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Catch More and Bigger Spring Panfish

By Josh Lantz - May 10, 2022
Three panfish experts share their secrets

Few angling pursuits are as humble, simple and enjoyable as spring panfishing. We conjure images of bobbers and docks, spawning fish in the shallows, and plain presentations that always seemed to work from the depths of our childhood memories. For most of us, panfish is where it all started. But that's not to say that the game is static, or that we haven't come a long way from simpler times.

Truth be told, there can be more nuance required to maximize success and enjoyment while targeting bluegills, crappies and perch these days, especially in heavily pressured waters where panfish are relentlessly sought and harvested for the great table fare they provide. That's why we asked three panfish experts with some serious angling IQ to share their top strategies for bringing more panfish to the boat this spring.

Bro Knows

The name "Bro" has long been synonymous with panfish prowess, going back to the early 1990's when Max, Minnesota's Brian "Bro" Brosdahl started making a splash in the ice-fishing scene. As a full-time guide, tournament fisherman, promoter, and certified panfish-whisperer, Bro knows his bluegills, crappie, and perch in open-water scenarios as well. While he guides for all species and competes on several walleye circuits, Bro's panfish pursuits are legendary, and his advice is respected among pros and weekend warriors alike.
"If the weather's been warm enough, the first place I look is the shallows," Bro says. "Crappie movements are more complex than a light switch, but anytime the water temps are above 50 degrees, the effect is the same. When that switch flips, fish will be up in a few feet of water looking for the bait basking in that warmer water." Bro contends it's minnow movements and the warmer-water invertebrate life that drive the initial shallow push, not always spawning urges. "Fish need that shallow spawning substrate to do their deed, but they need food first," he reports. That's why - whether chasing panfish shallow or deep - Bro is always mindful of what's going in the bellies of his targets.

Electronics become especially valuable to panfish anglers come spring sunshine. "You need one eye on side imaging sonar and the other on that water temperature," the panfish savant advises. "While it's true that the first chunk of water to 50 wins, especially in clear water, crappies and other panfish don't like to be seen. They'll cling to cover whenever they can and hang out on whatever edge they can find." According to Bro, even in murky water with poor clarity, anglers should stay away from fish and make their casts up to them to avoid the boat spooking fish.

Crappies are especially focused on edges, so much though that Bro describes them as being tucked in. "Those crappies tuck in under old standing veg, up against bulrushes, or in fallen wood and brush," he says. "Beaver chew is another place I'm looking in the spring, where crappies tuck in and around anything broken loose from a beaver dam. If I don't see fish in or around this debris on side imaging, that doesn't mean they aren't there; they're often just tucked into the dam itself."

Weed growth is important to Bro's fish-finding strategy as well, as fish will relate to new growth just as soon as it starts protruding from the lake bottom. "First weeds really start in areas with less wind," Bro reports, "so I'm looking for those first few strands of cabbage that come up in protected areas." Just a few strings of that developing cabbage leaf can hold a whole school of fish in the spring, so it's worth your time to look for it, something Bro does with both sonar and an Aqua-Vu underwater camera.

Finding is one thing but fishing and catching these spring critters can be frustrating without the right tools for the job, which is especially true given the nuance in techniques that can be used throughout the spring period. Bass anglers know this, which is why they have multiple rods rigged and ready to go for any eventuality. St. Croix believes panfish anglers deserve the same opportunity. Whatever your preferred presentation, St. Croix makes a Panfish Series or Legend Elite Panfish Series that excels in it.

Weapon number one in Bro's arsenal is a St. Croix Panfish Series PNS70LXF, which is long by many panfish rod standards at 7 feet, with a light power and extra fast action. "It's my search rod of choice for pitching Northland Mimic Minnows and a clip-on spinner," says Bro. "Or I can use that rod to pitch a thumper head jig with a small fathead if the bite is tough. Pause and reel, pause and reel, you sometimes need a pretty gentle approach."

If the bite is finicky but fish are shallow, or when he's already picked off most of the school with power presentation, Bro goes finesse. "That's when I take out the ultra-light power PNS69ULF Panfish Series rod, some bobbers, and hair or marabou," says Bro. "Northland Fire Fly jigs with waxies or even minnows, or in darker water some Northland Gypsi jigs in bright colors will work wonders on fish you've already thrown to. When that school won't budge, sometimes you have to simply soak bait below bobbers."

Yet in the modern era of precision-built panfish rods, some may wonder why a pro like Bro would opt for an ultra-light rod. To which Bro replies, "Most importantly, ultra-light power doesn't tear mouths, and that can put a lot more fish in the boat. Second, St. Croix ultra-light power rods aren't your Pappy's whippy, old-timey ultralight rods; they're built with fast actions for ample backbone and accurate casting. For big fish with mouths as thin as cling wrap, I can't always rod-lift them into the boat. An ultra-light power is forgiving so I can keep big fish buttoned until I can slip the landing net under 'em."

Of course, early in the season, or during cold-front conditions, fish can push off the bank into deeper water, requiring some re-tooling. That's where Bro shortens up to a 5'6" ultra-light Legend Elite Panfish Series LEP56ULF or PNS54ULF Panfish Series rod and fishes directly beneath the boat. "What you're doing is technically ice fishing in open water," says Bro. "I fish a Northland Fire Fly jig in those conditions, as fish gravitate towards feather and real hackle. Those natural components look more real underwater, and they'll hit those things even without bait." Ice tackle works in a pinch with baits like the Tungsten Mud Bug or Gill-Getter and a few waxies working well, though Bro admits that bigger fish can come here with crappie minnows.

Blake's Take

Crappies for some are a pride or even passion, but for talented panfish angler and crappie afficionado, Blake Tollefson, it's hard to imaging fishing for much else come spring. As an avid angler, writer, and pro-staff member for St. Croix Rods among other companies in the industry, Blake gets a chance to ply his trade in the waters of central and northern Wisconsin, though he grew up and honed his craft in northern Minnesota. Tollefson was a major influence in the development of St. Croix's improved 2022 Panfish Series, fishing prototype rods relentlessly and offering critical feedback to help St. Croix fine tune lengths, powers and actions. Few can match his success when it comes to pitching plastics for a host of species, with crappies and bluegill being primary targets in the months of April, May, and June.
"I'm a big fan of paddle-tails, but there's a pile of plastic shapes and sizes that have their place throughout the spring," Tollefson says. "Early on, I'm pitching a lot of plastics, but usually under bobbers to work them more methodically. We use bait when we have to, but the Eurotackle Eurotubes and Y-Fry are favorites of mine when the water is colder and fish's metabolisms are slower." A simple pitch, settle, pause, and reel cadence is used to elicit strikes as fish move shallower to eat and spawn.

Blake's setup is simple, but also key to the presentation, which involves using a slightly heavier power than most panfish rods. "I love the medium-light power of the Panfish Series 7'3" MLXF rod (PNS73MLXF)," says Blake. "I just like having extra power, because that bobber adds extra weight and my hooksets are always further away." It's even more important when using mono as Blake prefers, both to take the bend and angle out of the line on a hookset, but also the inherent stretch of monofilament. "it's just the perfect setup for bobbering, and makes a decent little walleye rod to boot," he adds.

While Tollefson uses a longer, heavier rod and some mono for plopping bobbers, his pitching system is quite a bit different. Crappie anglers take note, few can pitch a jig with the skill and results Tollefson does, and his approach is as well thought out as it is successful. "It starts with the rod blank itself," he says. "Even 'sensitive' panfish rods can be lacking when it comes to the true feel you need for long casts, wind-blown line, and light-biting fish. Even when doing your best to keep a bow out of your line, you need the most sensitivity you can find." For Blake, that's probably unsurprisingly the St. Croix Legend Elite Panfish, in the 7 foot length, with a light power and extra-fast action (LEP70LXF). As the most sensitive, technical, purpose-built panfish rod ever developed, it's no wonder a discerning angler like Tollefson relies on its use to tackle tough customers under less-than-ideal conditions. "Even when the bite is good, you need to feel slack-line hits," he explains. "My first few fish with this thing, I was really amazed at what I was feeling, and a little disgusted with what I had been missing. I use Eurotackle Microbraid which is super thin, and when paired with this rod, I just feel everything." Bass and walleye anglers can easily relate going from "dead" rods to "live" ones that transmit every vibration, twitch, or bump, as feel is telegraphed from fish to angler. "That's just a new experience for many panfish anglers," says Tollefson, who credits many extra fish in any given day to the technical specifics of his setup.
For pitching, Blake throws a micro-finesse soft-lock jig head with Eurotackle B-Vibes in 2" lengths for crappies, and 1.5" lengths for finicky crappies and big gills. Part of Blake's magic is, of course, the approach as much as it is the gear, namely working "outside-in" to avoid spooking fish by driving right on top of them. "It's a lot of searching with long casts, eventually pushing closer and closer to breaks and edges that hold fish," says Blake. "I mentally map each cast, thinking about drop rate, retrieve speed, and rod position as I try to make the perfect presentation."

"Perfect" to Tollefson means a bait that hits the water, then moves at a fast enough rate to elicit proper action, without being too fast for the fish to overtake. "I want that bait to start shallower, then trace evenly with the bottom at a certain distance above it," he says. "When I see darker water and an impending break or weed-edge, I'll often kill it and just free fall into the abyss. I'll keep that rod to the side, then pick up line quite often to find I'm already hooked up."

Coontail and cabbage weeds are important to Tollefson as they are to Bro, with most of Blake's waters having one or the other. "I'll focus on weed edges quite a bit throughout the spring, even if they're out in open water, near an island, or not necessarily just in back bays," he reports. "I'm still looking for the warmest water, and in early spring, that will be in those north bays, but as spring progresses into early summer, it's all about those weeds. Good growth is good cover for bait, and those fish are usually up eating all the way through the spawn."

Alicia's Advice

Enter Alicia Joy Thompson, avid multi-species angler, angler-educator, and owner/organizer of Ladies Midwest Meetup, a group that creates experiences to help more women get outdoors. Alicia is a St. Croix Rods pro-staff member among other companies and offers admirable angling advice to all who enjoy fishing. "For crappies and gills, just like everyone I'm waiting for that shallow bite," says Alicia. "We do a few trips every year in north-central Wisconsin where crappies are finishing up the spawn, and bluegills are moving in. That late-May time period is a perfect time to target the shallows in much of the Midwest because you can get both species throwing many of the same things."
Multi-species is the name of the game for Thompson, who travels extensively in search of both fish and locations to hold the next meetup, which requires a versatile approach. "Slip bobbers are nothing new to panfishing, but there are few systems out there that can do it all as well as pencil floats can," she says. "If we're looking to get whatever's eating rather than targeting specific panfish, we're running a simple slip and bobber-stop setup with a plain single hook and split shot. It seems overly simple, but it's tried and true, evenly distributes the weight of the rig, and offers great casting distance."

Crawlers are a favorite bait early, and eventually give way to plastics for Thompson, who targets early weed growth, even lily pads. "I'm looking for cover, something that creates pockets of safe water from predators," says Alicia. "Brush and logs are key areas, but pads and anything that makes panfish feel at ease keeps them from being prey rather than eating it." As water warms and fish become more active, Thompson loves open-water free swimming simple plastics like curly tail grubs. "Smaller sizes are preferred to be able to tackle bluegills, but we get some really nice crappies that are just finishing up the spawn when water temps are pushing into the 60's," Thompson says. "I just try to keep the presentation basic to attract the most fish of any species and avoid being boxed in."

When it comes to rod selection, Alicia favors a no-nonsense approach that's as multi-purpose as it is utilitarian. "When I first started buying my own equipment, I needed rods that would be versatile," she says. "Nobody starts out buying only high-end specialized gear; we build slowly. For me, that meant I had to make a walleye rod a panfish rod at times, and to get more sticks in the lineup, I had to make sure each one would cover a variety of techniques." With that in mind, Thompson has a few favorites to note.

"I love the St. Croix Panfish Series rods in an extra-fast action, like everybody else," says Thompson. "Especially when fish are spooky and I need to cast for distance, these things can really make even the smallest jigs fly well." For Alicia however, her initial crappie and bluegill rod wasn't for panfish at all. "I just started with a walleye rod that also threw a bobber really well. It was a 6'6" St. Croix Premier medium-light power in a fast action (PS66MLF). That rod did it all, and well, which I think is a good thing to remember for youth or anyone just getting into fishing. They're really affordable, handcrafted in the USA, and allow you to have a few rods for the price of a really high end version, which can be nice when you're just starting out. There are a couple rods in the Panfish Series that are really similar, including the 7' and 7'3" medium-light power extra-fast action models (PNS70MLXF and PNS73MLXF). And for dedicated bobber rods, you can't beat the PNS80LMF2 and PNS90LMF models. These are perfect tools for lobbing bobber rigs and their extra length make them ideal for pitching and swimming jigs, too. Want to have a blast sight-fishing shallow crappies with tiny hair jigs or swimming jigs? It's what St. Croix National Sales Manager and crappie addict, Dan Johnston, calls the 'Pitch and Swing', and these 8' and 9' rods are what you want to have in your hands."

Alicia has another reason to stay versatile, which is a Mississippi River backwaters perch bite she hits in the spring. With so many species, techniques and tackle need to serve a variety of needs. For the perch, Thompson looks for back eddies or true backwaters with little flow or current. "Flats are often in that six-to-eight feet range, and vegetation usually means lower flow which can really hold big schools," she says. "We walk to find fish, and though the water temps need to be perfect, you can find variation anywhere near shore in that 45-50 degree range and find them just stacked."
An avid ice angler, Thompson encourages anglers to use what they have. "I'm running Widowmaker ice tackle under slip floats a lot of the time, it's what I have on hand from ice season," she reveals. "Perch especially love those small tungsten jigs with plastic or bait if it's colder. People often think they need to rig specifically with different setups and jigs for each species, or certain bites, but there are a ton of staples that you can use and depend on all season. For the ice gear, it's great to be able to extend its use into open-water."

For a growing number of panfish anglers like Thompson, Tollefson and Bro, some fish are just too big to cut. That's why selective harvest is an important part of their fishing. "I think it's important to note that these fish are carrying out their spawning cycles during this time of year, and especially bedded bluegills are vulnerable," says Thompson. "With any water clarity, you can see these fish, target them, and simply take the biggest and best. It's important - especially this time of year - that we teach new anglers and kids to avoid that practice and help them understand the principles of selective harvest right away by putting most if not all of those big spawners back." It's good advice, as everyone enjoys catching large panfish, which are becoming more and more rare on smaller, more-heavily fished waters. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that if you release a big fish, somebody else is just going to keep it. Focus on doing your own part. If you catch a fish - any fish - and release it and then someone else catches it, that means catch and release worked.

Springtime and early-summer panfishing 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 and new anglers on the water for some quality memory making. Follow the advice of our experts, treat yourself to some modern panfish rods, and you'll be well prepared to maximize the fun.

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