While bluegills and shellcrackers are often looked at as kids' fish, targeting bigger spring panfish is harder and quite satisfying.
Natural signs signal spring's arrival: dogwoods blooming along wooded hillsides, yellow flowers of forsythia bushes brightening up the dullness of the past winter, and submergent vegetation emerging in lakes and ponds. All of which means one thing to the pan-fisherman — the fish should be moving shallow and on the feed!
Jim Gronaw looks forward to such signs, but they hardly spur his initial angling efforts for the year. No, Gronaw fishes for panfish, such as bluegills and redear sunfish (shellcrackers), 12 months of the year.
"I caught my first bluegill when I was 5 years old, and haven't been the same since," joked Gronaw, describing an event that took place over 60 years ago.
His personal best bluegill is 12.5 inches and 2 pounds, 4 ounces. Currently, his best redear stands at 12 inches. Last season marked his best for bluegills over 10 inches; he landed over 400 of them.
While Gronaw isn't reluctant to keep some bluegills for the pan, he selects smaller ones (7 to 8 inches), feeling the harvest of big bluegills, males in particular, harms the size structure of a lake by removing genetically superior fish that are responsible for nest protection.
Gronaw identifies several distinct phases of fish movement and activity during the spring: those driven by warming water, the effects of cold snaps, and the need to feed and reproduce.
In general, the warming water of spring moves panfish from the deeper haunts up into the shallows to feed. Naturally, the severity of winter in a region will influence this, but in areas where water temperatures dip below 50 during the cold months, Gronaw looks for the first wave of extended warm weather to heat things up and bring fish shallow.
"A series of warm, sunny days coupled with southerly winds will create a thermal bank where the water temperature is 3 to 6 degrees warmer than the rest of the lake," Gronaw explained. "Bluegills and redears that have not eaten much will storm the windward shallows, feeding on larva and wind-blown insects."
Gronaw keeps detailed logs of forays and has found that when water temperatures reach and stay above 50 degrees, bluegills will be in shallows on a more consistent basis. Shellcrackers prefer water temperatures in the 60s before he can bank on them being in thin water. Keep in mind that shallow is a relative term. It could be 2 to 3 feet deep on smaller lakes and ponds. In larger reservoirs, particularly if the water is clear, doubling those depths might be more appropriate.
For working shallow areas from shore or by wading, Gronaw has refined a system that's a take-off of a classic method used to dupe reservoir-dwelling bass when the water is cold.
"About 75 percent of my methodology, for both of these species, is with a 'float-and-fly setup,' a small bobber coupled with a small jig of some sort," Gronaw explained. "Typically, the jig is tipped with a piece of live bait."
Gronaw prefers using a fixed bobber (as opposed to a slip bobber), as the stability of this system serves the way he likes to make his presentation.
"Many times, I'll actually be dragging the baited jig across the bottom, with wind blowing the bobber, and with the jig just ticking bottom," Gronaw said. "Shellcrackers in particular are bottom-oriented."
Whereas many folks feel 3 feet is about the limit (distance from bobber to jig) for using a fixed bobber, Gronaw often employs droppers as long as 5 feet. He does this by using long, soft-action spinning rods.
"I can use a 7- or 8-foot dropper with that setup, but normally I'm using 4 to 5 feet," Gronaw noted. "It also enables longer casts, which as a shore fisherman is important."
Typically, Gronaw uses 4-pound-test Gamma clear Polyflex. If conditions are tough, as during the backside of a severe cold front, he'll drop down to 2-pound-test Trout Magnet SOS in green.
As far as jigs go, Gronaw likes to keep things light, using ball-head style in the 1/80- to 1/64-ounce range most of the time. In general, he feels live bait outperforms artificial duplicates, especially during the spring of the year, though he uses both options. Regarding colors, he likes orange, pink and black.
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While initial springtime movements of bluegills and shellcrackers are driven by the need to feed, as spring progresses activities will switch to spawning. Gronaw expects to see this change once the water temperature gets into the 70s. It can be a give-and-take scenario if the weather includes a rash of cold fronts that retard nest-building operations.
"At this time, I tend to fish the outskirts of bedding areas, "Gronaw noted. "Early on, when the temperatures are first hitting that 68- to 70-degree mark, there are going to be fish moving in and out, more than are actually locked down on nesting colonies."
Gronaw reports he has had some fabulous days during this transitional period, targeting areas 10 to 15 yards away from the season's first visible nests, working out toward deeper water. He also notes over the years that bigger bluegills tend to spawn a bit deeper. Given that, targeting outskirt areas ups the odds of contacting the biggest 'gills in the system.
When bluegills and shellcrackers are around beds, Gronaw makes a couple adjustments to his float-and-fly. First, he shortens his dropper in relation to the spots he plans to work. Then, rather than using a light jig, he'll switch to a size 6 Aberdeen hook.
"On that you can fish any variety of bait, but you can also fish small plastics," he explained.
Gronaw rigs soft-plastic baits the same way one might with a live minnow, hooking it lightly through the back. If there's wind — he prefers wind, as it aids in presentation and covers up angler errors — he casts to the upwind side of the target and allows it to silently drift into position.
"You don't want to plop a bait right down in the midst of a spawning colony," Gronaw said. "If you do, you're going to spook a large percentage of the fish, though the more aggressive ones might come right back. I like to work from the outside of visible beds in toward them. And when I hook one, I pull it away from the rest of the colony to keep from spooking them."
Shellcrackers tend to spawn later than bluegills, with the peak of activity around 74 degrees. Gronaw's found them to be quite challenging when on beds, able to pick up a bait or lure, move it and spit it out before an angler has time to react. He keeps his movements to a minimum to avoid spooking fish, and even wears camo clothing at times to blend in with the background.
"They can be frustrating," Gronaw said."If you don't see the bite and react to it, chances are you will miss the fish."
Few and far between are the bass anglers who don't carry some form of a bladed jig. Smaller versions, such as Z-Man's Trout/Panfish Chatterbait in 1/16 and 1/8 ounces, are ideal for combing the shallows when seeking out bigger bluegills and shellcrackers.
Bladed jigs have an inherent erratic action, which makes them effective, so there's no need to get fancy with the retrieve. Steady is appropriate, and gives the fish an easier target. Such jigs serve well as search lures when fishing unfamiliar water.
While baits of this style come with some form of soft plastic trailer, one has the option to replace it with a piece of live bait like a red worm. Use the flash and vibration of the bladed jig to get their attention, and the scent and taste of the natural bait to seal the deal.