Panfish on Floats: Spring,
Summer and Fall
By Noel Vick with Fishing the Wildside
We all grew up with em. Ah yes, those glistening oversized red and
white bobbers. They were a better match for Orca than nearby sunfish, buoyant as a
no-wake marker and nearly as large. Never once did a tugging fish submerge it.
Since then, our use of floats has matured, to say the least. But
lets first clarify some verbiage
Floats are sophisticated. Bobbers are Huck
Finnish. Alright, thats a taste over oversimplified and prudish. To clarify: Bobbers
are those straightforward and old-fashioned buoyancy agents, which clip to the line and
hold bait at a fixed depth. Floats are part of a greater tactic, entailing precision,
finesse, and balance. They can be pegged to fish shallow, or rigged as a slip-float,
enabling the user to fish deep and at specific points throughout the water column. The
best floats are constructed of balsa, an exceptionally buoyant and lightweight wood.
Given the correct circumstances, there arent any species that cannot
be taken on a float system. Walleyes, panfish, pike, muskies, trout, perch, and bass are
easily engaged with a float and bait. But fin to fin, panfish are the best synchronized to
float-fishing. Shallow bays in the spring, summer on the weedline, wintering holes and so
on floats perform splendidly on our elliptically-shaped friends.
Speaking of springtime, its during this glorious awakening that we
begin. Rejuvenation occurs off the frozen heels of what many consider oppressiveness,
winter. Let it be known, though, that Fishing the Wildside passionately endorses ice,
snow, and winter, and showcases that support as On Ice Tour ( www.onicetour.com ).
Spring Float Systems
You know where to find em
that sacred black-bottomed bay with the cattail
trimmings and emerging lily pads. I wont belabor the topic of locating ice-out
crappies, reserving that for its own discussion, instead, Im talking tactical
the right rigging to persuade plump panfish into biting. Heres the deal. This
spring, dont store your ice fishing tackle in the rafters with the Fish Trap and
StrikeMaster. Those itty bitty flies and jigs are as effective in April and May as they
were through the winter. In fact, you can replicate an ice fishing float-rig on a summer
rod and reel. Essentially, bobber, lure, and bait remain the same.
Think small. Think slow. Both are contributing components to rolling
spring panfish. The lures we call crossover baits, ones that dont pay
any attention to what the calendar reports. Lindys Frostee Jig new for the
2001 ice fishing season is wicked on springtime crappies. In shallow backwaters, it
matches well with a Thill Mini-Stealth balsa float. With the float pegged to
the line, versus setup to slip the Mini-Stealth does either youre
armed for water less than six feet deep and encounters with shy biters.
For example, say the water in question is four feet deep. Space the
Frostee and float two feet apart. This same midway policy holds in most depths under 10
feet, but occasionally, it pays to set the bait just a foot or two down. Assertive panfish
will forage just beneath the surface, as well, warmer, more panfish-friendly water
stratify nearer the surface. If winds impede casting distance, or targets are distant and
acute, switch to a weighted float, like the ¾ Thill Premium Steelhead Float.
Balancing is something else that needs to be understood. In the aforesaid
illustration, the jig was fished alone, without weighting. Thats fine when fish
strike with militant fervor. But equally as often, the resistance of the float alone can
incite a tugging fish to drop the bait. To counteract, either match jig weight to the
floats buoyancy, or add lead shot until the float, and bait too, can scarcely stay
atop. Its called neutral buoyancy. Now, the slightest tow will dunk the float,
displaying a visible strike, but not dissuading the fish from hanging on. A perfectly
balanced float also reveals lift bites, or an upwardly feeding fish, which
causes the float to rise, sometimes tilting sideways.
Fishing the Wildside cofounder, Chip Leer is an accomplished guide and
genuine panfish hound. Leer enjoys nipping a crappie or two at ice-out and his top
crossover bait is the Northland Forage Minnow Fry. Designed to impersonate fish fry, these
meticulously patterned creatures perform summer and winter. Leer assembles his float-rig
with a Northland Lite-Bite Slip Bobber, in anticipation of exploring depths beyond six or
Bait? Leer and his partner Tommy Skarlis tote an assortment of goodies,
which include both live bait and Berkley Power Bait. From the living side, squirming
maggots are nearly unbeatable on springtime crappies and bluegills, only bettered when
fused with Power Bait. Stick two, maybe three grubs on the hook, hung by their tails,
preceded by a Power Wiggler, which is thread-on, lengthwise. Wax worms are the next most
accepted morsel, and more widely available. With these, it works to use a pair, threading
the first one on covering the hook shank and tail hooking a second. The
complimentary, outstretched and waving waxy plays the role of enticer.
Minnows get the call in head to head competition with crappies alone. Big
crappies tend to prefer fins and flesh over wiggles. But its fair to mention that
both Leer and Skarlis slip one or two Crappie Nibbles onto the shank before impaling a
minnow, adding scent and durability.
But instances arrive when the bait buckets empty or you want to cast
for an hour after work but arent able to hit a bait shop. Opportunely, in this era
of drive-up Extra Value Meals and Star Wars defense systems, live bait is now emulated to
where it looks, feels, tastes, and smells like the real McCoy. The wizards at Berkley have
produced Power Bait Micros. Take your pick. Weve pinched panfish on every single
variety, but bluegills seem to fancy Micro Power Crawlers, and crappies, Micro Power
Tubes. In lakes where freshwater shrimp (scuds) are dietary staples, Leer always begins
with a Micro Power Craw.
Regardless of your choice in float, jig, and bait, the speed of the
retrieve, or non-retrieve, comes under scrutiny. Again, slow is where its at. Wing
it out there, let it sit maybe even up to a minute then begin a sluggish,
and yes, time-consuming retrieve. Patience will payoff. Occasionally, though, if dawdling
isnt doing it, integrate a few jerks and pops for stimulation purposes.
Some if by Day
but a whole lot more by Dusk
Summers arrived. Formerly bountiful bays and backwaters are clogged
with vegetation, perilously warm, and devoid of panfish, aside from a few chips ducking
under lily pads. Schools of crappies and sunfish busted for the big water, taking to deep
weedlines, flats, rock piles, and miscellaneous formations. In the case of panfish,
summertime, the period which bridges spring-flings with fall-frolics, is often disregarded
by the fishing crowd. A combination of mystery and frustration keep folks from tailing
em. Understandable. But we want to lay at least one option on the table. Call it a
bone from us to you.
Our good buddy Bro, that is Brian Bro Brosdahl, a guiding
machine, bags an awful lot of panfish in the dead of summer. He doesnt consume every
waking hour fishing pans, though, rather jumping em during peak morning and evening
By day, Bros panfish school over fairly deep water, say 20 to 30
feet, and theyre challenging to pinpoint, not to mention trigger. So instead of
exasperating energy beneath a sweltering sun, Bro merely pokes around long enough to find
fish, related structure, and departs for cool beverages on the beach all of his
visual searching accomplished with a flasher and Aqua-Vu Underwater Camera.
Structure is the key to Bros evening bite. Typically, panfish rise
from daytime hideaways and ramp up adjacent structure, such as a shoreline break, bar, or
rock hump. Bros favorite zones fuse an abrupt break with a deep weedline, and
ideally some boulders. Imagine a flat that wallows at 24 feet, then shoots up a wall,
through a weedline, and settles at eight feet perfect setting for evening
Bro would begin by fan-casting the entire grade, working back and forth
from eight to 24 feet. His weapon: a 1/16th-ounce Northland Gypsi Jig and crappie minnow.
So he casts and jigs, all the while motoring, electrically, until contacting fish. At
which time, Bro comes to roost. Fearing not the negative stereotypes often associated with
anchoring, Bro drops the metal, confident that hell catch more fish by holding tight
than trolling. Camping on a spot requires a change in presentation, though. This time, Bro
fixes up the same jig with a slip-bobber. His newfound rookery is right at the eight foot
lip its looking like a blend of gills and slabs. So he sets the float
to seven feet and pitches it toward deeper water.
Incoming, schooled, and ravenous, Bros fish will arrive hot, and
likely suspended. Bro believes that the higher the fish are in the water column, the
hungrier they are a notion verified time and time again.
Nearer actual sundown, as Bro strains to see the float, he changes over to
a Thill Nite Brite float. Nite Brites are startlingly brilliant and operate like a
traditional slip-bobber. Another trick Bro employs nearer absolute dusk is what he calls
chugging. Chugging refers to the action imparted while drawing the float it
in. According to him, the blurbs of water beckon swarming panfish. They flock to examine
the commotion, eventually finding his jig and minnow. During the chugging stage, Bro
shallows his bait up to two or three feet, understanding that entire food chains
insects, minnows, fish, etc. ascend before dark.
Tapping into Wintering Holes
The autumn of 2001 was perfect for probing panfish wintering holes. It
wasnt that long ago. Remember? Sitting around the garage, staring at the ice fishing
stuff and cursing the thermometer. Ice came late. Dont take it so hard next
In late fall, panfish hunker in regular wintering holes, regardless if
theres hardwater overhead or not. Wintering holes, as theyre so dubbed, are
best described as large, deep, and food-filled flats that generally butt-up to sheer
breaks, be it an island, hump, point, etc. Most flats are soft to sticky in nature,
composed of marl, clay, and sometimes gravel. Usually, panfish linger near the lake floor
and arent overly active, but will swoop on the proper presentation.
The attack is elementary. Fish are stacked, but lethargic, so we hit
em with a slip-float and slow moving object. Imagine that youve discovered a
mat of crappies in 32 feet and theyre bellies to the floor. Set your slip-float to
dangle bait at about 31 feet and give it a hurl. Retrieve it slowly, almost cautiously,
pausing every now and then.
On the business end use a jig thats heavy for its size, because with
fish being so deep, heaped on the bottom, and unlikely to rise, its best to get
right in their faces. Lindys Genz Worm, an ice fishing favorite, is a superlative
choice. The buggy-looking oddity sinks faster than the Edmund Fitzgerald, and wow, do
crappies and bluegills gobble em up. Tip it with a small minnow, lip hooked to be
That friends, crosses the t in floats and takes the red and
white out of breakable bobbers. We use floats for panfish year round, sometimes fixed, and
sometimes geared to slip, but always on hand. And this brief discussion is only the first
tray in the tackle box of float-fishing knowledge.
Fishing the WildSide cofounded by Chip Leer and Tommy Skarlis
is an intensive effort aimed at expanding freshwater fishing through instructional
articles, seminars, in-store appearances, and one on one exchanges with the public. Learn
more about Fishing the WildSide at www.fishingthewildside.com