By Jason Mitchell
On many fisheries, go to panfish bites can take place out over deep water. North Dakota’s Devils Lake often sees deep-water basin patterns develop in over forty feet of water. We have found deep crappie patterns on Rainy Lake over fifty feet of water. Panfish locations in over twenty-five feet of water are fairly common whenever deep soft bottom basins exist.
On some fisheries, panfish typically suspend over these deep locations where you might be fishing in fifteen or twenty feet of water over thirty feet while other fisheries see panfish very bottom orientated where the fish are running along the bottom in thirty feet.
One of the most important variables that influence both how you fish and the presentation is water clarity. Stained water creates different challenges over deep water. Over deep, stained water, you can mark fish on your electronics all day but the fish open up only during short windows where the sun offers good light penetration. We see this scenario a lot on Devils Lake when fishing over deep water. Our best deep water perch days are often days with a high sun but even with a high sun, there might be a couple of narrow windows in each day where the fish are eating. Besides stain in the water, another variable that can influence deep fish patterns is the amount of snow cover. Water clarity, sunlight and snow cover influence visibility over deep water… the same variables that can limit the use of an underwater camera also need to influence your presentation.
The visibility you encounter when using an underwater camera over deep water is a good litmus test. Usually, we use underwater cameras to “see” something but they also reveal just as valuable information when you can’t see. Whenever you find yourself in a situation where your visibility is nonexistent or extremely limited when using an underwater camera, make adjustments to your presentation.
So often over water with good visibility, we fish above the fish and attempt to establish what the ceiling is for the fish. Not uncommon to see fish rise five feet or more to reach your presentation. When visibility is extremely limited, you are going to have to fish at the level of the fish and not expect any ceiling.
Another presentation adjustment is the jig stroke on the presentation. High lifts and sharp jig strokes can literally disappear in the abyss so the jig stroke has to become much tighter and your presentation can actually become more visible by keeping the presentation in one spot. What almost all of these patterns share besides the depth of water and lack of visibility is a forage base driven by invertebrates like freshwater shrimp or midge larvae that panfish can easily find and eat.
Because of the lack in visibility combined with depth, larger profiles are great for enabling these deep fish to find you but the challenge is getting fish to eat too big of a profile. Deep water creates some serious challenges for distinguishing a bite. Whether you are using a spring bobber or a finesse glass rod like the JM Meatstick Series, you don’t actually see the fish suck the hook… what you are seeing when a rod tip drops or a spring load up is the fish moving away from the hole when fishing over deep water when you have thirty feet of line out. Imagine a fish sucking in the hook and coasting about a foot and a half from the hole, that is what it takes to drop a spring when fishing over thirty five feet of water. This is why larger profiles create some challenges, fish can see and find the large profile but they might not take that lure or bait and swim off with it far enough to distinguish the bite.
On the tougher bites, one of the best presentations I have ever found for this particular type of environment is a spoon with a chain dropper like Clam Tackle’s Speed Spoon. A classic favorite for deep-water perch anglers, this same presentation also shines for crappie and bluegill whenever fish are in deep water where the visibility is compromised.
When light penetration is limited, there are three basic color schemes that are often the most productive: glow, dark and gold. Good glow paint can make a huge difference particularly when there is overcast or no high sun. Dark colors can consist of blue, purple or black and while these dark color schemes might lack shelf appeal, they are deadly over deep water and often under rated by many ice anglers. Gold can remain highly visible over deep water and often shines if there is any sun.
This is also a situation where live bait will often trump soft plastics because you need the fish to take the bait in their mouths and carry it as far as possible with what is often close to a dead stick approach. In water deeper than twenty five feet, I also believe that braided line in four or six pound test can give you a big edge over monofilament particularly when hooking up with fish. Monofilament just has too much stretch. You can use a mono or fluorocarbon leader but the leader is not always necessary. This is also a situation where a spinning reel shines because of the gear ratio and speed to get back down to the fish.
These deep panfish bites are often much better when there is a high sun particularly when the light penetration is greatly reduced by heavy snow and stained water. On overcast days with little sun, I have made a habit of avoiding these patterns and would much rather opt to fish much shallower patterns even if there are notably fewer fish. I also don’t target deep fish when I don’t plan on keeping fish for the table as most panfish that are pulled from thirty feet of water are going to suffer trauma. Deep patterns are typically catch and kill and you need to decide with your own circumstances whether it is ethical to fish. If there are a lot of small fish or unintended species, I often choose to move on. Because of the depth, you can also often shake fish off that either feels too small (like a six inch perch) or too big (like an accidental walleye that feels like it is well over twenty inches) by using a single hook and pinching down the barb. On many of the larger more established perch fisheries in the Dakotas however, many of our bites are over basins and transitions deeper than twenty feet of water and if the basin is thirty or forty feet or in the case of Devils Lake where some of the basin is around the fifty foot mark or deeper, you are going to sooner or later find yourself in a situation where you are fishing in water deeper than twenty five feet.