Most spring panfish anglers are “Andy Griffith” types who whistle a merry tune as they stroll down to the water with their rods over their shoulders, not necessarily concerned with catching fish. They have a bit of an “aww shucks” attitude towards fishing, blaming any lack of action on cold water and the fish not being hungry. After fishing for a few hours, these anglers will head home empty-handed but content in knowing that the fishing will get better when summer arrives.
While there’s nothing wrong with this nonchalant manner, anglers who casually fish or even skip over spring fishing can be missing out on some huge opportunities. As soon as the ice melts, fat crappie, bluegill, and other panfish begin pushing into shallow water in preparation for the spawn, offering some of the best fishing of the entire year. Whether you live in the north where the fish have only begun to move from their winter haunts, or in the south where panfish are already on or are just moving off their spawning beds, spring can be a time of plenty for panfish anglers who fish in the right spots and use the right equipment and fishing methods.
Light tackle is essential for spring panfish success. Not only does it make the smaller fish more fun to catch, but it also helps anglers with certain finesse fishing techniques. Anglers should use light-action rods strung with lighter 2- to 6-pound fluorocarbon or monofilament lines. These setups are ideal for fishing in cold water when you need to detect subtle strikes. Additionally, they’re perfect for smoothly and accurately casting lightweight lures and bait rigs long distances when searching for spread-out panfish.
As water warms throughout the spring, panfish become more active and will begin to seek out areas with the ideal depth, terrain, and water temperatures (between 55 and 67 degrees) for the spawn. These spots are generally in sheltered coves with firm bottoms that have a lot of access to cover. While there can be a lot of places that fit this description, there are certain areas to concentrate your efforts.
“During the early part of the season, I look for south-facing bays that get a lot of sun and have mid- to upper-40-degree water temperatures,” Minnesota fishing guide Wil Neururer told MeatEater.
“Once the water starts to heat up later in the spring, to the more 50- and 60-degree water temperatures, I’ll start hunting for those classic, shallow back bays because those are the first spots that those fish are going to go into,” Neururer said. “They’ll use little deep spots in those bays during cold fronts, and they’ll move out into the shallows and structure when it’s sunny. I also like to look in channels between bays or even between different lakes because both crappie and bluegill will stack up in those spots.”
While there are a myriad of different panfish lures during the early spring when the fish are sluggish and spooky, it’s hard to go wrong with live bait. Whether you’re targeting suspended crappie in deep holes or sunfish warming up on shallow flats, fishing slow with baits like minnows, worms, crickets, or leeches will draw a lot more strikes than lures.
The best way to rig these baits is with a spring bobber rig. These bobbers are narrower than traditional round bobbers and create less water resistance, which allows you to better detect subtle strikes and ensure that the fish will hang on to the bait long enough so that your hooksets will hit the mark.
To set it up, pull the spring back to expose the notch on the end of the bobber and then hook a small loop of line into the notch. Release the spring so that the line is locked into the bobber. Tie a small size 12 to 8 bait hook to the line and then add the bait. You can adjust this rig to suit a variety of depths, setting it up so that your bait always hangs just above the bottom, where panfish are suspended. Once you’re dialed in on the depth, add a small split shot to the line about a foot above the bait and you’ll be ready to go.
In the early spring when the water is cold, panfish will be less apt to take on larger meals. However, as the water gets warmer throughout the season, you’ll start having more luck on larger baits, so being aware of the water temperature is crucial.
“The cooler the water, the more micro I will go,” Neururer said. “I’ll even fish with just a plain hook and a sinker that’s more finesse and will cause less disturbance. However, when the water is in the 60s I’ll start using bigger baits. Fish like crappies aren’t afraid to choke. I’ve even had times when I’m fishing for walleyes with a four- or five-inch shiner and start hooking into crappie, so you won’t be going wrong with using something bigger during those warm water conditions. It’s a lot of fun when you start getting into panfish on that kind of stuff.”
As panfish move into their spawning areas, they will stack up and feed in a variety of different depths. They’ll hold near deep water structures, over underwater springs, around weed beds, and off the shallow edges of their spawning areas. Exactly where they’re holding will depend on the body of water in question and what stage of the spawn the fish are currently in.
While electronics can help to key in on the fish, if you’re not precisely sure where panfish are feeding, your best bet is to start with the deeper areas of the water first and then systematically work into shallow water. Start fishing in 8 to 10 feet of water or as far out from shore as you can cast. If you don’t have any luck within a few minutes, reel your line in a few feet. Keep repeating this process of fishing in different depths and working your baits into shallower water until you strike paydirt and start having consistent strikes.
In late spring when panfish are spawning or transitioning into the post-spawn, they’ll become extremely aggressive. While these fish will still strike live baits, it can be more fun and even more productive to use lures. Casting and retrieving small spinners, spoons, and even tiny crankbaits like the Creme and the Bitsy Minnow can catch you a lot of fish, especially when panfish are feeding in open water. However, if you really want to stack up some true slabs in the cooler, you can’t go wrong with soft plastics.
“Small paddle tails on light jigs are great for both bluegill and crappie in late spring,” Neururer said. “But I’ll even boost up to a big three- or four-inch paddle tail or even a Berkley Gulp Minnow, which is when it gets really fun because that’s when you get into the big ones. A four-inch paddle tail that’s really moving and causing commotion will usually be smashed by the biggest fish in the school.”
When fishing for spring panfish in clear water, you can have a lot of luck sight fishing. You can do this by both looking for the fish’s nests which appear as small, bright patches of sand along the bottom or by spotting the fish themselves. This is especially effective on bright and sunny days that occur directly after a cold front when the fish are in search of shallow, warm water.
Search shallow areas immediately adjacent to structures like weed beds, woodpiles, and boat docks that offer fish in easy places to hide. You have to be stealthy in these situations as the fish can be extremely spooky, so using a trolling motor or slowly stalking along the bank into casting range is vital for success. Once you spot a fish, try to cast past them with a small jig, crankbait, or even a bait rig, and then try to work the bait or lure back towards them until they spot it. This can make for some fun fishing as the panfish will often rocket in and aggressively smash the bait.
If you’re not seeing or catching any panfish in a fishing spot, it’s often a good idea to start looking for predators. Fish like bass, pickerel, and pike frequent the same areas as panfish during the spring and often depend upon the smaller fish as a food source. Aerial predators like ospreys, herons, and gulls can also be a sign that there are panfish in a certain area.
When you’re not having a lot of luck, finding these predators can tell you a lot about where panfish may be hiding. Spotting birds hovering around or frequenting an area often means you should head in that direction. Likewise, if you’re seeing or hooking into a lot of larger predators like bass, it means you’re in the ballpark of where the panfish are feeding, and it will only take a small adjustment of fishing in deeper or shallower water to start catching the fish you’re after.
“Largemouth are a really good indicator of panfish presence,” Neururer said. “They’ll even show up to areas first to both spawn and feed, so don’t get annoyed if you end up hooking into four or five bass because it means that there are panfish around and you’re going to get into them if you just keep trying.”
No matter the time of year, targeting panfish around heavy cover is always a good idea. During both the pre and post-spawn, large bluegills will push themselves into stands of reeds or cattails or will hide beneath algae mats, lily pads, and docks as a way of protecting themselves against predators. Crappies will do the same thing, but they will also spawn in areas of deep cover around the root systems of trees, under overhanging banks, or within submerged vegetation.
Finding these points of cover is vital to spring-fishing success, and anglers looking to catch a mess of panfish often have to get their baits and lures right into the thick of it. This can be done with several different methods, but it usually works best by jigging.
Using a small 1/32- to 1/16-ounce marabou jig or plain jig head baited with a worm or minnow, you can drop your bait right into the center of thick patches of cover and trigger panfish into striking by making small pulsing jigs with your rod tip. Though this is most effective when done from a boat, shore anglers can also have a lot of luck by jigging off of the end of docks and along the edges of undercut banks. Panfish will dash out quickly from these spots to strike jigs before dashing back into cover again.
There’s a casual joy in targeting panfish. It’s one of those simple pleasures in life where high populations of voracious fish will happily gulp down almost any bait or lure you put in the water. While these tips are helpful, spring panfish fishing is not supposed to be a complicated or challenging angling style that requires a ton of specialized equipment and know-how. Rather, with the fish moving into shallow water and willing to strike, spring panfishing is just an easy way to have some fun on the water after a long winter. So once you’re on top of the fish, it's best to try and channel your own inner Andy Griffith and just sit back, take it easy, and enjoy it while it lasts.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.