simple approach for gear that allows him to jump from species to species quickly. He likes a Fox River medium light spinning rod, either a 6-foot, 6-inch, or 7-foot, 3-inch model for all of his panfish species and he'll keep the same setup when he goes after walleye. He pairs them all with a 2000 or 2500-size Daiwa spinning reel and 10-pound Seaguar Smackdown in the Flash Green color.
"I love how thin the Smackdown braid is," he said. "That helps me and my clients detect more bites, even in the current, because you have a better feel of what your bait is doing."
He's a proponent of having consistency with his gear to stay better connected to his lure. The only thing he will alter is his fluorocarbon leader size.
"I like to use the same setup for everything just to have the same feel," he said. "I'll use the longer rod when fishing a bobber and the shorter rod when casting and working a lure. All I have to do is adjust my Gold Label fluorocarbon leader size. It's 4 lb for crappies and gills and 6 or 8 lb for perch and walleye."
Bluegills and sunfish
Fishing for bluegill on a river system requires a slightly different approach to locating them in the current, but Moldenhauer's plan will work anywhere.
"I like to use redworms or nightcrawlers for bluegill and perch," he said. "It's a great way to locate fish and see where they are. Then, I like to switch to soft plastic baits because there's less mess and you don't have to keep adding bait to your hook when you get into a bunch of them."
His worm setup is simple, a #6 or #8 Aberdeen hook or a 1/32-ounce jighead. When fishing Aberdeen hook, he employs a drop-shot rig to keep the bait on the bottom and the hook approximately a foot above the weight.
Moldenhauer looks for rocks, weeds, and break lines and prefers the drop-shot rig over a bobber setup because it keeps the bait in the strike zone longer and right on the bottom.
Jacobs also chases bluegill and sunfish and says it's hard to beat wax worms or spikes fished on a simple hook with a split shot sinker attached.
"I also use the same ice fishing jigs that I use for crappie for the bluegill," she said. "They will work great year round and it's hard to beat the gold color jigs."
There are standard-sized perch and then the jumbos that Moldenhauer and his clients catch on the Upper Mississippi. As a result of their bigger size and ability to fight hard in the current, much of his tackle resembles what anglers use for bass fishing.
He uses the same approach with perch, which starts with worms, primarily targeting weed lines with a slight current. These two ingredients, moving water and vegetation, are keys to finding perch all year long for Moldenhauer. After he locates a group of fish, he'll switch to soft plastic lures.
"Everyone says to go small, but perch are aggressive fish and some of the best baits are two and three-inch Keitech swimbaits," he said. "I also use the same things I use for crappies, the Kalin's Crappie Scrub on a 1/16 or 1/32-ounce jighead. For perch, whatever soft plastic you use, it must have some orange in it. They love that color."
He uses the same general setup as he does for the other panfish but bumps his leader size to 6 or 8 lb Gold Label. "They are hard-fighting fish and can get big, so I like to use a little heavier line," he adds.
Fishing for panfish is a time-honored tradition of many anglers and one of the best ways to get new anglers into fishing. They are an exciting group of fish to target because the action can be nonstop fun when you get into them. Picking the right baits for panfish is relatively straightforward and a mix of live bait and soft plastic lures will cover your bases, no matter where you live.