Catching big panfish during the dog days of
summer can be a cake walk if you understand
the species and use savvy fishing strategies.
I felt my rod tip jiggle as out of the weeds came a solid rod bending strike and I set the hook. For an instant the rod bent double and drag clicked as a slab gill turned broadside using its thick body to resist. That’s when it slammed into a weed tower, wrapped the line around a stalk and yanked hard enough to jerk the hook free. I lip hooked another wax worm to the tiny jig and lowered the offering into the open pocket surrounded by weeds and let the offering sink deep. I closed the bail on the spinning outfit, let the jig settle, hold in a horizontal position and gave it a few minor jigs to get the bait dancing. POW! I was into another slab and soon brought to the boat another 10-inch monster gill. Catching big panfish during the dog days of summer can be a cake walk if you understand the species and use savvy fishing strategies.
I’ve got to hand it to those slab bluegills that disappear when warm weather drives ’em deep. At lightning speed they dive out of sight, vacate the shallows and disappear into the black abyss of Michigan lakes. Most anglers hang up their fishing gear and forget panfish as soon as skinny water warms and they disappear. Truth is they are still present, actively feeding, getting fat and sassy. You can have loads of fun still catching them if you know a few secrets and use specialized fishing tactics.
Put simply, deep water is where big panfish go during summer. I’ve found large crappie holding on sunken trees and stumps in 25 feet depths and gills schooled around sunken islands and patrolling weed lined drop-offs on otherwise blank bottom structure.
I’m a weed edge angler for slab crappie and huge gills during summer. The trick is to locate schools on the deep side of drop-offs when water depths are at least 18-25 feet and water temperature ideal for panfish metabolism. My main focus is on post spawn gills using deep edges of vegetation from June through August. The deep shift comes when plant growth is peak and takes place when surface water temperatures hit the upper 70s in Michigan lakes. This is when panfish leave the shallows and migrate to drop-offs adjacent to deep water. I concentrate on areas literally within casting distance of where they were located in the spring.
The trick is to use electronics and a bow mounted electric motor to slowly cruise drop-offs, edges and adjacent deep flats. Look for schools that frequently concentrate along the edges of the deepest weeds in the lake. Usually big humpback gills gather near small inside curves found in the deep vegetation. When I say small I’m looking for a spot the size of your kitchen table, say 4-10 foot wide with deep, shadowy areas attracting and holding gills. Big bulls like to suspend just a couple feet off bottom near the tallest plant life where there are pockets acting like a magnet to attract fish. At times fish can be difficult to mark on electronics but pockets are visible and if you cast into enough protected locations you will eventually hit the mother lode. Once you find them, drop offerings straight down and begin vertically probing for big gills.
The big tuna fish gills bite first in every honey hole. They are somewhat protective of their home turf and when schooled are very aggressive and eager to snap a hook. You will almost always get slammed on the first drop and their strike will jolt your rod. Once hooked, gills charge for the cover of nearby weeds, frequently wrapping the line around the vegetation in an effort to shake the hook. Few thrills in panfish angling compete with the solid pull of a 10-inch plus bull gill turned broadside in thick weeds. They fight like a big bass and frequently pull the hook.
But what terminal tackle is best for summer gills? I’ve got to admit my strategies deviate from the norm, forget floats, bobbers and fishing with worms. Step up to new age bluegill tackle and your catch rates will soar. I basically recommend using two deadly tactics: drop shot rigs, and tungsten jigs.
My deadliest strategy is tungsten jigs, and to sweeten the pie I tip the hook with a large wax worm. Tungsten jigs are difficult to find and designed for ice fishing. They are heavy and you can feel them on your rod tip. The idea is to use a jig with a 45 degree angle for best action. The heavy tungsten helps you to get down to fish in deep water, provides great action and helps you feel more strikes. I use Fiskas Wolfram jigs sold right here in Michigan by Your Bobbers Down, Inc. at www.YourBobbersDown.com or call (734) 316-7476. Usually I use the 3mm size body when ice fishing and if water conditions are calm you can use the same jig in summer. More often I step up to a bigger 6 or 7mm body in size 10 and 8 hook.
I prefer glow colors in stained water. Firetiger will hammer summer gills, crappie and perch; Pinky is hot for crappie and don’t overlook metallic silver or glow, especially with the itsy glow bead on the hook shank.
Another trick is to use the tail off a night crawler, garden or leaf worm or leech for bait. Sometimes big gills prefer a large presentation in summer. If water conditions are super clear I’ll use small wax worms or spikes. One trick is to use two at a time. Simply pin them through the nose, let the tail hang in the water and use the double tail action to key savage strikes. My all-time largest 11-inch, 2 pound slab summer gill came on a 7mm Fiskas Glow Spot tipped with two wax worms.
I prefer a long rod for summer gills and use my Dick Swam custom 11 foot light action steelhead rod made for 2 pound test. I position the boat over fish and drop the presentation vertical, probing pockets directly down to the hot spot, let the rig sink, close the spinning reel bail and hold the jig stationary in the strike zone. Then, give it slight upward twitches to make the double waxies jiggle, wiggle and drive big gills bonkers. This style of fishing with 11-14 foot rods is a takeoff of diddling or doodling, a fishing technique used for tempting crappie in brush. But the secret to limit catches of huge gills rests on the violent jigging action making the jig come to life, swim, dance, erratically pulse in the water and grab the attention of huge bull gills eager to slam aquatic insects. There are a lot of midges, mayfly larvae, stone fly larvae and invertebrates swimming in the water and fast jigging mimics live food. It’s important to draw attention to your lure and pounding the jig will get aggressive fish in a biting mood.
Another deadly strategy is to tip the tungsten jig with plastics. There are several panfish plastics available on the market driving big gills crazy. My all-time favorite is the Micro Nuggies sold by Your Bobbers Down. The 3/16-inch size is ideal and hot colors include glow green, hot pink, black sparkle and many more. I hate to spill the beans but there is a new plastic on the market working like dynamite to fool summer gills. I’m just telling you if you use this plastic your catches will skyrocket and you will give up using live bait. My gilling pals are going to hate me for this but the hottest panfish soft plastic in the world is Crazy Critter by Eurotackle.
The trick with plastics is to make them swim by pumping the rod. When big gills see the tail swimming, feel the vibrations of the legs wiggling they key in on the action and bite like they are pissed. They smash the offering, inhale the soft plastic and chomp down like they mean business. Some days I catch many more panfish on soft plastics than live crickets, worms, waxies, all live bait combined.
This deadly strategy is a hot tactic for big summer crappies too. However, crappie tend to hold in the thermocline which is a layer of high oxygenated water with warm water above and colder water below. You can frequently mark the thermocline on your electronics and crappies tend to hold just above the cold
water. This can occur 12-16 feet down and as summer progresses look for crappie to hold 18-30 feet below the surface. Creek mouths, stream intersections and channels with current are magnets for summer crappie.
Don’t overlook the gill catching power of a drop shot rig. Use a 1/8-1/4 oz. weight on the bottom and tie two hooks suspended above the weight. Try an Eagle Claw 181 baitholder hook tipped with a wax worm or worm on top and use a size #8 or 10 crappie or perch fly on bottom tipped with spikes. Again you cast to the hot spot, let the offering sink and jiggle your rod tip to make the hooks wiggle, dance and mimic invertebrates swimming.
In summer, panfish frequently suspend around deep rock piles, stumps, fallen trees, brush piles or bottom humps. During early morning and late evening they will move up in the water column looking for suspended food. When the sun is high they move back down and spend most of the day in deep shadowy lairs hiding from predators and fishermen. During midday get your offering in hiding locations, around trees, under stumps, far below weed beds and excite gills lingering deep in the shade.
I begin each outing searching for fish by slow motoring around drop-offs looking for schools and casting to likely summer hideouts in deep water. Once I catch a fish or two I hit Minn Kota Spot-Lock which hovers my boat in exact position for limit catches. Other times I slowly, silently lower an anchor and stay in position for easy casting. If the wind is howling, silently move upwind, drop anchor and let out enough rope to position the boat within easy casting range of target fish.
Once you get ’em going, catching hand-size big gills in summer becomes an exciting fishing sport. This is a time to locate and land monster fish. Let bigger bluegills go unharmed to spawn in spring and keep eater fish under 9 inches for the fry pan or oven. This style of fishing is fun for family and friends and once you start boating fish you will be back for more, guaranteed. But your kids will be sad come end of summer vacation when they have to leave hot fishing and go back to the classroom.n