By Joel Nelson
Panfishing is a pretty simple activity, which is probably the reason for its allure.
It’s also likely where we all started as anglers, whether it was bobbers and crappies in the reeds during the spring spawn or ice flies and worms off the dock for bluegills. Panfishing is the closest thing to the mother tongue of all fishing-speak. Ideally, we get multiple opportunities to put a bend in the rod and to maybe even catch dozens of fish – rather than hoping to just get a few bites like we do with other species. That’s why it’s perfect for kids and grownups alike, because it’s the ultimate in active fishing.
Traditionally, anglers haven’t been willing to invest much in terms of technology or dollars into their panfish game. I suspect its modest roots account for the basic nature of the gear that’s used to target these fish, and far be it from me to complicate one of life’s simple pleasures.
Yet, I can’t help but look at what I used to use – and see so still using – and think that there’s not a better way. I’m not talking about adding gear for gear’s sake, but rather moving toward systems that will help you convert more bites into catches.
Perhaps the first and best way to move in that direction is with a longer rod. My first panfish rods weren’t for panfish; they were for fish. Even after moving to light and ultralight models specific to panfish, I noticed that not one of the rods surpassed 6 feet. Most of them were around 5 feet long. In fact, that short length became a hallmark, allowing us to spot them in the rack from afar.
Then there’s the action – the place along the length of the rod where most of the bend, or deflection, is. Most of the ultralight models at 5 feet or 51⁄2 feet had the bend of a buggy whip. Contrary to popular belief, bending a rod from the tip section to the butt does not constitute a winning panfish model. Yet the thinking of the day involved more focus on extending or increasing the fight of smaller fish, well before putting thought into actually hooking one.
Why do long rods, say over 6 feet, and particularly ones with faster actions, benefit a panfish angler?
Longer rods inherently cast farther – a requirement when targeting shallow fish in clear water, fishing with bobbers, or especially with tiny jigs that refuse to be flung far. Long rods also offer an angler far more leverage, allowing faster uptake of line, which is often stretchy monofiliament that has an elasticity of its own.
That’s especially important to bobber anglers who have to pull out the right angle in the line, formed by a direct link to a float afar, that then goes straight down to the fish. So much of a bobber hookset involves taking out that bend in the line, and a long rod helps you do it more easily.
Pair that length advantage with a rod that actually has backbone, and deflects, say, at the last quarter of the blank, and you’ve got a dynamic combination. Bluegills that peck and crappies that barely register on the rod tip are suddenly much, much easier to catch.
Materials make a difference in bite detection, but often the bigger part of the story is actual hook-setting capability. Then, when fishing near cover such as lily-pad roots, bulrush stems, brush, or any combination of cover that panfish so dearly love, you’ve got the ability to turn fish out of it. You can now cast much more fearlessly into cover, knowing you’re less likely to be led into it by the next fish you roll.
I’m not talking about the panfish equivalent of flipping sticks, either. The right rod typically has a light power that handles the jig and rig combination at hand. You’re looking for something that can handle a 1⁄32- to 1⁄16-ounce jig without deflecting the blank too much, or, also troublesome, not enough. Those rods can also be up to medium-light in power, especially in situations with deeper water, bigger bobbers, or heavier rigs.
Dare I say we’re starting to talk about purpose-driven panfish rods? It’s an odd conversation for most anglers to talk about specializing when we talk panfish, although many of the same anglers who are comfortable with their current setups would have no problem dropping big money on a jig-worm or a spinnerbait rod for bass.
At the same time, an introspective angler would think about how a bass throttles a spinnerbait versus the way a crappie inhales a tiny jig. It doesn’t take too much consideration to arrive at the fact that precision-matched rod and reel components will help detect and convert the lightest of strikes.
So, if you’ve become a specialized angler who has technique-specific game-fish rods, but doesn’t necessarily have the same to complement your panfish lineup, this just might be the year. Start with one 61⁄2 or 7 feet, light and fast or extra-fast action, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.