Serious panfish anglers are always on the hunt for the hottest bite, which means looking for lakes jammed with bull ’gills, broad-shouldered ’crackers, slab crappies and sag-bellied perch. Given the cyclic nature of pan populations, it’s not always easy to do. So we did the work for you. Following are some of the best of the best spots to fish in ’06—waters at the top of their game. Check ’em out, then grab your gear and hit the road.
Rough Rider Slabs Arizona
If you’re looking for an Old West getaway, Theodore Roosevelt Lake gets my vote. A perennial favorite among Grand Canyon State crappie chasers, Roosevelt has risen 15 feet above the previous high-water mark, flooding prime habitat including brush and trees. A ring of shoreline vegetation that took root during the drought was also inundated. This adds up to great conditions for producing big numbers of crappies, and state fisheries supervisor Kirk Young says Roosevelt is well on the way to phenomenal fishing.
“This year we expect a lot of half- to 1-pound crappies, and next year should be even better as they mature, reaching and exceeding 2 pounds,” he says.
While February and March are peak months to catch the crappie spawn, April and May can still be good. Young recommends fishing points and other structure outside brushy spawning coves, in depths from 15 to 24 feet.
Other must-fish Arizona lakes include 3,500-acre Alamo Lake, which has also refilled and promises a crappie bounty. “If you’re looking for a sleeper, try Bartlett,” Young adds. The 2,000-acre lake is often overshadowed by nearby Roosevelt, yet consistent water levels have kept the crappie fishery in top shape. For information, call Arizona Game and Fish, (602) 942-3000.
At Your Fingertips - New York
Few waters in the Empire State offer fishing to rival that of the legendary Finger Lakes for all-encompassing opportunity at bull bluegills, slab crappies and morbidly obese yellow perch.
Comprised of 11 lakes, the Finger system offers variety that lets you pick and choose your quarry. On mighty Seneca, which spans more than 43,000 acres and is 38 miles long, you’ll catch jumbo yellow perch that’ll bring tears to your eyes. By contrast, 3,420-acre Conesus is a gem for fat bluegills and pumpkinseeds.
While visiting the NAFC’s friends at Mustad in Auburn, I fished Cayuga, Owasco and Skaneateles, and found that weeds are key in these deep, clear lakes.
Much of the best panfish action occurs in and around the relatively shallow, weedy areas at the “tips” of the Fingers, and off prominent points and deltas. When you find weeds, fish ’em. Canals and breakwalls are good, too.
“If you’re looking for bruiser rock bass, docks and boat hoists are prime targets,” notes Mustad’s Jeff Pierce, a local expert. “I just love breaking out the ultra-light and fishing 1/60- and 1/80-ounce jigs with 1-inch grubs along these spots—and it’s often more catching than fishing. The bonus is all the nice smallmouths I catch along the way.”
Call the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Region 7 office in Cortland, (607) 753-3095; or the Region 8 office in Avon, (585) 226-2466.
Erie Perch - Ohio
I love fishing Erie, and this should be a banner year to tap its bounty. Buoyed by a strong hatch in 2001 and exceptional class of 2003, the yellow perch fishery is in great shape.
Ohio’s Lake Erie fisheries manager, Roger Knight, predicts “large numbers of good-sized yellow perch.”
Fish from the ’01 class will run 9 to 12 inches, while their ’03 schoolmates average 8 to 10 inches. Central basin perch are typically larger than those in the Western Basin, an aberration likely due to growth rates.
Knight expects peak fishing in August through October, but notes that early summer fishing should be good as well, especially in the Central Basin.
Savvy perch patrollers can also expect to boat their share of true jumbos topping 13 inches. Though not as abundant, they can often be found in relatively shallow, rocky areas gorging on gobies and other baitfish.
Call (888) HOOK FISH to hear the latest fishing report from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Or, call the DNR’s Fairport Harbor office, (440) 352-4199, for Central Basin information; and the Sandusky office, (419) 625-8062, for the Western Basin skinny.
’Bama Jammin’ - Alabama
Other Southern states get more panfish press, but anglers in the Yellowhammer state have a lot of options. Too many, in fact, for me to pick just one.
Let’s start with Weiss Lake. At 30,200 acres, the lake spills into Georgia, but the lion’s share is in ’Bama. Weiss earned the title “crappie capital of the world” for good reason. Despite merciless pressure, its forage base supports a phenomenal fishery year after year. I’m not just talking numbers here—slabs topping 2 are not uncommon.
If you want less company on the water, try Neely Henry. Sandwiched between Weiss and Logan Martin (another A-list crappie lake), 11,235-acre Neely Henry is often overlooked—yet nonetheless well-stocked with crappies that boast some of the fastest growth rates in the state, reaching 11 to 12 inches in two years!
Perhaps the best-kept secret of the South, though, is Alabama’s shimmering necklace of intensively managed public fishing lakes.
Though small, they offer incredible panfishing. Bluegills topping a pound and giant redears worthy of the SciFi Channel are not uncommon in many of the 23 public lakes scattered across 20 counties. “They range in size from 13 to 184 acres, so they’re easy lakes to learn,” says Doug Darr, state aquatic resources manager.
For the lowdown on these and other Alabama panfish waters, contact the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, (334) 242-3471.
Orange Blossom Specials - Florida
Kissimmee Lake offers ’gill and ’cracker addicts 35,000 acres of nirvana. Nestled in the heart of Osceola County, it stands tall as one of the Sunshine State’s top bluegill and shellcracker fisheries. And that’s saying a mouthful.
Steve Crawford, sunfish specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, anticipates another banner year in 2006 for many lakes across the state, and notes that the expectations are very high following several years of high water in peninsular Florida.
Back to Kissimmee. Historically, June through August are peak months. Anglers often anchor in open water or on grassy edges of the islands and shorelines.
Other great Florida panfish options include Lake Marian, east of Kissimmee. It’s a sleeper for ’crackers in April, and the bluegill spawn isn’t far behind. Lakes in the Harris Chain near Leesburg are good bets, too, including Big and Little Harris for bluegills and shellcrackers, Lake Eustis for sunfish, and Lake Griffin for ’crackers.
If crappies are your quarry, Lake Talquin west of Tallahassee ranks near the top of the list for big specks. Fish over 10 inches are the rule, and the lake yielded the state’s record, a 3-pound, 13 1/4-ounce black crappie. Istokpoga, near Sebring, is another great crappie lake. In truth, so are Kissimmee and Marian, which started the list.
For details on any of these Florida panfish waters, call the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at (850) 488-0331.