Saturday, April 13, 2019

Catching Panfish: Year Round

Prize Panfish

By Bruce Litton

          Rock bass, pumpkinseeds, bluegills, redbreast sunfish, green sunfish, crappies, yellow perch and white perch, they all taste great when fried in a skillet, but more to them exists than a grab bag taken home after fishing. I mention rock bass first for two reasons. They’re a secret favorite of mine because of my fly fishing as a boy at Stony Brook in Mercer County, and because my son and I never caught any on our favorite Lake Hopatcong until last year. One of those, almost a pound, took a herring set for walleye, 25 feet down. They’re not proper bass, but not sunfish, either, and the more familiar you become with them, the less of a nuisance they may seem.

          Every panfish is a beauty. Rings, pearls, and all the rosy hues of sunrise. Steal away under cover of twilight, and let the sun’s first rays find reflection. Even brown tones on a rock bass have luster to admire. Pumpkinseeds feature fantastic colors. When hooked, rock bass and crappies don’t kick like bluegills or pumpkinseeds, but if every fish fought the same, we could never feel variety in the game’s wonder. Redbreasts don’t grow as large as other panfish. Nor do green sunfish, although I’ve caught some weighing nearly a pound on the Delaware River, fighting hard on light tackle.

          A good friend of mine, Noel Sell, specializes in panfish, using a Loomis rod and Daiwa Certrate 1003 spinning reel. He fishes VMC Mooneye, Lunker City Fin-S, and Cubby jigs, among others. Jigging, even plugging for perch and crappies, will satisfy in sporting ways, but why turn your nose down on small nightcrawlers? Live bait given, for fish taken, immerses you in nature. Lures never balance natural approach to natural pursuit as bait can. We never bother with bobbers, crimping split shots and often pressing a Berkeley Worm Blower, instead. A hypodermic needle injects air into a crawler’s tail. Some fishing is hot enough to skip this tactic, when we use nightcrawler pieces to save supply.

           It’s up to you. My son and I fish lures or bait as we find fit. You don’t need a Loomis rod and an expensive reel for either purpose, unless the likes suit your pleasure. We use ultra-light rods I built myself from St. Croix blanks, not to save money, savings were little, but for the personal value of craft well done. The 1000-series reels we mount cost about 50 bucks. I also enjoy catching redbreast sunfish on nymph patterns at the North Branch Raritan, on my 2-weight TFO fly rod and Flyrise 1 reel.

           Panfishing happens year round. When Orion the Hunter slips behind sunlight, silvery white perch are a South Jersey winter chase, yellow perch classic ice fishing statewide. I never forget a January foray for sunfish at a Stony Brook pool, edged by ice, below a dam eight feet high just upstream of Carter Road. I was 12 years old and desperate for a bite on my worm, which never happened, but in the mansion of memory, it is the best attempt. I still feel the bitter cold. And relish it.

          If you fish a pond early in the spring for bass, and that water temperature you’re so eager to witness hit the 50-degree mark isn’t there, you might spot sunnies in the shallows. Usually they’re small, but the size you want to hook position a little deeper where you don’t see them. They’ll take worms or nightcrawlers. They’ll knock a jig, too. On lakes, such as Hopatcong, Greenwood, Assunpink, or Union, various reservoirs too, maneuver a boat into coves and fish those residual weeds. If coves aren’t weedy, such as Spruce Run Reservoir’s, you’ll still find fish in protected spots. White perch will position deep, however, and during the fall, we often catch them on herring in Lake Hopatcong, while fishing for walleye and hybrid stripers.

         Warm water finds panfish almost everywhere deep as weeds grow, and shallower, but white perch roam openly. On Manasquan Reservoir, we once trolled Rat-L-Traps behind the electric-powered boat as we shuttled between spots, seeking largemouths. Maybe hybrid stripers would hit.

          Whack! “Hey, it’s a pretty good fish!”

          But not hybrid. One after another, we caught white perch in deep open water, each about a pound-and-a-half. I regret not tossing them on the boat’s floor to take home and fry. My specialist friend might commend our releasing them, since he’s conservation minded, but he does own a meat smoker and uses it on fish.

          Panfish come easily. Go light and you’ll get some. Unless the challenge involves a frigid stream, you can almost always count on plenty. The ultimate test is to get over any denigration and prize them. I’ve secretly acknowledged their status ever since that day near Princeton.


Feeling the Urge

I felt dormant over the winter. Very busy, very active, but not much out-of-doors. I finally felt familiar urges to get out, and on a notepad while at work, sketched in few words plans to wake early and fish salmon eggs for trout, and if we get a warm morning, cast spinners for bass again. I did get out and fish spinners twice unsuccessfully in recent weeks, and feel good about that, but I'd like to connect.

I was up at 7:00 a.m. today, but not on way to the water, but to Bernardsville Auto for front brakes, thinking I was a fool not to have Mike Maxwell do them and save me an hour-and-a-half travel and time there all-round. (We picked the car up tonight.) Mike lives here in the neighborhood and replaces brakes in front of his condo. Less expensively, too. Not to mention that he's a good friend I could have helped out, but he doesn't do oil changes. John at Bernardsville Auto did that last week...when he discovered the need of brakes. And, since he's done work for us for the past 20 years or so, we couldn't skip out on him and be polite.

So, in short, I'm too busy to get out. I had hoped to fish salmon eggs with Mike Maxwell on Opening Day, and if I couldn't get out then, as it happened, then on Monday or Tuesday. I later remembered, almost just in time, my doctor appointment Monday morning, and something else knocked out Tuesday.

I haven't fished with Mike in ages, and would really like to.

Plans will hold--I'm sure--for Wednesday with Jorge. Salmon eggs for trout, but we're bringing some rather large jigs, too, after Fred Matero sent me a photo of his 19-inch rainbow Saturday that struck a two-inch Powerbait paddletail. We'll use those on heavier so-called "ultra" light rods. We will enjoy a big day.

The microlight rod I've been building is almost done. I put the first coat of varnish on the wraps tonight. I have a 2.5/64 rod tip I got from Mudhole for it, but it's an ice fishing rod tip with a large diameter ring to combat ice formation. I have searched and searched online, and just cannot find a tip top with a 2.5 tube or smaller and a ring with narrow diameter. The microlight I bought at Ray's Sporting Goods in North Plainfield--my wife and I lived in that town for a year, good memories--had the perfect tip top until I broke the tip section immediately below it and lost that tip top, but when it comes to finding the likes, the market seems completely empty. There just isn't enough demand, or not as yet. Maybe if my book gets published, demand will develop. After all, for a couple of decades after I broke news about the microlight method in The New Jersey Fisherman, 1977, microlight rods did become available on the market. You find anything like them very rarely now. Stanhope Bait and Boat did carry a four-foot Mity Master a year ago. I don't find the brand online. Three-and-a-half feet is more like it, though I have no complaint about the three feet, 10 inches of the rod I bought at Ray's.

At least I found a 2.0/64 tube tip top at Jann's Netcraft with a somewhat smaller diameter ring. That goes to show just how light the tips of my microlights. Ultralight rod tip sections are about twice as thick, taking 4.0/64 tip tops. I ordered two at $1.05 each and they should arrive in days. With shipping, the order was $9.45. (You could mail them in a little envelope, they're so light.)

I also got Suffix one-pound test, which will be interesting.