Spring pan-fishing is an annual tradition for many anglers all over the country. When we begin to see our first extended periods of warm weather, chasing pre-spawn crappie and bluegill is a great way to get warmed up for the season. Many anglers are anxious to get the boat out but aren’t sure where to go or how to fish this early in the season. Let’s discuss some strategies for ice-out conditions, as this can be a tricky time of year due to cold water temps and unstable weather patterns.
The early spring can be a challenging time to find fish and get them to bite. Many species will be spawning this time of year and without getting into to much detail you need to pay attention to the weather to understand what the fish are doing. Crappie, blue gill and largemouth bass all share similar spawning areas and will make nests in shallow-silted bottomed areas in certain parts of the lake. Cold water temps will keep fish “staged” outside spawning areas meaning they are waiting for the right time to move in to “do their thing”. The Fish will use various structures as a holding area where they’ll wait until the conditions are just right before moving in. This may be standing vegetation just outside the spawning areas, vertical structure (wood, trees, bridge pilings) or even deep docks.
The key is moving around to find the fish and choosing a location based on the weather conditions. To do this you need to have a basic understanding of the species your targeting, in this case the black crappie. These fish basically move in shallow during sudden warm fronts and back out if the weather remains cool. The mistake many anglers make is assuming because they caught them last week in one spot the situation will repeat itself, which may not be the case. This is a time when things are changing very rapidly in the ecosystem which can have an immediate positive or negative effect on the fish. On hot sunny “feel good” days, the fish usually bite really well and will rise up to warm themselves in the sun. On a cold day, you will usually have to work for them and you’ll probably find them slightly deeper suspended halfway up in the water column.
Talking tackle, there are a variety of good baits that catch plenty of fish. The general rule of thumb is the cooler the water, the slower the presentation. During the colder months fish simply are more lethargic and tend to be less aggressive as their metabolism is regulated by water temperature. I always start fishing early in the season with the same stuff I fished with at the end of ice fishing season. Small baits that can be fished slowly and provide subtle actions take the cake early in the season and larger more lively baits will get the nod as water temps continue to climb. By “early” I am referring to water temperatures in the low to mid forties. Once the water temperatures gets into the low fifties things really start to pick up.
My go to early season bait is a “ratso” by custom jigs n spins. It’s a simple and effective design that will wiggle with just the natural motion of the water when held still. I like a super light jig that falls very slowly, usually a 1/32 or 1/64 oz. rigged clean on six pound mono. Clip on bobbers are handy when switching from vertical jigging to drifting large flats. This presentation is small enough to coax a lethargic fish into slurping it up even when conditions are tough. As the water warms the bite will pick up and the fish will get more aggressive. This is when your fathead minnows and larger plastics will shine when rigged under a slip float or clip on style bobber.
Generally I will get to a spot and toss out the anchor allowing the wind to position the boat for casting off the stern. Cast out a few rods and wait for the bobber to go down! You may have to make minor adjustments to your float to get your baits at different depths. If you aren’t getting bit move around here and there until you get on a pod of fish. I will also vertical jig standing structure as groups of fish moving in and out of adjacent spawning areas will hold here. There will usually be a two to three week window where areas such as these will be hot. Once most of the fish are on their spawning beds you can sight fish for them and shoot docks. Docks are dynamite when many of the fish are spawning as they use them to get out of the sun and are usually in fairly protected areas. Pitch small jigs under or as close to the edges as possible as fish will likely be tucked underneath, especially on bright sunny days. “Shooting” is a technique in which you slingshot the jig under structure on an open bail to access fish hiding way underneath, such as a large dock or low bridge.
If this is not on your spring fishing “to do” list you may want to give it a try. It’s a great time of year to introduce people to the sport as action can come fast and you can typically ensure a good experience for first time anglers. Pay attention to the weather forecast and look for warming trends when planning a trip as this will likely result in a good day for feeding. Bring plenty of rods and bait options and don’t forget to wear a life jacket if you plan on fishing early in the spring (Nov 1 through May 1)! It may be seventy out but the water could still be in the fifties, meaning if you go in you could be in trouble. Thanks for reading anglers, have fun out there and be safe. Fish On!