Define frustration: One cricket escapes the cardboard container and hops all over the deck and cockpit of the boat while a grown man on his hands and knees makes a complete fool of himself trying to catch the little fugitive.

Fortunately, the panfish of Lake Pickwick usually fare much better at catching crickets and pretty much anything else you offer them.

I found this out after giving up on the fleet-footed insect and drafting several of his brethren for the day's program.

Fellow outdoor scribe Glen Wheeler and I shared a boat with Pickwick guide Gary Harlan last spring, and our trio enjoyed several hours of light-tackle fun on this Tennessee River impoundment. Noticing, or perhaps taking pity upon my toils, Wheeler pointed out that little hole on the side of the lid is for shaking out crickets - much easier than popping off the whole lid and hoping the crickets behave.

OK, I've never claimed omniscience, and I don't recall ever being accused of such. Regardless, here's something I do know: Pickwick produces panfish, and plenty of them. Bluegill (bream) and redear sunfish (a.k.a. shellcrackers) dominate the traditional panfish lineup, but you'll also find crappie, pumpkineeds and stocked yellow perch. Day-to-day, dedicated panfish anglers are seeking the first two.

 

Panfish potential

With strong numbers of bass - the green ones and brown ones - Pickwick isn't often heralded as a panfish destination, per se. However, year-round productivity, punctuated by April-June spawning aggregations, makes panfishing an attractive complement for piscatorial pursuits of higher acclaim.

The epitome of "fishing on the cheap," this straightforward approach to rod-bending revelry offers an easy way to entertain kids or simply relax with a break from fishing's more emotionally taxing avenues. Expect a spirited tussle, and don't assume that leisure equals little.

"Catching bluegill up to a pound is not uncommon," Harlan said. "A good day is 30-60 when they're bedding."

Draining the Smoky Mountains, the Tennessee River's regulated flow keeps Pickwick's water temperatures low and oxygen levels high. Roger Stegall, who also guides on this sprawling lake, says the river's moderation helps produce a healthy environment for quality panfish.

"The water stays cooler than most lakes do, so it makes the fish taste better," he said.

When the TVA discharges water through the Pickwick Dam, a muddy plume dotted with debris extends several miles downstream. However, there's plenty of room for any murky water to spread out and settle, so Pickwick's overall complexion is generally clean.

That's a double-edged sword for fishermen. On one hand, clean water bodes well for fish populations. On the other, higher visibility means higher apprehension. Therefore, Harlan advises anyone purposefully pursuing panfish procurement to add a little more depth to their game.

"Fish a little deeper than you would somewhere else," he said. "If you fish right up on the bank, all you'll catch is little ones. If you want to catch the bigger (panfish), you have to move out to deeper water."

Harlan said Pickwick's mixture of bottom composition appeals to panfish.

"Pickwick has rocks, sand and gravel," he said. "The panfish have just about anything they want."

Abundant forage also benefits the fish - especially during the mid-June willow fly hatch.

"There are just millions and millions of flies falling on the water saying 'Come eat me,'" Harlan said. "You're subject to getting a bass in there too, because when the willow flies are falling, everything just goes wild. The fish are sitting there looking up and waiting on something to eat."

This is a good opportunity for fly-rod aficionados to cast bream killers, wooly boogers and the like on 5- to 7-weight outfits with floating line.

Harlan has a trick for maximizing the willow-fly feast. Find a tree loaded with willow flies, throw a bass plug into the limbs overhanging the water and shake a bounty of bugs onto the surface. The resulting frenzy not only stirs the panfish into a full-on food mood, it also clearly indicates their location. Even after the fish gobble the last of the flies, they'll stick around the area long enough to provide plenty of line-stretching fun.

 

Trusted tactics

Harlan finds the spring spawning aggregations ideal for those banner days you brag about to buddies who had to work. The full moon in May really spikes the action, but with the exception of weather extremes, a good bite is rarely hard to find.

Stegall points panfish seekers toward Yellow Creek and Bear Creek - top spots on Pickwick's Mississippi side. Look for shallow bays and pockets where gravel bottom provides good spawning grounds in which sunlight easily penetrates and hastens egg development.

Harlan, Wheeler and I didn't have to look far to find a couple of pockets with accommodating passels of panfish. Fishing those crickets on No. 12 hooks under classic red/white corks, we tugged on several dozen before lunch.

Nosing into a quiet corner of a cove off Bear Creek, we found that our baits met instant response when casts hit the sweet spot, about a yard square, just inside the shadow line.

When we wore out our welcome, Harlan banked his bass boat against a clump of overhanging tree limbs, and we replicated the shadow-line pattern with great success. We probably could have caught more here, but Wheeler and I made a little too much commotion trying to capture a banded watersnake that sauntered just out of arm's reach from the boat.

Harlan rigs his crickets by running a hook under the "collar" at the back of their necks. This arrangement will keep the bait kicking, but securely tethered. After a swing and a miss, I found that cramming a crunched cricket onto the hook was still plenty appetizing to the panfish.

Some folks don't like the feel of crickets, so try substituting earthworms. Bread balls - wadded pieces of store-bought slices - are an inexpensive option with far less maintenance worry. (I can't recall ever chasing a bread ball around a boat.)

On our second day, Harlan and I linked up with three others in our group, and we all headed for a quiet little residential cove with a rip rap wall adjacent to a series of covered boat docks. We rafted our boats, tied off to the outer dock and proceeded to put on one heck of a panfish meet-and-greet.

With a chipmunk foraging around the rocks and a muskrat paddling his way across the canal, we threw a variety of baits at these fish - none of which failed to entice at least a couple of takers. Crickets just didn't stand a chance, but we also nailed plenty on artificials.

I most enjoyed bouncing 1/32-ounce jigs on a 4-pound ultralight spinning outfit. Several body styles and color patterns worked, but the bluegill seemed particularly fond of a tiny green Bass Assassin. I'd cast the jig as far as I could reach, let it sink for a five-count and then hop it aggressively. Making a good presentation in one spot before retrieving the lure out of the strike zone proved intrinsic to hanging a hook in those little mouths.

Mike Pahanich, a fellow scribe from Illinois, couldn't resist breaking out a fly rod and stripping a small popper across the panfish radar. More than once, his fly disappeared before the first strip.

It's always rewarding to see a group of grown men - all accomplished bass anglers - enjoy an afternoon of tugging on fish that receive the "big" title at hand size. But that's panfishing; simple, serene and oh so seductive - kind of like eating potato chips.