THE Rite of Spring
Early season panfish bites are a rite of spring, happening throughout the country as reliably as budding lilacs, morels pushing and gobbling turkeys. Crappies and bluegills both work their way from mid-winter depths to staging areas, then eventually into shallow cover and structure to spawn. Even perch have a part in the conversation, especially in moving-water scenarios where main river tigers slip into side channels and food-rich backwaters. Each species has its own biological rituals that determine timing, but if you’re a panfish angler, you’re fortunate in that each of them tend to happen in order, overlapping very little in most systems. It all makes for a great way to kick off the spring bite while knocking the rust off of winter. That said, if there was one species that gets the bulk of attention in spring, it would undoubtedly be crappies. From north to south, and inside the coasts, spring crappies hold a special place in the hearts of anglers everywhere. Here’s how to get on them this spring.
Water temperature is a key contributing factor to everything spring. Cold nights below freezing, cool-water runoff from melting snow, and heavy cloud cover can all contribute to the death of a seemingly unkillable bite. As black-bottom bays and rock-laden shorelines store what solar energy they can, crappies first flood to the shallows as water temps approach 45 degrees. In many midwestern lakes, this seems to be a “magic number” in helping to predict not only locations, but the mood of the crappies you’re after. Anything south of that value, and shallow water crappies become much more rare and hard to find. Even after locating them, you just don’t see the large congregations of fish that are willing to eat like you do in the 45-50 degree range and above. That said, spring is a rollercoaster of conditions, full of false starts, short intense feeding periods during warm weather, and then eventually spawn and post-spawn behavior. Your best bet is multiple trips that allow you to track changes in water temperatures, so you won’t miss the very best action.
Regarding location, when warm water is scarcer in the early season, those shorelines that are even a few degrees warmer can be full of fish. This is true even when they lack good cover, provided you’re fishing the warmest water in the lake and it’s still early. Back bays on the north side of a lake are a good start, and don’t hesitate to fish shallower than 5 feet, especially in systems with poor clarity. Even as water temps rise into the 50’s, fish remain shallow, feeding on baitfish drawn to the warm water and other forms of emerging life jump started by warm afternoons and an even more aggressive sun angles.
What to use and how to present it can be an important factor during this time of year. Again, let water temps dictate your style of fishing and lure selection. Especially early, the temptation is to fish fast and cover water to find larger schools. Just coming out of winter, locations can be a mystery, and bobber-fishing shallows is simply too slow for most anglers. That said, especially during the early season, crappies will rarely chase to eat moving baits presented on the edges. Fish with floats, and use meat. Crappies are carnivorous little beings, and you’ll be surprised how savagely they’ll strike a minnow offered on a Northland Gypsi Jig in 1/32 and 1/16oz. sizes. The tinsel flash and jig profile of this bait really shine with a head-hooked minnow below a float; truly a spring classic combination.
Rod length is a key consideration when slipping shorelines for spring crappies, as you need something that can hurl a tumbling bobber with bait both at distance, but also without throwing the meat from the hook. St. Croix’s Panfish Series PFS80MLF2 is an 8’ stick designed to do just that, offering supreme casting lengths while offering leverage on floats at a distance, both key considerations when chasing spring crappies. It’s important not to overweight a proper panfish setup with a clunky, oversized reel that kills balance and feel of the entire setup. With an 8 foot rod, you can get away with a bit more, making even 2500 series reels incredible line-holders for these rods.
Cover is king for pre-spawn crappies, and while any wood or timber is good for finding them, brush is better. An isolated log or stump may hold a few fish, but large concentrations of fish will be found where they can bury themselves within and along brush piles. Unfortunately, most anglers miss the bonanza by fishing only around the edges, rather than within the heavy cover. Occasional fish are to be had this way, but to do well in these situations, you’ll need to be prepared to fearlessly fish inside of the heavy stuff, not just around the edges. For that reason, especially in darker, more turbid water, consider braids like Daiwa’s x8 J-Braid in 6 or 8 lb. for dipping into and extracting specs from heavy cover with force. Fluorocarbon like 8 lb. Daiwa J-Fluoro Samurai is a better choice in clearer water and can offer the same functionality. Timber can be hard to find in northern natural lakes with broad and shallow shorelines, so crappies focus on bulrush and pencil-reeds for cover. Whether wood or vegetation, getting in the middle of it seems to pay dividends.
It’s unfortunate that minnows are best fished when your freezing fingers would otherwise want you to use artificials only, but it seems like warm weather and gloveless hands are about the best predictor on when to start looking to retrieved plastic presentations. For this reason, bring bait until moving presentations readily outperform more stationary live-bait options.
Plastics bites come later as they typically require warmer conditions, though southern reservoir brush beating can be productive with plastics when vertical. Side-imaging and sonar both help here for finding these piles, and more importantly, staying on the ones that have fish. High-frequency sonar imaging like that provided by Raymarine Element’s 1.2MHz HyperVision allows anglers to see and understand the complex subtleties of any brush pile, while also seeing individual fish in clear detail. For colder conditions and more finesse bites, pair baits like the Z-Man Finesse ShadZ with a Finesse ShroomZ jig and probe vertically. The bait does the work here as you’re trying to place it in their faces and let incredibly small movements impart tail quivers that get the job done.
As water temperatures warm to 60 degrees and beyond, fish get more active. No longer are stationary presentations and live bait a necessity. At this point, you’re looking to cover water, as portions of the spawn will likely be finishing up or already over, meaning that less-concentrated and scattered fish can be better targeted with swimming presentations. Baits like the Z-Man Slim SwimZ threaded on a Power Finesse ShroomZ cover that water and seek out active fish. A boot-tail design offers some thump to both attract these fish from distance, keeping it a perennial favorite in plastics design when water temps elevate. Vibration and enticement can be offered with some flash as well, with baits like the Northland Tackle Thumper Crappie King getting the nod in the darkest and most turbid water situations. This bait features a jig head that actually looks like a minnow, while sporting a hammered belly blade that helps fish find it in dark-water environments.
Pair active presentations with rods that will best present them. The St. Croix Panfish Series PFS70LXF has been a standard since its first issue, mostly because the length, power, and action combine to lend the perfect characteristics for flinging and retrieving light jigs. The length is longer than most people consider for panfish, but offers casting distance and leveragewhen hurling light baits that don’t always fly very far. Extra-fast actions promote ample bite detection, while hooksetting backbone also contributes to this rod’s ideal performance. For those who want a slightly shorter stick that offers almost all of the same characteristics, look to the PFS64LF, as it’s a slightly slower version in a rod that fits in rod lockers more easily.
For pitch-and-retrieve-style panfishing, reel choice deserves some careful thought. Here, think about going down to 1000 series reels. That said, 2500s offer a little less line twist and more casting distance, so those inclined to have a top-end setup might consider going larger but staying lighter with a Daiwa Tatula LT. As the staple in lightweight spinning, you can shed the weight and achieve perfect balance without sacrificing the size attributes a 2500 series reel offers. Make your decision up the price-chain according to performance and design, but also drag-system, as much depends on what other fish species you may be fighting. Everything eats a jig and plastic, and landing big fish on light line is entirely possible with the right reel, so resist the temptation to skimp.
Whether plunking or pitching, spring and crappie fishing is really a peanut butter-and-jelly-type combination. It’s hard to imagine one without the other and vice versa, but going into the spring season prepared for the presentations at hand will make for a better experience with more fish.