Jim Gronaw: Kayaking an ideal method to go after panfish

Last summer I finally got my butt in gear and rigged up an economical sit-in kayak to use just for small, flatwater environs that could put me on bass or panfish. Nothing special, no electronics, just a bare-bones setup with an anchor trolly, paddle bracket and a base for my Go Pro camera.

I upgraded recently to a Vibe Skip Jack 9-foot sit-in kayak and really like the “throw and go” lightweight options it offers. Combined with marginal paddling skills and an ultra-light spinning rod, I found that spawning bluegills and summertime suspended crappies were more than a hoot for me. Although certainly nothing special, I found that it opened some new doors for fishing and enabled me to catch and release several hundred panfish that I would have otherwise never enjoyed.

Just from the get-go, let me say that small, 10- and 12-foot kayaks, both sit-on-top and sit-in varieties, are ideal for many waters where larger craft either cannot or are not allowed to roam. The vast majority of the Delmarva millponds are classic ideal waters for the kayaks.

Many small, Mid-Atlantic lakes have unimproved or aging launch facilities, so it makes sense to fish them from kayaks. Additionally, overgrown, ultra-shallow shoreline areas that hold spawning sunfish, prowling largemouths or ambushing pickerel are often best fished from the confines of a quiet, stealthy kayak. Plus, the quiet, sneaky approach with these vessels can often put you on to many dynamite photo opts of regional wildlife and other flora and fauna.

Of course, these are all things that kayak fans already knew for years, even decades. But as with any new endeavors, there is always an element of excitement and joy, pleasure and relaxation. Panfishing from a kayak is just a good gig, period.

As a rookie, I try to keep my trips planned around the spawning phases of crappies and bluegills and give a minor effort in the early-morning bass bite. As you read this, crappies will be done spawning just about everywhere in the readership area and will be transitioning back to deeper water, deeper brush and deeper holes near millpond dam faces. Some will be hanging out in the shallow brush as this year’s “later than normal” spawn could see the remnants of that activity by the time you read this. But for the most part, they will be on deeper structure or even suspended.

Bluegills and sunfish, on the other hand, will spawn in areas of fine sand and gravel throughout much of the early summer months, often coinciding with full moon periods of the lunar calendar. Hence, shallow, sight-fishing options will last as late as August on some waters, provided that algae growth and other aquatic weeds do not impair mid to late summer spawning efforts. Good polaroid glasses are a plus when scouting for spawning gils, plus they are essential for spotting cruising bass or other targets in the shallows.

Timing, on a daily schedule, is also important. We enjoyed quality panfishing from 6 am up until about noon during June, July and August. Fishing during the coolest part of the day, coupled with insect activity and increased feeding, seemed to be the ideal timing for fishing success and it also got us out of the heat of the day when those 90-plus temperatures settled in. Cooler overcast mornings were both pleasant on the body and ideal for catching a kayak-load of bluegills.

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Personally, I like to carry a pair of shorter, ultra-light spinning sticks at 5 to 6 feet long that enable me to cast up and under the overhanging canopy of shoreline trees and vegetation. Longer rods make this tough, but they, too, have their own application, especially if you are fishing more open areas with little tree cover. Classic four-pound test limp monofilament covers most bases for the panfish gig. However, if you are in a lot of brush or weeds then you can up it to 6-pound line or even 10-pound braid if you fear the chance of a big largemouth, pickerel or even a snakehead.

Almost all of our panfishing is done with small 1/32nd- and 1/64th-ounce jigs, either of the hair variety or trimmed with any variety of plastics. The Bobby Garland Itty Bit and Itty Bit Swim’r are good trailers to use on smaller jigs or the classic tiny 1-inch Mister Twisters. Many others work and everybody has their personal favorite.

At times, panfish may be fussy and a live bait tipping option may be needed to coax strikes. Small pieces of garden worms get the call as do mealworms at this time. During the summer heat, any earthworm type can stress and suffer from high temperatures, becoming lethargic and un-appealing to the fish. If you don’t have a small cooler on board to keep them cool, then a better option would be the mealworms or even any variety of Berkley Gulp! products like the Crappie Nibbles, Angle Worms or the One-inch Minnows are good choices.

Often, we suspend these jigs and baits below small, oval floats like the Plasti-Lite ¾-inch oval snap-on float. If fish are suspended, then you can add BB-sized split-shot a foot or so up the line and cast to deeper structure and look for strikes or “thumps” on the fall. Don’t be afraid to use high visibility lines to help you see those “ticks” and “jumps” in the line, indicting a strike.

I tend to travel as light as I can for kayak panfish, carrying all my jigs, lures and live baits in a canvas pouch or even an anglers vest. I have ample pockets on my PFD, which I wear constantly, and can carry most all terminal gear there as well. A net may be needed, especially if you are expecting the possibility of a bigger bass. And if you are keeping fish, a fish basket can hold your catch or perhaps a small cooler would do well to keep your fish fresh.

Sunscreen, polarized glasses, insect repellent and loose-fitting clothing will make your outing for warm-weather panfish enjoyable. I sometimes wear camo clothing, especially if I know I am going to be fishing in shallow water where fish could be spooky.

Additionally, bring some snacks and cold water to stay hydrated and it is always a good idea to fish with a friend, especially if you are fishing an unfamiliar body of water. Be aware of what you are capable of as a paddler and do not extend yourself physically in the heat. Yes, bluegills, crappies, white perch and more are all easy targets for the kayak angler. Enjoy the bounty and beauty this summer.

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