When you picture fishing educator and former Fishing Facts Editor Spence Petros, an image of man with a large grin holding a huge muskie will likely come to mind. After all, Petros has five ‘skies over 40 pounds to his credit. He also loves to travel to places like Costa Rica for 150-pound tarpon. Pictures of him holding big fish grace the pages of every fishing magazine in the land.
But, Petros enjoys pint-sized fun in early spring and again in summer. He chases panfish-sunfish and crappies to be exact. Petros uses simple tactics to hammer bull ‘gills and giant slabs.
His reason for the switch from magnum to mini fish is just as simple to understand: bluegills and crappies offer a day spent catching numbers of fish that fight well on light tackle and taste good in the skillet. And, unlike muskies, panfish are plentiful and inhabit ponds, lakes and rivers everywhere. In some waters, walleyes are a bonus, because they often haunt nearby spots.
Petros focuses on vegetation early and late in the day. He trolls or drifts open water in the middle of the day. After launching, find the weed edge that features something different- a point, an inside turn or even a gap in otherwise lush plant growth. A Lindy Rig worked slowly along the edge is the ticket. A NO-SNAGG sinker and a NO-SNAGG hook or a #6 or #8 Aberdeen Tru-Turn works best. Use a longer ‘whipper’ style rod, 7 or 8 feet long. You want the rod to flex so you don’t pull the hook out of delicate panfish mouths. Try 4- to 6-pound Silver Thread for this application. Live bait is a no-brainer. “The best bait for big bluegills is a small leech,” Petros says.
The presentation is stop-and-go. Target depth can range from 10 feet on shallow lakes all the way down to 30-35 feet on deeper lakes. Move slowly in S turns to check deeper water nearby. (That’s where you could connect with a walleye.) “They (walleyes) often hold 5 feet deeper,” says Petros. Big crappies are often deeper than bluegills, too. Watch your sonar, because they could easily be suspended.
Jigs also work on weedlines. Try Lindy Quiver jigs, the Queen, Little Nipper, or Little Guppy jigs. The Queen features tiny wings that cause a slow fall, keeping the jig 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, add a slip-bobber and hammer them. Does Petros use a GPS? No need. “I am the GPS, Global Positioning Spence,” he said.
For us mere mortals, one of the satellite varieties might come in handy to map the weed edge, to find twists and turns along the edge and to lock onto locations once you connect with fish.
Unless you’re one with the water like Petros, a GPS might boost your odds of success when you try his midday tactic. Petros moves away from the weed edges and trolls or drifts, where trolling is legal or the wind is just right.
He uses a three-way setup where regulations allow two lures. He hedges his bet when he doesn’t know exactly what kind of fish are on the sonar screen by using 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 color. Petros likes black to mimic the bluegill’s favorite meal, an insect.
If your targeted panfish winds up being bluegills, the plastic gets traded for a small ice spoon. Be careful, though, you just made the rig lighter by an eighth- or sixteenth-ounce, so you might need to add a small split-shot to compensate for the difference. Make sure it’s the round kind. Use several different kinds of rigs among your friends. When one starts to work better than the rest, duplicate the winning formula on all the rods.
Ask anyone and they’ll say bluegills are easy to catch. That’s the general impression, anyway. But that doesn’t apply to the real monsters. Like all creatures at the top of their species, they got that way because they were smarter than the average bluegill. Being precise is necessary to lure them in. Watch your trolling motor. Petros often finds that a certain setting may hammer the big guys going against the wind and another may work downwind. Don’t ever go too fast – spooked fish move to the sides and away from your rods. If you’re Petros, you drop a marker buoy when a school is located. An icon on the GPS works, too.
Where trolling isn’t allowed, drift and use different terminal tackle on several rods- say a split-shot of one size and a minnow on one rod, and a bigger split-shot and half crawler on another rod, a leech on a third rod, etc. You can go a little with faster and larger in terms of presentations for with crappies. Tiny tubes are really good for crappies, too. Add a wax worm to attract more bluegills. Repeat the successful combo.
Depth of the presentation will depend on the position of the thermocline, which is the dividing point between water below it with less oxygen and the warmer 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 to breathe. The thermocline should appear on good electronics, like Humminbirds, as a line across the screen at a certain depth. If it doesn’t appear on yours, try taking it off automatic and cranking up the sensitivity until the line appears.
Finding water holding big panfish can be a chore. Farm ponds and strip mines are great, but they are often on private property. Find public waters by asking Department of Natural Resources biologists for suggestions. They know the honey holes. Target remote lakes that other anglers overlook. The harder a lake is to reach, the better the panfishing may be. As a rule, good walleye lakes with deep water may produce good crappies, but they’re unlikely to be home to big bluegills. For bluegills, look for weedy lakes with a mix of hard and muck bottoms. They don’t have to feature deep water. Some are very shallow.
Make no mistake. Panfish lakes can be over harvested. Take only the mid-size fish and leave the big ones to spawn and pass on the traits that helped them get that way to future generations.