Matt Johnson Outdoors
Fall Panfish
Matt Johnson Outdoors
By: Tom "CrappieTom" Sawvell

Right around the  middle of  September  we
start to  see some  obvious changes in  our
outdoor world. Days begin to get noticeably
shorter,  cooler  air  begins to creep in  our
surrounding   at  night.    Crickets  begin  to
serenade us.

As these  little  quirks  become more  of  an
everyday  occurrence,  other  hallmarks  of
the fall  season  begin  to show up  as  well.
Gunfire   over  the   waterways  signals  the
onset  of  the   waterfowl   seasons.    Camo
clothes and  bows tell us  the deer  hunting
has    gotten    underway.       Sloughs     and
cornfields are dotted with the orange of pheasant hunters.

And then there are the fishermen: some seemingly dialed right into a
solid fall panfish bite and the others at an apparent lose for what to do.

So just how does this seasonal change affect what we do and how we
approach the pannies?

First we need to understand that everything relating to these fish at
this time of year is very closely related and that a simple change in
one area can shut the door on a good bite yesterday and make for
tough pickings today. And this situation can be the direct opposite as
well, finding it a blessing to get a fish one day but simply smoking
them the next. This can be the harsh reality of fall fishing and is where
perseverance pays huge dividends.

When fishing is going good, few people need lessons in what to use
or how to catch panfish. It’s when the bite is not so good that people
seem to go to sea. Let’s try to sort things out a bit here.

Water temperature can be the most influential of all factors relating to
fall fishing. It controls the way weeds will be found and where. It
governs forage movement. It helps to determine if you should be
looking for fish in shallow or deeper water. It will determine how the
fish are going to be found in the water column: will they have a
vertical or a horizontal disposition? It will help govern where the fish
retreat to when we get radical weather changes. And when we
consider the declining amount of available light from day to day, the
water temp will help the fish to determine what season THEY are
actually in. Water temp will become an issue when determining what
bait size and lure profile we should be checking out.

One of the first apparent changes in the water that can affect where
and how we fish is the first stage of cooling that begins the die-off of
some of the shallower weeds. Late summer panfish using these short
term weeds are going to lose their shade and safe-haven, meaning
that they will have to move. Most of the time this move is a short
distance one and finding these fish amounts to no more than fishing
nearby, but deeper, weeds.

As this die-off progresses, the forage fry that have been enjoying the
wide-open spaces begin to shift into the shallows where the weeds
were, feeding in the nutrient rich water. While feeding on the
organisms responsible for the dead weed’s decomposition, these fry
will rely heavily on the still-living deeper weeds for safety.  Wherever
the forage base can be found, the panfish will not be far away.

What if weeds are not to be found in the lake you fish, but very well-
defined breaks and points going from shallow to deep water exist?
The first primary break out from shore will act in the same way as dead
or dying shallow weeds do. And wood? Do you have access to any
submerged timber? Does it extend from the shallower water into deep
water? If it does, you have just hit the jackpot! The more vertical this
wood tends to be; the more productive it tends to be. Sunken wood
will offer up fish all year long provided there is a deep/shallow
relationship to it.

During the fall months weather can play havoc on our fishing. A cold
front generally will put the fish deep in the water column. Tending to
hug bottom, they will also have closed chops. At best, they will be
neutral in mood and may be teased into a hit. Often we will see a front
come through long enough to mess with the fish and then hand us a
really nice, warm day, but the fish still don’t seem to want to hit.
Perhaps it is that they are still down deep, not higher up where you
might expect them to be. It can take a few days of stable weather to
draw them back to fair-weather haunts.

In the spring we see crappies and panfish leave the deep water and
shift into shallower water getting ready for the rigors of the spawn.
They quite literally make a transition from one world to another and
follow specific pathways in the water to go from hither to yon. The fall
season is no different, except that the direction is reversed and this
process of reversal goes well into the first ice stages of winter.
Crappies and sunfish will be found in the fall in places very close to
where they were found during the early pre-spawn period last spring.
Location simply tends to be a flip-flop between spring and fall.

So OK…now we know how the temperature of the water plays an
elemental part of our panfishing in the fall. We know how one driving
force influences others down the line. We have finally found our fish,
but now what do we catch them with?

It helps, now, to remember just how close we are to being fishing
through the ice. The reason is tackle selection. While consistent and
warm weather during the fall might find us able to rely on our larger
jigs and twisters that have been used all summer, the revolving door
fronts associated with the fall period can force us into using much
smaller tackle and bait. Plastics used one day may not even be nudged
the next. Profile issues may dictate a paddletail bait of some sort but
demand that it is quite narrow through the body portion. The StubGrub
or Culprit used one day may have to be replaced with a “little worm”
the next. All are paddletail in design, but only the latter might have the
profile it takes to turn bumps into solid hits. One might have to go
from a two inch twister to a one inch unit.

Cold fronts mean two things: deep water structure and down-sizing.
That means you have to have tackle appropriate for this purpose
along when you are actually on the water. Carry your ice fishing lures
all fall.  There will be occasions when the Ratso’s have to come out to
get the sunnies to play the game with you. Yet these baits come in a
half-dozen different sizes, so buy just the bodies in three sizes and
four colors. They get fished on plain jigheads. This is much cheaper
and one can streamline his presentation as needed. When even the
rat-tail is too much for the fish, the ratfinke might become an option,
or even the small minnow head jigs- both of which will need a maggot
or a waxie to help entice the fish.

Jigging lures like the Go Devil are tools to have on hand as well.
These can be a real good search tool when tipped with a waxie and
cast, counted down to a specific depth and “hop” retrieved. This
system is very progressive and very effective. When the fish are in a
funk and things have to get slowed down as well as scaled back in
size, they can be dropped right down in their face and very softly
jigged to get hits. If fish are found over weed tops or in sunken wood,
these lures can be dropped down under a slip float and suspended
right over the weeds or wood, letting any wave action give them the
motion to bring hits. Even fish in a neutral mood will come up to hit
baits if they are kept very subtle in motion. Swedish Pimples in the
smallest size are a great tool when the hook is filled up with maggots
or waxies. Replacing the factory hook with a treble the next size larger
is encouraged on Swedish Pimples to increase the hooking potential.

Lure color may or may not become an issue at this time of year. As with
any other time you fish, color preference will be determined by the
fish on any given day and that can change by the minute. This means
that the angler needs to stay in touch with what the fish want color-
wise. Carry a second or third rod and have each rigged with a
different profile and different color. Use them if the bite drops off. If
things are active using a 2” chartreuse twister and an orange 1/16
head and this quits working, simply toss out a paddletail in
purple/junebug/chartreuse on a black 1/32 head. A different action
level, lure profile, and lighter head all can seem like a moot issue to
the angler, but the crappies may have an entirely different response
to it.

Something else to consider when looking at lure color is whether they
glow or not. If you don’t think this makes a difference, think again!
Even if you are fishing in fairly clear water on a bright day, glow red
can make every bit the difference in what and how much you catch.
Glow pink, glow orange, glow blue and now glow purple have been
shown to increase the hook-up ratio immensely. These colors are
found on ice tackle commonly now, but to assume that these baits and
colors will not work well on open water is fickle. Scenic Tackles Go
Devil comes in sizes down to 1/16 in these colors. If one needs to go
smaller yet, Lindy Techni-Glo makes a nifty bait based on the ice tick
body but with a treble hook. This product also comes in several glow
colors and is actually closer to 1/32 ounce. With a wider, flatter, and
shorter body, this Lindy lure has a slower drop rate and can extract
some serious hits when the fish are being fussy.

Most of us have experienced fish hitting for only a short while when
fishing through the ice on a given day. Perhaps hours later there is
another brief flurry of hits. Fall fishing will begin to exhibit some of
this “period” activity just about the time a lake turns over. Shortened
periods of available light along with cooler water temperatures can
trigger the bottom dwelling critters into action. Very early morning and
late, late afternoon might find the need to fish nearer the bottom to
stay with fish or to find any kind of a bite on slow days. Again, the need
for some structural element will only come as a bonus. Deep
submerged wood, deep weeds, large rocks, a break or an underwater
shelf can set the stage for some serious activity if the fish are indeed
into this “period” mode.

The shortening of the days and the cooling of the waterway also
causes a shift in how the fish relate to the water. During the warm
summer months when water too is at it’s warmest and may even have
a thermocline, we find the fish scattered loosely on a more horizontal
plane. They will move up and down in the water column as dictated by
weather fronts and forage movements, but the bulk of their travel and
other movement will be in a horizontal fashion. The early fall period
will find these loose schools getting tighter. The fish will begin to
show signs of size or year-class stratification. Continued cooling in
the water column shows the fish making the bulk of their daily
movement up and down. They begin to relate to the water in a vertical
disposition with colder water temps. All of this compacting can make
locating fish tough without the aid of electronics, but remembering
that weeds, wood and other elements attract and hold these fish can
help immensely.

Fall fishing can be a tough nut to crack at times, but by learning how
some elements we deal with on a daily basis also affect the fish we
can balance the number good and, maybe not so good, fishing days.
Knowing that one has to go to the water armed not only with what
worked the last time out, but with might be better suited for two
months from now is a plus to that fisherman. Understanding how the
fish move from one season to another is elemental…necessary.
Knowing how weather fronts, water temperature, and forage
movement directly dictate what we use for bait and tackle can make
the angler a more successful angler. Becoming aware of how fish
change and how they use the water can help put a diligent angler into
consistent fishing success. Being creative is important. Think about
this scenario: You’re catching nothing using a certain bait and fishing
it a certain way. Will you catch less if you try some different profile, or
tie up a color that is off the wall or try a different presentation? Not
catching any fish does not get any worse than not catching any fish, so
doing some experimentation cannot hurt a thing. Take a notebook and
pencil fishing with you. TAKE NOTES! This is far more accurate than
trying to remember what you did to make things work last week.

Hopefully these brief insights will help to change how fall fishing
treats you. This is a wonderful time of the year to be on the water and
the best of the best fishing is just getting underway.                               

Good Fishing to All of you!

CrappieTom
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