Spring Panfish: Time of Plenty
With hungry fish prowling the shallows, spring is the favorite time of year for panfish anglers. Here's how to make the most of your time on the water during this season of rebirth – and fish aplenty!
Avid crappie and bluegill anglers regard spring as their time!
Warming water and the earliest hints of the bedding urge find fish pouring into areas that are relatively easy to find and easy to fish.
Spring can be an extended season in the South where new waves of bluegill, crappie and other sunfish species replace the wave of spawners from the month before.
In the North, spring generally is a more compressed season that finds anglers as eager to catch panfish at their most vulnerable as the fish are to get on with the spawn.
But, no matter where you live, the best part of spring fishing is that you can find fish that are eager to bite in areas that are relatively easy to fish!
Timing is everything
Early spring panfish strategy should focus on finding the largest concentrations of fish in the most accessible areas. Small lakes and ponds are usually the first to turn on. Darker waters shed their ice and warm more rapidly than clear lakes and streams. Shallow waters warm more quickly than deep waters.
The same principles apply to large, complex waters where some panfish tend to move early on into small silty dark-bottom bays and channels off the main lake. Later waves of fish may spawn in main lake bedding areas.
Small lakes, bays and channels offer some of the best early season panfish action and some of the best bank fishing opportunities that fishermen will see all year. Insects abound in soft bottom areas. Wood and vegetation may provide additional cover and favorable habitat. Look for transition areas – bottom changes, depressions, rock, and changes in the types of vegetation.
Warmed by sunshine and southerly winds, north shore areas tend to have warmer water and the earliest fish concentrations.
Another reason for spring fishing's popularity is the vulnerability of the fish to such a wide range of bait options. Small baits, however, tend to produce the most fish.
Take a tip from the ice fishermen. The same baits that caught fish before the lake thaw will take them in early spring – and throughout the fishing season, for that matter!
Bluegill, crappie and other panfish – including perch – feed all winter on insects, plankton, and other invertebrates. Those foods remain on their menu, which is one key reason the fish congregate on the silt-bottomed bays and flats where these goodies abound.
Live bait options like redworms and wax worms for sunfish and small shiners and fathead minnows for crappie demonstrate why they are panfish staples at this time of year.
In recent years, however, tiny soft plastics resembling mayflies, stoneflies and other larval insects fished on 1/64- to 1/16-ounce jigs have often proved equal and, at times, even better than live bait. Choose soft supple plastics that deliver action at the slightest quiver of your hand or water disturbance. Hand-tied hair and feathered jigs and flies can be equally effective. When the bite is on, these artificials are hard to beat!
Have a variety of colors on hand. Black on black combinations are consistent producers, but a mix of dark body with a bright, visible orange or chartreuse head can be deadly. Mix up your offerings until you have dialed in the fish's preference for the particular time and set of conditions you are fishing. And remember that conditions that affect fish behavior and reaction – like water temperature, light and barometric pressure -- change from day to day, even hour to hour!
Presentation is critical. Small baits require light tackle and light line. Go with as light a line as your skill level and tackle allow.
If you are fishing live bait, keep the hook size small. Aberdeen hooks are light wire hooks that work well with small baits. They usually straighten out and come free when they are snagged, too, but returning them to their initial configuration is easy.
Too many anglers opt for hooks that either dwarf their bait or are too large for panfish to take in their mouths. On average, you will catch far more fish with hooks in the size 6 to 14 range than on size 2 or 4 hooks. But match your hook size to the size of your bait, too. The hook must be large enough to go through the bait and into the fish's mouth. A nightcrawler can't be fished effectively on a size 12 hook. Minnows require larger hooks than most worms, leeches and larvae. Having larger mouths than the rest of their sunfish cousins, crappie often prefer minnows and minnow-style lures over other bait options. Use hooks appropriate to the size of your minnows.
Some baits work well fished when they are fished freely in a horizontal fashion. However, many can be fished more slowly and carefully beneath a small float, a.k.a. "bobber."
Leave the big red and white beach ball bobbers at home! Small, elongated float styles respond better to light bites than large round floats. They are less likely to make fish wary of unnatural resistance during the take, too.
Light terminal tackle will almost always deliver more strikes and result in more hook-ups. The addition of a small split shot weight between float and lure can add to your casting distance and even heighten sensitivity to light bites. Select a weight -- or series of weights -- that just maintain the neutral buoyancy of your float.
The telltale signs of spring are just around the corner. The fish are ready for action.