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Matt Johnson

The Spring Panfish Formula

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As anglers we find ourselves needing a reason for the decisions we make. We need to justify that the decisions we make will have a positive outcome on our day of fishing. Let’s face it; we don’t want to make decisions that result in a poor day of fishing. So we analyze the situation and make the best decision based on the given conditions. We start to build a pattern and then execute that pattern. Right or wrong, we tell ourselves—through our gut instincts—that these specific moves will help us catch more fish. Sometimes we turn towards our network of fishing buddies to help guide us, other times we just wing-it and hope for the best, but regardless of path we still try to use our best judgment to gain the desired outcome. With panfish, we oftentimes over-analyze the situation and make the decisions tougher than they need to be. With panfish there are simple formulas for success, especially during the spring.

Let temperature be your guide. If I had to pick one season where temperature plays the most crucial role then it would be spring. Fish are coming off the coldest water temps of the year and they are desperate to find the warmest water possible. Even small variations in water temperature can make huge changes in fish behavior and location. Trying to find the warmest water possible can be one of the easiest steps to spring-time success. Look for areas that receive the most impact from the sun—namely the north and northwest portions of the body of water you’re fishing. These areas receive the most sunlight and will typically warm up the fastest. Channels, creek arms, back bays, these are just a few of the areas to target. Pay attention to your electronics and see if there is an increase in temperature as you move into these areas. Panfish will look for these spots to seek comfort in the slightly warmer water.

Don’t put away the ice fishing tackle. I’m sure you think I’m crazy with that statement, but I’m actually directing that towards the presentations you use for ice fishing. Early spring panfish are still trying to build-up their stomachs and their mindset is still on smaller morsels of food. They are used to feeding on insects, plankton and other tiny offerings from the long winter months. A big mistake I see many early spring panfish anglers make is to throw something too large at the fish. Keep your small ice jigs and ice plastics handy and give those a shot, even the largest panfish in the lake will still take a pass at the ice jigs once the lakes open up. If you need to, fish them under a float, especially up against the warm banks and back channels.

It’s not always good to be fast. This is in reference to the speed of your presentation. Much-like ice fishing, there are times where we need to finesse spring-time panfish. Early spring is not always the best time to burn a small spinnerbait or snap a twister tail; instead you want to glide an enticing plastic in front of the fish’s face, offering them an easy meal. Make it easy on the fish and focus more on presenting the bait in the strike zone rather than fan-casting an area at high-velocity. If using a float system, let the presentation sit for a second or two in between movements, or slowly retrieve the bait under a float. Think of it as force-feeding the fish, make it easy on them.

Be willing to adapt. As we know, weather during the spring season can be a lot of fun. One day it’s sunny and calm, the next day it’s rainy and windy. We can’t control the weather, so be willing to adapt and adjust to the weather conditions. Have a drift-sock with you in your boat or even an anchor. Spring-time panfish typically won’t make huge moves within a given day, so if you find a pod of fish you will want to have the means to stay over them. Hunkering down and focusing in on a school of fish can be half-the-battle during certain conditions, so be ready for the weather to throw a wide-variety of conditions your way.

Focus small, and then make big moves. What the heck does this mean you ask? With spring-time panfish, you don’t need to make multiple small moves to find the spot-on-the-spot. If you run up into a creek arm or channel and fish the warmest part and find no fish, then move out completely. No need to fish your way in and out because if they are not snapping in the “hot zone” then it’s usually safe to say they are not using that arm, channel or bay at that particular time. If this happens, then bolt out and hit an entirely new arm, channel or bay and repeat the process. You might find five different channels, all with 50-degree water temp and all on the same side of the lake, but only one of them holds fish. It’s a weird scenario but it happens. No need to beat up “dead” water, get out and move onto the next spot.

Go ahead and sleep-in. This is intended for one reason—waiting for the sun to get high and warm-up those north and west banks. Spring is one of those rare situations where mid-day and afternoon bites can be the most productive. Now, I’m not saying you won’t find a productive morning bite, but typically you’re fishing deeper structure for the active morning bite. The shallow, warmer water generally needs some time to warm-up. If you want to get an early start on the day then try focusing on weed lines or basin areas—places where you found fish at late ice. Then once the sun has the chance to reach its full potential you can move back into the bay, arm or channel in search of your warm-water fish.

We all get excited to get the boat out once the ice melts, but using summer-time tactics doesn’t always pay off when the water temps are cold. Use a few of these tips when you venture out chasing early spring panfish this season and even though the water and air temps are cold, the fishing can still be hot!

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It would be cool if you'd consider this situation and advise:

fished a lake on Tuesday, less than 5 days after ice out. basically followed the guidelines you have listed. No crappies or bluegills to be found... until almost dark. From 10 minutes past sunset up to dark dark, we caught them like crazy out at the mouth of the shallow bay, where I thought they'd be enjoying the warmth during the sunny afternoon. There was only light wind all afternoon and that north, shallow bay had to be the warmest water, but they weren't there. After dark, they fed like crazy in 10 - 15 ft at the mouth of the bay, sort of like I'd expect in the middle of the summer. No weeds on bottom, no wood.

1. Why was THAT the spot they keyed in on?

2. Where were they all afternoon?

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Excellent questions and observations. First off though, nice work on hammering some fish! Always nice to get back into the boat and start catching fish right away, so great job! As far as the answer to your questions, I would have to say the bay was not all that warm. Did you happen to check the temps? Oftentimes in not uncommon to find a lot of panfish in their "staging" areas immediately after ice-out. It does take the fish a little while to move into the shallows after ice-out so you were probably catching them as they stage for the migration. I catch a lot of panfish in the exact areas you mention during spring and fall... give those fish another week or so of warm weather and high suns and they will move into the shallows. I would also be willing to bet that were either in that area and not feeding, or very close by during the afternoon hours. Some days I can track fish making small movements from the deeper basin up to the mouths of bays and adjacent structure during "prime time" windows. I bet if you watch your electronics and move out towards the basin that you'll mark fish during the day... otherwise drop a camera down and see if they are "lingering" around in that 10-15 foot range but just not biting... I've seen both scenarios...

The good news about all of this though, you have begun to establish a pattern and you can now make educated guesses as the season progresses... you will learn a lot about the bite on the lake you're referencing in the next several weeks and that info will help you during the fall transition too...

Good luck out there!

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Most crappies most of the time like low light conditions. Right after ice out is an exception and so is the spawn. That after ice out pattern does not hold up too long, about a week in my experience-if you hit it right it is a blast. Today I was catching crappies at first light in the rain had the lake to myself, when I left(noonish) I saw a whole lotta people catching a whole lotta nothing- get up early, stay late or sit around and wait for the spawn, IMHO

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Here's a video of a seminar I put together at Thorne Bros a few weeks ago pertaining to this topic as well... another source to help dial-in some of these springtime panfish...

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