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Extreme ultralight panfishing.


"I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."

--from "The Road Not Taken," Robert Frost, 1916

These lines highlight the importance of personal freedom and refusal to follow the crowd. From my experience, I believe there are many applications in business and investing for which this advice holds true, and it works for fishing, as well. [paragraph] Use of extreme ultralight tackle--unusually light line, long rod, and minute bait--gives an angler flexibility to easily adopt to challenging conditions. The lightest tackle allows you to present lures or baits with ultra-sensitive finesse, which can make the difference between a great day and a mediocre one. Bring on cold water, cold fronts, negative fish, light bites, and other challenges. Where conventional tackle fails, extreme ultralight equipment saves the day. [paragraph] Armed with this gear, I find that I have the confidence to tackle nearly any situation. Yet I find the extreme ultralight road still lightly traveled. Why not take a detour to fantastic spring panfishing, no matter what the weather brings? Go way ultralight. [paragraph] Consider the following situations from my log book in which extreme ultralight tackle saved the day.

SCENARIO #1 Shallow Water

Location: Midwestern natural lake

Date: April 26 and 27, 2008

Conditions: Water 48[degrees]F in main lake, warmer in backwaters

A cold spring with constant cold fronts and north winds has crappies in a funk, with main-lake fish acting as if it's still late March. A couple of sunny days warms shallow backwaters into the upper 50[degrees]F range in the afternoon. Following a scenario detailed in the chapter, "Year of the Crappie" in InFisherman's Critical Concepts Crappie Location book, hundreds of black crappie enter muck-bottomed backwaters that offer warmer conditions.

While great in number, these fish prove incredibly spooky in the snag-filled bays just I to 2 feet deep. The mere splash of a mini-float or an overhead shadow sends crappies scurrying. The water is too shallow for conventional lure casting and they refuse any form of artificial bait. Even medium-sized crappie minnows are ignored. The smallest minnow is all they seem ready to handle.

Solution: Cast a small (one inch or less) minnow on 2-pound-test line with a #6 light-wire crappie hook 10 to 15 yards with no bobber or weight, so it lands with the splash of a raindrop. A 1-weight 7-foot flyrod blank converted to a spinning rod provides adequate load, torque, and leverage to propel the nearly weightless offering the necessary distance, even into a swirling wind.

The simple rig allows the minnow to freely roam the shallows in a natural manner, triggering bites from formerly negative fish on nearly every cast. Numerous large bluegills are caught in the same backwaters on a 1/80-ounce natural-glow color pin min tipped with mealworms, fished with no additional weight or float.

SCENARIO #2 Deep Water

Location: Midwestern natural lake

Date: November 21, 2007

Conditions: Cloudy & breezy, water 49[degrees]F

It's the day before Thanksgiving, hardly a peak panfish period in the Midwest, and the wind blows hard amid rain that turns to snow late in the day. That evening forecast calls for the first significant snowfall of the year. No wonder I'm alone on the lake.

A search of two key main-lake breaklines that have been producing fish for over month yields only a couple and the graph is bare. It seems that the fish have once again read Critical Concepts Crappie Location and realized that with deteriorating weather, it' time to migrate to the stable environment of the main-lake basin.


A search in 25 feet reveals large humps that at first glance could be treetops or snags. But experience tells me they're fish. Their feeding attitude proves anything but positive, however. Once again, a tiny minnow seems the only accepted offering and the dilemma is how to present it in deep water to trigger bites.

Solution: A sift through the minnow bucket yields enough pin minnows. I backtroll a deepwater finesse double-dropper rig with a 36-inch fluorocarbon leader and a 3/8-ounce weight into the wind, trying to maintain a 15-degree line angle. A Glow Pearl Fly, tied on a #6 red fine wire hook, attracts more active fish from the vast school. "Strikes" are nothing more than a slight change in the bend of my 12-foot quiver-tip rod. One-pound-test FireLine (diameter of 1/4-pound test monofilament) enhances strike detection.

The Rod Dilemma

Finding extreme ultralight rods has been the biggest challenge. There seems to be limited demand for them, particularly those over 7 feet. Yet shorter rods can't make the long casts with microlight lures or baits that often are required. I concede that it's not always necessary to go to such lengths to catch panfish; but to me, this type of rod is more than a tool.

Longer rods, simply, are more fun. When I panfish like this, I become a kid again. When I take a friend fishing, I explain that my one rule is to approach the day as if we're both 12 years old. Fishing "the Stradivarius," an affectionate name for my favorite custom rod, was incredible fun and helped me become that kid I wanted to be again.

With production rods not readily available, I've relied on custom makers like The Rodmaker's Shop in Strongville, Ohio (440/572-0400). In the June/ July 2005 issue of In-Fisherman that revealed my techniques, editor Steve Quinn described the Stradivarius as "the craftiest and most delicate tackle we've yet seen." It's built on a 2-weight 7 1/2-foot 2-piece St. Croix flyrod blank by Ray Halter and Frank Simoncic of The Rodmaker's Shop.

Unfortunately, St. Croix discontinued production of this blank, likely due to limited demand. It was clearly the lightest and best I'd found. I needed to find a replacement.

Since then, Halter, Simoncic, and I searched for a new, maybe even an improved rod to replace the Stradivarius. We felt an adequate replacement would probably come from a flyrod blank, due to its capacity to fully load and release, propelling an ultralight bait in a manner similar to flycasting. In addition, we noted a tendency for light (2-weight or less) blanks to have more than two pieces, apparently for their ease in travel. But any blank with more than two pieces wasn't sensitive enough.

In early 2008, we found the answer, custom-made from a 7-foot, 2-piece 1-weight flyrod blank. When I fished Stradivarius II next to the original, I couldn't put the new version down. It felt as if I were casting a spider's web. The Stradivarius II was truly lighter and more delicate than the original. Like its predecessor, Stradivarius II makes a 1/2-pound bluegill feel as if it weighs 2 pounds and doubles the rod. After initial tests, I wished it could be a few inches longer for greater leverage and torque to cast farther. The Rodmaker's Shop has since made for me both a 7 1/2-foot and an 8-foot model from the same 7-foot blank, and I find I prefer the longer editions.

The Right Reel

For fishing shallow and medium depths, I like spinning reels slightly larger than traditional ultralight models for their spool size. Larger reels have larger spools, which increase casting distance. Also, there's less line twist with a larger spool.

I almost always use the lightest line possible for a particular situation, mandating a silky smooth drag. And on good days, it gets a considerable workout. Small ultralights impart too much line twist. Moreover, I'm not willing to sacrifice casting distance for the sake of better balance between rod and reel, even if its weight slightly reduces sensitivity. I continue to favor Daiwa's Longcast spool, which is surprisingly large, but its low profile lip reduces friction. Daiwa's Tournament SS Whisker Series spinning reels feature this spool, and I use the 8.5-ounce SS 1300.

Line Alternatives

I've favored Berkley Trilene XL in 2- and 3-pound tests. And I still use XL with wonderful results. But as a result of the 2005 In-Fisherman article, Mike Sladky, a longtime subscriber from Nebraska, directed me to the benefits of Tectan, a supple, low-diameter monofilament. Tectan in 2- and 3.1-pound tests has a stated diameter of .0031 and .0039 inches. In contrast, most 2-pound monos measure about .005 inches.

Yes, I'm splitting hairs with these statistics, but the difference is significant when casting a bait weighing 1/80-ounce or less. The near 40 percent reduction in diameter of 2-pound test substantially lengthens casts and increases ability to detect strikes. I primarily use 3.1-pound Tectan, which is about 20 percent thinner than other 2-pound monos.

I was slow to adopt the new no-stretch Spectra lines and that was a mistake. I've had great experiences with 1- and 2-pound-test Berkley FireLine. Its benefits aren't restricted to deepwater of vertical applications, either.

When shallow panfish are barely nibbling, its no-stretch qualities outperform monofilament. FireLine in 1- and 3-pound test is incredibly thin, equivalent to 1/4- and 1/2-pound-test mono. It's a spider's web with significant strength. These lines ate at least three times as strong as mono of equivalent test.

You may have difficulty finding FireLine this light. There just aren't enough of us using it. Line watchers like me will like the Flame Green color. If you can't find it in shops, order from Berkley (

When using FireLine, I always tie a 2-, 3-, or 4-pound-test fluorocarbon leader, doubling the FireLine with a spider hitch and then using back-to-back uni-knots to connect the two lines. To save line, I half-fill the spool with heavier line, then splice it to the fine line and fill the remainder.

Extreme Ultralight Lures

Unlike appropriate rods, there's no shortage of super-light jigs, softbaits, and other lures. One reason for this bounty is the popularity of ice fishing, as some of the best and most popular extreme ultralight lures are built for ice. There's no need to custom-make baits, though for years I've built some special ones that work well in these situations. They're easily made and modified:

Glow Pearl Fly: This one saved the day in that November scenario described earlier. The body of the fly is made of soft white or chartreuse glow beads that look like tiny pearls. Their soft texture helps when a finicky crappie barely mouths the fly.

I generally tie it on a #6 gold or red fine-wire hook, with white, chartreuse, pink, or any other bright hackle. Glow beads are an attractor, especially in stained water or on dark days.

When tied to a fluorocarbon leader of at least 24 inches and trolled either forward or backward on a finesse double-dropper rig, a Glow Pearl Fly seductively undulates. I often tip it with a lip-hooked minnow. This presentation has much of the finesse of fly-fishing, but a livebait can be presented at any depth, which usually is more than even a negative crappie can resist. In smaller sizes, this fly also is great for bluegills.

The Pearl: The Pearl derives from the Glow Pearl Fly, with the addition of tiny tungsten or brass beads to enable casting with extreme ultralight gear. I want just enough weight so a lip-hooked minnow falls ever-so-slowly, maximizing time in the strike zone. I can match minnow size to bead weight to offer virtually any drop speed. I look forward to tying The Pearl with the new Nymph Head, a tungsten bead with built-in eyes, manufactured by Flymen Fishing Company. The Pearl is ideal for fishing in 3 to 8 feet of water, where a slow presentation and slow fall are necessary. It's saved the day on many spring trips when fish are staging on drop-offs or are in small weed pockets and refuse to take a fast-moving bait. It's also a good one for wade-fishing on windy spring days that make boat control difficult. This one I also downsize for bluegills.





Ultralight Jig: The only unique aspect of this bait is its light weight in relation to hook size. I assemble them by gluing small clam shot on a #4 or #6 fine-wire straight hook, generally using Gorilla Glue; then I paint the head with vinyl jig paint in glow or other bright colors. I flatten the bottom of the shot so the jig falls in a perfectly horizontal manner.

I go to this extreme to create jigs 1/50-ounce or less on #4 or #6 hooks that are needed to hook and land big crappie. Once again, the jig weight can be adjusted so a lip-hooked minnow barely drifts down. I haven't found a commercial outlet for jigs this light with hooks this large. I fish them similar to the Pearl when fish are finicky and precision essential. Add hackle or other jig-tying material to alter the jig's drop speed.

Once you locate panfish, extreme ultralight tackle helps you solve the presentation part of the puzzle. If you don't catch many with this setup, my bet is that no one has. Or else you failed to read that classic reference mentioned earlier, Critical Concepts Crappie Location.

But understand you may be going down the path with little company. You may find yourself making custom rods. I sometimes hope the path becomes a bit easier as I get on in years. Then again, I'd miss the challenges this wonderful sport has provided since I was a kid. Fishing extreme ultralight tackle has truly made all the difference.



Before fishing, tie rigs with 2- or 4-pound-test fluorocarbon, ranging from 24 to 36 inches. Run 2 small sleeves up the mainline before tying the rig on with a double surgeon's knot. Then run each dropper line through a sleeve, which limits snarls and twisted line, and glue each dropper to the sleeve with Gorilla Glue. Micro barrel swivels and barrel-snap swivels at top and bottom complete the rig. Vary the length of dropper lines according to the mood of the fish. Longer ones provide greater undulation of the near-weightless Glow Pearl Fly or more natural movement of a livebait as it's slowly trolled, which can turn the trick on inactive fish. Use this rig where snags are not a problem. A 12- to 14-foot crappie pole works well with this rig to land fish with minimal tangles.

* Bill Bottger, Strongville, Ohio, retired in 2008 as a partner in the international accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche. He hopes to devote more of his free time now to his passion for panfishing.
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Author:Bottger, Bill
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2009
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