Make a Meal with Spring Panfish
Jun 1st, 2022 by Keith Worrall
Modified Jun 1st, 2022 at 12:30 AM
By Dan Amundson
Spring is in full swing, and anglers are on the water to pursue their favorite fish. Many anglers opt for game species like walleyes and bass, while others target panfish – and everyone else should too. Many anglers begin their angling adventures by catching crappies and bluegills as a kid, but with time they trade in the ultralight for a heavy baitcasting setup and put panfish on the backburner. However, spring is the time of year when neglecting panfish is a big mistake. Fish are easy to find, eager to bite, and make mouths water while sizzling in a frying pan. Even if just for a few hours, anglers need to take advantage of this once-a-year, fast-action experience.
When looking for prespawn panfish, finding the warmest water in the lake will lead you to the crappies and bluegills. Start your search in back bays, and don’t be afraid to go shallow. Fish are often in less than five feet of water. As water temps rise and the spawn wraps up, fish slide into deeper water. Check for fish along weed lines adjacent to their spawning areas. Use the side scan feature on your electronics to locate schools faster by covering more water. Stay focused on your fish finder, as panfish are sometimes easy to miss.
While some anglers choose live bait, a purely artificial approach is just as effective and more efficient. A compact soft plastic measuring 1.5” to 2” in length, rigged on a 1/16 oz Mustad Crappie Jig Head, is a great place to start. If your fish are in slightly deeper water, step up to a ⅛ oz jig. Mustad’s Addicted Sink-it Series 1/16 oz jigs are my secret weapons. Originally developed as a salmon egg imitation for anglers chasing migratory steelhead and salmon in rivers, this well-tied jig is absolutely dynamite on panfish too. A wide range of available colors allows you to fine-tune your recipe for any water conditions you may encounter. Cast these jigs out and slowly retrieve them back. You can use a bobber to detect bites if you desire, but it isn’t critical – you’ll catch plenty of fish either way. Don’t overlook the effectiveness of a small, shallow-diving jerkbait, like the 2 ¾” Rainbow Smelt Jerkbait from LIVETARGET. Sumo crappie will have no trouble pouncing on a larger offering such as this LIVETARGET jerkbait, which can be highly effective in selecting for the largest fish in the area.
Line and leader are important panfish considerations. A braided main line will provide the sensitivity needed to detect subtle bites on slow days. At the same time, a fluorocarbon leader will ensure a stealthy presentation that is nearly invisible beneath the surface. TUF-LINE DOMIN8 – a premium 8-strand braid – is the best choice for panfish. This line has a round profile and a smooth finish that will help maximize your casting distance. The tight weave of DOMIN8 means that even 10-pound-test braid has the same diameter as 4-pound-test monofilament – perfect for filling the spools of 1000-series spinning reels. Add a 6-foot leader of TUF-LINE XS Fluorocarbon in 6-pound-test, joining the braid to fluorocarbon with a Double-Uni, Alberto, or FG knot. If supersized panfish chances are high, step down to a 4-pound-test fluorocarbon leader to reduce the odds of trophy ‘gills or crappies getting spooked by your line.
Because fish are concentrated early in the year, it’s easy to over-fish a spot or even an entire lake. Please practice catch-and-release with big females – and especially with large male bluegills – to keep quality panfish opportunities abundant. That being said, sustainably harvesting fish is a central part of the modern angling experience. Panfish are absolutely delicious when baked, smoked, or fried – but you can’t go wrong with fish tacos. Fry the fillets in your favorite batter, and then wrap them in a soft-shell tortilla with cheese, coleslaw, Yum Yum sauce, and any other toppings you desire, such as rice or lime juice.
Even though panfish don’t receive the same fanfare as other game fish, it’s a no-brainer to spend an afternoon or two chasing bluegills and crappies in the early season. Enjoy a ton of hooksets and put a great meal on the table – your tastebuds will thank you!
About the Author
Dan Amundson is an avid hunter and angler from Minnesota. In addition to writing, Dan is the producer for Sporting Journal Radio. He also guides waterfowl hunts and ice fishing in western Minnesota. You can keep up with Dan by following him on Instagram @dan_amundson