Mastering Panfish Fishing: A Guide to Selecting the Perfect Bait

Panfish, a beloved family of freshwater fish known for their delectable taste, continue to captivate anglers of all levels. Whether you’re seeking an enjoyable fishing experience or aiming to fill your freezer with mouthwatering filets, panfish offers an accessible and thrilling target.

While pan fishing can be as simple or complex as you desire, the key to reeling in more and larger panfish lies in choosing the right live bait or lure for the occasion. To shed light on this topic, we turn to fishing expert Nicole Jacobs from Minnesota and seasoned Wisconsin guide Vince Moldenhauer, who share their valuable insights on bait selection for three popular panfish species.

Crappies, with their aggressive nature and culinary excellence, rank high on the priority list of anglers. Depending on the season, a wide variety of baits can prove effective in enticing these prized fish.

Panfish Fishing

During the early spring, when the ice has just thawed, Nicole Jacobs maintains the ice fishing mindset by employing small ice fishing jigs in her pursuit of crappies. Whether fishing for pleasure or guiding clients on the lakes of the Twin Cities Metro area, Jacobs relies on 2 and 3-mm Acme Pro-Grade Tungsten Jig ice jigs. The gold, silver, and chartreuse color patterns yield the best results. Adding a one-inch Berkley Gulp Minnow to the jig provides an enticing scent. As temperatures rise and the fish become more active, Jacobs transitions to 1/16 and 1/32-ounce jigheads paired with crappie tubes or grubs.

When it comes to luring selection, Jacobs emphasizes the effectiveness of a bobber, especially for crappies known to suspend in the water column. Although any bobber can get the job done, Jacobs favors the Rocket Bobbers produced by Tackle 2000. These bobbers are specifically designed for enhanced casting distance, which is vital when using lightweight lures.

“The casting performance of Rocket Bobbers is outstanding, and the action they impart to your bait when you pop the rod is unparalleled,” Jacobs shares. “Most fish strike the jig as it swings back under the bobber immediately after popping the rod.”

While crappies can be pursued using a standard spin cast or spinning setup, Jacobs opts for an ultralight approach to amplify the excitement. She recommends an 8-foot ultralight St. Croix rod paired with a 1000-sized reel. Spooling the reel with a 10-pound Seaguar Smackdown Flash Green line aids in detecting delicate bites due to its high visibility. Jacobs attaches an 8-foot leader of 4-pound Seaguar Gold Label fluorocarbon, which is incredibly thin and offers the sensation of using a 2-pound test line. This setup maximizes the lure’s action beneath the bobber.

Vince Moldenhauer, a seasoned guide hailing from La Crosse, Wisconsin, specializes in targeting panfish, including crappies, throughout the year, primarily on the Upper Mississippi River. When pursuing crappies, Moldenhauer often employs live minnows, crappie jigs, and more aggressive lures like the Rapala Rippin’ Rap lipless crankbait.

“Using live minnows is one of the most efficient ways to locate crappies,” Moldenhauer suggests. “I typically start with live minnows and then incorporate Kalin’s Crappie Scrubs in white with green tails or purple with a chartreuse tail on a small jig head under a Rocket Bobber. The Rippin’ Rap in size #3 is also an enjoyable option, and the shiny chrome colors are particularly enticing to crappies.”

Moldenhauer adopts a simple gear approach that allows for seamless transitions between species. He favors a medium-light spinning rod, either 6 feet 6 inches or 7 feet 3 inches in length, for all his panfish pursuits, including walleye. These rods are paired with a 2000 or 2500-size spinning reel and spooled with a 10-pound Seaguar Smackdown Flash Green line.

“The slim profile of Smackdown braid is remarkable,” Moldenhauer remarks. “It enhances our ability to detect bites, even in fast-flowing currents, by providing a superior sense of bait movement.”

Consistency in gear selection is important to Moldenhauer, enabling a stronger connection with the lure. The only variable he alters is the size of the fluorocarbon leader.

“To maintain a consistent feel, I employ the same setup for all species,” he explains. “I use a longer rod when fishing with a bobber and a shorter rod when casting and working a lure. The only adjustment I make is to the Gold Label fluorocarbon leader size, which is 4 pounds for crappies and gills, and 6 or 8 pounds for perch and walleye.”

When targeting bluegills in river systems, Moldenhauer adjusts his approach slightly to account for the current, though his general strategy remains effective regardless of location.

“For bluegills and perch, I prefer using redworms or nightcrawlers,” he reveals. “It’s an excellent technique for locating fish and assessing their presence. Subsequently, I switch to soft plastic baits as they reduce mess and eliminate the need for constant bait replenishment when encountering large schools of fish.”

Moldenhauer’s worm setup is straightforward, utilizing either a #6 or #8 Aberdeen hook or a 1/32-ounce jighead. When using an Aberdeen hook, he employs a drop-shot rig to keep the bait near the bottom while positioning the hook approximately a foot above the weight.

To pinpoint bluegills, Moldenhauer searches for areas featuring rocks, weeds, and break lines. He prefers the drop-shot rig over a bobber setup as it keeps the bait in the strike zone longer, precisely at the bottom where bluegills tend to feed.

Nicole Jacobs, who also pursues bluegills and sunfish, suggests the unmatched effectiveness of wax worms or spikes fished on a simple hook with a split shot sinker attached.

Panfish Fishing

“I often utilize the same ice fishing jigs that I use for crappies when targeting bluegills,” she says. “These jigs prove highly effective throughout the year, and the gold color patterns are particularly enticing.”

Perch come in standard sizes, but Moldenhauer and his clients frequently encounter jumbo-sized specimens in the Upper Mississippi. Due to their larger size and formidable fighting ability in strong currents, much of the tackle used for bass fishing is ideal for targeting perch.

Panfish Fishing

Moldenhauer adopts a similar strategy when targeting perch, starting with worms and focusing on weed lines accompanied by mild currents. The presence of flowing water and vegetation throughout the year serves as the key to locating perch for Moldenhauer. Once a school of fish is located, he transitions to soft plastic lures.

“Although many suggest using small lures, perch are aggressive fish, and two to three-inch Keitech swimbaits prove to be exceptional baits,” he asserts. “I also rely on the same Kalin’s Crappie Scrub used for crappies, paired with a 1/16 or 1/32-ounce jighead. Whichever soft plastic lure you choose, make sure it features some orange coloration, as perch are particularly fond of it.”

Moldenhauer maintains the same overall setup he employs for other panfish, with the only modification being an increase in leader size to 6 or 8 pounds of Gold Label fluorocarbon. “Perch are tenacious fighters and can grow quite large, so I prefer using slightly heavier line,” he explains.

Fishing for panfish is a cherished tradition among anglers and serves as an excellent introduction to the sport for newcomers. Targeting panfish is a thrilling endeavor, as the action is often nonstop and enjoyable. Selecting the appropriate bait for panfish is relatively straightforward, with a combination of live bait and soft plastic lures catering to the preferences of these fish, regardless of your location.

Seaguar Smackdown braid, available in high visibility Flash Green and low visibility Stealth Gray, is offered in spools of 150 and 300 yards, with test sizes ranging from 10 to 65 pounds.

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