Gerald Almy: Advice for catching Virginia’s abundant panfish
A variety of tackle can be used to catch panfish in Virginia’s lakes and rivers. Spinning gear, bamboo cane poles, and fly fishing tackle all work for these scrappy fish such as crappies, bluegills and, perch. Here are some of the top tactics you can use as crappies and other panfish start to stage before mating and then move into the shallows to procreate.
DRIFT FISH THE STAGING AREAS
When winter starts to break and water temperatures rise into the low 50s, these fish move out of the depths and begin a slow movement towards the shoreline. But they don’t move right up onto the banks. This process takes days, even weeks and you can often enjoy the excellent action of these fish schooled up just off the spawning beds ready to move in for the mating ritual.
Another situation where these offshore waters are productive is after a cold front blows through. This tends to make the crappies pull back out of the thin water and hover deeper for a few days until the shallows warm again.
Drift fishing is a great way to take these fish since it allows you to cover lots of water and pinpoint roving schools. Concentrate on the mouths of feeder creeks, dropoffs, points, bridge pilings, creek channel edges and brush piles or structure in deep water.
A spinning outfit or cane pole can be used for this fishing, and three different riggings work well. The first two use minnows, the third jigs. The first setup simply consists of a cylindrical bobber, a split shot or two and a fine-wire #1/0-4 hook, preferably gold. Lip-hook a 1-2 inch minnow and drift over likely areas with floats adjusted to different levels from four to eight feet.
A second rig is a variation of this that uses a jig instead of a plain hook. It can be fished alone or with a minnow attached. The final setup for drift fishing is a “tight line” rig. This consists of a 1-2 ounce dipsey or bell sinker attached to the end of the line, then droppers 18 and 36 inches above that with fine wire gold hooks attached and live minnows for bait. The sinker bounces on the bottom while the minnows float up higher in the strike zone.
If several fish strike in one area, you can try anchoring and still fishing or casting to that spot. Often, however, you’ll catch more fish by simply drifting through that productive spot over and over. If the wind is too calm for drifting, try slow trolling with the electric motor or sculling with a paddle.
FISH STRUCTURE IN THE SHALLOWS
Once fish move out of the depths to spawn and the weather stabilizes, concentrate on wood structure. Blowdowns, stumps, brush piles, docks, beaver huts, sunken cedars – any wood cover is worth fishing.
If this type of structure is hard to find, don’t neglect the edge of weed beds. Though often thought of more as bass or pickerel cover, weeds will attract and hold crappies in the shallows, especially if there are few trees or brush piles around. They not only provide cover, they offer oxygenated water, too, which they produce through photosynthesis, and harbor many baitfish and insects that crappies feed on.
Fish structures planted in lakes are also worth trying and don’t overlook bridge pilings, either. In summer you may find fish concentrated around pilings far out near the river channel, but in spring look to the first two or three sets of pilings closest to the shore in all major creeks and even the main bodies of lakes.
JIG UP A SPECKLED PERCH
You can catch crappies on a variety of lures such as spinners, crankbaits, spoons and spinnerbaits. None of them, though, will hold a candle to the humble jig.
It’s important to stock a variety of jigs, however, since the fish can be picky from day to day and on different lakes as to what type of jig they prefer. Weights can range from 1/64 to 1/8 ounce, with 1/16 and 1/32 often best, depending on the type of fishing you’re doing.
Though not used as often today as in the past, chenille bodied jigs with a marabou tail can be deadly on panfish. More often than not, soft plastic bodies adorn crappie jigs today. That softness has a life-like feel that tends to make the fish hang onto them a split second longer for sure hook setting.
Try stubby bodies and short or stiff tails on cold days, fluttering type tails when waters are warm and fish are more aggressive, or if the lake is cloudy or murky. Also, stock a few weedless versions such as the Charlie Brewer Slider design. Best colors are chartreuse, white, black, yellow, smoke, pumpkinseed and pink.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.