May 17, 2021
I was raised a crappie fisherman by a crappie fisherman, my father. And as a crappie fisherman raised by my father, I grew up with but one bait choice when in search of spring specks: Minnows. Live minnows. Fished under a small red-and-white bobber on a size 4 snelled Eagle Claw hook. Sometimes, but only sometimes, the Old Man would tie on a small chartreuse marabou jig—tipped with a lively minnow, of course—and fish that. Still, the plan didn't often deviate from straight ahead.
As I got older and my angling horizons broadened a bit, I learned there was much more to this panfishing life than just minnows and bobbers. There were hair jigs and twister tails. Ice flies and streamers. Even crankbaits.
However, the thing that got the best response on any given day, be the target crappies, bluegills or perch, were little inline spinners. Whether on a farm pond or a 50,000-acre impoundment, a big river or a small tributary, these flashy combinations of metal and wire became my go-to lure.
"A lot of lures, especially soft plastics, are an imitation of something that fish naturally feed on," says Nik Kolbeck, communications director for Mepp's Lures. "Spinners are a little different, as it's the flash and vibration that triggers a fish into striking. It's like a cat with a laser pointer. It evokes a predatory instinct in fish."
When it's April in the East, for the most part, water temperatures are chilly—40s, maybe low 50s. Panfish are coming out of winter mode and are still a bit sluggish. In other words, they aren't going to be as aggressive as they would be in June and July, when both water temperatures and metabolic rates have risen. Does this mean active presentations like inline spinners aren't going to be as effective? Not at all, but you need to tailor both your tackle selection and fishing style accordingly. We'll address both shortly.
Water temperature and its effect on fish activity isn't the only thing the spring panfish angler needs to take into consideration. Depth, too, is a variable. Under normal conditions in the East, and particularly as one moves into the Northeast, panfish like crappies haven't left their deep-water haunts to transition into the shallow spawning areas in April. May? Absolutely, but April can be a real guessing game. The challenge to the spinner angler is getting an inline down to fish suspended at 15 to 20 feet or more, or else locating somewhat warmer water temperatures and fish that have begun to move shallow. This means relying heavily on electronics and finding transitions such as creek channels or weed lines adjacent to that deeper water, then working those spinners like a good pit master cooks barbecue—low and slow.
SELECTION AND OPERATION
Finding fish is important, of course, but it's still only part of the equation. After that comes selecting the proper tools to catch them and determining the best presentation for the water type, temperature, depth, cover, current and so forth.
Size: When it comes to panfish spinners, my advice is both simple and, perhaps, familiar: Go small. It's quite possible to catch fish—big and not-so-big—with a small bait. The opposite, however, isn't always true. Panfish, bluegills and other sunfish, have small, almost dainty mouths, and a bigger spinner might prove to be too much for them. With a Mepps inline, I lean toward a size 00 (1/18 ounce) or size 0 (1/12 ounce) when targeting sunfish, occasionally bumping up to a size 1 (1/8 ounce) when I'm hunting larger-mouthed crappies.
Hooks: In the interest of maintaining as small a lure profile as possible, or at least one that approximates the size of the natural forage, I replace the stock treble hooks on my inline spinners with high-quality, single-point hooks. I don't feel that a single hook puts me at any kind of disadvantage in terms of hook-up percentage, plus it allows me to more quickly and humanely release unwanted fish than might be the case with a treble. Angler's choice, of course, but the bottom line is a single hook lets me spend more time fishing and less time fiddling.
Color: "You can never go wrong with basic colors—the golds, the silvers, the coppers. Those will always produce," says Kolbeck. "You may eventually find hot pink or hot orange is the right color, but it's often best to start out simple and go from there."
Kolbeck's advice is sound. Still, I always have a selection of others on hand, including chartreuse, fire tiger (my personal favorite), black, white, yellow, rainbow trout (pink/silver/blue) and a pattern I've always called "the bumblebee"—a combination of black and yellow.
Rod, Reel and Line: "Panfish spinners are light, and it's definitely possible to overpower them with too heavy a setup," says Kolbeck. "It's important to match the rod and reel to the lure."
I'm partial to ultralight gear when targeting panfish. The choices are many, but two of my favorites are the Shakespeare Micro Series and Ugly Stik Elite ultralight combos, both spooled with 2-pound-test fluorocarbon line.
One last gear-related note: When throwing a spinner, use a quality snap swivel. This small, often overlooked piece of terminal tackle allows for quick lure changes and helps prevent line twist. However, it's vital to match the size of the swivel to the lure so as not to kill the spinner's action. Too, I prefer black swivels as opposed to silver or gold. I want the fish to strike the lure, not the swivel. Believe me, it does happen.
Presentation: Inline spinners are difficult to fish incorrectly. Not impossible, mind you, but difficult.
"One of the nicest things about spinners is all the different applications," says Jarod Higginbotham, assistant national sales and brand manager for the Yakima Bait Company, which produces the legendary Worden's Rooster Tail spinner. "They're extraordinarily versatile tools for any number of different water conditions."
Higginbotham recalls a recent situation he and a friend encountered while fishing a western river, though the scenario could have taken place anywhere across the country.
"It was a normal flow, and our first point of order was to figure out where the fish were lying," he says. "To do that, we used four or five different techniques. We'd cast upstream and slowly retrieve them along the bottom, almost like you'd fish a spoon, with the blade barely turning. Or we'd swing them through the tailout like you'd fish a fly. Speed up. Slow down. Down deep. Middle of the water column. It was all about experimentation, which is easy with a spinner."
Higginbotham is quick to add that this experimentation involves not only the cast, retrieve and where the spinner moves through the water column, but the rod itself and how it's handled.
"Ideally," he says, "you want the spinner moving horizontally or with the tip up slightly. The angle of this retrieve, then, is dictated by the angle of the rod, be it high, low or somewhere in between. Again, it's all about experimentation."
PANFISH HOT BEDS
Top destinations in the East for perch, crappies, bluegills and more.
Pymatuning Reservoir, PA
I grew up fishing Pymatuning Reservoir with my crappie fanatic father, Mick, and love everything about the big lake straddling the Ohio/Pennsylvania border. Crappies, bluegills, yellow perch—they're all there, along with dandy walleyes, largemouths, smallmouths and channel cats.
Chautauqua Lake, NY
To the north and east of Pyamtuning lie the 13,000 acres of New York’s Chautauqua Lake. Best known for its bass and muskies, Chautauqua harbors an excellent population of crappies, yellow and white perch and bluegills, along with countless shallow-water pockets perfect for spinner throwing.
Lake Champlain, VT
Across New York on the Vermont line, Lake Champlain is one of the most picturesque places to fish in the country. Yellow and white perch, bluegills and rock bass (save your snide remarks—rock bass are feisty and good eating) make their home here.
Lake Winnipesaukee, NH
Winni offers a wide variety of gamefish species, including yellow perch and some excellent bluegills. It's a huge body of water, though, so finding the spot might take some hunting.
Sebago Lake, ME
Sure, it's primarily a trout lake. However, this pretty 28,000-acre lake northwest of Portland holds a good population of yellow perch. Countless smaller lakes and ponds in the neighborhood provide opportunities for crappies and bluegills.
Note: This article was featured in the East edition of April's Game & Fish Magazine.