By Jason Mitchell Outdoors Staff
Spring panfish opportunities are popular with anglers for plenty of good reasons. For starters, anglers can target crappies, bluegill and other panfish in shallow water, and the action can be tremendous, especially for kids and beginning anglers.
What’s even better is that a hot panfish bite can bring out the kid in anglers of any age and skill level. In fact, some of the most popular shows we have aired over the past 10 years were indeed panfish shows that highlighted crappies or bluegills.
Spring panfish provide good action, good eating and good fun. With that in mind, try these springtime tips from the staff at Jason Mitchell Outdoors to find and catch more panfish this spring.
Before they spawn, spring crappies and other panfish often move back into shallow, protected coves and bays that offer a dark bottom and either submerged vegetation or submerged brush piles. Smaller bays found within a larger bay are usually protected from strong winds, which means they’re more likely to warm up faster.
Shallow backwater marshes, coves, marinas, harbors and flowages can all attract spawning crappies, but on some reservoirs, look for crappies to hold on chunk rock, rip rap and other hard bottom locations in 4 to 10 feet of water.
Sunshine and water temperatures are not only important factors that determine where fish can be found in a body of water, but they also influence where panfish can be found in the water column. On calm, sunny days crappies and bluegills can often be found up high in the water column soaking in the heat. Fish tend to move shallower during the afternoon when warming surface temps often pull fish higher in the water.
Sunshine is your friend. Warm, sunny days often correlate with some of our best fishing, and the afternoons are typically much better than the mornings. Don’t make the mistake of expecting too much before noon and leaving good areas too early. Remember that crappie and bluegill often move into these shallow bays and become active later in the day after the sun has had a chance to work for a while.
However, spring weather can be volatile with warming weather interrupted by fronts, rain and wind. Cooling spring temperatures can push fish to the edges and break lines adjacent to shallow water. If water temps dive, look for fish to pull out of the really shallow water. Fish along the break on the mouth of a bay where fish can typically be found right away at ice out.
Spring crappie fishing in shallow water typically consists of casting a jig and float combination and then slowly reeling or twitching the jig back to the boat. Floats allow you to slow way down. The biggest mistake many anglers make is fishing too fast, especially during the spring when water temperatures are still cool and fish are somewhat sluggish.
Slowly reeling a jig below a slip bobber allows anglers to creep the presentation along without falling down into emerging weeds or the muck. A general rule of thumb is to set the jig about halfway down between the surface and the tops of the emerging weeds, but don’t be afraid to experiment by fishing tighter to the weeds or higher in the water column. Remember that consistent sunshine will sometimes pull fish up really high right below the surface.
Small, soft plastics designed specifically for crappies and panfish work excellent beneath a float, as they are durable for casting and you can catch several fish on one bait. It’s hard to say that soft-plastic options for tipping jigs always work better than traditional live bait such as crickets, nightcrawlers or minnows, but through the years we’ve found that we typically catch more fish with soft plastics.
In addition, soft plastics are more durable for repeated casting, and the added bulk, vibration and bright color options make these presentations easy for fish to find. When fishing dirty, turbid water, don’t hesitate to experiment with bright colors and larger profiles.
Part of the presentation recipe is figuring out how high in the water column to fish. Crappies can sometimes be right under the surface or holding along the bottom, and finding fish is often a matter of experimenting with how deep you set your float to find fish. Anticipate fish to ride higher when the sun comes out and lower when clouds or strong winds are present.
If you are catching small fish, try using a bigger presentation or a jig that drops quicker. Also, fish a little closer or tighter to the bottom, as larger crappies and bigger bluegills can often be found below smaller fish.
Speaking of presentations that drop faster, more panfish anglers are discovering the advantages of tungsten, which has become extremely popular in both bass and ice-fishing circles because of its increased density that makes it “heavier” than traditional lead. When you find the zone — say, for example, the fish are holding where you need to set your float 3 feet down over 7 feet of water — a tungsten jig will get back down into the zone much more quickly, and the added weight of tungsten also pulls line through slip bobbers much faster. Even in shallow water, tungsten just gets you in front of the fish faster and keeps you in the zone.
Fighting Clear Water
On some fisheries water visibility is often extremely clear early in the spring when water temperatures are still cold. This means that you can see the fish, and the fish can see you.
When targeting crappies in shallow harbors and bays that offer really clear water, fish will often hold around docks or lay downs and can be difficult to approach. Heck, even casting toward fish in ultra-clear water sometimes spooks them, so don’t be afraid to make long casts with a float and jig and slowly work the float back over the top of fish. In other words, cast beyond the fish and drag your presentation back right in front of their nose.
What can also work really well is to simply drive the boat through these locations with your big motor running, trimmed down as low as possible. Stir up the bottom with your prop and move stuff around. If you’re uncomfortable running the big motor that shallow, a trolling motor can work just as well. Twenty minutes later, fish where you saw fish before the water clears back up.
Editor’s Note: Jason Mitchell Outdoors airs Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. on Fox Sports Midwest and Sundays at 9 a.m. on Fox Sports North.