Panfish are easy to catch in the good ol’ summertime. All you have to do is put something they want to eat within a couple feet of where they’re cruising and prepare to set the hook.

Finding pannies is easier than you might think, even on lakes covering thousands of acres like the M & M lakes of the Madison chain—Mendota and Monona. Both of these natural lakes are at the peak of stratification now, with most of the finny biomass cruising in the thermocline layer of water located 12-16 feet down in the water column.

This is a weird year for lake fishing all over the state. Weed growth has been excessive on the Madison chain. Although the M & M lakes always get a substantial algae bloom on the surface, the water is amazingly clear. Visibility is 4-6 feet under the green sheen.

Don’t concern yourself with the weeds or fear that ultra-clear water will “spook” the fish. Quality bluegills and fair numbers of perch and crappies aren’t there! They are swimming in the thermocline layer.

Quality electronics can reveal the thermocline. But you don’t need a $1,000 sonar to find it—just fish out from the deepwater weed edge, which just happens to follow the contour of both M & M lakes at 12-16 feet.

Drop-shotting is a productive way to fish this weed edge. Tiny tube jigs or ice fishing plastics catch a lot of fish. Adding a couple of spikes to the tiny No. 10 hook can be a game changer. Drop-shotting deep weed edges is probably most effective when the surface is dead, flat calm.

Don’t spend more than a couple minutes in an area until fish of acceptable dimensions load up the tip of your ultralight rod. By far the best tool on the market is a St. Croix model PFS90LMF2. The sensitivity of this nine-foot wand is borderline wicked.

Four-pound test fluorocarbon line is light enough. Lighter line may produce more bites, but cast that drop shot just a little too far into the weeds and the line will probably break.

A slight breeze provides more than comfort in the sweltering heat. It is a gentle whisper to change tactics and try drifting just a little farther out from shore. My favorite tactic is rigging a pair of 1/32-oz. Perchinator jigs about 18 inches apart, tipping each jig with a spike. Waxworms or red worms will work but are much easier for fish to steal.

A long rod like that nine-foot Croix works better than the typical 5-6 foot ultralight rod for drifting because a longer rod makes it easier to keep your offering in that critical 12-16 feet of water. If it is too windy to keep 1/16-ounce total weight at this critical depth, simply go with a heavier jig.

Both Mendota and Monona have seen a banner year for producing small baitfish. These tiny baitfish feel safety in numbers with schools numbering in the thousands following zooplankton as it drifts through the water column with the prevailing wind usually just above the denser, cooler water of the thermocline layer.

Regardless of what species you’re targeting, the predator/prey relationship is paramount in realizing consistent angling success. Don’t focus on what you want to catch, focus on what you want to catch is eating!

Bottom structure and lake contours are of little importance when panfish are following tiny baitfish. Don’t bother plugging in a waypoint or tossing a marker buoy when you hit a couple fish. By the time you complete a drift and come back to make another one, the pannies will have followed their food someplace else in that “magic” 12-16 foot depth.

Wisconsin law allows three lines per angler. Using three rods is a real advantage for folks who have three arms. For the rest of us, two rods is plenty, especially when you have a buddy—better yet, a kid—in the boat.

Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at