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River panfish: summer style.

Bayous steam when it's hot at daybreak. Mist obscures the middle distance. Progressing slowly, watching for deadheads, the outboard purrs. The dripping jungle envelops your spot: A the edge of the main river channel.

Not Louisiana, or Mississippi--though it could be. Sans Spanish moss, the same kinds of environments stretch right up into Minnesota and Wisconsin, inhabited with the same primary species of panfish. Black and white crappies, bluegills, and instead of coppernose 'gills and shellcrackers you find more perch from Iowa north (and they seem to be getting bigger every year).

In all those states and more, the rules for summer panfish in rivers are much the same. Even before water levels drop to average summer lows, panfish push out of the bayous and backwaters into the river proper, using wing dams, laydowns, sandbars, points, and bridge abutments as current breaks. When water and current levels drop below average lows, panfish may even abandon current breaks and suspend in the main river channel.

Tim Hutchinson, hair-jig artist and guide for pan-fish, walleyes, and bass, works the Mississippi from Dubuque, Iowa, north into Minnesota. "Pools 9 and 10 in Iowa have 25 times more backwater area than up north," Hutchinson says. Want to get lost in the bayou without leaving your living room? Google Earth that region, zoom in close, and start scrolling. Mind boggling. Not to say the backwaters farther north are small or easy to navigate. The bayous and backwaters of the biggest midwestern and southern rivers represent the most overlooked panfish bonanzas in the nation. Location for the hottest summer bites is a matter of timing, water level, and a few simple observations.


"The best time to hunt river bluegills in summer is when the mayflies hatch," Hutchinson said. "That's when walleyes and bass get tough, but bluegills are on fire. We have three primary species in this stretch. I don't know the Latin names, but they're all burrowers that hatch from early June through July. They burrow in firmer bottom materials like sand or mud. They don't like silt. When they hatch on the main channel they head for trees, eventually die, and fall back to the water. Bluegills sit on the wing dams, right on the edge of current seams, and wait for the river to convey the drifting smorgasbord of spinners to them."

Marty Hahn is a walleye and panfish guide farther north, on Pools 3 and 4 along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. "When summer heat draws the water down and you have currents of less than 1 mph, crappies and bluegills are in the main river," he said. "If the water is high, they move into current edges near the backwaters where they spend the winter. They stay out of the current in high water. The highest surface temperatures of the year are around 80[degrees]F, and it starts to cool down in August. Panfish retreat into backwaters as temperatures fall into the high-60[degrees]F range. Pin minnows and river shiners also retreat into backwaters, so panfish could be following them out of the current."

All panfish, crappies in particular, use wood in the form of fallen trees, cribs, stumps, and logjams in the main river by August if water levels are low to normal. They won't move far from channels and openings leading into backwater areas unless current is reduced to low levels. "In Pool 4 and Lake Pepin from the top of the lake to the darn, crappies suspend like they do in lakes when the water is hot," Hahn said. "In July and August they suspend, and when the water starts to cool they move to riprap and rocky shorelines. By late fall, they're out of the main river and they winter in backwaters."

Way upstream, where backwaters abut relatively wild sections of the Mississippi River, fallen trees come-and-go in the main channel and become wandering domiciles we call deadheads. One deadhead can hold hundreds of crappies in the absence of other woodcover once the water temperature climbs above 70[degrees]F and stays there for more than a week (generally July). If a deep pool in the 20-foot range abuts those entrances to backwater areas, crappies begin dropping down to the floor of those pools in August and continue stacking up there, right on bottom, until water temperatures drop into the mid- to low-40[degrees]F range, before retreating into deeper backwaters.

In the Mississippi's many numbered pools downriver, everybody I spoke with noted movement by crappies from wood, wing dams, and other current breaks to rocky shorelines and riprap as temperatures drop into the 60[degrees]F range.

Best Bites Are Isolated

Perhaps nobody knows more about backwater crappies, bluegills, and perch in the La Crosse area than Stanley Von Ruden and his son Kyle. "Crappies always are active in 8- to 10-foot depths," Kyle said. "Even when they move to the riprap a little later, they're active in that depth zone year after year. We sometimes find them biting 3 feet down in shaded areas, but most feeding activity is 8 to 10 feet down."

Stanley is a phone-company supervisor who spends a lot of spare time in all four seasons chasing pan fish. "My father fished for bass," he said. "But I saw people landing so many big panfish with cane poles when the bass weren't biting in those days, I became fascinated with it."

Panfish are the most popular targets for anglers in American waters. The key to hot fishing, as usual, is locating isolated structure or cover that's difficult for other anglers to find. "Spots that have boats on them every day won't have big or aggressive fish for long, so I look for things other people don't look for," Stanley said. "Wing dams are keys from July right into September, when most people leave panfish alone. The biggest bluegills are out in the main river. Crappies are more in the brush, along a rock wall, or inhabiting a lazy current sliding along riprap. It's crazy how many crappies hold in those areas by late August. They like current and they like the main current in summer. Heavy boat traffic makes it tough, but in August they need some shade and they might be only 3 feet down.

"The last three years we had summer floods and you had to go into the back channels," he said. "In normal flows we're in the main channel. You have to have deep water nearby. They slide into those deep-water breaks as the water begins to cool."

Stuff that "other people can't find" includes isolated rockpiles, brushpiles, and trees that don't extend above the surface where everybody can see them. "Inconvenient places are best," Stanley said, "like no-wake zones, spots on a featureless flat--things you can find only if you move slowly and keep your eyes on the depthfinder. Timber that's not sticking above the surface is key. It's not hard to catch 'em. Anybody can catch 'em. It's finding big concentrations that can be hard, so you've got to go slow. Everybody's in a hurry. The fish are right under their noses sometimes."

Waters the Von Rudens haunt include 4,000-acre Lake Onalaska, at the confluence of the Black River and the Mississippi at the bottom of Pool 7. "Pool 8 has the Goose Island backwaters, which is a maze of sloughs," Kyle said. "Miles of ideal panfish habitat with slow backwater bays that fill up in the spring and drop to only a few feet deep in summer. The panfish skedaddle out of there unless the water rises and drives them away from the main current. Then we're back in the vicinity of those areas where we find them from late fall through spring."

Bluegills, the Von Rudens find, spend summer along weedlines where you have current in pools like Onalaska. "Half are on wing dams and the other half are on wood in July." "By August they're on wing dams," Kyle said. "Most of the crappies and some bluegills use big lay-downs with tops reaching into depths of 8 feet or deeper. The best snags gather big mats of drifting grass, which create shade and hold lots of minnows. Crappies can hold right under those mats over depths of 30 feet or more. Bluegills generally suspend near bottom where the wood hits the edge of the river channel in depths of 10 to 12 feet or so. But in Pool 5 by Wabasha, we've seen it many times: Panfish go out in the main channel under most conditions.

"Last year our biggest July and August bluegills came off wing dams and brushpiles in the river proper," Kyle said. "Crappies suspend off deeper banks, but more of them are concentrated around big laydowns. Cottonwoods are used by crappies because they last a long time, cover a large area, and provide a good current break. If the water's high, we still fish snags and wing dams, but off the main channel. Crappies are on those laydowns in back eddies in high water."

Spawning habitat is out of the main river channel, away from the current. Summer habitat is seldom far away, but "far" is relative. "We have so many spawning areas it's ridiculous," Stanley said. "They can move up to a couple miles from where they spawn when setting up in summer areas."

Boat Contro Tackle and Presentation

"From late June on, I use 1/32-to 1/80-ounce jigs for bluegills," Hutchinson said. "They don't respond to big packages well in summer. I tip jigs with about 1/3 of a small redworm and no plastic. You don't want to overbait when the mayflies are out. Waxworms are not effective in summer. Blueaills feed ferociously on mayflies and I think they're keyed on brown, green, and black."

Hutchinson likes to turn the boat sideways, drift down to a wing dam, and use two anchors on the upstream side of the boat to hold it right above the shallow rocks. "I approach on the upstream side and anchor where I can see the rocks below," he said. "Using 1/64-ounce jigs most of the time, we cast 30 feet, wait for the jig to reach bottom, and drag it a foot along bottom. Then we pause before moving it again. We use 5.5-foot ultralight rods. I want that 9-incher to feel like a 2-pounder on 4- to 6-pound mono. It's a hoot. We catch walleyes, cats, sheepshead--you never know what the next fish will be. If we aren't catching fish in 5 minutes, we're gone. They can be on the outside of the wing dam, or anywhere along that inside face. Current is the key. They want the river to bring food to them, but they're bottom-oriented, where the current slows."

The Von Rudens use a similar approach for crappies on laydowns. "Most of the time we drift into a laydown and wedge the boat against the branches or tie to a branch," Kyle said. "We use the entire length of the boat and 8-foot rods to probe vertically across the widest possible area, covering as much of the snag from each position as possible. In high water we focus on the roots or trunk closer to the bank. As the current slacks, we hunt out farther into the branches over deeper water."

They use Northland Tackle or Bass Pro Shops ballheads tipped with various shapes and styles of softbaits for crappies that include Berkley Gulp!, Little Atom, Southern Pro, and Northland varieties. They often probe a little deeper with small slipfloats for blue-gills. "A bobber, a smaller jig, and a piece of leafworm is probably the most effective," Stanley said. "Around wing dams we use 1/32- to 1/16-ounce jigs, and it's important to crawl them right on bottom. The critical thing about a wing dam is the riffle on top. No riffles, no fish. Find wing dams that come close to the surface yet allow water to run over the top."

Hutchinson markets Hutch's Hair Jigs, and ties some crappie versions for swimming and some for vertically jigging. "We use calf-tail, also called 'kipp tail," he said. "Depends on how much flow there is. Crappies want some current to bring food to them, but not too much. Some river crappies spend most of their lives in brushpiles. I vertically jig there. Out in the current, I swim jigs. No dancing the rod tip. I like to glide a 1/16- to 3/32-ounce jig along."

Hahn also uses Hutch's Hair Jigs. "When crappies move to rip-rap areas in late August, I throw his little calf tails about 80 percent of the time," he said. "Little hair jigs glide along the rocks without falling into the crevices as quickly. I tie some bucktails, too, and I never tip them with plastics or minnows. We also use 1/8- to 3/32-ounce tubes or hair jigs on 6- to 8-pound high-vis Berkley Sensation mono on wood and riprap. Sometimes I use Sufix 832 braid with a clear leader. I cast to shore on riprap and work it down the break. I lift my 6-foot 6-inch medium-light St. Croix Legend Series rod and let the jig slip down along the face of the riprap."

All involved say the fishing has been phenomenal for years and keeps getting better. "We're catching lots of 9-inch bluegills," Kyle Von Ruden said. "Crappies are mostly 10 to 13 inches, and the numbers are good." Sweaty, seething jungles full of pan-fish in the Midwest? Believe it.


* In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw lives in Brainerd, Minnesota, and often can be spotted plying backwaters for river panfish.
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Author:Straw, Matt
Geographic Code:1U4IA
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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