By Ken Poor
All across America early spring has always been the favorite season for catching bluegills or crappie. Early spring is an exciting time to be outdoors and an even better time to be on the water catching shallow water panfish. It’s time to put away the icefishing gear and get the open water fishing tackle ready for another season. In this article, I refer to all sunfish, panfish or bream as bluegill.
Still, it’s a time of year when the weather can challenge the wits of fishermen with thunderstorms or sudden spring showers, changing lake levels, cold fronts, brisk winds and every unstable weather pattern a person can imagine. With so many weather variables to deal with, anglers need to have a variety of techniques to fall back on and understand when or how to adjust their techniques to the existing conditions.
Water temperature is an important factor in locating early season bluegill and crappie especially when they move into the shallows to feed. Even though you can catch bluegill and crappie in cold water, their feeding activity increases as the lake water warms up. All it takes is an increase of a few degrees to trigger the feeding activity and the intensity of the activity continues to increase until the water temperature approaches the sixty-degree range.

Early season panfish are fun to catch and make excellent table fare. Mr. Turner shows-off a bluegill he caught while fishing a pond on the family farm in southern Illinois.

At this time of year water temperatures vary dramatically in different spots on a lake and locating the isolated pockets of warmer water is the first step for a successful fishing trip. Shallow bays on the northwest shore of a lake protected from the wind, but exposed to the sun, are the first areas to warm up. Areas with a dark bottom warm up the quickest and hold the heat the longest. Bays aren’t the only areas that will hold panfish. Boat harbors, channels and feeder creeks should also be checked for bluegill and crappies. A good lake map is the easiest way to identify likely hot spots and most of your searching can be done in comfort at home.
The next step is to identify some type of cover in the spot such as trees, brush, logs, stumps, old weed beds or the edges of bogs. Don’t overlook old wooden pier pilings or log retainer walls. Any combination of cover, in a warm water area, such as weeds and trees adds to the potential of the spot.
Water temperatures can change quickly depending on wind direction or a sudden spring shower. Over a period of a couple of days’ wind can blow warm surface water into an area and run-off from a spring shower is normally warmer than the lake water. If you are planning a fishing trip and going over your lake map, keep in mind it is important to know what the weather has been doing for a couple of days prior to the trip.
Wind and run-off can also stir up the lake bottom and effect water clarity. Normally the water is exceptionally clear early in the spring and clear water means fish will be very spooky. At this time of year panfish normally suspend just below the surface, combine this with clear water and any disturbance will quickly move them out of the area. When you make your approach to any spot you plan to fish use your trolling motor, be very quiet and stay as far away from the target area as practical.
When bluegill and crappie are in clear shallow water you need to make long cast and slow retrieves. Use a slip-float set-up on a 6-foot light action spinning rod and spool your reel with a good quality 4 or 6-pound test clear monofilament line. The slip-float rig can be adjusted for various depths and the long rod is great for making long cast.
Always cast well past your target so that the splash of your float doesn’t spook the fish and then slowly retrieve your float back to the spot where you want to fish. If there is a breeze, position your boat so that you are casting into the wind and let the wind carry your float back to the target area. If you are only catching small crappie, adjust your sip-float so that your bait is a little deeper. Normally smaller crappie will be on top of the school and larger crappie lower or deeper in the group.

Crappie are one of my favorite eating fish and when you are on the big slabs, it doesn’t take many to fill the frying pan. My brother-in law Bill Haug, shows off a black crappie he caught while fishing a South Carolina lake.

If you are working a spot just for crappie experiment with light colored hair-jigs, ice fishing jigs or a plain hook tipped with a small minnow and let the fish tell you what they want. Plain hooks and grubs such as spikes or wax worms are normally a better choice for bluegill. Typically, bluegill will school by size. If you are only catching small bluegill move to another location.
Pay close attention to the depth that hits come from and use a bobber stop to set the depth on your slip-float so that your bait is always in the strike zone. Bluegill and crappie like to feed on bait that is in front or slightly above them and will often rise and hit a jig on the fall. If your bait is below them, you are out of the strike zone.
With so many early season variables to deal it is always a good idea to have a backup plan just in case you don’t find the fish in the shallows. If you are not catching them in the shallows it might not mean they’re not hitting. They may be biting but at a different depth. Move back to deeper water until you locate the closest drop-off to the area you have been fishing and use your fish locator to check for suspended fish. Use your electric motor to move the boat around. A gas engine will scatter suspended fish and make them tough to locate.
When you mark a school of fish on your locator use a float marker to mark the spot. Work the area with a slip-float or by vertically jigging and make sure your bait is in the strike zone. Try a variety of techniques such as live bait, different size or types of jigs, plastic dressings or live grubs, slow presentations and different colors.
Colors can make a difference especially if the water in the lake is stained or clear. As a starting point try lighter colors in clear water and darker colors in dark water. Always have a selection of color choices in your tackle box and let the fish tell you what color they want.
Early season crappie and bluegill are fun to catch and there is nothing wrong with keeping a few for a meal. If you plan to keep some fish – keep the small ones and release the big ones. In time this will improve the overall quality of the panfish in your lake.