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 jump-starts the metabolism of aquatic insects. 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 and ponds warm up quicker than large, deep, wind-swept lakes. Panfish might be bedding on smaller lakes a month or more before those in bigger waters. Concentrate on the smaller lakes and ponds early in the season.
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 a 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, jump-starting spawning and feeding activity.
Spring panfish fishing is relatively simple. You really don’t need fancy equipment to catch a mess of bluegills or crappies. Many 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. 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 a lot of line capacity, but they need to have a smooth drag and be capable of handling light lines. 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 lines.
Fly-fishing can be a ball with spring panfish. Panfish will suck in a popper or sponge spider off the surface when feeding or protecting beds. You can double your chances by adding a small nymph on a dropper below the spider.
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, so you can use slightly bigger lures for them. Small micro crankbaits can be a killer for crappies. Spring bluegills and sunfish love 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 teardrop 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.
Scent-enhanced plastics smell, taste and feel like live bait and panfish love them. The super baits come in various flavors and shapes, like tiny crayfish, minnows, wax worms and earthworms, thing panfish like to eat. The 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. Small 1/32 or 1/64-ounce sizes excel for ’gills and pumpkinseeds. For specks, you can use up to a ¼-ounce jig. The jigs can be adorned with feathers, hair, Krystal Flash, tinsel, plastic or live bait.
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 can be reeled right up to the end of the rod when casting, which is great when fishing with kids.
Panfish in the shallows are spooky. They know they are vulnerable and pestering anglers and other predators makes 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.
Polarized glasses can be a big help in locating active beds. Beds that are in extremely shallow water see a lot of attention. The key to catching the real slabs is to locate beds 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. Most people don’t realize 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 real slabs, but release most of the big ones for seed.
Fishing for spring panfish is one of life’s simple pleasures. Get out this spring and see for yourself.