Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Tactics for prime time spring panfish

By Jeremy Smith


After a long winter like this past one, anglers are in a hurry to get the boat ready, get on the water, and start fishing. I’ve always felt urgency, followed by sense of renewal once the ice is gone, signaling a new season.


Fortunately, bluegills, crappies, and other warm-water species are eager to start feeding, followed by their spring spawn. In many waters, bluegills and crappies slip into bays and river backwaters even before the ice is gone, as soon as the sun’s stronger beams penetrate the water and kick the food chain into gear. 


The secret to finding panfish early is to find warm water. Shallow, protected bays warm quickly, especially those with a dark bottom. The most powerful technology on your boat this time of year is a thermometer. Find water a few degrees warmer and you’ll likely find spring panfish.  


Though fish are active and concentrated, they can be picky and spooky. Instead of cruising around on the trolling motor, fan-casting, it’s usually best to pick key spots that offer cover. Fish quietly and slowly, letting the fish come to you.


Watch for the remains of last year’s weed growth, stumps, and fallen brush. Once you find fish, stay stealthy and Talon down via the trolling motor or drop a traditional anchor. Fish often will spook but return as things quiet down. 


In cool water, slow presentations score best. It’s hard to beat a float to suspend the bait, giving crappies and bluegills time to investigate. Small, soft baits like 1- to 2-inch tubes, minnows, bug imitations, are go-tos. Let the baits soak for 5 to 15 seconds, then twitch the cork a few inches forward and repeat. A float going under is one of the most compelling sights in fishing, whether you’re 5 or 85.


Pre-spawn panfish love holding near cover. Look for areas where lily pads start to unfurl from the bottom, and the first stalks of pondweed begin to grow, or any other vertical cover. Along with panfish, you may connect with a prowling pike or lunker largemouth bass, which always make for a memorable battle on light spinning tackle.


It’s a great time for an outdoor fish fry. Harvest selectively, taking midsize ‘gills from 6 to 8 inches or so, and crappies from 9 to 11 inches, releasing jumbo panfish for the future. It’s particularity important to keep big male bluegills in the system, as they limit numbers of stunted sunfish that can overpopulate waters. Their bright orange chest, dark coloration, and round shape stand out. Bull ‘gills can live more than 10 years, ensuring good fishing as they grow, as well as keeping the population in balance.

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