Spring rituals. For some that signifies cleaning out the garage,
raking leaves remaining from last fall or planting flowers. It could
conjure up visions of the first robin sighting or the first time you
get a snoot-full of blooming lilacs. It might invoke apparitions of
morel mushrooms poking their heads up through the moist forest floor or
turkey gobblers. For anglers, spring rituals means panfish.
Seasons for species like pike, walleye and bass are closed during a portion of the spring on most waters. There is no closed season on panfish, which makes them the logical choice for anglers anxious to wet a line. And to top it off, panfish are great eating, limits are liberal and they’re fairly easy to catch, especially in the spring. Spring panfish can be caught from a boat, by wading and from shore in hundreds of locations and present the perfect opportunity to take the family fishing.
Panfish move into shallow water in the spring for two reasons. The shallow water warms more quickly than the rest of the lake, which attracts minnows and jumpstarts the metabolism of aquatic insects that are present in the lake. The wealth of food is a bonanza for hungry early-season panfish. The other reason is spawning. Crappies are one of the earliest spawners and move into the shallows right after ice out. Once the shallows warm sufficiently bluegills and sunfish move into the skinny water to procreate. The ideal water temperature seems to be right around 65 degrees. Bluegills and sunfish build nests in the shallows. Crappies are broadcast spawners, so you won’t find them on beds. They can usually be found near vegetation or other structure in shallow water, though not as shallow as bluegills and sunfish.
Not all lakes warm up to the same degree at the same time. Smaller, shallower inland lakes warm up quicker than large, deep wind-swept lakes. Panfish might be bedding on smaller lakes a month or more in advance of those in bigger waters. Concentrate on the smaller lakes and ponds early in the season. Look for signs of bedding activity in the shallows as early as mid-May. After the spawn wanes on these smaller lakes, look for the action to be kicking into high gear on the bigger lakes in your area.
Regardless of the body of water you’re fishing check out the northwest corner of the lake first in early spring. The warm spring sunshine will have the full effect on water in this area of the lake and will warm up more quickly here. It’s even better if the area has a dark bottom that absorbs the sun’s rays. Onshore winds can also stack up warm water against the shore jumpstarting spawning and feeding activity. A steady south or southeast wind can produce some hot fishing on the opposite end of the lake. The wind will also collect terrestrial insects caught in the surface film and push them along with the warm water. Baitfish will also be naturally attracted to the tepid water.
The best thing about spring panfish fishing is that it’s relatively simple. You really don’t need fancy equipment to catch a mess of bluegills or crappies. A lot of panfish have found their way into the frying pan via the end of a cane pole. Most anglers will opt for a little more sophisticated equipment that provides more sport and more options. Panfish are a ball on super ultra light rigs, but the ultra light combos can be difficult to cast when it’s windy or when you need to make long casts to reach the hotspots or prevent getting too close and spooking the fish. A better option is often a little bit longer, heavier rod that can drive a bobber and light jig into a strong wind and make long accurate casts to weed edges, gravel bars and cover. A personal favorite is a 6 1/2-foot light/medium action-spinning rod with long cast guides. The rod can cast a bobber and/or light jig accurately a good distance and comes in handy when muscling a bull ‘gill or the odd largemouth. Closed-faced spin-casting outfits are great for younger kids. They are simple, minimize tangles and keep kids fishing.
Reels for panfish don’t need to have a lot of line capacity, but they need to have a smooth drag and be capable of handling light line. Panfish in the shallows can be quite spooky and a thin clear line is preferred. Light jigs and baits are also easier to cast on light line. I prefer a quality premium monofilament, like Trilene XL, with four-pound test being about right and six-pound being the maximum. Check your line frequently for abrasions and make sure you spool up with fresh line in the spring.
Fly-rodding can be a ball with spring panfish. The fish will suck in a small popper or sponge spider off the surface when feeding or protecting beds. You can double your chances by add a small nymph on a dropper below the spider. Two slab bluegills on one line will put your fly rod to the test. Fly rods are also the ideal tool for presenting small streamers to spring crappies, which are more inclined to eat minnows.
Bluegills and sunfish have small, upturned mouths because the things they eat are small, so your baits need to be small too. Crappies on the other hand have bigger mouths and you’ll have good success with slightly bigger baits and lures for them. In fact, small micro crankbaits can be a killer for big slab crappies. One of the best lures for spring bluegills and sunfish is an ice fishing teardrop. Choose either the vertical or horizontal variety and add a juicy wax worm. Panfish can’t resist it. The added flash of the teardrops attracts the attention of panfish and the smell of fresh meat induces them to bite. Be sure to carry a long pair of hemostats or a de-hooker. Panfish often swallow the bait deeply and you’ll need the tool to get the hook out without killing the fish.
You don’t have to use live bait to catch spring panfish though. Scent-enhanced plastics, like Powerbait, Gulp!, Yum and others, smell, taste and feel like live bait and panfish love them. The super baits come in a variety of flavors and shapes, like tiny crayfish, minnows; wax worms and earthworms- thing panfish like to eat. The smelly plastics can be fished plain or added to teardrops or jigs.
Jigs have been the undoing of many a panfish. You can fish them by themselves or under a bobber with good success. By suspending them under a bobber you can control their depth and keep them just off bottom in front of aggressive panfish. The small 1/32nd or 1/64th ounce sizes excel for ‘gills and pumpkinseeds. Crappies often prefer a little bigger offering. For specks you can use up to a 1/16th ounce jig. The jigs can be adorned with feathers, hair, Krystal Flash, tinsel, plastic or live bait.
The one-inch or one and one-half-inch scent-enhanced twister tails are perfect for bluegills and sunfish. Match them to a light jig head. The subtly wiggling twister tail drives panfish nuts and the scent adds to the attraction. The twister tails are cheap and fairly durable too. Try the two-inch models for specks. The jig color doesn’t seem to make much difference, but pink or chartreuse always seems to produce. Twister tail colors run the gambit from light to dark, but if you go armed with white, yellow and chartreuse you can’t go wrong. Purple and black can be hot at times. You might have to add a couple of micro split shots above the jig in order to cast them or to get your bobber to stand upright.
Which bobber you use depends on the conditions. Long slender bobbers create little resistance when a panfish inhales your bait and the bobber telegraphs the strike instantly. The only drawback of a slender bobber is you can’t use a very heavy jig under them and they don’t cast well in the wind. A rounder, more teardrop-shaped bobber works better when you need to cast into the wind and when a light chop makes seeing your bobber more difficult. Match your bobber selection to the conditions and the lures you are using. Slip-bobbers that can be reeled right up to the end of the rod when casting, work the best.
Panfish in the shallows are spooky. They know they are vulnerable there and pestering anglers and other predators make them edgy. At times getting within casting distance of bedding bluegills is like stalking bonefish on the flats. If you’re fishing from shore approach the bank cautiously and use whatever vegetation there is to hide your presence. Wear drab clothing to prevent standing out.
When fishing shallow water for panfish from a boat it pays to be especially quiet. Banging tackle boxes or dropping anchors overboard will send panfish scurrying for deeper water. Shut off your outboard a good distance from where you intend to fish and use an electric trolling motor to get quietly into casting position. Make long casts first to avoid being detected. Shut the trolling motor off and fan cast the area before moving to the next. You can also anchor some distance from your intended area, pay out anchor line and allow the wind to drift you into position.
Polarized glasses can be a big help in locating active beds. Beds that are in extremely shallow water see a lot of attention and the fish quickly get picked off or spooked. Often the key to catching the real slabs is to locate beds or schools of fish in slightly deeper water. These fish haven’t been harassed like the shallow fish and it’s usually the biggest bluegills and sunfish that bed in water from 5 to 15 feet or deeper. Polarized glasses will help you spot those fish.
Panfish can be vulnerable to over-harvest in the spring. The adult fish are highly concentrated in the shallows then, aggressive and catching them isn’t difficult. What most people don’t realize is that a 9- or 10-inch bluegill is probably close to 9 or 10 years old. Keep some of the medium-sized fish and even a few of the real slabs, but release some of the big ones for seed. Just because the limit in Michigan is 25 panfish per person doesn’t mean you have to keep 25.
Fishing for spring panfish is one of life’s simple pleasures. Get out this spring and see for yourself.