Outdoor Journal: Panfish biting on area lakes

Several boats were recently sighted off the shore of Franklin Beach on Saratoga Lake with several me

Several boats were recently sighted off the shore of Franklin Beach on Saratoga Lake with several men holding rods and golf ball-sized bobbers sitting on the surface of the water.

They are avid panfish anglers, and according to the proprietors of Sar­atoga Tackle, the crappie and panfish bite is on. It really shouldn’t be a surprise, as both these fish become active feeders soon after ice-off. As for how good their bite is, I usually judge it by the number of boats I see along Franklin Beach.

According to Saratoga Tackle, they’re catching fish.


Early-season crappie baits vary from angler to angler, but most rely on the real things during this pre-spawn period. Garden worms, pieces of night crawlers and minnows are hard to beat. Start with two rods with bobbers; bait one with a worm and the other with a minnow, and vary the depths of the bait two to five feet below the surface until you get some activity. The crappies will tell you what they want and at what depth.

But there are a number of anglers who swear their artificial baits are every bit as effective fished beneath a bobber. Lure choices are tiny tubes and twister tails on 1⁄64-ounce colored jigheads. As for color choices, I like chartreuse, white, yellow, and any fluorescent color. The brighter, the better.

Start your crappie search closer to shore, where the water warms faster. Cast toward the shore, let the bait or lure hit the water and just sit there until the ripples dis­sipate around the bobber, then work it back very slowly, gently lifting the rod tip and moving the bait a few feet, waiting a bit, then moving it again.

Unlike other panfish species, crappies aren’t very aggressive during the early season, and when they bite, it’s usually very light. It requires sensitive equipment and the angler’s undivided attention to detect these nibbles. The ideal tackle is a six-foot light-action graphite spinning rod with a matching reel spooled with four-pound-test monofilament, fluorocarbon or braided line. This same setup will work for all panfish, and I like to use it for some exciting deep- water mid-summer smallmouth bass action in clear waters like the Great Sacandaga Lake, Schroon Lake and Lake George.

Locating pre-spawn and spawning crappie is usually the same on both lakes and rivers. They congregate in and around heavy brush piles, submerged back bay weed beds and shoreline weed edges that warm up early, and sometimes under docks and bridges. The best locator, other than watching for a crowd of boats fishing an area, is a fish/depth finder. These units are especially useful when searching for all panfish species in open water. When they’re found, be sure to have a marker buoy with you. The real serious panfishermen have combination electronic fish/depth finder and GPS units. Become an electronic fisherman, and you’ll find and catch more fish.

When panfish are found, offer them both live bait (minnows, garden worms) and any of the tiny jig lures (tubes, twister tails), and see what they take. Just remember to keep that line tight, and watch and feel for that light bite. When it comes, a gentle hook set is all that’s needed. Crappies are often referred to as papermouths because of their extremely soft mouths. Don’t try to muscle them in. Gently play them, and use a net or your hand to lift them into the boat.

A highly effective method I learned quite a few years ago while competing in a Crappiethon tournament on Saratoga Lake is flipping for crappies. I was fishing in the Fish Creek area, just above Stafford’s Bridge, and was not doing very well. I saw another compet­itor on the other side of the creek, catching a number of crappies. At the weigh-in when he collected a nice check for his second-place finish, I decided I would interview him, and what he told me was very interesting. He was flipping for crappies. It was something I had never heard of before.

His method was very simple. He would position his boat very close to the cattails and flip both the edges and inside. The structure there was exactly the same as on the side of the creek I was fishing, but I was out too far. It was then I learned that crappies will burrow into these areas, similar to bass.

His technique was actually unique for crappie fishing, but it definitely worked. He was using a very long light-action and extremely sensitive rod which I later found out was a B&M Buck’s Crappie Classic Rod. The reel was a Zebco Classic trigger spin, and his line choice was four-pound-test TriMax.

He also explained that when the crappies get back into the heavy cover like that found in Fish Creek or even in open-water heavy brush piles, he used this flipping technique to “spoon-feed” them.

Using this method, you can cast/drop any of the light jigs or minnows anywhere within the strike zone of the fish. And because of the rod’s length, you can even poke it into the cattails, which are what he was doing, and then control the drop of the lure/bait by pushing the button on the reel. This is how to feed crappies when the water is cold and they are still a little sluggish.

The flipping technique also provides the ability to drop the lure/bait into small holes within the weeds, which is quite often where crappies hold.


Another equally popular spec­ies of the panfishing fraternity are bluegills. Right now, they’re beginning their pre-spawning rit­uals, and although they may not yet be in the shallows, they’re close, often searching for their spawning grounds, and unlike crappies, they’re much more aggressive. Find them, and you will have plenty of fun.

Serious bluegill anglers know that they are not necessarily found all over a lake or river. Depending on the season, they tend to concentrate around specific types of habitat. So if you have an area where you caught bluegills last year at this time of the season, chances are, they’ll be in that same area again. On Sar­atoga Lake, I have a mid-May spot that has produced plenty of great bluegill fishing for over a decade. And it will probably produce again this year.

The experts all agree that live bait is the best for bluegills, espec­ially in April. If you use live bait, keep it lively. Minnows should be kept cool and aerated, night crawlers cool and moist, and if you use crickets, keep them out of direct sunlight in a screen-covered container.

If you’ve never tried them, and can find some, they’re one of the best bluegill baits. The only problem with using crickets for bait is getting them on the hook without killing them. Some anglers use a fine wire wrap to attach them, while others push the hook through the abdomen. I found the best and quickest way is glue-like Bait Stick. Check with your bait and tackle shop for their suggestions.

The soft artificial plastic baits also work for bluegills. Use the 1⁄32- to 1⁄16-ounce leadhead jigs. They fall very slowly, imitating an injured baitfish and allowing the bluegills to have plenty of time to see and bite them. Use the bright colors like white, chartreuse and pink. Cast these on a light tackle rig to shallow wood and weed-covered shoals, then retrieve them slowly back to the boat. If you find the bluegills are deeper or it’s windy, tie on a heavier jighead.

As the water continues to warm and bluegills move into the shallows, one of the fun and most prod­uctive ways to locate them is sight fishing. To find schools, I slowly and quietly cruise the shallow protected bays in depth ranges from two to six feet with my electric trolling motor. Polarized sunglasses will definitely make finding and casting to them a lot easier.

You can use the bobber and bait method when you sight a concentration of fish, but I’ve found that the micro or tiny crankbaits (one to two inches) seem to produce bigger fish. When fishing this run-and-gun method, crankbaits allow you to quickly work an area, target the bigger fish and pull that little lure right by their noses.


In addition to Saratoga Lake, nearby Lake Lonely, Round Lake, Ballston Lake, Lake George and the Mohawk River all offer excellent panfishing opportunities. To find out up-to-the-minute fishing conditions, including where they are biting and on what, call or stop in at your local bait and tackle shops.

Categories: Sports

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