RAMSEY, Minn. — A small minnow suspended beneath a float is a standard crappie offering across the Upper Midwest. Similarly, many bluegill anglers rarely use anything other than a small jig tipped with a waxworm, maggots or soft plastic tail. Both are time-tested presentations, but they’re not always the best options for coldwater panfish.

Matt Johnson is the pro-staff manager for Clam Outdoors and Ice Team. He is also the founder of the Ultimate Panfish League, which hosts a series of ice fishing tournaments on lakes across the Twin Cities metro area each winter. He has witnessed the evolution of panfish tactics first hand but said that small spoons will never go out of style.

“I’ve been fishing spoons for panfish for a long time,” Johnson said. “When I was in high school, a small Swedish Pimple tipped with a minnow head was my go-to presentation for crappies, bluegills and perch. That combination works as well today as it did then.”

Johnson said that many anglers who fish with active lures like Beetle Spins and Mepps spinners go too subtle during winter.

“I still fish with tungsten jigs and plastic tails,” Johnson added. “But I usually start with a spoon. The flash and vibration emitted by a spoon attracts fish from a longer distance, allowing me to cover more water. Best of all, spoons often produce bigger fish.”

The Pinhead Mino

When Clam Outdoors introduced the Pinhead Jigging Mino, Johnson immediately began catching big panfish on lakes in and around the Twin Cities. He was so struck by his success that he called Jason Mitchell and asked him to feature the bait on an episode of his TV show.

“I told him to use the spoon without bait,” Johnson said. “The flash and vibration will attract the fish while the tiny flicker blade triggers the strike. That small #14 treble hook weighs almost nothing, allowing the fish to suck it in when they open their mouths.”

Johnson learned later that Mitchell and his fishing partner were skeptical about the lure, especially without bait. But the spoon performed exactly as Johnson suggested and the two anglers caught and released numerous crappies weighing up to two pounds.

“Mitchell was a guide on Devils Lake for many years,” Johnson added. “Which means he’s about as strong an advocate as you’re going to find for livebait. By the end of that day on the water, though, he also became a believer in naked spoons for panfish.”

Gearing up

The Pinhead Mino quickly became Johnson’s favorite, but he added that other spoons also work well for panfish.

“I like small (around 1/16-ounce), slender spoons,” Johnson said. “I also prefer spoons with little flapper blades. It seems like the fish are targeting the blade when they hit the bait. I haven’t done as well with rattling spoons or lures equipped with larger treble hooks.”

Johnson fishes spoons on a 30-inch noodle rod or a shorter jigging rod equipped with a titanium spring bobber.

"Select a spring bobber that’s stiff enough to support the spoon,” Johnson cautioned. “A medium-light spring works best — one designed for light spoons or heavy tungsten jigs. Properly balanced, the spring or rod tip is slightly bent under the weight of the lure. If the tip bends down or straightens, set the hook.”

Johnson usually pairs his panfish rods with an in-line reel because they’re compact and efficient. Small spinning reels work fine, though, since line twist isn’t an issue with spoons. Spool the reel with 3- or 4-pound test monofilament line and tie directly to the spoon — no snap needed or recommended.

Productive locations

Johnson prefers to fish in shallow water and said many anglers drive past the best spots on their way to deeper basin areas on most upper Midwest lakes.

“I like to fish in water five to 15 feet deep,” Johnson added. “On many of the lakes I fish, the eight- to 12-foot zone is productive all winter long — as long as there are green weeds. I use an underwater camera to quickly survey the vegetation.”

Healthy weeds produce oxygen, attract baitfish and offer cover from predators. Shallow areas with a soft bottom composition also harbor aquatic insect larvae that panfish eat all winter. If the weeds die off, as sometimes happens during harsh winters with heavy snowfall, panfish generally move to deeper water.

“Spoons were designed for deeper water so they work well for basin bites,” Johnson said. “I typically use the same spoons that I use in shallow weeds unless the fish seem overly lethargic. Then I might remove the treble hook, tie on three inches of lightweight monofilament attached to a small dropper jig tipped with plastic.”

Johnson noted that many anglers believe panfish constantly cruise in lake basins, but they often hold motionless either near the bottom or suspended in the water column. Work a bait at the right depth and the fish will swim over for a closer look.

Johnson said working a spoon for panfish is like being a puppetmaster. Aggressive hops attract fish holding nearby, while a quivering jigging motion that slowly moves the spoon away from the fish triggers the strike. Photo courtesy of Matt Johnson
Johnson said working a spoon for panfish is like being a puppetmaster. Aggressive hops attract fish holding nearby, while a quivering jigging motion that slowly moves the spoon away from the fish triggers the strike. Photo courtesy of Matt Johnson

Presentation pointers

Whether fishing shallow or deep, Johnson said that crappies — especially big ones — often hold in the top half of the water column. Instead of dropping the lure all the way to the bottom, he recommends anglers work the bait as it slowly descends.

“I usually snap the spoon vigorously to get the attention of any fish holding nearby that might not be visible on my electronics,” Johnson said. “A noodle rod or titanium tip suppresses some of the movement, so you can jig harder than you think. When I see a fish, I shorten the hops but keep the bait moving.”

When a fish appears to be interested in his spoon, Johnson quivers the bait up and away from the fish to trigger a strike.

“When fishing a jig and plastic tail you’re teasing the fish into nipping it,” Johnson said. “But with a spoon you’re trying to trigger an aggressive feeding response. Even when the fish are in a negative mood, they’ll usually crush a small, vulnerable baitfish — or a spoon that looks like one.”