Photo by Tim Romano
If nothing fires you up like a bug-eyed, plate-size freak of a panfish, then you need to be on the water now–and try these prespawn trophy-slab tactics.
As fishing goes, it doesn’t get much easier than filling a bucket with summertime sunnies. But to stack up honest-to-goodness slab panfish–titty bream, elephant perch, and the like–now is the time.
Warm spring days bring your favorite fishing holes to life with tiny baitfish, insects, crustaceans–and the big panfish that love to eat them. Crappies, bluegills, and yellow perch gorge themselves just ahead of the spawn, and like a prison chow line, the big ones eat first.
We found three local-legend panfish fanatics who own the prespawn. These are the guys the church calls each spring for the big fish fry. They can smell a bream bed from 50 yards and feel a crappie bite in their sleep. And they can show you how to catch more slabs right now.
Illustration by Ryan Kirby
Dip the knees
Few anglers have ever seen a true 1-pound bluegill, let alone caught one. But Kenny Dean, who has been fishing the panfish-rich oxbow lakes of eastern Arkansas since 1946, has pulled in a pile of them. “The best I ever did was in a cypress swamp down below Stuttgart,” he says. “We caught 22 bluegills that weighed a total of 23 pounds.”
Just before the fish get on their spawning beds is the best time to catch the real slabs, because that is when the very biggest bluegills are both shallow and hungry. “We’re talking fish that are bigger than your hand,” Dean says. “And I’ve got a damn big hand.”
His favorite oxbows are only 15 to 20 acres and choked with cypress trees, but his technique can work just about anywhere big bluegills and thick wood cover come together. These conditions call for specialized equipment. Dean runs a 15-foot johnboat with a 15-horse outboard that he can launch off a dirt-bank ramp and maneuver in tight quarters. He has a trolling motor, but he rarely uses it this time of year. “I’ve always preferred a sculling paddle for this type of fishing,” he says. “If you get up into the trees with a trolling motor, you’ll hit the cypress knees, break your prop, and scare all the fish away.”
Dean uses a 10-foot telescoping fiberglass rod. Instead of a reel, he ties a length of 12-pound Stren mono to the tip. Cane poles work too. “I keep two poles rigged,” he says. “One with 8 feet of line for fishing submerged logs and brush, the other with just 2 feet for probing the really tight, shallow spots.
“I tie on a size 10 hook and split shot–or sometimes a 1⁄32-ounce jighead or Flea-Fly–and tip it with a waxworm.” Dean likes the heavy line because it allows him to bend the tiny hooks and free them when snagged, and if you’re doing this right, he says, you’ll get snagged every few minutes. “The key to this is to control your drop,” he notes. “That bait sinks very slowly, so you have to keep your line taut and watch it constantly for a strike. Ease it down next to one piece of cover, hold it there for 20 or 30 seconds, then pull it out and drop it next to another.” If you see that line twitch or move, stick it.