Lakes and Ponds -
Float Fishing for Pan Fish
What’s your nearest fishing spot? Ask any angler this question and the answer will likely be ‘our neighborhood retention pond’, or ‘the local park district lake’. While these locations may not be as popular as ‘big name’ fisheries, such as Braidwood Lake or the Illinois River, they do offer some exciting sport very close to home – a real plus for anglers who would prefer to fish for just a few hours on a summer’s evening; or would like to spend some precious quality time with the kids at the water’s edge.
Typically, ponds and small lakes contain large numbers of pan fish, as well as a few larger predators, such as bass. How to catch these fish? While traditional bobbers, jigs and lures may be used in pursuit of these species, a far more efficient method (particularly from the bank) features the use of waggler style floats in conjunction with live bait. The following Photo Feature details how members of the JJC Anglers Club used such an approach to catch good numbers of pan fish, as well as a bass, from a Joliet, IL area retention pond – read on to find out how this was achieved….
In early September 2007 I
received a very generous invitation, from fellow Club member Bob
Davenport, for members of the JJCAC to come and fish a private lake that
borders his property in Joliet, IL (pic.1). Knowing that ‘Bob’s Lake’ is
well stocked with nice sized bluegill, bass, as well as an assortment of
more exotic koi and grass carp, we didn’t need to be asked twice! Thus,
a combined float fishing demonstration and social fish was organized for
later that month, with a good assortment of new and seasoned members, as
well as a few special guests, making it out to Bob’s on the day. The
float fishing demos, conducted by myself and Club stalwart Trevor
Burgess, respectively, focused on strategies for pan fish and bass.
Thus, the remainder of this article is split into two sections detailing
our efforts: Float Fishing for Pan Fish and Bass Fishing with
Float Fishing for Pan Fish
The good news is that the tackle needed for this style of fishing is readily available through a variety of domestic outlets. A crappie rod of between 10 and 12 feet in length works well (Gander Mtn., Bass Pro etc.), although a dedicated 13 ft Float or Match rod (available through Wacker Baits of Oak Park, IL or Jedrex Tackle of Elk Grove Village, IL) is best. A small spinning reel loaded to the brim with 4 lb test spinning reel completes the basic outfit.
A great tip when using waggler floats is to first treat the reel line with diluted dish soap before threading it through the rod guides (pic. 2). This procedure degreases the line and, importantly, ensures it will be easier to sink after casting. As is discussed in more detail below, only waggler style floats (pics. 3 and 4) allow for the angler’s line to be fully submerged, out of the influence of wind, between the float and rod tip. A variety of suitable waggler style floats are available domestically, with the most well known being the Thill brand TG Waggler (pic. 3a) and Stealth models (pic. 3c). Spring bobbers can also be used in a pinch (pic. 3b), but, frankly, are poorly suited to the task. For those wishing to purchase a more diversified range floats that, in turn, cover a greater variety of applications, Wacker Baits, Jedrex Tackle, as well as a host of overseas suppliers, carry a range of suitable patterns (pic. 4). Such selections offer the discerning angler significant improvements over the Thill varieties in terms of the choice of body style, tip thickness, material used in their construction, and base loading. These various options, in turn, allow the angler to make an appropriate float selection based on the species being targeted and the conditions encountered. Specifically, wagglers are available in either ‘straight’ (pic. 4b,c) or ‘bodied’ (pic. 4a,d) varieties; with the basic difference being that the bodied styles posses a buoyant ‘bulb’ near their base which, in turn, increases the weight loading and casting range of this style of float at the expense of some sensitivity. In contrast, straight wagglers posses no ‘bulb’, so are somewhat more hydrodynamic and have greater sensitivity; but posses a lesser casting range than similar sized bodied varieties. With regard to the float’s tip, thicker ‘straight’ tipped wagglers (pic. 4a,b) are best suited to fishing big baits on the bottom, as their inherent buoyancy will help prevent the float from ‘dragging’ under. Thin ‘insert’ tip floats (pic. 4c,d), by contrast, are best used when fishing off-bottom with smaller baits, as their less buoyant tips more easily detect takes from shy biting pan fish. In summary, as shown by the following table, the choice of waggler should principally be based on both casting range and the style of fishing employed:
Interestingly, although a waggler’s body type and tip diameter should be considered its most important features; two additional attributes, namely whether or not the float has any base loading, as well as the material it is constructed from, also contribute to its overall effectiveness. Taking base loading first, this is simply a large streamlined weight molded directly into the bottom of the float, with this weight typically comprising ~ 90% of the float’s total loading. Thus, when the waggler is attached to the line, by passing the reel line through the eye at its base, large, clumsy locking shot are not required to keep the float in place. Instead, as shown in pic.5, more subtle smaller shot or float stops may be used. The benefits of this feature are that loaded wagglers tend to cast a little straighter, while the waggler–line connection is a little ‘neater’. Turning now to float construction materials, several choices are available. Balsawood, although cheep, easy to work with, and quite buoyant is also very soft. The consequence of this last fact is that wagglers made from balsa, such as the Thill brand models, tend to be more prone to accidental damage. Other choices of construction material include peacock quill and hollow plastic. Peacock quill (yes, taken from the tail feathers of actual peacocks!) is, from the angler’s point of view at least, far superior to balsa due to its more robust nature. However, peacock quill is not well suited to mass production methods due to its non-uniformity and relative rarity. Thus, peacock wagglers tend to be a little more expensive than comparable balsa models. Finally, ‘invisible’ floats constructed form clear plastics are an attractive option when fishing in either very shallow or clear water. This is not a gimmick – they do work! I recall a friend and I fishing a shallow clear water UK lake for some notoriously ‘twitchy’ bream a good number of years ago. We were using identical methods and baits, with the only difference being our choice of wagglers – I had opted for a trusty peacock, while my companion had opted for a ‘newfangled’ (they were new on the market at the time) clear plastic model. The difference between the bites we experienced were like night and day – my float would show an occasional ‘twitch’ or ‘knock’ while my friend, fishing no more than a few yards to my side, was experiencing confident ‘guzzunders’ and was quickly putting together a good net of fish! After eventually figuring out what was going on, I too slid on a clear plastic float and immediately started to catch. I learnt a good lesson, and from that day forward clear plastic floats, although not quite as buoyant or robust as peacock quill, have always found a home in my tackle box.
On the day we fished at Bob’s, the goal was to catch good numbers of bluegill by utilizing an off-bottom approach at distances of between 20 and 30 yards from shore – this was necessary as the venue is very shallow in the margins and, on the day we fished, also boasted excellent water clarity. Thus, a medium sized loaded straight insert peacock waggler was selected and locked into place with a couple of small shot (pic. 5). While a clear float would also have made a good choice (pic. 4d), the fact that bluegill are typically quite aggressive feeders most often makes this unnecessary. One other distinct bonus of a using a loaded waggler is that, once the float is fixed in place, it requires very little additional shot down the line to make it sit correctly. This fact is confirmed by pic. 6, which shows that the float sits with a mere inch or so of stem poking from the water’s surface, once attached to the line.
Pictures 7 and 8 show how the depth of water is established using either a dedicated plumet or a large shot attached directly to the hook. A good tip, once the depth of water is determined, is to record this information by marking where the float falls against the rod (with the hook attached to the last rod guide). This trick allows the angler to fish at various depths during the session, but then be able to easily return the float to full depth (lining the float up with the mark) should the need arise. If liquid paper is used to mark the rod, it can easily be scratched off later using a finger nail without damage to the rod (pic. 9).
Since a loose feeding method, that in turn encourages fish feed up in the water column, was to be employed during the session, the float is shallowed by a couple of inches before adding the remaining micro shot (#8 and #10) needed to fully balance the float (pics. 9,10). The #8 was placed at mid-depth, with the #10 shot placed around ~6 inches from the hook - this arrangement guarantees a slow natural fall of the hook bait through the water column, while also ensuring that bites are clearly registered at the float tip. A rig diagram illustrating this set up (called fishing ‘on the drop’) is shown in picture 11.
The bait selected for fishing on the drop somewhat depends on the species sought, but should always be relatively small and sink quite slowly. For carp, corn is a great choice; while for pan fish maggots are truly outstanding. The hook used should be a light fine wire pattern that is, in turn, well matched the size of bait used. As shown by picture 12, a size 16 trout hook complements a double maggot hook bait quite well. Interestingly, the color of the bait used is also an important variable that must be considered. Briefly, a red ‘n white, or ‘Manchester United’, maggot combo makes for a good starting point, as light colored baits are easy for fish to pick out against a dark colored bottom, while darker baits are noticeably silhouetted against a bright sky. Bearing these facts in mind, it should then not come as a surprise that a double red maggot hook bait often outscores the ‘Man U’ when fishing on the drop (as was evident during the session), since the fish will typically intercept offerings as they fall through the water column.
Pictures 13 -17 illustrate the correct procedure for consistently casting the rig to a similar location and, in order to stop the float drifting, sinking the line between float and rod tip. This is important, as the goal in any bank fishing technique is to create a tight feeding area, in the vicinity of the rig, to which the fish are attracted. First, it is important to identify and then repeatedly cast towards an immobile far bank marker – in this case a distant tree (pic. 13). The cast itself is a smooth push forward of the rod, with the rig, rod and aim point all on the same straight line (pic. 14). Longer rods coupled with thin lines make casting an essentially effortless process. If greater distance is required, stepping up to a heavier float, rather than ‘forcing’ the cast, is always the preferred option, as jerky ‘power moves’ can lead to inaccuracy and the occasional bait flying off the hook! Towards the end of the cast, just before the float touches down, the line is ‘feathered’ in order to straighten it out (pic. 15). The rod is then dipped under the water’s surface, quickly followed by several rapid turns of the reel handle – this sinks the line out of the influence of surface wind or drift, essentially rendering the float immobile (pic. 16). Once the line between the float and rod tip is sunk, it is important that the rod tip remains submerged while the angler is waiting for a take (pic. 17). Although this may seem like a somewhat over elaborate procedure, remember that it is essential to keep the float still, as fish are often unwilling to hit a bait possessing any form of unnatural lateral movement.
Having cast the baited rig to the desired location and sunk the line, it is now important to attract fish to the chosen area through the introduction of loose feed. This task is best accomplished at ranges of greater than 10 yards via the use of a catapult (pic.18). Using the float as a target, a dozen or so maggots were fired out every few minutes (pic.19). It is important to keep a constant stream of bait falling through the water, as this continually attracts additional fish to the target area. As illustrated by picture 20, dropping the loose feed a little short of the float, then twitching the rig back into the baited area, would often result in an immediate take. The reason for this is clear - when twitched back, the hook bait catches up, and then intermingles with, the consignment of loose feed that the fish have been attracted to.
If executed correctly, the process of casting, sinking the line, feeding and then striking quickly develops into a fish catching rhythm of sorts (pics. 21,22) which, if sustained, can result in some spectacular catches. Ideally, the fish will most often be hooked cleanly in the top lip (pic. 23), which, in turn, is indicative of fish either swimming upwards or laterally in order to take the angler’s bait. This is desired, since it means that the fish, loose feed and hook bait are all in close proximity. Should lower lip hook sets become more common (often accompanied by a reduction in catch rate), this typically signifies that the fish are feeding more aggressively and have moved up in the water in order to intercept the feed more quickly (pic. 24). The lower lip hook set is a consequence of fish ‘dipping down’, out of the loose feed, to take the angler’s bait. This situation is quickly remedied by incrementally shallowing the rig up until upper lip hook sets, and likely an accompanying increase in catch rate, one again become the norm.
Bass Fishing with a Difference
Occasionally, even when ‘in rhythm’, bites can abruptly taper off or even disappear completely during a pan fish session. The most common reason for this is the arrival of larger species that, in turn, ‘bump’ smaller fish from the fishing area. In most unmanaged waters, such an occurrence normally heralds the arrival of carp and/or catfish; while on stocked venues bass are most often responsible. Why does this happen? Simply, this is a secondary chumming effect – the loose fed maggots attract pan fish, which in turn, attract the larger species. This is a tip worth remembering, as the angler can often bank a larger bonus fish by either slipping on a bigger bait (bass, catfish and carp all readily take bunches of maggots or worms); or quickly switching to dedicated plastic lure, plug, or spinner tackle.
In order to determine if ‘secondary chumming’ is indeed a worthwhile tactic when targeting bass from the bank, Club regular Trevor met the challenge head on in the following way: First, Trev fished for pan fish for around an hour or so, using a similar approach to that detailed above. At times Trev’s catch rate (as so often seems to be the case!) far exceeded mine, showing that loose feeding had indeed brought good numbers of pan fish into the fishing area. Second, while continuing to loose feed, Trev then cast out a rig intended exclusively for bass. Briefly, this outfit consisted of a standard 6 ft bass rod and reel combo, coupled with a Thill TG waggler float and a medium shiner minnow hook bait. This choice of tackle was determined by what can easily picked up at any local tackle store – the philosophy being that the method, although being a little ‘different’, would be something any angler could easily try. Interestingly, the selection of a Thill TG waggler was appropriate in this case – the float’s thick tip helped support the bait, while also not registering false takes due to the minnow’s natural movement. Additionally, the fact that the ‘TG’ is a larger bodied variety (thereby requiring an increased weight loading) translated to the rig being able to be cast a respectable distance, despite the relatively shorter rod and thicker line employed.
After ~30 minutes or so of Trev loose feeding maggots in the vicinity of his rig, it soon became evident that a bass was in the area – ‘odd’ indications at the float, including the stem climbing out of the water by ~6 inches or so at one point (!), signified a fish was ‘playing’ with the bait. For those of us (including Trev and myself) more familiar with catching more shy biting species, this was quite a departure from the norm. Indeed, a few reactionary strikes at the float’s first movement resulted in several missed hook sets. In hindsight, it now seems apparent that the bass had taken the minnow in each case and was likely turning the bait prior to swallowing – with each of these subtle movements registering at the float. No doubt, with a little more practice, these indications could be better ‘read’ in terms what was actually happening underwater and the strike timed appropriately. The remedy on the bank for the initial missed hook sets was pretty straightforward – Trev just delayed the strike a little and was promptly rewarded with a nice bass of ~ 2 lbs (pic. 25).
The lessons learnt from Trev’s endeavors are clear – sport fish are indeed attracted by secondary chumming and, as a consequence, can be caught from the bank using such an approach. These findings offer some exciting possibilities for the bank angler, as putting out a second rod, intended for bass or cats, when fishing for pan fish will likely result in a bonus bigger fish or two. Readers are encouraged to give this strategy a try - feel free to let us know how you get on at the Bankfisher.com forum.
What a great day out. The end result of our day’s fishing was a group total of close to 20 lbs of pan fish, as well as a nice bass (pic. 26) - probably one of the most successful JJCAC outings to date! On behalf of the JJCAC I’d again like to thank Bob D. for hosting the event. I’ve got to say, I think a number of us were seriously considering making Bob an offer for his house – terrific back yard fishing!
Venue: Private sub-division pond, Joliet, IL
Date: September 29th, 2007
Conditions: A mixture of overcast and sunny, with temperatures reaching the low 80s. Water clarity was good, with depths between 2 and 4 feet.
Anglers: Trevor Burgess, Bob Davenport, Pat Mills, Jim Mowat, Ray Darbro, Saul Ornelas Jr. & guest, Don Fonza & guests.
Words: Pat Mills
Pictures: Trevor Burgess, Bob Davenport, Ray Darbro, Saul Ornelas Jr., Pat Mills
Other Resources: Wacker Baits (http://www.wackerbaits.com), Jedrex Tackle (http://stores.jedrex-carpfishing.com), Benwick Sports (http://www.benwick-sports.co.uk) – all good places to buy dedicated float fishing tackle. Vados Bait Express (http://www.vadosbait.com/) – a great mail order bait company that supplies maggots. Bankfisher.com (of course!) our home website.