Driving to a fishable trout river means at least 45 minutes in the car from my place in south Minneapolis. That’s at least 90 minutes total both ways. To make such a trip worth it, I need 2-3 hours on the water. If I suddenly find myself with an urge to fish at 7pm on a weeknight, I’m screwed if it is trout I am after. That’s why I enjoy fishing panfish.
Every Minnesotan body of deeper than five feet has panfish. As long as the winter doesn’t freeze the pond or lake solid, panfish can survive. Fortunately for me, I’ve got a lake down the road from my house. It’s called Lake Harriet and it is loaded with sunfish, crappies and small bass. It also has the highest density of muskies per acre of any Minnesotan lake.
If I have a couple hours free, I’ll load up the Salsa El Mariachi 29er and head to the water. With a bikepacking trip coming up in a few weeks, I bought the Blackburn Designs Outpost bags. The saddle bag in the photo above is perfect for holding my lock and net. I’ll be using all 10L of its capacity when I bikepack, but it works for a much smaller load now. I also ordered a Blackburn Designs top tube bag and a handlebar roll for my trip, though I don’t need all 25L of combined bag capacity for a quick trip to the lake.
The pack I use for all of my fishing is a Patagonia Vest Front Sling. It’s incredible. Though you can’t see it in this shot, the strap that comes over the front of my right shoulder (you can see the back of it above) has two pockets as you would see on a fishing vest. One holds a fly box and the other holds anything else I carry (it is also perfect size for a beer can). It’s also got a small foam pad for holding flies, a smaller pocket I use for strike indicators and multiple lashing points. The back of the pack has a few zip pockets, an elastic pocket for bottles, a zip-sealed waterproof interior pocket and more loops for lashing. I’m not sure exactly how much capacity it has, but I’d put it around 12L. It makes it easy to wade into lakes or rivers with all of my gear.
Fishing for trout requires more gear than panfish. When I’m on the river, I’ve got a few fly boxes, split shots, spools of tippet, food, water, knife, clippers, forceps, pliers and God knows what else. When I’m fishing panfish on a lake, I just bring along one fly box, a knife, clippers, pliers (for fish with teeth) and one spool of tippet. My coffee table is usually piled with gear when I’m on the lake with gear I removed from my pack.
A day on Lake Harriet also means using a heavier rod and reel. Fishing for panfish can quickly turn into fighting a large bass, northern pike or even a muskie. Having caught large northers on crappie jigs in the past, I don’t take chances with light equipment. I fish with my Winston Passport 7 wt rod and Redington Rise 7/8 reel. A lighter rod would get me by and make for entertaining fishing, but I’ve snapped rods in the past on large fish. No need to take such chances.
This day started sunny and 85F. Water temps in the shallows already surpassed 60F, high enough for lots of fish activity. The water had a quick chill in my first few steps in the sandy shallows. My feet slowly acclimated to the temperature and I was comfortable before long. I ended up spending about two hours in the water. For as chilly as it was when I first started fishing, it was nice to spend a couple hours wading in the May sunshine.
When it comes to panfish, I like to use a small popper. No sense in fucking up trout flies when panfish will feed on anything that moves. A cast into a group results in several fish surrounding the fly before one takes a go at it. When the water is clear and calm, you can watch this happen. If you see a quick splash near your fly, it’s time to set the hook. Panfish have a lot of fight to them for their size. If you get one on your line, you’ll get a lot of rod bend. They’ll cut from side to side when hooked. For fish smaller than your hand, it is quite impressive.
A few bass were mixed in with panfish schools. Nothing big, but just big enough to tell species without seeing any markings. The Minnesota largemouth and smallmouth season doesn’t start until Saturday, May 9. Well, that’s when you’re allowed to fish for them and keep them, at least. When you have mixed schools like this, it’s hard to not catch a bass. The little bass I caught needs a few more years in the lake grow up. But, hey, when you’re fishing in your backyard, you can’t complain.