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Will Elliott’s Outdoors: The hows and whys of fishing with live bait

Spring panfishing regularly begins with a live-bait program that lasts for some anglers throughout the warm-weather season.

From the depths of Lake Erie’s perch grounds to the shallowest of weedy inland-lake and pond shorelines, catch rates often improve with something live and tasty at the end of the line.

Minnow minding

Minnows are a must on the Erie perch circuit. In general, emerald shiners outshine other minnow species when running for ringbacks in Erie’s depths and when perch move into relative shallows during the spring spawning cycle.

But live-bait preferences vary by area, and expert/regulars differ in their choice of a minnow species best suited to given waters.

Certified bait possession and transport regulations make minnow movement tricky, with anglers required to have a dealer-issued note of the date, species, amount and location of sale. Nonetheless, the start of a spring warm-up means many a minnow bucket will be filled at bait shops everywhere.

A minnow under a bobber is standard fare, especially for crappie catching. Often, two anglers fishing the same rigs in the same spot will have radically different catch rates. So often, it comes down to how the minnow is hooked.

Think of baseball pitch presentations akin to minnow hookups. A minnow hooked through the lips or at its head throws like a sinker or slider pitch dropping straight down like a baitfish moving in a stream.

A minnow hooked near its tail or back fin throws panfish a curve, making the baitfish move side to side in place. Currents and casting approaches dictate where to place that hook in a minnow.

Capt. Chris Cinelli likes to hook minnows through the lips for everything from trout and salmon in Niagara River currents to perch fishing on the big lakes.

“In deeper water you might tail hook them to get them moving around,” Cinelli added.

George Dovolos, a rep of MakiPlastics lures, loves vinyl baits but says, “Wherever you hook bait, at the start of the spring season, you have to add some meat (grub or minnow) to the jig.”

Tackle tips

Light lines are a must; a new version of flexible, fine lines comes out each year. Latest upgrade is the 3-pound-test braided PowerPro.

Bobber/floats should be as light as possible to cast properly and allow the bait to drop down to its set level. Design is important. Round bobbers detect take-down bites, but to check on hangers and lifters a pencil-shaped or tube-like model allows for seeing a wider range of fish hit/strike/taps.

Bluegills and other sunfish at mid-depths and perch near the bottom tend to take a bobber/float down or sideways. Crappies often come up to hit the bait. But a crappie tends to continue upward; this movement often cannot be seen with a round bobber or pencil float set on its side.

Best approach would be to select float and weight sizes that allow that bobber to float vertically to see fish takes either downward or upward.

Approach directions

Lure color, depth of bait settings, bait and line size, weight and retrieval direction are all important considerations for fine tuning to draw strikes. But the most important consideration is movement.

When flying reconnaissance in search of panfish, the lyric “Should I stay or should I go” becomes a major clash for panfish prospectors.

So-called hot spots vary from year to year and time of the season. Fish near bottom tend to relate to drop-offs, reefs, shoals. Along shore, fish have weed growths, and shoreline constructs such as docks, piers and man-made breakwaters (breakwalls). Fishing experts refer to these as “structures.”

Structures are fine to find, but bait forage varies in its distances from structures and depths at which baitfish schools feed and move.

Casting pond and lake shallows for crappie and sunfish species calls for variations of depth presentations, and minnow hookups differ with the placement and retrieval of a float-and-minnow rig.

If panfish are schooling in a fixed pod, a minnow hooked near the tail or the base of the pectoral (back) fin draws perch from the bottom and both crappie and bluegill from mid-depths.

If panfish are on the move, a lip hooking allows for slightly retrieving the bobber through an area to locate feeding fish.

A good setup to find fish-feeding patterns at the start of a panfish outing would be to cast one bobber rig with a tail-hooked minnow set in one position. Then cast another line with a lip-hooked minnow for a slow retrieval from several directions to cover areas around the boat or shoreline.

We hope these tips help fill pans with fish this spring season.