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Small Waters Strategies – bug hatch panfish

Small Waters Strategies – bug hatch panfish

Jul 15, 2013

The Micro Worm Turns – cash in on this hot panfish bite!

By Mike Pehanich

The summer peak is prime time to catch crappie and bluegill – provided you know where to find them. But sometimes the signs are right before your eyes!

Most lakes go through a predictable cycle as spring turns to summer. After your crappie, bass, bluegill and other sunfish have recovered from the spring spawn, weather and water heat up and lake life seems to explode!

An extended period of summer heat sets off a chain reaction in the underwater world. Terrestrial and aquatic insect hatches trigger that activity and often beg the question, “Where did all these bugs come from?” at this time of year.

Megabass pro staff member Daryl Dourado noticed that small bluegill boiled on the surface, but schools of nice crappie and bigger bluegill fed beneath them.

The bite is on

The sunfish family thrives on bugs. Bluegill and all the sunfish species love them.

Even those minnow-loving crappie go on a bug binge if they can’t find an abundance of fry or baitfish to consume!

Last week, Megabass pro staff member Daryl Dourado invited me to his home lake, a 200-plus acre impoundment in north central Illinois.

We had shore-fished the lake briefly once before, and Daryl had fished – and won – a small bass tournament a week earlier on the lake. But the sum total of our collective experience on the lake ranged little beyond that.

Our only goals for the day were to learn more about the lake and catch fish, no matter the species.

Largemouth bass were our first targets, and we caught four of them in the first 10 minutes. Good start, eh?

But surface activity just outside the launch area had caught Daryl’s attention. As we edged out of the harbor to check it out, we noticed scattered boils just off the breakline all the way to the dam.

We each had an ultralight combo on hand. Daryl grabbed his first and cast beyond the nearest boils. He counted the jig/plastic combination halfway down the water column. Then he began a slow, steady retrieve. After a few cranks of the reel, his rod bent in a big arc. Soon he was swinging a nice crappie over the gunwale.

Our first wave of crappie came on Kalin's grubs trailing Road Runner jig heads and on a Northland Impulse Tadpole fished on a 1/16-ounce jig.

That ignited a hot bite that might have lasted all day if we had stuck with it.  Bluegill boiled all over the lake, but mostly over relatively deep water – eight to 17 feet deep – near the breakline and adjacent flat.

Daryl had three crappie in the boat by the time I grabbed my ultralight. He had a Road Runner jighead from TTI Blakemore on the business end of the line, and he trailed it with a two-inch Kalin’s grub.

I had a Northland Impulse Tadpole on a Bro Bug head from an earlier outing tied on, and it drew a strike on the very first cast.

Few were the casts over the next 45 minutes that did not conjure at least a strike. The crappie were nice 10-inch-plus fish. But soon we were catching bluegill bigger than our hands as well.

Mystery boils

When I had depleted my pocket supply of Northland plastics, I switched to the Road Runner/Kalin’s grub combination that was working so effectively for Daryl. We dropped our baits through the boils, counted them down, and commenced with a slow retrieve. We didn’t bother to chase the boils for the most part as most of our hits were coming between the boils and the boat.

The mystery hatch found the bluegill were feeding on tiny segmented worms so small that they were only detectable with the closest examination of stomach contents. Yet the bigger fish fell easily for this Road Runner/Kalin's grub combination.

But eventually we edged up on a school of boiling fish.

Much to our surprise, we found no crappie at the surface but only bluegill – and smaller ones than what we were catching at that! Still, our catch continued to alternate between bluegill and crappie. Yes, we caught more bluegill than crappie during a few stretches, but seldom did we need more than a few extra casts to draw crappie back into the mix.

But what were these fish feeding on? Our first guess was that they were consuming schools of fry from the June spawn. But not a single cloud of fry or baitfish did we find.

The boils continued that afternoon, but nowhere could we find evidence of anything more than the vague plankton-like particles that hovered near the top of the water column.

Gut check

We each took home enough bluegill and crappie for a meal that evening. Although cleaning fish isn’t always my favorite sport, I must admit that I was looking forward to getting to the “insides” of this matter. I wanted the opportunity to examine the guts of our prey from that day.

What did I find?

In the crappie stomachs, nothing! Nothing discernible, at least. All my knife blade could expose was gray digested matter – not a single minnow skeleton or bug shape.

That seemed to be the case with the bluegill as well as I opened the first two stomachs. But then I began to check those bluegill bellies more carefully.

My bass hunt with Daryl Dourado, Megabass pro, got sidetracked by the sight of panfish boils over the breaklines. The boils continued for the entire day.

Amid the familiar gray digested matter poked some tiny slender shapes. They were the segmented bodies of what looked like bloodworms to me – white, not red, in color, but clearly wormlike shapes with definable segments. (Time to consult a qualified aquatic entomologist, I guess.) I found many of them in the remaining bluegill and had to conclude that much of the ooze mixed with the worms was digested matter from their worm binge.

Filling in the panfish log

The day produced more questions than answers, but at least we had parlayed our curiosity about the boiling bluegill into a very nice panfish catch.

I speculate that the larva were rising to the surface across much of the lake, sparking a feeding frenzy among the young and growing bluegill.

Interestingly, we caught very few small bluegill and hardly any small crappie. The larger bluegill and crappie were lying under and near the feeding schools. They, too, were clearly snacking heavily on these worms at their leisure. But the fact that we caught most of our fish away from the boiling surface activity – and on significantly larger baits suggested to me that these 9-plus-inch bluegill and 10- and 11-plus-inch crappie were anxious to take advantage of smaller baitfish feeding on the micro worms as well as the worms themselves.

The micro worms were the appetizers; our baits, like the fry and baitfish the bluegill and crappie really coveted, looked like a main course!

The larvae kept the fish feeding all day, but they enjoyed our larger jig offerings.

Next time I encounter a similar situation, I hope to have my full panfish arsenal aboard including a mix of small insect-type baits (Northland offers a wide range of larva and insect-type baits in the Impulse line) and tiny jigs along with Kalin’s grubs and Road Runner jigs and jig/plastic combos.

As a general rule, bigger fish follow beneath schools of surface-feeding fish regardless of the species. It’s fun to catch those fish at the top, but often your biggest targets are opportunists, just waiting for an easy meal to fall to them – or swim too close for their own good!

Gear up. Get ready. And keep a lookout for the boils!

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