Hauling Baits for Panfish


From spring to autumn, panfish occupy a range of habitats, from shallow weed flats to deep, rocky structures. Casting has its merits, but there’s plenty of trolling methods to pull panfish topside. Here are some popular strategies:

Propulsion picks
I most often use an electric motor for trolling. It’s quiet, well matched for following cover and structure contours and delivers a lethargic pace when needed. Controlled wind drifting and a small outboard are viable alternatives.

Trolling while paddling a canoe, kayak or when using a rowboat are other options. A simple watercraft and light rod make for exciting fishing. And doing a starboard-to-port shuffle is common when battling a big, feisty panfish with a breeze increasing the challenge.

Fast enough?
One mph is the average panfish-trolling speed. Think close to double this figure when covering water or targeting big specimens. Conversely, dead-slow’s are frequently required to arouse fussy fish. Success relies on choosing an appropriate pace, which is species and mood dependent and allows fish to attack accurately. Speed also influences lure action so check a bait runs properly at boat-side before letting out line.

Cranking ‘em up
Hard baits work in a variety of situations. And 2 to 3 inches is a good average size. Straight and jointed minnow baits are excellent for skimming over cover for up-feeding panfish. Diving crankbaits, such as a Rapala Shad Rap or a Bagley Small Fry Shad pulled through mid-depth areas, will regularly fool panfish from rock bass to perch. In pothole lakes, trolling crankbaits beyond deep weed edges and along basin drop-offs will take suspending crappies.

Whirling by weeds
Plants provide refuge from predators along with forage for panfish. A spinner rig has streamlined properties, making it a good choice for probing plants.

A common setup includes a 1/4- to 1/8-ounce bullet weight on the mainline, followed by a bead for knot protection, a swivel and then the spinner-clad leader. Pre-made spinners exist or you can tie your own using this recipe: a bead, a #2 to #4 Colorado blade and clevis, five beads and a #4 to #8 snell or bait hook assembled on a 30- to 48-inch lead of 6- to 8-pound-test line. Sweeten the offering with a live or artificial chunk of nightcrawler, a leech or 2- to 3-inch minnow.

Tickling the top of vegetation or skimming a weed wall will catch all sorts of panfish. Pulling a glow-bead model around weed edges and clumps is a productive night strategy for crappies.

Working jigs
Jigs are another viable trolling bait, and flat-lining is the basic approach for shallow water. Adding short twitches imparts a nervous scurry that’ll trigger strikes. Soft-plastics, tied tinsel and hair jigs will work, but experiment to see if fish have a preference. For flash and added vibration, use a bladed model like a Northland Crappie Thumper Jig or a Bluefox Panfish Spinner Jig. Trolling speed and lure weight influences running depth, so carry assorted jig weights.

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Floating around
Presenting a jig beneath a float is a good slow-trolling option. On a recent outing, it proved the best way to take crappies suspended high in the water around standing timber. Keeping a wide berth, I’d motor to the wood’s midway mark, lob out a cast to the target and troll it back into the strike zone. The float was helpful, as its mass increased casting distance and accuracy, served as a reference point to position the jig and signaled bites.

Touring bottom
In summer and autumn, deep structures, like bars and humps, are hot spots for big panfish. While trolling, a bottom-bouncer or a three-way rig dangling a bell sinker both work to plunge a bait to the bottom. Run a small minnow bait, spinner rig, plastic on an Aberdeen hook or wet fly behind these sinkers on a 30- and 48-inch fluorocarbon or monofilament leader.

This bluegill crushed a Rapala minnow that was slow-trolled.
This bluegill crushed a Rapala minnow that was slow-trolled.

Two’s better than one
Another common strategy for trolling deeper fish, whether suspended or near the bottom, is using two jigs. Separate jigs cover more of the water column, but also allow experimentation to determine if panfish prefer a particular profile or color. To assemble it, tie the lighter jig of the two to 18 to 24 inches of 6-pound-test mono on the middle eyelet of a three-way swivel. Attach 30 to 38 inches to the bottom eye, followed by a heavier jig to avoid tangles.

A further variation is adding a split shot or an egg sinker (kept in pace by a swivel) half way down the bottom lead. This allows two lightweight jigs to be trolled. The extra weight keeps the presentation vertical in deeper water and permits faster trolling. Check fishing regulations for hook-per-line restrictions before using these rigs.

Map it out
Regardless of presentation, plot a trolling route—ideally in a GPS unit—before wetting a bait. A designated path allows precision trolling around fish-holding sweet spots, helps avoid hazards and prevents hang-ups. Use polarized glasses to locate healthy weeds and their contours in shallow water. Digital lake maps provide contour data for trolling deep structures. Fun also lies is the adventure of exploration—a lesson emphasized this past season on an unchartered lake with regular panfish pals, Rob Jackson and Phil Stinson.

The three of us were debating our next move with our stomach’s grumbling under the midday sun.

“Let’s throw out jigs and troll some new water while having lunch,” Phil said. “I’ve discovered some great panfish spots this way.”

Eyes glued to the sonar, we probed mid-depth areas with rod in one hand and a sandwich in the other. Before the crumbs disappeared from the communal bag of chips, we had found a panfish-loaded hump that kept us entertained for the remainder of the afternoon—great advice, Phil.