Spinning for Panfish
By: Matt Johnson

When most anglers think of panfish they think of small jigs or hooks tipped with a crappie minnow or chunk of crawler. They even think of maybe throwing a few smaller profiled plastics like tube jigs and twister tails. But what about spinner-baits? And we’re not talking bass spinner-baits; we’re talking small-profiled panfish spinner-baits. Often this method gets pushed aside when in pursuit of slab crappies and bull gills, but that shouldn’t be the case. Targeting big panfish, both crappies and sunfish, can be made easy when using spinner-baits as your plan of attack.

The spinner-bait has proven its worth on largemouth and smallmouth bass, pike, muskie, and even walleye, but it’s still not seen as a go-to lure for many panfish anglers. Is it a confidence thing? I don’t know, but when the timing is right, spinner-baits can, and will, land more and bigger panfish.

Spinner-baits come in all shapes and sizes, and I’m sure most of us has heard of (or even used) the old tried and true Beetle Spin. These are the types of spinner-baits I’m referring to when looking for panfish options. We’re talking small-profiled spinner-baits that are a “down-sized” version of your larger bass spinner-baits. Beetle Spins have been a classic small profiled spinner-bait, but there are many other options for panfish that allow the angler to be more productive when targeting aggressive panfish. Some of which are even smaller in profile.

A few things to keep in mind when choosing a spinner-bait for panfish are size, color, action, and profile. Granted, one of these characteristics might dictate another, but these are the four features to pay attention to.

Size is important depending on whether you’re targeting sunfish or crappie, as well as the mood of the fish. You can get away with throwing 1/4oz spinner-baits for crappies, but sunfish might not find it as appealing. Going with a 1/16oz or even a 1/32oz spinner-bait might be a better choice for sunfish. And like mentioned earlier, depending on the profile and added plastic, you might want to think about down-sizing those as well when targeting sunfish.

The mood of the fish can also determine what size spinner-bait you decide to throw. If the fish are highly aggressive, then you can get away with using 1/4oz or 1/8oz spinner-bait, but if the fish seem to be in a neutral mood, then a 1/16oz or smaller might be the better choice.

So, by determining what species you’re targeting, and what mood the fish are in, you can then determine what size spinner-bait fits the given situation.

Color is another important piece of the puzzle when deciding which spinner-bait to tie on. The color options available to anglers today are almost endless. So many colors appear to be the same, but having an understanding of what colors trigger what response, as well as what colors better match the given conditions will give you an upper hand.

Colors such as white, chartreuse, hot pinks, and other bright colors, will give off a larger profile in darker water. They are more “radiant” in the water and appear larger than they really are. This usually helps a situation because it allows the fish to hone in on the spinner-bait a lot easier than when using a darker color that goes undetected. Now, sometimes “matching the hatch” might be the better choice, and in this regard, using a more natural color like a purple, blue, brown, or dark green might work better.

Color can become more of mind game then an actual crucial piece of the puzzle. When using spinner-baits we’re typically targeting aggressive natured fish, so the fish are seeing and sensing the spinner’s vibration and flash, so being picky with the color sometimes doesn’t even matter.

However, bring a long a nice assortment of colors with you just in case. Take a long a couple white, chartreuse, orange, purple, brown, etc, spinner-baits with you when on your next trip. Remember, you can always change the color of the plastic body, so color is only relative to begin with.

Action is one of those features that might not play as big of a role when deciding which spinner-bait to use for panfish. Yes, action is important, but it’s the action that you cause the spinner-bait to make that is most important, and not so much the action the spinner-bait is designed to do.

Since we’re dealing with smaller spinner-baits, the room for multiple spinner-blades and beads is just not there. We’re often stuck with only one blade, which in most cases is a Colorado blade. Exchanging the Colorado blade for a willow-leaf blade could definitely change the action, but not to the extreme that we see with our larger bass-style spinner-baits. The action we need to focus on is the speed of the retrieve and how often we allow the spinner-bait to fall or hop.

Allowing the spinner-bait to fall through the water will give off a wounded baitfish appeal, which can trigger both negative and aggressive panfish into striking. As the spinner-bait falls, the blade is spinning which gives off vibration and flash. So sometimes doing nothing can result catching more fish.

Hoping the spinner-bait can also imitate an injured minnow, but I look at it more as a form of jigging, much-like what we do when jigging a minnow for walleye. Spinner-baits don’t always have to fall victim of the cast-retrieve technique, they can indeed be used throughout various jigging sequences as well.

Speed of the retrieve is probably the most important piece of the action puzzle. Depending on where the fish are holding, as well as their mood, you will have to determine how fast you want to retrieve the spinner-bait.

Slow-rolling a spinner-bait is usually one of the most productive actions when pursuing panfish. A slow, constant retrieve across the strike zone will allow the panfish plenty of time to strike. Working a weed line or brush pile are two places where slow-rolling a spinner-bait can be very effective. In these situations we’re looking at ambush feeding panfish, so keeping the spinner-bait up against the structure is important, and allowing the fish enough time to strike the lure is important.

When targeting panfish over a large flat or shallow bay, a more rapid retrieve might be in order. Now, by rapid I don’t mean “ripping” the spinner-bait through the water, instead I mean a more constant, fast-paced retrieve where you’re intention is to cover a lot of water yet provide an action that allows the fish to stay within its comfort level. When searching for panfish I’ll often use the more rapid retrieve.

Action is important when targeting panfish with a spinner-bait, and most of the action comes from the angler, and not so much from the spinner-bait. Knowing when to “slow-roll” and spinner-bait can play a significant role. The key here is to try a lot of different actions to see which one works the best for you. Once that confidence is maintained, then you’ll find out that spinner-baits can be a very productive option for panfish.

Profile pretty-much sums up the previous features all into one. Profile consists of how the spinner-bait “looks” to the underwater world. Size, color, and action can all determine the profile of a spinner-bait. The example of how a white spinner-bait causes the lure to appear larger than it really is can be used as an example of profile. White changes the profile of a lure in dark water.

Changing the plastic body on the jig of the spinner-bait can change the profile as well. Switching from a twister tail to a stinger style plastic will change the appearance of the spinner-bait. The twister tail will give off a larger profile, while the stinger plastic will appear more sleek and thin while being retrieved through the water.

The size of the spinner-blade can also change the profile of the spinner-bait. A larger spinner-blade is obviously going to give off a larger appearance. Same with changing the color of the spinner-blade, where on one hand you have flash (silver blade), but on the other hand you have some sort of color (colored blade), both of which give off a different appearance in the water.

The profile of a spinner-bait is the “big picture,” and if you have the profile right, then catching fish won’t be as tough. Tying together action and profile will allow you to be a lean, mean, fish-catching machine!

Spinner-baits are an overlooked approach to catching panfish, but don’t let that be the case for you this fall. Spinner-baits have a tendency to draw-out the larger panfish, and they allow you to be more effective when trying to cover large areas of water. Both sunfish and crappies will be more than eager to devour a small-profiled spinner-bait.

So, now that the water temps have hit their peak, try giving spinner-baits a try if you haven’t already, because you might just find a new way of putting more and bigger fish in the boat!
Good Fishin,
Matt Johnson
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