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John McAndrew with a few nice perch / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
A crappie on a jig. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
A bluegill caught on a Slo-Poke jig. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com

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Its summer and the thermometer and water temperatures are both heating up, many of our lakes are finally getting weedy and the Wisconsin River is running high and dirty.

So, where does an angler go to catch some fish? Here is a good way to beat the mid-summer slow down and catch some tasty panfish.

Early in the fishing season itís easy to catch most fish species and especially panfish in water less than 10 feet deep. Initially, after ice-out, panfish and most fish are attracted to the warmth of the shallows after a cold winter. The shallow water is where the food chain gets started with the first hatches of insects and zooplankton. This, coupled with the warmer water temperature brings in the fish.

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Many of the fish also will lay their eggs and spawn in the shallow water of most Wisconsin lakes. The first weeds of the year are finally growing, giving cover and food to the young fry that have just hatched.

During the first two months of the fishing season, itís possible to find most panfish fish shallow and often youíll have fish species all in the same shallow water locations. But, things have changed with the arrival of summer. Most if not all fish have spawned and have moved or are on their way to their summer haunts.

As we get into the warmer months of July, August, and early September fishing can be downright difficult. What has happened is that many of the panfish (crappies, perch, white bass, bluegills) and most gamefish (walleyes, northern pike, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and muskies) have moved away from the warmer, shallow water to scattered mid-lake locations and deep weed lines. There, the water is cooler and more in their specific ďcomfort zone.Ē There needs to be zooplankton close by and often suspended throughout in the water column.

These locations can be anywhere in a lake, but mid-lake structures like rock piles, humps, cribs, underwater islands, and deep-water weeds are always worth checking out along with the lakeís main basin. Fish and schools of panfish constantly roam around a lake, especially a mesotrophic lake, chasing and feeding upon the tiny zooplanktons that are moved by the wind currents. Zooplankton can move vertically or up and down in the water column, but they need wind to move them horizontally and around the lake.

Often, youíll see clouds of zooplankton (bugs) rising off the bottom of a lake and scattered up and down from the bottom to the lakeís top on your Lowrance electronics. These ďclouds or ballsĒ of baitfish and zooplankton are what youíre looking for and ideally is where you want to be fishing. This is why one needs quality electronics like those from Lowrance or Hummingbird to see the forage or food (zooplankton) thatís suspended.

Initially, I suggest that you slowly motor over the areas that you intend to fish with your eyes glued to your electronics while looking for the schools of baitfish. The key is to find the food. Youíll find fish in the immediate area.

Along with the need for good electronics, you should also pick up a map of the waters that you plan to fish and go over it before you hit the water. Good maps like those made by Fishing Hot Spots and Navionics are well worth buying and studying before fishing any lake. Navionics and LakeMaster also make ďchipsĒ for the better GPS units that show youíll everything that youíll need to know. Everyone canít afford nor needs a high-end GPS unit with countless lakes youíll never fish, but a good unit is still a must for the successful angler.

There are good two tactics for panfishing during the summer and early fall. One way is to drift fish across the main basin of a lake with its structure or fish the lakeís deep weedlines. Depth is a relative thing depending on the waters that youíre fishing. The types of lakes that Iím fishing are mainly mesotrophic lakes which are found in much of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. Mesotrophic lakes are commonly relatively clear with submerged aquatic plants and vegetation or weeds and a medium level of nutrients.

When drifting for panfish during the heat of summer, remember that the wind is your friend. As I mentioned, the wind is what moves the zooplankton or small organisms around the lake. Before fishing and after looking at a map, see which direction the wind blew from the day before. This can greatly help your fishing success by telling you the general locations where you want to drift.

Panfish drifting can be much like trolling for open-water trolling for walleyes, where itís important to cover as much water as possible till you find the forage and then the fish. If you had a south wind the day before, then you want to be fishing and drifting the northern areas of the lake because thatís where the feed will have been blown to.

A lake that I fish often is Madisonís Lake Monona which is a highly productive lake for most fish with a maximum depth of over 60 feet. It has good structure, weeds, and a river flowing in and out. Its main basin is perfect for a summer drift for perch, crappies, white bass, and even bluegills. Though bluegills are a weed orientated fish and near-sighted, they too can be caught while drifting a lakeís main basin.

What happens to Lake Monona and many lakes in the North Country is that during the warm and hot weather the water where fish will be actually compresses or gets smaller. Most lakes,with the exception of shallow lakes like Lake Winnebago, experience stratification where you have different temperatures and oxygen levels at different depths in the summer. Lake Mononaís fish will usually suspend anywhere from 5 to 20 feet down in water that is 40 feet deep and sometimes even deeper. Again, good electronics can show you a lakeís stratification and you should always be fishing above this level. Once you find the zooplankton and see the stratification, you should be in for some quality fishing.

The equipment and gear that you need for panfish drifting is simple and doesnít have to be expensive. The first thing that you need is a long rod between 7 and 7 Ĺ feet long (G. Loomis, Fenwick, and Berkley) make good ones with an extra fast or fast tip. Combine this with a quality ultra-light reel (Shimano or Daiwa) spooled with 4 pound Trilene monofilament.

Then, I tie a barrel swivel to the main line and to the swivel I add 2 to 3 feet of fluorocarbon line and then tie on a 1/32 ounce jig like the Bait Rigs Slo-Poke jig which Iíve found to work well for all panfish and even the occasional walleye or bass. The Slo-Poke jig falls better horizontally than most other jigs that Iíve tried. Try to have an assortment of colors with glow and chartreuse working well in most lakes. But, keep experimenting till you find what works that day!

The jig is then loaded with 3 or 4 spikes, wax worms, or leaf worms and weighted with split shots. I use the smaller split shots (1/32 ounce) to weight the line spacing them 2 to 3 feet above the jig. This is not a precise method, but it works well. Since Wisconsin allows you to use 3 rods, Iíll weight my lines with a different number of split shots (2, 3, or 4) and count out the amount of line let out by the number of line pulls.

Experiment with adding and deleting split shots till you find active fish. Be sure to keep your eye on your rod tips for bites. Often when drifting, the fish will hook themselves. You want to scatter you baits up and down in the water column above the thermocline and stratification. Itís much easier to fish and drift, if you have rod holders (Scotty or Tempress) on your boat. What youíre really trying to do is to ďrakeĒ the water column for your fish.

While fishing this ďsystem,Ē Iíve found that the bluegills are always the highest up in the water, the crappies are normally below the bluegills, and the perch are almost always the deepest fish that youíll find. White bass can be scattered anywhere from top to bottom of most waters.

You donít have to get on the water early for this bite. Panfish are sight feeders and the best action is from 10 am to 2 pm when the sun is at its highest point in the sky giving the greatest light penetration. One other tip, if itís too windy for drifting try using a drift sock to slow you down. They are worth the investment!

The other tactic or technique that catches summer panfish is to fish deep weeds lines. Again, this technique is different because Iím fishing locations that I know hold fish some time during the day. You wonít always see on your electronics because the fish are often are buried in the weeds waiting to ambush whatever comes by. This method requires a good anchor and plenty of rope. Anchor up in a good spot and fish the weeds that the wind is blowing into with a small jig (the Bait Rigs Cobra works great) in the # 12 size and a slip float. The wind will give your bait movement, action, and blow it toward the weeds. Itís very important to position your boat in a location where youíre not on top of the fish and have to make a long cast to them. The panfish can be anywhere in the weeds or close by them. The weeds that youíre looking for are; coontail, cabbage, and sand grass in most lakes in the north.

Some days, a plain Aberdeen hook (# 8) and a split shot or two is all you need with live bait. Since you can use three rods try to rig them with different kinds of bait, different colors, and fish them at different depths to again cover the water column. Fish an area for a half an hour before moving and when you move make small moves looking for open areas in the weeds and any inside turns. You want to move small distances, so often all you have to do is let out a little more rope. This should be a location that you know and have confidence in, so the panfish might be only a cast away from you.

These are tried and true methods for catching panfish in summer and fallís hot weather. I was turned on to these tactics by Madisonís panfish guru, Dr. Drift or Joe Puccio. Joe is an excellent angler and panfish is his forte. If you have a good size lake which warms in the summer and fishing is tough give one of these techniques a try.

Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990ís and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com for more from Gary Engberg.

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