April 01, 2017

Ice out and early spring is perhaps the best time to panfish. Nothing beats cabin fever better than hauling in a plump perch, a platter size crappie or a bull bluegill. This is the perfect time to enjoy the water with a young angler.

“Early spring fishing is best once the warm sun has warmed the surface”, said Jim Sprague. Jim is an avid bass and panfishing angler and owner of K&E and Stopper Lures. To me this means sleeping in, enjoying a second cup of coffee.

“I search out dark bottom areas that warm up the quickest” said Sprague. An overlooked area would be docks that are not in yet or docks where the boats are not in the water. Often times when starting up an engine a small blow out area is created.

Other dark water or warm water areas include cat tails, marshy shorelines, seawalls, any brush standing in water regardless of the depth, old lily pad locations and where ever you might spot turtles or muskrats. Never pass up a channel or man-made canal!

One of my favorite locations would be at the mouth of a creek or a drainage ditch or a culvert. The fresh warm surface water running into a back bay will stack up the fish. A calm day is a near must during the first 4 weeks after ice out.

Panfish expert Bill Ferris searches out the new weed growth. New weed growth of any type will draw plankton and aquatic insects for the panfish to feed on. “Often I will find early season fish in depths of 2 feet or less”, said Ferris. “These shallow water fish are spooky so keep some distance from them.”


Luke Wolfert with a crappie caught in a sheltered bay with a small inlet.

Some of these shallow water locations can be fished from shore. Politely asking a homeowner can result in access. Perfect when taking a youngster along.

“In addition to the shallow water locations mentioned I also look for rings on the surface”, stated Jack Horning, a local panfishing guru. “I fish very light tackle with a super soft approach in the spring,” said Horning.

His favorite technique is casting a missile float from Stopper Lures which is similar to the old plastic casting floats. Some of these floats you can add water to them for more distance. The beauty of these floats is that you can fish a surface fly or a slow sinking fly behind them.

Tie the float to your main line. Then on the other end tie on a section of fluorocarbon leader material. Keep the entire length just shorter than the length of your rod. On the business end you can use a gnat, a fly or a spider. The gnats and black flies work best when the water is real cold, the spiders start coming on 3-5 weeks after ice out.

Cast this delicate rig out, let it sit until the ripples are gone and then slowly twitch it in 4-8 inches, stop and continue this pattern. Some days adding a spike or a wax worm helps. A second rod is equipped with the same missile float but an ice fishing teardrop is added. A glow moon teardrop or a moon glitter tear drop tipped with a mushed wax worm is hard to resist.

“The Big Top Float is one of my favorite spring tools”, said Ferris. The Big Top Float is a float that lies on its side. When a fish bites the float will stand up, thus the lightest of hits will quickly be telegraphed back to the angler.

Bill uses a lot of the 2-4 pound test Gamma line, fire tiger and white tiger colored teardrops, Skandia Tungsten teardrops and plastics. He is a big fan of plastics especially scented plastics. Garlic scented plastics are a steady producer for him.

The Impulse scent impregnated plastics from Northland Tackle are very popular. They come in many shapes and styles reflecting the type of insects that you will find in the water. Some are shaped like blood worms ants, water fleas, spiders and very small creatures. All are very thin plastics that dance and wiggle with the slightest of movements.

The Stopper Whip R Snaps and Whip R Knocker plastics are favorites of Sprague, Ferris and Horning. My experience with these small plastics goes back 10 -15 years. At times we land more on the plastics untipped than with meat. I doctor my unscented plastics with garlic scented chap stick, it works!

Brian Brosdahl a nationally known panfish angler and innovator loves the Impulse Line. Many of the products are names as the Bro Bloodworm, etc. This guy studies panfish as does Northland Tackle. Working with the University of Minnesota, many hours of observation and data were collected. The smaller and more life like the plastics the greater interest from the panfish. According to recent studies scented plastics enjoyed a whopping a 140% higher success rate than non-scented baits. Anglers should study the catalog and see all of the life like aquatic insect baits that Northland offers.

“I also like UV baits”, said Brosdahl. UV baits when charged up with a UV flash light glow much longer and work great in deep water or in muddy run-off spring back bay type areas. One suggestion from Brian is fish slowly. Bluegills and crappies are not designed to turn quickly nor show great burst of speed as does a pike or a bass. Fish slow, pause and give the panfish time to devour your morsel.

“Pay close attention to how the fish bite and watch the point of your hook” said Brosdahl. Some days it really pays keeping the point of the hook covered with meat or plastic. Brian also suggested watching your temperature gauge; a few degrees can make a huge difference. Wind, sunlight and clouds all can change the temperature. Warm run-off water will increase the temperature as well.

“As the waters warm up I love fishing a Rival plastic worm”, said Horning. Consider the Rival worm a miniature Bass Stopper worm. This 2-3 inch plastic worm flutters and dances much like a leaf worm and has two razor sharp small hooks built in. It can be cast out behind a missile float or with one super small split shot. Work it back to the boat with short lifts and drops.

“An over looked bait that was hot years back would include the original Pinkie Jig and the Tumble Bug”, said Sprague. Both of these hair or marabou style jigs work awesome under a float. Stick with the smallest sizes, never heavier than a 1/16 ounce jig. They can be tipped with a minnow for perch and crappies or a wax worm for the gills. A very simple rig that can be fished in skinny waters, used with a long rod in bushes or timber or cast in front of flowing current and drifted back.

Across Michigan there are many great lakes and backwaters to fish. Some are a few acres in size; others might cover a thousand acres. Small bodies of water and backwaters are everywhere. If you are looking for a destination spot then consider the following.

Hamlin Lake is great for panfish. The upper sections of Upper Hamlin are very good. From Victory Park and going upstream to a shallow water area that is chocked full of weeds in the summer. In the early spring perch move into these large flats spawning and feeding.

North, South and Middle Bayous on lower Hamlin Lake are great for crappie and gills. Plenty of stumps, logs and brush with protected shorelines that warm up quickly.

Houghton Lake is a great location. Early spring anglers should concentrate on the canals and channels. There are miles of canals and channels to fish and these are excellent locations until the boats start docking and using them.

Lake St. Clair is a panfishing Mecca. You could spend a week just fishing the miles of canals, channels, marinas and docks that draw in thousands of panfish.

Some of our reservoirs and drowned river mouth lakes hold great panfish in the early season. Most of these waters have cuts or inlets off of the main section of the lake, a current source and a marshy area or two. Lake Macatawa, Muskegon Lake, White Lake, Hardy Pond and Croton Pond are a few that come to my mind that I have fished.

Perch love the current areas and areas with dead and decaying vegetation at ice out. A topographic map will show inlets but it might not show culverts and ditches flowing into the lake. Armed with two rods, each set slightly different anglers should enjoy a nice mixed bag of fish.

Early spring panfishing can be easy but locations can change with the weather. Remember deep basins are their winter holding spots, then the first drop-of or breakline that is the closest to the shallow water haunts. Last, try plastics and small flies this spring, you will be surprised.