Archery, blackpowder, small game … it’s all good. However, October, November and even well into December can offer up some of the very best panfishing of the year as waters continue to cool down and fish fatten up for the potentially harsh winter that could be coming.
Bluegills, crappies, perch, and other critters can not only provide action but tasty fillets as well. Here is a run down of what you might expect for the coming weeks in “Panfishville.”
For many years, my favorite time to catch crappies starts in late October and often lasts until skim ice forms on our lakes and ponds. With water temperatures around 60 degrees, it is safe to say that crappies should be active for several weeks.
Both tidal and stillwater crappies will be found on wood structures during the fall with docks, marina slips, bridge pilings, sunken brush, beaver huts and fallen trees are leading the show for shallow moving slabs.
If you haven’t tried it, seek weed beds that are starting to die off and fish edges or openings with 1/32 and 1/16th ounce jigs with either a tube or twister tail plastic as a trailer.
Yes, this seems elementary in presentation, but it is time tested and works in many waters. Popular colors are white, chartreuse, pink and black. Tubetails are often “two-toned” in colors and the classic red/white and lime green/white combos have been scoring fish for a few decades.
If fishing is tough, then the added enticement of a Berkley Gulp! Crappie Nibble or Gulp! Waxie can put the scent and attraction in your favor.
We like to toss these jigs 3-5 feet below a fixed bobber and work them in and around the aforementioned wood structures keeping a sharp eye for slow-sinking floats or a bobber that “trails off,” indicating a crappie has taken your jig and is actually swimming with it.
Jigs can be fished on a slow, free-fall retrieve as well and look for any “jumps” or “ticks” in the line that would indicate a strike. Also, a take will sometimes be telegraphed as complete slack in the lure fall indicating an “up bite” as a crappie takes the jig from below, thus pushing slack in the line.
Use quality 4- and 6-pound test monofilament lines and those with high visibility characteristics will aid your eyes in strike detection. Keep bobber and floats small and try not to cast so far away that you can not detect a strike.
Not all autumn crappies will completely submerse a float as water temperatures drop. Use the smallest float you can to keep the jig holding in the water column. We like the oval, plastic floats from Plasti-Lite or the weighted cigar-shaped foam floats from Comal.
Much the same tactics can be used for bluegills in the fall, except that you must scale down in jig size to be consistently successful. Our favorite jig sizes are 1/80th and 1/64th ounce leadheads that are often simply baited with either a mealworm, waxworm, maggot, or any one of Gulp! products to include the inch-long minnows or the pink or chartreuse waxies.
Again, suspend these tiny offerings with the smallest, most sensitive of floats and look for very subtle movements that could indicate a bluegill strike.
Sometimes, especially as the waters cool into the mid 40-degree range, we might drop down to 2-pound test monofilament to aid in strike detection from these zombie-like bluegills that often need a bait right in their face. With smaller mouths than the crappies and more deliberate movements, these panfish seldom pounce on a bait and traditionally the smaller the presentation the better.
Yes, 2-pound test is thin string, and vulnerable around wood and brush. But sometimes it makes the difference between a few fish and a bunch.
Another overlooked tactic is the use of small spoons and spinners for bluegills (and crappies). Flutter spoons like the Hildebrandt and Nunguesser shad spoons in 1/16th ounce can be a deadly option on fall gills when standard issue options fail. No bait tipping is required with the spoons, but the addition of a tiny, bright plastic can help in triggering strikes.
Fish them slow and thoroughly within the water column as 11th-hour panfish like them slow, deliberate and easy to catch. Look for suspended bluegill schools to be along windy shorelines and banks and near submerged weedbeds that top out within three feet of the waters’ surface.
Fall hotspots for crappies include our local reservoirs such as Liberty, Loch Raven, Piney Run, and Cunningham Falls Lake. In southern Pennsylvania check them out at Lake Marburg, Long Arm Dam, and Pinchot State Park.
Reservoir fish can run small, but all of these lakes have produced 12- to 15-inch fish annually and searching is required for finding the bigger fish. Additionally, Eastern Shore mill ponds and spillways see an impulse of crappie activity as well, often lasting throughout the winter when seasonal temperatures remain mild and ice does not form.
Don’t be afraid to try any Potomac River tidal tributary near docks or marinas on both Maryland and Virginia sides of the flow.
For bluegills, I like small, public and private waters that are basically “under the radar” in our region as most anglers are seeking other game fish at this time or are devoted to hunting. Piney Run and Cunningham Falls would be a good start, but again there are many Eastern Shore ponds and creeks that have overlooked populations of big bluegills, red eared and red breast sunfish in quality numbers and sizes.