Vertical-jigging is a sure-fire way to put more big, fall panfish in your boat.
Although summer has come to an end, and many anglers are starting to think about putting away their fishing gear for the year, fall can be one of the most productive seasons for big panfish. As water temperatures drop and days grow shorter, panfish activity increases as these fish begin to feed aggressively in preparation for winter. This is a great opportunity for anglers to take advantage of a productive time of the year to catch panfish.
Fall panfish activity changes as we transition from summer to fall. As water temperatures rapidly drop, the lush green vegetation in many bodies of water begins to die as well. Vegetation is a very important factor when fishing for panfish. Live vegetation will almost always hold some type of fish. As that vegetation dies and the related food source for smaller baitfish vanishes, they move on and so will the panfish that feed on them. Oxygen levels drop with the dying vegetation so look for these fall panfish to move a bit deeper to more favorable conditions. These fish will be located along deep weed lines, sharp drop-offs, and most frequently in lake basins. Panfish school up and cruise these basins in search of forage.
Anglers new to fall panfish usually ask the same questions: “At what depth are the fish feeding/holding?” and “What depth should I be targeting or looking for in the fall for panfish?” The truth is that this is different on every body of water. In the fall I may be fishing a lake with a basin that is 30 feet deep and the crappie are schooled up 5 feet off the bottom. I also have caught fish in shallow lakes where the maximum depth was 12 feet and the fish were in the “deeper” holes, 6 to 8 feet down. Lakes may have multiple basins where it is important to fish each one looking for active and aggressive fish.
Electronics have never been more prevalent in the fishing world than they are now, and they are one of your most important tools for finding consistent success. Crappie will be schooled up in lake basins chasing baitfish. As you explore each basin it is important to keep your eyes on your electronics in search of these schools. Often you will find crappie suspended in the water column in the lake basin. Once you locate a school you must use your electronics to stay on the fish and follow them as they move around the basin in search of food. When fishing a lake that is new to you where you may not know the weed lines, it can beneficial to look at a satellite map of the lake. If the satellite images were taken in the summer, you might be able to locate the weeds on the water, and this can help you get an idea of where the weed lines were that have since died and may no longer be visible as they are under the surface of the water.
Fishing techniques in the fall can be a lot like the techniques used during ice fishing. Vertical jigging can be a very useful technique in the fall to put panfish in the boat. Once a school is located it is important to stay on top of the fish and drop your presentation vertically over top of the school. Much like ice fishing you should start with your jig slightly above the school and slowly move the presentation up the water column and toward the surface, enticing the panfish to come up and hit it. Always keep your presentation moving upward, even when fish may shy away. Your natural reaction may be to lower back down to them but I have found that always moving up appears more natural and will entice fish to chase more aggressively rather than shy away from your presentation.
Jig size will depend on the depth that you are fishing, but most of the time in the fall I fish with a jig ranging from 1/32 to 1/16 ounce. Tungsten is my jig material of choice as it is much denser than lead. This allows you to use a presentation that is heavier than an equal-sized lead jig, and it will get down to the strike zone much quicker. If you are using your flasher or other similar electronics, the denseness of the tungsten will send a much stronger signal back to your display as well. Tungsten also gives you better feel of your presentation and the bottom. I tip my tungsten jig with a soft plastic up to 3 inches in length. Hair jigs are also very popular jigs as the hair gives a different presentation to the fish as it flows down naturally to the strike zone.
Another popular lure in the fall is a darter-style lure that imitates an injured baitfish as it wobbles down the water column and then delivers an erratic, darting motion as you vertically jig it upward. There is a lot of versatility when it comes to vertical jigging. You can adjust your depth, jig speed, and jig cadence to adapt to the many changing moods that panfish may present to you on a given fishing trip.
Vertical jigging for panfish requires equipment that will help you detect a finesse bite but also drive a hook into the roof of the fish’s mouth. I like to use a 6- to 7-foot light power rod with a fast tip. One thing I look for in a panfish rod is where the rod “loads up.” When you are in your local tackle shop looking at rods, put pressure on the tip of the rod you are interested in and see exactly where the rod begins to bend and have some backbone. I like a rod that has a sensitive enough tip to detect a bite but that begins to have some backbone closer to the tip of the rod so that you can set the hook quicker. A rod that is too soft and doesn’t have enough backbone won’t set the hook as effectively or as quickly.
When it comes to line choices, I use 4- to 6-pound test, and sometimes even lighter in the fall. Avoid using line that is too heavy, specifically when using light jigs as you will not be able to feel your presentation. Fluorocarbon is a good choice as it has very low visibility, high sensitivity, and a quick drop rate that will help get you to the strike zone faster. One downside is that fluorocarbon has more memory than other line materials. This means that older line will often twist and spin off your spool when using light jigs. Changing your line more often will help combat this problem.
The more time you can spend on the water will help you gain valuable experience that will help you throughout the entire year. Fall fishing will help you to pinpoint where active fish are located and as winter draws near, you will be better prepared for early season ice fishing. “First ice” can be one of the most productive times to fish in the winter, and by getting a head start knowing where those fish are in the fall, you will enjoy a much more productive ice fishing season. Panfish are very aggressive in the fall and during first ice as they prepare themselves for winter. The fall is a beautiful time of year in New England and a great time to be outdoors enjoying a productive day of fishing!