I’ve never met a person who, after a flurry of spring panfish activity, didn’t have fun. Not to mention some of the tastiest fillets of the open-water season. To enjoy that fun it’s important to focus on the main issues that affect spring panfishing.
Spring is Spawning Time
The most obvious of these is the spawn, since all panfish breed at some time in the spring. Depending on where you live, panfish are right now either getting ready to spawn, in actual spawning mode, or recently finished with the spawning process.
Crappies and sunfish build circular spawning nests near shore, which are fairly easy to locate, especially in places with clear water, when they’re building, using, or protecting these. If you’re out early the water will likely be calm, and by moving quietly around the shoreline you’re likely to find spawning beds on gravel, rock, or sandy bottoms, and in shallow water off points or around weeds and lily pads.
After spawning these fish move to deeper hangouts. Then you have to pay attention to cover like logs, bushes, and brush, and to places like grassy flats, channels, lily pad clusters, and offshore humps. Perch are not nest builders and usually spawn very early in the season, so most open-water anglers fish for post-spawners, which are generally away from shore and in cool waters. Yellow perch are often associated with weeds but not with bushes and brush like sunfish and crappies
Fishing for Nesters
Shallow angling for nesting fish is interesting and fairly guaranteed if you can avoid spooking the fish.
This means not allowing your boat to drift through nesting areas, and otherwise keeping your presence to a minimum. Shallow, spawning panfish may be obvious but they’re not stupid, as they have a lot of predators to worry about. This is why long poles (one-piece cane or collapsible/telescopic fiberglass or graphite models) that keep anglers at a distance and permit unobtrusive placement of baits or light jigs have long been effective. Some stealth is in order here, whether you’re fishing from boat or bank.
Since panfish are often not as aggressive as larger species like bass, and since they’re mostly attuned to protecting their nest sites when shallow, it is not as easy to catch them on lures as on natural baits, which are suspended over the nests under a float. A small jig may also be fished this way, and tiny crankbaits and spinners may also be effective, but most lures are generally in and out of a bedding area too quickly to draw a leery panfish off a nest site. This is when flies and very small fly-rod bugs or poppers, which are cast repeatedly over beds, can produce excellent results.
As the fish move deep, or if they remain shallow after the spawn, presentation options expand. Among natural baits, it’s hard to beat a live minnow for crappies or a live cricket for bluegills, although worms have a big following in many places, including for perch.
Crappies are mostly minnow eaters. Minnows hide around any kind of cover for security, so crappies go where minnows hide. Brushpiles are planted in many waters precisely to draw minnows and thus attract crappies. When you set out on an unfamiliar lake for crappies, think brush or any other extensive cover.
Bluegills and other sunfish have smaller mouths than crappies and are not quite the minnow chasers, but they sure like crickets, and if you’re exclusively seeking these spring panfish then you may need to bring many dozen, if not a couple hundred, crickets along, keeping them in a commercial container that allows you to grab one in a hurry to re-bait. Use a No. 8 long-shank Aberdeen hook and impale the cricket through the shoulder so it wiggles loosely, which will result in some pilferage but also draws more strikes.