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 let’s first clarify some verbiage… Floats are sophisticated. Bobbers are Huck Finnish. Alright, that’s 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 aren’t 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, it’s 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
Think small. Think slow. Both are contributing components to rolling spring panfish. The lures we call “crossover baits”, ones that don’t pay any attention to what the calendar reports. Lindy’s 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 – you’re 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. That’s 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 float’s buoyancy, or add lead shot until the float, and bait too, can scarcely stay atop. It’s 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 eight feet.
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 it’s 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 bucket’s empty or you want to cast for an hour after work but aren’t 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. We’ve 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 it’s 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 isn’t doing it, integrate a few jerks and pops for stimulation purposes.
Some if by Day…but a whole lot more by Dusk
Summer’s 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 doesn’t consume every waking hour fishing pans, though, rather jumping ‘em during peak morning and evening grubbing sessions.
By day, Bro’s panfish school over fairly deep water, say 20 to 30 feet, and they’re 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 Bro’s evening bite. Typically, panfish rise from daytime hideaways and ramp up adjacent structure, such as a shoreline break, bar, or rock hump. Bro’s 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 invasions.
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 he’ll 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 – it’s 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, Bro’s 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
In late fall, panfish hunker in regular wintering holes, regardless if there’s hardwater overhead or not. Wintering holes, as they’re 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 aren’t 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 you’ve discovered a mat of crappies in 32 feet and they’re 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 that’s heavy for its size, because with fish being so deep, heaped on the bottom, and unlikely to rise, it’s best to get right in their faces. Lindy’s 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 sure.
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.
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