Winter has released its icy grip and lakes, reservoirs, and rivers are once again open for springtime fishing. And that means prime time for panfish, especially crappies and bluegills as they make their migration from deeper waters into the shallows before the annual spawn.
We talked with several St. Croix panfish experts about their favorite presentations, tactics and gear in order to help get anglers get prepared and motivated to chase these full-on-fun species.
Angling Edge’s Jeremy Smith Talks Early Season Countdown Crappies — Although versed in everything that swims, from bass to walleyes to muskies, Minnesota-based St. Croix pro and Angling Edge host Jeremy Smith admits springtime panfish are one of his favorite bites of the entire year.“I pretty much use the 7’ light power, extra-fast action (PFS70LXF) St. Croix Panfish Series rod for everything panfish-related in the spring. It’s kind of my go-to rod with exception of using the 9’ light power, moderate-fast action (PFS90LMF2) Panfish Series rod for dipping crappies and the cane-poling technique when they’re in shallow and around structure,” says Smith.
These days, Smith finds himself fishing fewer corks and bobbers, preferring to count baits down when looking for fish. “Choosing a presentation that has a slow drop speed helps find the crappies, but it can vary greatly during the spring,” he says.
“My favorite time is definitely pre-spawn – from the day the ice goes out to a while thereafter, depending on how fast the water warms up.” Smith employs Side Imaging sonar while on the hunt during this period, looking for fish that are suspended before they come in deep off the weedline. “They might be two feet down or 10 feet down over 10-to-20 feet of water. That’s perfect for using the cast and countdown technique, pinpointing those fish you see on the electronics. It’s a super deadly way of catching them.”
Smith dives deeper on the technique: “You get those nice bright sunny days and it’s calm and those fish are staging out deeper before pushing shallow. They’ll be just off the weedline or in any good vertical standing weeds on breaks or the entrances to shallow bays. A lot of times I feel like people are fishing below the fish. The crappies could be six inches from the surface when it’s warm, so you need to maintain your distance and be able to make long casts with light baits. That’s why I like that 7’ light power, extra-fast action Panfish Series rod. You can fling jigs a good ways with it.”
Smith pairs the rod with a 1000-size Daiwa reel spooled with 6-pound Nanobraid. “I can throw a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce jig and piece of plastic a mile with that thing,” he says. “From there, it’s figuring out where the fish are in the water column – Side Imaging helps. And if they’re really up high, a bobber can spook them. Counting down the jig can be a lot more efficient and effective.”
How long this type of deeper bite can last is all dependent on the weather. In the Upper Midwest where Smith fishes most, from ice-out in April, the fish could stage deeper if the weather is cooler, and not push up to spawn until Memorial Day. If there’s plenty of warm weather right after ice-out, the fish could push shallow much earlier.
“It all depends on water temperature,” Smith confirms. “When the water is in the 40s to the high 50s, that’s when you see the crappies relating to the breaks, deeper water, and any standing, deeper vegetation. When it’s calm and sunny, the fish tend to move a bit higher. They don’t always move shallower, but they’ll move higher in the water column. Then, when the water hits about 58 or 60 degrees, you’ll see them load up around laydowns, cattails and rushes, and other shallow areas,” says Smith.
St. Croix Panfish Series — When crappies move shallow, Smith breaks out the longer, 9’, light power, moderate-fast action St. Croix Panfish Series rod . “That’s when you drop the Talon and start dipping,” he says. “Casting a cork in shallow cover can be a hassle, so I like the length of that rod for getting into shallow spots by just dipping. Stand up on the bow of the boat and just drop the jig into the little pockets where they’re congregated for the spawn. It can be super productive and a lot of fun.”
Guide Billy Rosner on Pre-Spawn Pans — Wisconsin-based guide and St. Croix pro-staffer Billy Rosner prefers to power-pluck pre-spawn pans well before the fish move shallow and attract the attention of other anglers. “Seems like everybody comes out when the fish are on the beds, so I like to get out earlier during pre-spawn,” he says. “Memorial Day through that first week of June can be pretty crowded in the shallows when the fish are on the spawn on Lake Vermillion.”
Rosner targets northern shorelines that warm up the fastest. “The fish will stage out deeper in anywhere from 12-to-20 feet of water. They just sit out there and wait for the water to warm up and then they slide in shallow,” he says. “I like to target them during this time because the fish are still fairly concentrated – if you know where to look – and there’s just not as many people out fishing them. I move around really slow with the boat and use my electronics to locate them. The sneakier the better because they’re spooky, too,” Rosner adds.
Like Smith, Rosner likes the 7’, light power, extra-fast action rod (PFS70LXF) in St. Croix’s Panfish Series, which he typically deploys for slip-bobber duty, but switches to the 6’4”, light power, fast action model (PFS64LF) when jigging.
“Some days I’m using the 6’4” when they’re a bit more aggressive and you can get on them jigging. I like a 1/32-ounce Moon Eye jig tipped with waxworms or plastics of some sort,” says Rosner. “Other days I’m using the 7-footer to position a jig below a slip bobber and get right to them wherever they’re at in the water column. When it’s slip-bobber time, I’m going old school with a crappie minnow,” he adds. “It’s pretty simple and straightforward. I use 4-pound Advance Suffix fluorocarbon and a 1000 or 1500 series Daiwa reel, which balances really nicely on the Panfish Series rods.”
Pitching & Slow-Rolling Crappies and Crane-Lifting ‘Gills with Guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl
For Minnesota-based St. Croix pro-staffer and guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, one of his favorite ways to fish crappies in the spring is to pitch and slow-roll Northland Thumper jigs tipped with a small crappie minnow. “It’s a great searching technique to find active crappies in likely areas,” he says. “Even when there’s a cold front – or it’s nice out – when a fish hits you’re qualifying the area. I’m looking for muddy bottom areas that the rest of the world hasn’t thought about,” Bro continues, “scoping in on Lakemaster maps and looking for depressions in muddy areas like boat harbors, river and creek mouths, shoreline areas where the ice damage in previous years has created dish-like bottoms. These areas can be just phenomenal for crappies. They’re the first to warm because the bottom is dark and mucky.”
Like Smith and Rosner, Bro shares an affinity for St. Croix’s 7’, light power, extra-fast action (PFS70LXF) Panfish Series rod – especially for crappie patrol. “I don’t set the hook when I get a fish, I just reel faster to pin them,” he says. “The forgiveness in the tip of that rod is great for papermouths. You’re not ripping their faces off. And it’s also good for sweeping casts that throw really far. It’s super comfortable and has a great handle for all-day fishing. If you’re sweeping and swinging lures all day you can snap them out there real easy. If you have to set the hook or rip the rod to get it away from a snag or vegetation, it’s got the backbone to do that, too” adds Brosdahl.
For bluegills, Bro preaches praises for the 8’ light power, moderate-fast action (PFS80LMF2) St. Croix Panfish Series rod. “A lot of times I’m in vegetation – springtime bluegills just love being buried in weedbeds – whether it’s emergent vegetation or plumes of coontail, the rod is great for dabbling in pockets,” he says. “And then you have to crane-lift or fight the fish on the surface. You won’t be able to get them out of the water because they’re fighting, but you’ve got to get them up to the surface and fight them on top because they’ll wrap you up in the weeds, which is a problem when using light line. This rod is ideal for this purpose.”
Bro continues from his panfish pulpit: “It’s also a great rod for pitching slip bobbers, but it’s light enough and sensitive enough you can just hold a finger on the line and drop your bait down in vegetation holes like a crane operator and tight-line your presentation no bobber required. That’s how sensitive that rod is. It’s also a great stick for reaching bluegills in wood – around the runs leading in and out of beaver dams and muskrat houses. This is just a great rod for getting in there and pulling them out. Ultimately, it’s just a fun rod to catch fish on – big bluegills or even the accidental bass or northern pike. The rod’s up to the challenge of all of it and it’s just enjoyable to fish with.”
Dock Shooting with Aaron Stiger— Ohio-based St. Croix pro, Aaron Stiger, is a big-time spring panfish fan. He can be found from ice-out chasing crappies in a number of ways: from his bass boat, his Hobie kayak, or often just fishing from the bank. Stiger’s frequent crappie tournaments put his techniques to the test under the pressure of competition.
“Normally I’m shooting docks for crappies, but I also enjoy jigging, too,” says Stiger, who employs different set-ups for each of his techniques.
“In Ohio, you can start to catch crappies right away from ice out. They seem to be some of the more active fish early in the season. It really depends on when you get out that will determine where they’ll be positioned,” Stiger offers. “If it’s right after ice-out in that mid-March timeframe they’ll tend to be more toward the middle of channels. That’s where I’ll target them. I’ll use a small float and put it about three feet above the jig and start searching for an active crappie school. Once you locate that active school it can be a lights-out bite – fish after fish after fish.”
As the season progresses through into April, Stiger says darkening crappies become a lot more structure-related. “What I try to do is look for the very warmest water – areas around riprap because that water will really warm-up, especially in the afternoons,” he says. “I tend to go out in the afternoons to give the water a chance to warm up; there’s really no need to be out early in the morning. So I’m looking for riprap and dock posts, metal dock posts are really good because they warm up pretty quickly. If I’m jigging riprap, I’m looking for any kind of irregularity, which could be a concrete piling, a cut, a point, or anything that has a source of heat. It could be a laydown as well. Wood and rock tend to hold heat a little better overnight, so I’ll target riprap and wood early and then I’ll move shallower and try to find some metal docks and dock posts for shooting.”
Stiger uses a couple of different setups. For shooting docks, he prefers the 5’, ultra-light power, moderate action (PFS50ULM) St. Croix Panfish Series rod. “You can really bow that stick and skip jigs right under the docks and find some of those fish in the shade. As the sun comes out, a lot of times you’ll find fish on those heated dock posts in the back of the dock. These fish haven’t necessarily seen a crappie jig in a while –or ever. So getting back in there far is a huge advantage. It’s where I’ve caught some of my biggest crappies,” he says. For dock shooting, Stiger uses 8-to-10-pound yellow PowerPro as his mainline with a 4-to-6-pound Sunline fluorocarbon leader. At the end of the leader, he opts for tiny jigs, typically sickle hook style jigs in the 1/64-to-1/32-ounce range with a small ball-tipped plastic grub or mini-tube.
When jigging the channels or rip-rap from the bank, Stiger uses the 9’, light power, moderate-fast action (PFS90LMF2) St. Croix Panfish Series rod. From the kayak or boat, he reaches for his 6’9”, ultra-light power, fast action (PFS69ULF) Panfish Series rod with a smaller Pflueger 20X or 25X reel. He believes in tiny jigs in bright colors for stained water, typically chartreuse or chartreuse and purple.
From the ice-out pre-spawn period through the excitement of fish on shallow beds, springtime panfish fishing is an ideal way to get out and experience lots of bites. It’s also one of the best times of the year to get kids on the water for unforgettable memory-making. Follow the advice of our pros and you’ll be well prepared to maximize the fun. Good luck on the water.